Way back in my teens I read a book called “From Primitives to Zen,” which was a compendium of texts from the world’s religious traditions, compiled by Mircea Eliade. If you haven’t heard of Eliade, he was a well-known and influential Romanian historian of religion who was Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. His book provided one of my earliest exposures to the Buddha’s teachings, since one whole section comprised extracts of the early Buddhist scriptures.
Buddhism, I quickly discovered, liked lists. The reason for this is that Buddhism arose at a time when nothing sacred was written down. The safest place for the preservation of important information was, people believed, in the human mind. In India at that time paper was unknown, and special leaves were used as a writing material. Probably only relatively ephemeral information, such as brief notes and business sales receipts, was written down.
The Four Right Efforts
Some of these lists baffled me (the fault was with me, not them) but some of them stood out as models of clear thinking. One such teaching was the “four right efforts,” which is actually one item in a longer list, the eightfold path. Here’s a translation of the Buddha’s exposition on right effort:
- Prevent unskillful (unhelpful) mental states from arising.
- Abandon unskillful states if they already exist.
- Bring into being new skillful states.
- Further develop skillful states that have already arisen.
It is very neat and logical, isn’t it? And it’s practical, too. These four right effects are the core of what spiritual practice consists of. In virtually any moment we have the opportunity to “nudge” the mind in one direction or another. And the reason we do this of course is because it helps us to free the mind from suffering and makes us happier.
The Power of Appreciation
At it happens, I was thinking about another practice the other day — mudita, which I prefer to translate as “joyful appreciation,” and saw a connection between that and the four right efforts.
Most teachers explain mudita in terms of “being happy about someone else’s happiness” or “sympathetic joy.” Originally, though, it seems to have been “joy at appreciating the virtue of others.” Mudita is appreciation, admiration, and gratitude.
One of the wonderful things about appreciation, admiration, and gratitude is that they are very encouraging attitudes. If we express appreciation when someone has done something we admire, then we make it more likely that they’ll do that thing again. And if we admire a good quality in another person, then we’re more likely to develop it ourselves.
Anyway, I was thinking about mudita, and realized that although we usually think of the four right efforts in terms of what we do with our own mental states, we could also apply them to how we relate to other people’s mental states. After all, one of the things about Buddhist practice is that it lessens our emphasis on ourselves, and increases our concern for others.
Turning the Four Right Efforts Toward Others
So how might the four right efforts work as applied to others?
- We’d be concerned not to encourage the arising of unskillful states in others. Rather than just be concerned about whether our unskillful states — for example, hatred or craving — will hurt us, we can be aware that our behaviors set an example for others. If we are negative on social media, for example, then we encourage others to act likewise. Mental states are contagious.
- We’d be concerned to help others free themselves from unskillful states of mind. Ordinarily, if someone is in a bad mood, what do we do? Roll our eyes? Avoid them? Get snippy right back at them? If we have compassionate concern for them, then we’ll be concerned not just about how they’re behaving and how it affects us, but also about the suffering they’re causing themselves. So we might show them empathy, for example, and ask them what’s going on to cause their unhappiness.
- How can we bring skillful states into being within others? Remembering that states of mind are contagious, we can affect others through our example. If we’re kind, that encourages kindness in others. I remember reading about an experiment where a very negative person — someone who complained about everything and everyone — was put in a room with a highly trained Buddhist monk. In time the negative person started being more at ease and ended up, despite himself, feeling happy. Here again we come to mudita, which involves seeing and rejoicing in others’ good qualities. If we give someone positive feedback when we see even a glimmer of some skillful quality in them, we encourage them to focus on, value, and develop that quality.
- The kind of appreciation I’ve just discussed will also help someone to grow and develop skillful qualities once they’ve arisen. What springs to mind for me here are spiritual friendship, since encouraging someone to turn their skillful states into steady habits is something that takes consistent contact over a long period of time, and the kind of easy and frank communication that comes from really knowing and trusting someone.
“Taking Care of Others, I Take Care of Myself”
I thought it interesting that I’d never before thought in terms of turning the four right efforts outwards. I’m imagine I’m not the first person to think of this, but I don’t remember them ever being presented in this way.
The emphasis I’m putting here on being a friend and exemplar to others fits very well with many other teachings from the scriptures. For example, the Buddha tells the housholder Sig?laka that he can recognize a good friend because “They keep you from doing bad. They support you in doing good. They teach you what you do not know. They explain the path to heaven [i.e the path of ethical conduct].”
And in one of my favorite teachings, the Buddha explains to two acrobatic performers, whose safety depends on them taking care of each other, “Taking care of myself, I take care of others. Taking care of others, I take care of myself.” When we work directly on our own unskillful states, eliminating the negative and accentuating the positive, this benefits others, since we’re kinder and easier to be with. When we help others, this benefits us, since being connected to others through kindness, compassion, and appreciation is deeply fulfilling and brings us peace and joy.