Effort can be wholesome or unwholesome. As a factor of the 8-fold path, however, our effort has to be directed at beneficial ends for it to be “right effort” (samma vayama).
Classically speaking, the four great endeavors that form right effort are:
1) to prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome [mental] states;
2) to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen;
3) to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen;
4) to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen.
The first two endeavors are concerned with the defilements or imperfections (rooted in greed, hatred and delusion) in our minds. We work with them by trying to protect ourselves from them, noticing when they’re present, and using whatever strategies we can to abandon them.
The last two endeavors address the wholesome states of mind that we have access to: non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion, or generosity and contentment, loving-kindness, and wisdom. We experience these mental states, but we may miss their presence if we’re not attuned to noticing them. Once we start recognizing them, we can find ways to stimulate and sustain them.
Energy or persistence (Pali: viriya) is the mental factor behind effort (Pali: vayama). Right effort implies a steady, sustainable level of effort – both physical and mental. At the physical level, we can remove ourselves from situations that we know will bring out our negative qualities, and when we find ourselves stuck in challenging situations, we can practice mindfulness, protecting our mental balance. We can purposely avoid spending time on things that drag us toward our baser instincts and purposely plan and pursue activities that support our wholesome qualities. We need to figure out for ourselves which activities and company move us in the direction we want to go.
Some time ago, a friend recommended to me that I review my schedule/week to see if there was anything that “no longer served”. Sometimes we’ve outgrown a particular relationship or activity, but haven’t noticed yet that we’re ready to move on.
Right effort is part of the concentration group of factors of the 8-fold path, which could also be called the meditation or mental development factors. Right effort could be summarized as recognizing clinging and letting go. We might be unhappy because we are clinging to an idea of how things should be (but are not), or a wish that someone would do or say something (but they won’t). Once we see this condition, we have the opportunity to release our grip; just let things be. Take a deep breath and let [whatever it is] be just as it is. This is a wholesome mind-state, free of greed and aversion, that is rewarding in itself and also prepares us for deeper mental development.
The factors of the eight-fold path are:
1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration