Right and Wrong Effort

Great Amwell House, July 31, 1948


It seems possible to say that we have, in general, many wrong ideas about making Work-effort. We think of effort as something difficult, comparable to always climbing steep, rocky mountain-sides, choosing the worst, eating dry crusts, standing when you can sit, wearing, so to speak, sack-cloth and ashes, and so on. I do believe that Work-effort is intelligent and is based on what one has observed in oneself, in the light of the Work-teaching. Right effort is not like the clown in a circus making useless effort to assist. We laugh at him. But is not the clown, indeed, a picture of us? No, right effort comes from the understanding, from seeing what it is necessary at any particular time to work upon in oneself, and so, often, it is something quite simple and quite easy. It is like finding the right switch or using the right key. Do you realize that years of wrong effort are useless and worse and that such effort is incommensurable with a single moment of right insight and right effort? I sometimes think that one of the tragical things about some religious people is that they have made wrong effort all their lives and so distorted and harrowed their whole character that they have become crystallized in negative sides of themselves.
Now, in this connection, one example of intelligent effort is to cease to believe in a fixed opinion, and let other viewpoints come in. This is right effort on oneself and will make some growth of Being possible. You must understand that a person full of fixed attitudes, acquired buffers, and mechanical prejudices is in prison. He incarcerates himself in the prison of his own mechanical psychology. He lives and dies in this prison, unless rescued by psychological truth. We are, of course, all in prison, and the Work is to shew us how to begin to get out. I say, begin to get out. But if a person does not try to begin to get out, if he remains a mechanical man, he will not be helped, and by himself he cannot get out.
Now, to speak briefly of effort, To remember oneself is the rightest effort a person can make. This effort has nothing to do with groans and sighs and sour faces, nor has it anything to do with labouring up mountain-sides, as it were, or patiently suffering in loud silence in a corner, or anything like that. No, the effort of Self-Remembering is just like fitting something to what fits it. It is like making a connection and holding it. It is not forgetting but remembering to make this connection a few times a day or even once. And, as I have often said, begin by trying to stop everything - movement, thought, tension, feeling, strain - let everything go -and maybe you will catch a glimpse of Self-Remembering.
You know you cannot remember yourself if you are glued to life. In trying to stop everything, you are stopping all that glues you to life. This exercise can totally change you in a flash. It makes connection with what seeks to help you - to lead you out of prison. You cannot reflect on this possible miracle enough. But constantly thinking about your cares and problems and what to do is exactly wrong effort and will make you identify more. You are then like a person who wishes, so to speak, to drag a ship up to the top of a mountain. Of what use is such an effort? Do you think you can sail in the snow on a mountain-top?
Now intelligence is first defined in the Work as the power of adaptation. To try to bring things to what you want or think right, instead of getting off your perch and seeing how to deal with things, is useless effort. How many people I have noticed during my long years in the Work who have a similar expression - that is, the hard determined look of making things conform to what they think right. Such people do not yet understand this Work - that is, they do not make effort from their understanding of the Work, but from what they, by acquired values, buffers, attitudes, and all the rest, understand is right. The Work is to shew you another kind of what is right. Why, they are like people who think the sun goes round the Earth and start from the Ptolemaic idea.
And, standing on the Earth of themselves - that is, what they think right - they wish to make, not only the whole Cosmos, but everything in their daily life, including the Work itself, to swing round and obey them. It is a good thing to begin to see what it means to obey the Work. Otherwise so much effort will be quite stupid, quite useless, and even ridiculous - like hauling ships on to tops of mountains and so on. And here comes in the recognition of one′s own nothingness and the idea that Man cannot do. We have therefore to think in a practical sense, about right Work-effort.
While writing this short paper, for instance, I found myself crossed inside - as if there were cobwebs. By going back in my mind, I found I had not answered a letter which I should have answered and that the reason I had not was because of a slight negative emotion. So I answered it. This is a very small example of right Work-effort at the right time. You may all say that this is too easy. Well, is it so easy to observe? Some will say they have no time for that kind of triviality. Well, it is just on those so-called trivial things that your well-being and inner states depend and I can assure you that this is so. It is like so many things said in that Esoteric Work called the Gospels. How many times are you told there to make peace, to forgive, while you are in the way, to cancel things, before you proceed to anything further? All this is about right effort. You know how laying up every day rather unpleasant things belongs to that tremendously important thing called in the Work "your inner accounts". It is just like anything else. You are traveling in a ship and only have to give in signed chits. They seem small. But when presented they often stagger you. You had no idea you owed so much. Now, if we could learn to make effort in this kind of thing, our efforts would be more intelligent. So you can glimpse the idea that right effort is not climbing mountains or hauling ships on to the top, or sitting in sackcloth and ashes or anything of that kind.
Now a last note on this question. Do you recollect that you are told in the Gospels that when you make effort you must not shew it? You must not make it painfully - and how painfully - obvious to everyone that, say, you are not speaking to-day, or not eating bread, or not going to the usual lavatory, or not wearing your best dress, and so on. Now in the Gospels many things are said about not "shewing off". Why? Because it all goes into the False Personality. So when you make effort, do it in secret, and shew nothing outside. On reflecting on this, I have often thought that effort that shews outside - such as sackcloth, crusts, never sitting down, etc. - must inevitably be wrong effort. And I have already said how wrong effort - and I speak also of the Work - may lead a man, a woman, into a worse situation than life would have led them into. Effort is in secret. Effort is to do with you and the extent of revelation of the Work in you. Effort is in secret between you and your understanding of the Work. Effort is not making things do what you think is right. It is not hauling ships on to mountain-tops. It is not altering others to suit your idea of what they should be. It is not standing high in yourself and making the Sun turn round you. Effort is realizing that you need a great deal to make you less unhappy. Effort is observing calmly what attitudes and cruelties in your outlook make you all wrong with your life. And right effort begins with self-observation and continues into Self-Remembering. Pray that you can understand and make these efforts instead of thinking that effort means something totally useless.

(Maurice Nicoll in Psychological Commentaries, vol.3 page 1200)