Cultivating Five Inner Strengths: Joyful Effort

Joyful effort is gladly showing up for our mindfulness practice, again and again, with a sense of freshness and upliftedness. It could also be called determination, balanced energy, perseverance, persistence, or right exertion. It is one of the Five Inner Strengths that can be cultivated to help us in our mindfulness journey.

Viriya, the Pali word for this faculty, can be translated as “the state of the heroic ones.” When we think of heroes, we tend to think of people who rush into burning buildings to save babies or stand firm against injustice despite grave danger or impossible odds. The hero archetype doesn’t stop for tea first or ponder the potential personal gains of their actions. They dive right in and energetically persevere, fueled a deep sense of conviction.

This is why joyful effort is intimately interconnected with confidence – a quality that enhances our determination and increases our energy for the practice. According to insight meditation teacher Christina Feldman, confidence is one of two balanced, interwoven dimensions of joyful effort:

  • First we have to have vision, which is our aspiration, a sense of possibility
  • Second, we have confidence which gives us faith in the capacity to bring to fulfillment this vision we hold – having a pervasive trust in ourselves, our practice, our path, and our capacity.

In this way, joyful effort is a kind of wholeheartedness rather than the grim determination we muster up when following through with obligations. Feldman also describes 4 types of unskillful effort:

  • The Striver has a loud inner critic, is self-conscious and is constantly measuring their “performance”. They use an inner vocabu­lary of judgment – good and bad, success and failure. They may have physical sensations of clenching or gritting.
  • The Ambivalent Efforter gives a sort of lethargic, disengaged or half-hearted effort. Though they show up, they are not intentional about their practice. There may be low expectations or a reduced sense of inner possibility.
  • The Aversive Efforter approaches practice as medicine that tastes bad, but everybody’s told them it’s really good for them. So they’re willing to swallow it. It’s a duty and an obligation that they reluctantly engage in.
  • The Warrior Efforter treats everything that comes up in practice as an obstacle to conquer, an enemy to subdue, something to transcend, or to force their way through. There can be very rigid views about how practice should be.

We can all find ourselves moving in and out of these styles of efforting at various points in our practice. Yet, joyful effort is balanced – not falling into extremes or excess, neither strained nor complacent. Though it sometimes it does take “heroic effort” to stay present, the right balance of energy makes it possible for us to be patient and persevere in the face of difficulty in a sustainable way.

Luckily, joyful effort is self-reinforcing because it feels good. The more joyfully we practice, the more we come back to the practice with a sense of purpose and fulfillment. According toward the monk Sayadaw U Tejaniya, “When your understanding of the true nature of things grows, your values in life will change. When your values change, your priorities change as well. Through such understanding, you will naturally practice more, and this will help you to do well in life.”

Here are some ways you can practice cultivating joyful effort:

  • Get in touch with the why or your practice – what brings you back to the seat of meditation or the yoga mat again and again?
  • Savor the ways your practice has benefitted you and others in your life.
  • Experiment with this guided meditation on Joyful Effort (first 10 minutes)
  • Practice lovingkindness meditation – here is one example
  • Work on noticing, preventing or replacing, and letting go of unskillful habits (thoughts, speech and actions) and creating and supporting skillful habits

Sit down wherever you are
And listen to the wind singing in your veins.
Feel the love, the longing, the fear in your bones.
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you would like to be,
Not the saint you are striving to become,
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.
All of you is holy.
You are already more and less
Than whatever you can know.
Breathe out,
Touch in,
Let go.

John Welwood, Forget About Enlightenment


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