Classically speaking, right effort (sammā vāyāma) is defined as the four right strivings. The words of the Buddha, from the Pali canon:
Bhikkhus, there are these four right strivings. What four?
- Here, a bhikkhu generates desire for the non-arising of unarisen bad unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives.
- He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen bad unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives.
- He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives.
- He generates desire for the persistence of arisen wholesome states, for their non-decline, increase, expansion, and fulfilment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives.
— from AN 4.13, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
“Bhikkhus”, in this case, refers to any sincere practitioner of the Buddha’s path. The bad, unwholesome states are all forms of greed or hatred, and the wholesome states forms of generosity, kindness, patience, etc.
Striving can be a tricky word, bringing to mind ultra marathons or other superhuman efforts. But what does it mean when applied to observing and influencing our mind states? In what ways can we affect where our mind goes? Not through physical effort, clearly; but how, then?
Recently when I asked a friend how he felt, he said, “A bit anxious”. I asked him if he ever felt at ease, and he said that there were times he was not anxious, and the conversation ended there. I wanted to ask (but didn’t) what conditions were present at the times that he felt at ease — where was he? What was he doing? What had happened immediately beforehand? Had he slept well? Who was he with?
These are questions we can ask ourselves. Do we know what our mind state is right now? Is it identifiably wholesome or unwholesome? Is it painful or pleasurable or foggy? If we can identify a particular state, how did our mind get here? What were/are the influences? This type of self-questioning takes effort, and this is what the Buddha is pointing to.
Ajahn Sumedho, in some of his recorded talks, points out that we not usually gripped by strong emotion. We notice desire and aversion, and deep pleasure and joy, when they are powerful, but most of our days are spent in a moderately stable semi-oblivion (delusion).
We can bring attention to registering what mind state is present throughout the day, in the same way we could check our posture from time to time. We might be surprised by what we discover. It is here that the investigation begins. How did we get here? Are any of the conditions reproducible (if the mind state is wholesome)? Avoidable (if unwholesome)? Or are things just drifting along? Can we sharpen our attention to see subtler mind states arising and passing away?