Buddhists speak of a concept of right effort, or right diligence in their Noble Eight-fold path. It is the place in between too little effort, being lax, and too much effort, or striving. The Western work ethic speaks of hard work being its own reward and that “results and success are the fruit of hard work”. It treats those who do not practice this driven way of life and who take things “too easy” as slackers or worse. And while this is not strictly a Western notion anymore, it is one that seems to drive much of Western culture in our times. What does this notion of performance cost us in our lives, relationships and practice?
I. How much effort is the right amount as we address what we wish for in our lives?
Too little effort, or too much wishful thinking, produces little change and opportunities may be missed. Too much effort can show itself as pushing one’s physical, emotional and spiritual bounds; creating expectations that may or may not be realized; or generating environments in which selfishness or self-absorption flourishes.
In the workplace, too little effort can look like this: the employees who decide to keep their ideas to themselves, thinking, “My boss knows I’m smart, I don’t need to broadcast my ideas. She’ll know I can do more than I’m doing now. I wouldn’t want to be seen as a braggart.” But alas, other employees are quite vocal about their ideas and the boss chooses one of them for a promotion, and the quiet employees miss their opportunity.
Too much effort can look like this: employees who come in earlier and stay later than everyone else, who offer themselves for every project, and take their work home. Their family and social life, and/or physical and mental health suffer as a consequence of their unfocused attention to family, to their partner or friends and a hyper-focused attention to work. Imagine that this overworking co-parent and partner who is never home, leaves most of the parenting and household management to their spouse who, feeling neglected, ultimately leaves them. Or, someone who works to the point of burning out, loses their vitality and spirals into depression. Even if their boss recognises their dedication, in the long run, this way of being can be hazardous to their physical and mental health and presents a risk to the well-being of the company. The boss sees their dedication but worries about the long-term effects, and so passes over these employees, selecting instead someone who shows a more balanced life. The expectation of the “high achiever” in the first scenario, that they will “get ahead” and be happy with their greater security, salary and recognition, may be elusive, even as they attain those things through the sacrifice of their health and other aspects of their lives. And if this striving is not enough, their aspirations of promotion are dashed as the boss makes a different decision than what they had expected.
The person with a more balanced life may be practising right effort: volunteering for projects only when it seems do-able, pleasurable or necessary, and maintaining a reasonable working schedule.
II. How much effort is the right amount in other parts of our lives?
We can see these extremes in our intimate and family relationships and in our friendships. Remember the people-pleasers? Where do they fall on the “right effort” spectrum? Probably on the side of too much effort, trying to “buy” friendship and acceptance through excessive acquiescence. They may be creating relationships based on inauthentic exchanges (who say, “Oh, I love sailing!” even though they are afraid of great expanses of water because they feel that is what the other person wants to hear). Or those who are “always there for others” but not there for themselves and then feel resentful of friendships that are too one-sided or have little return. Or the people who insist on having everything their way, knowing no compromise, who will miss opportunities later as people shy away from a relationship in which power and regard are not shared.
Sometimes, it is almost as if we are pressed into trying too hard. What of our sibling who doesn’t return our texts and calls (which may cause us to redouble our efforts and end up trying too hard, over time, creating a feeling of “always being the one to make the effort to communicate”)? What will happen if we stop trying to make contact altogether? Our sibling may become isolated or may have achieved the detachment he or she sought.
How do we resist trying too hard? Keeping an eye on what we can and cannot control is helpful here. Notice how you’re feeling. When you offer something, check in with yourself to see that you really are willing to give that thing freely, without expecting anything in return. Be generous because it feels good and right to you, not because you want something back. And if it doesn’t feel right, permit yourself to NOT be generous in that moment. Be your authentic self and face any consequences of your actions; the people who love you for who you are will continue to do so. Those who have other motives to befriend you, may fall away.
III. And what about in our practice?
When you feel like you are working harder than your client; that may be too much effort. When you are letting your clients avoid talking about the difficult things, not take active responsibility for their process, in short, letting them “run the show”; that may be too little.
Are we too tired? Hanging on hard to the results? Working long hours and neglecting our own health so we can “be there” for our clients? Is there a lot of push-back from our clients when we suggest solutions?
Maybe too much effort is going into problem-solving work and not doing enough checking-in with the client to see how they might solve their own issues. Alternatively, are we feeling like we are letting go of the process and being dragged around by our clients? Feeling aloof from the client or the process? Caring less about what happens to our relationship with our client and wishing that the day would end? Feeling like the client is not fully engaged in the process but not really caring enough to re-engage him or her? Maybe, then, we are not putting in enough effort to evoke from our clients and guide them to choices that suit them better.
In each of these domains, it seems to me that checking-in with ourselves and our clients is the best way of seeing if we are making the right effort. And seeking the right effort may be the way to protect ourselves against the unsustainable path of always doing MORE!