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On Eradicating Unwholesome Mental States

Photo by Arisa Chattasa

Properly explained, right mental effort becomes wholesome once one has reached the state where one is able to subdue unwholesome states. 

Right effort may be broken down into four types of endeavor, which rank in four levels of achievement of purity and perfection: 

The first is to prevent the arising of non-arisen unwholesome states.
The second is to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen.
The third is to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and
The fourth is to maintain and protect wholesome states already arisen. 

This fourth factor of right effort—to protect and maintain wholesome states already arisen—is essential for the proper cultivation of meditation. We cannot succeed in breathing or insight meditation without first being able to cultivate the mental power of right effort. Without right effort, the moment we begin to try to meditate, the untrained mind, having superior and unrestrained power, temporarily at least, will run off in search of something it likes a whole lot better, and which is a whole lot easier. 

If we want to develop on the Noble Eightfold Path, however, we must be able to concentrate our mental effort in a way that keeps the mind one-pointed and controlled, and this takes firmly determined and soundly developed mind power. We must be able to develop the power of mind to control its naughty tendencies and stop the latent impish impulses of the mind, before the imp of the perverse appears unexpectedly from out of a dark corner and takes control of our mental actions. 

It is perhaps worthy of mention here that we should not make the mistake, which a lot of people do, of thinking that right effort is a skill that can be learned from a book, and then practiced a bit to fall back on, for example, if we happen to need it when we attend a meditation session with our friends. We should never make the mistake of thinking that someone can teach us how to switch on the skill of right effort, like a light switch, so that we can draw on its power in case we need it. That is wrong view. It takes continual effort at all times—all day, every day; there is no other way.

We cannot keep giving in to the whims and impulses of the mind and then, perhaps once a year, undertake a 10-day meditation retreat where we sit on a cushion and imagine that doing some breathing meditation for a while will help us clear and develop and empower our mind. Periodic sessions like this have only limited, short-term efficacy, lasting only for as long as the mind is able to remain focused and concentrated, and is not yet distracted by the stresses and madness of life back at work, in the home, or out in the everyday world. 

The only way we can free our mind from stress is by constantly watching it all the time and not allowing ourselves to be distracted by one unwholesome thing or another. How we arouse the effort depends on us, but whatever happens, there will surely be habits and inclinations that we will have to relinquish, and exactly what they are only each individual will be able to discern and distinguish.

On the level of morality, sila must co-exist and develop with meditation in everyday life if there is to be progress in the process of developing wisdom.

Luang Por Viriyang said in his instructions for meditation teachers (pp.40–41) that:

Meditation can fine tune the fundamentals of the mind and strengthen its condition. It promotes happiness and peacefulness, from a family unit to community unit. Meditation is a path to conscious everyday life. It need not only be specifically a path to the supramundane on other planes of life.

And further:

Meditation is an achievement for those who would like to obtain the peace of mind which promotes happiness, strength for perseverance, wisdom, careful consideration, and problem solving skills.

In yet another place, Luang Por Viriyang, putting it more specifically, says:

Meditation is a scavenger hunt of the mind.

This is a good sentence to remember when our minds are running after trashy or nasty thoughts and running wholly off the track of wholesomeness. 

Right mindfulness works as a garbage collector, picking up useless thoughts and foul elements along the way, and discarding and eliminating them so that they cannot mess up our mind or leave a dirty trail behind. 

Right speech, right action, right livelihood, and right effort, properly practiced, can purify our minds in the domain of morality, which in Pali, we call sila.

Without a firm foundation in sila, there can be little or no progress on the Noble Eightfold Path to purity, and those who make little or no progress in this domain are bound to remain in the realm of delusion. In stark contrast to the true practitioner, they will eventually suffer the effects of their bad actions, whether it be in this life and/or the next, in the form of suffering and torment that will depend on the intensity of the energy of the bad actions performed in this world.

By contrast, the disciple who cultivates good thoughts and actions, in this world—who avoids the impulses of the senses to rush blindly into the fiery pit of rash and unskilful deeds—will develop the skill of avoiding immoral actions and reap the benefits of the pure and moral actions that his mind and body have performed in this life.

The Pali word for such action, bad or good, is kamma, and thus we are said to reap the fruits of our actions—to reap the fruit of our kamma

Directing the mind toward wholesome and beneficial actions is called right concentration, and while the word concentration can be easily misapprehended because it has a wide range of meanings and connotations in English, what it means here is simply right mindfulness and concentration on a single mental object.

To summarize, the first four steps on the Noble Eightfold Path fall into the domain of morality or sila, but the path does not stop there. The final two steps on the path take place internally, within the mind, as opposed to arising out of contact to in the external, outside, world. The final two steps concern the mind looking inward—the mind watching the mind—which falls into the realm of meditation cultivating right mindfulness and right concentration on the Noble Eightfold Path.


Luang Phor Viriyang. 1999. Meditation Instructor Course I. Bangkok: Willpower Institute (private printing of internal handout.)

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