Right Effort ()

Samma-Vayama is translated as right effort, right diligence  or right endeavour. Endeavour means "using care and effort, without being drawn away by some other interest to do or get something". Power means every quality, property or skill to produce any change, effect or result. Right Effort is avoiding or overcoming unwise states, and developing and maintaining wise ones. Right Effort involves directing the mind.

On this page:

  1. Four Great Efforts
  2. Unwholesome Thoughts
  3. Sense Restraint
  4. Handling Harmful Thoughts that have arisen
  5. Five Methods of Expelling Harmful Thoughts
  6. Use wisdom to understand the consequences
  7. Pay no attention
  8. Make it the subject of meditation
  9. Cast them out
  10. The Effort to Develop
  11. The Effort to Maintain

Four Great Efforts (samma-padhana)

There are Four Great Efforts: the effort to

  1. avoid,
  2. overcome,
  3. develop, and
  4. maintain.

By learning to apply and use Right Effort, you are not a puppet of the mind. You become its master. You control your thoughts. If unwholesome thoughts arise, you can dispel them at once.

The Four Great Efforts can be viewed as four ways to deal with negative states, or as four aspects of one process. Sometimes using one aspect automatically brings about another aspect, as when developing wise ways of thinking leads automatically to abandoning unwise ways. Simply avoiding certain states is effective, but we need to learn from them, develop wise skills to overcome them. We should use effort wisely, using skilled means. Generating disgust for something is developing a negative means, disgust. In using the Four Great Efforts we need to use Mindfulness and Right View, so we can use effort wisely.

Four Aspects of One Process

All four are important in Awakening, but in a way, they are four aspects of one process. Of course, you can use one or more of the four at a time. And when applying one of the four, you might as a result, apply another. For instance, by avoiding desire, you might find you have developed generosity, where abandoning an unskilled state leads to the development of a skilled one.

It can work the other way round. By developing skilled ways to deal with unwise states, you are also abandoning them. And you have developed a new, valuable skill. For instance, by developing mindfulness to handle a negative state, you might find that developing this mindfulness leads you to abandon other unskilled states automatically.

Also, by developing a skilled state, such as one of the seven factors for awakening, you both starve a hindrance and develop awakening. You find that two of the factors are working at the same time.

Avoiding is not the whole answer

Simply avoiding the unskilful is useful. By looking away when see a nice cake, we can avoid (eating) problems for a while. When thinking or meditating on something, we can avoid irrelevant thoughts that arise by putting them aside. If we did not do this, we would never finish with the present subject, and follow distractions.

Sometimes people use avoidance to deal with mental problems. A person with claustrophobia might, even so, travel by bus. They avoid thinking about being confined by looking out the window, or talking to someone.

But in the end we need to develop skilled thinking. We need to learn from the unskilled or negative and develop the skilled. We cannot always avoid looking at things we know will lead us to unwise actions. We need to develop skills to overcome them. We need to use skills from the rest of the path so we can do this. We need to use Right View and Right Mindfulness.

Desire is a good example. There is both skilled and unskilled desire (craving). Skilful desire is an important factor in the path. To attain awakening, you need to want to achieve it. It wouldn't be wise to abandoned certain desires, while it is wise to abandon others. So we need Mindfulness and Right View to tell the difference.

The way of Right Effort needs to use skilled means. Getting rid of evil by getting mad at it, does not involve the development of skilled states (such as loving-kindness), and is less effective. A feeling disgust for lusting, too, does not involve the development of wise skills. It involves developing and unskilled one (disgust). Such approaches are sometimes effective, but they don't involve the development of wise skills.

Right Effort is dependent on the other path factors to make it skilled (and so 'right'). To apply Right Effort, you need mindfulness and discernment. You mindfully ananlyse mental states and desirable states, as part of the process of Right Effort.

Unwholesome Thoughts (akusala)

Detrimental to physical, mental or moral well-being

An unwholesome thought is unskilful. It is a thought that disturbs serenity, directly increases suffering, or feels good, but leads to later suffering.

