Nothing but Net – Skillful Effort


“Nothing but Net – Skillful Effort” is part 6 of our series on the traditional Eightfold Path for the cessation of suffering offered by the Buddha 2500 years ago. Missed the other posts in the series? Read them all here.

Halfway down the path to happiness, it is time for a re-cap.

What was that path again?

As a reminder, in this series we are seeing what practical lessons we can learn from exploring the Buddha’s 8 step path to happiness.

The Buddha recommended 8 steps to follow to work towards the end of suffering, both Big and Little. Go back and read Suffering Succotash if you need to get reoriented to this whole 8-Steps-to-Happiness thing.

So far we have covered 4 of the steps:

  1. Skillful Mindfulness
  2. Skillful Action
  3. Skillful Speech
  4. Skillful Livelihood

Here are the 4 we have left:

  1. Skillful Effort
  2. Skillful Intention
  3. Skillful Concentration
  4. Skillful Understanding

These last 4 give you guidance about how to approach the 4 we have already covered.

For example, if you want to learn to be more mindful so that you make better choices, are careful about what you say, and create meaningful work for yourself, you put effort into it because you understand how it will be helpful. Thus, you set the intention and then concentrate on it.

Whew! That was a mouthful. But I got all 8 steps in there, which I think is pretty good. See how it all works together?

You Gotta Give it Some Effort

So let’s start on the last 4 items on our list by thinking about effort.

You already know that if you want to accomplish something, you have to put some effort into it, right? But too much effort burns us out, makes us frustrated, and may lead to giving up. Not enough effort and well, you are not really trying. So what’s the right amount of effort?

Geordi thinks he has just the right amount of tension on his lute strings. (Worf doesn’t think so. Remember what happens next?)

The Buddha used the metaphor of tuning a lute. A lute is a very old fashioned guitar-like instrument. If you tighten the strings too much, they sound awful and may break. If they are too loose, they won’t make any music at all. You want them to have just the right amount of tension if you are going to make beautiful music. That “just right” amount of tension is like Skillful Effort.

I always think of Skillful Effort when I see a basketball player setting up on the free throw line. She looks at the basket, holds the ball ever so carefully, and with just the right amount of force, launches the ball into the air. If she uses too much force, the ball slams hopelessly against the backboard; not enough and it’s an airball. Skillful Effort and there is nothing but net.

Effort How?

Bottom line, if you want to stay on the path to happiness, you got to work at it. It takes some effort. Not too much, but some.
Tuning an instrument and shooting free throws are helpful metaphors. But what does skillful effort look like in your life?

The answer is going to be different for everybody, so you tell me? What kind of effort do you think would move you in the direction of being more mindful so that, for example, your speech gets a bit more skillful?

For most people, spending some minutes most days in quiet, mindful reflection helps them develop the skill of awareness.

If you get even a little bit better at staying aware of the present moment, you will get better at holding your tongue. And you’ll get better at knowing when it is wise to do so.

So putting some time into a mindfulness meditation practice is part of Skillful Effort.

Another part of Skillful Effort is cultivating positive mind states, because positive mind states help with all the steps on the path to happiness.

First, spend time practicing mindfulness. Secondly, cultivate positive mind states.


If you notice you are stuck in a negative thought loop, you can put some effort into changing your mind state. For example, say your thoughts are all about how pissed you are at your ex-girlfriend. Or how worried you are that you screwed up at work. It’s not useful to be stuck in those loops, so you gotta put some effort into shifting gears.

Sit down and make a list of a few things you are grateful for, do something helpful for someone else, or just get some exercise. Any of those things might help.

Bottom line, if you want to stay on the path to happiness, you got to work at it. It takes some effort. Not too much, but some.

Being good at something requires some effort.

But come on, remember, this is the path that leads to the end of suffering. It is probably worth a little work.

Of course, you have to try it for yourself and see what you think. You’ll be able to tell when you are making progress, and that’s how you will know that your effort is paying off.

Do you have a good example of using skillful effort in your life, to move yourself in a direction you are trying to head? Tell us below in the comments. .

Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

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1 comment

  • Skillful effort is such an empowering skill. My daughter sometimes complains about things that she has no control over and I struggle to hold my tongue. It takes skillful effort for me to focus on listening and breathing (rather than speaking and telling her to “stop complaining”) and allowing her to have an outlet for her frustrations. Some positive payoffs are that this pause and silence improves our relationship and I feel a more understanding person.

The Mindful Twenty Something by Holly Rogers
“Wise, but not obscure. Practical, but lighthearted and inspiring.”

— MIRABAI BUSH, co-founder and Senior Fellow of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

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