They are connected to attraction, aversion, or ignorance. Ignorance is always there; by itself or with one of the others. Unwholesome thoughts lead the mind away from its purpose. For instance, when meditating, thoughts of sex may lead to daydreaming and telephoning romantic contacts, instead of meditating. Sadness may lead to giving up meditating, or wallowing in misery. Both these are based on ignorance of the Four Noble Truths. For instance, they promise happiness, or pretend to be real.

I. Sense Restraint (Samvara-padhana)

A monk uses his will to prevent the arising of evil, of unwholesome thoughts that have not yet arisen. He strives, develops energy and strengthens his mind to do so. A monk, seeing a form, hearing a sound, smelling an odour, tasting a flavour, feeling some tangible thing or mentally perceiving an object, apprehends neither its signs nor its particulars. He is not affected by them in general or by their details. Because coveting and dejection, evil and unwholesome thoughts break in when he drops his guard, he applies himself to such control, he guards over the senses and restrains them. This is called the effort to avoid. Gotama, the Historic Buddha.

External Senses

When Budhists use this method, they avoid contacting certain sense objects. For instance, they avoid looking at something, if it will lead to craving or aversion. They do this when they know that if they look at it a thought chain will start that takes them from their purpose. For instance, when walking past the cake counter in a supermarket, They might look somewhere else instead.

The same goes for the other senses, where, if the purpose is harmed by the thoughts that arise, and a Buddhist knows this will happen (Right Mindfulness), that Buddhist avoids the sense-contact that would evoke such thoughts. That is, if looking at something would evoke a run of thoughts that would take them away from their purpose, they avoid looking at it. This method is widely practised by all kinds of people, particularly by parents with children who avoid supermarket checkouts with sweets. They know if the children don't see the sweets, they won't play up for them. It can be effective in the external world, but it is more effective in meditation.

In Meditation

In meditation, Buddhists are alert for troublesome thoughts by noticing them when they start and restraining them. It works like this.

The first bit of the sequence is automatic: the mind recognizes the object. There is nothing that can be done to stop this happening. But after this automatic phase, the meditator can stop the sequence playing out as craving or aversion, with their accompanying thoughts and images. Mindfulness keeps the mind on the sense-impression and keeps the mind on it. Now the mind has been prevented from going off into delusional thinking, it can observe and understand the sense-impression. The mind can observes, say, a feeling as it changes and eventually disappears. It can realise the feeling isn't permanent and that it is dependent on circumstances.

Every time Buddhists stop the sensory experiences that would otherwise lead to craving or aversion, that process is weakened and it is less likely to arise in the future. Eventually, it fades out.

Sometimes, however, sensory restraint is not enough. The process starts anyway. So we use other techniques to deal with thoughts that have arisen.

2. Handling Harmful Thoughts that have arisen

If those harmful thoughts, in spite of avoiding the signs which evoke them, appear anyway, Buddhists use one or more of the following five methods. The first, substitution, has specific remedies for each of the hindrances. The others are general remedies.

"A monk decides to overcome the evil, unwholesome thoughts that have already arisen. He strives, develops energy and strengthens his mind.
The monk does not allow sense desires that have arisen to continue He overcomes them, discards and repels them, makes an end of them and makes them disappear. He does the same with thoughts of ill-will and of harm that have arisen. This is called the effort to overcome." Gotama, the Historic Buddha.

Five Methods of Expelling Harmful Thoughts

a) Substitution

Buddhist seek to find a substitute thought that overcomes the harmful thought. The image is of a carpenter striking out a peg by knocking another in its place.

At the start, when using remedies, make the hindrance the object of meditation. If when meditating, a thought (or another mental sense object) arises which demands attention, give it attention for a while, observing how it changes. If necessary, apply a remedy according to its nature. The hindrances are called the Five Hindrances.


In general meditate on the fact that what is desired is impermanent. For an object of lust, meditate on the unattractive parts of the body. The purpose is not to develop disgust, etc, but to remove the lust.

For instance, as we are all composed of many things, including faeces, urine, spit and so on. We can ask questions of a person whose attractiveness we exaggerate:

 In general, there is good and bad about everything and everyone. When we exaggerate their attraction, making them gods or goddesses, we are not seeing them as they really are. The purpose of this meditation is to bring about balance, and see a real living human being (or whatever the object of desire) and not an exaggerated non-existent thing.

Ill will

Ill will, when directed towards others is anger, jealousy, envy, resentment, etc. When directed towards the self it is irritation, frustration, anxiety and depression. Meditation on loving-kindness (metta) counters ill will (towards towards the self and others) through the wish that all beings are well and happy.


Dullness require effort to arouse energy, depending on its cause. The visualization of a brilliant ball of light can counter mental dullness. This technique is a bit hard to explain, really. But one image is seeing this beautiful ball of light, and thinking, "Wow!"

If the dullness is due to overeating (torpor) then brisk walking meditation is the remedy. If due to lack of sleep, sleeping may be appropriate.

Other techniques include: meditation on death; and determining to continue striving.

Restlessness and Worry

Restlessness and worry can be countered by meditating on a simple object, such as the in and out of the breath.


Doubt is not scepticism. Scepticism is not believing things without proof and testing. Doubt is being unsure but not inclined to test and prove. It is countered by investigation (or by scepticism): making inquiries, asking questions, testing and trying out ideas, and studying the teachings until the obscure points become clear. That is, curiosity is developed.

b) Use wisdom to understand the consequences

The meditator considers the thoughts and their consequences. By recognizing them as suffering, and by recognizing their harmful or painful consequences (or empty consequences), the meditator thinks, "These thoughts are no good to me. They are harmful. They will cause pain" As a result, they lose their power and fade.

A person who is angry looks ugly. And if the anger persists, the body looks old and strained. Anger has been associated with ill health, such as heart attacks.

c) Pay no attention

Sometimes it is possible to turn the attention to something else, When meditating, the meditator can see if they can attend to something else, such as the breath. Often when unwise thoughts, feelings and so on are ignored, they fade away.

d) Make it the subject of meditation

This the opposite of the previous approach. Instead of ignoring the unwanted thought, the meditator gives it full attention, noting how it changes (its impermanence). The meditator does not respond to it. That is, the meditator allows the thoughts, images, feelings and so on to be. He or she does not act upon them. Eventually, often soon, the mental state completes its cycle and disappears. This technique can be applied widely, as can the following one.

Eileen hated Jack. She considered, what exactly do I hate? Is it his nose hairs?  His little toe? His voice? In this way, the hating became hilarious. If we are being rational, we realise that Jack is nothing we can identify (). But thinking, I'd like to give his little toe a telling off is just laughable. Eileen found her hatred turned to amusement.

e) Cast them out!

This is a last resort method. Mentally, the thought is grasped and slung out. Using the full power of the mind, like a big wrestler forcing a smaller man down, the meditator casts out the unwanted thought. This is 'letting go' with the help of effort. It is throwing out.

The next two parts of Right Effort are to develop and maintain wholesome thoughts, healthy thoughts that reduce suffering and lead to enlightenment. They are practised alongside the previous two.

3. The Effort to Develop (Bhavanappadhana)

"A monk puts forth his will to produce and develop wholesome thoughts that have not yet arisen. He strives, develops energy and strengthens his mind (to this end).
"The monk develops the Factors of Enlightenment based on seclusion, on dispassion, on cessation that ends in enlightenment, namely: Mindfulness, Investigation of the Dhamma, Energy, Rapturous Joy, Calm, Concentration and Equanimity. This is called the effort to develop." Gotama, the Historic Buddha.

The Buddhist develops the Factors of Enlightenment (bodyhyainga, Skr: bojjhanga). These factors are:

  1. Mindfulness (sati),
  2. Investigation (dhamma-vicaya),
  3. Energy (viriya),
  4. Rapture (piiti),
  5. Tranquillity (passaddhi),
  6. Concentration (samaadhi). and
  7. Equanimity (upekkhaa).

This is called the effort to develop. For instance, when we forget to be mindful, we bring mindfulness back and put our intention on the object of meditation.

4. The Effort to Maintain (anurakkhanappadhana)

 Gotama, the Historic Buddha.

The Buddhist applies his will to keep those wholesome thoughts from disappearing and to strive to bring them to perfection.

This last of the four right efforts aims at maintaining the arisen wholesome factors and bringing them to maturity.

Called the effort to maintain is to keep in mind favorable object of concentration that has arisen. This causes the seven enlightenment factors to gain stability and gradually increase in strength until they issue in the liberating realization of enlightenment.