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Buddhism for Everyone with JoAnn Fox

Dec 31, 2021

The Buddha taught that small, good karmic actions lead to great results in the future, a powerful motivation for making even small positive changes in our lives. In this episode we look at the Four Powers of Effort, a process for making positive changes last. 1,200 years ago, the Buddhist Master Shantideva offered this Buddhist approach to lasting change and building confidence in his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. The Four Powers of Effort are guiding principles to reaching a goal by aspiring to who you want to become, creating a joyful process for change, and steadfastly sticking to it. The Buddha said that “with effort we have all attainments,” meaning we can do anything we aspire to with enough effort—even attain enlightenment! 


The Four Powers of Effort

  1. Aspiration. A strong wish is fundamental for accomplishing an important goal. How can we best create a strong wish and harness the power of it fir change?  By visualizing the future self. We decide who we want to become and visualize it, preferably in the quiet of meditation. We imagine what this new identity feels like, what they do each day, and the positive effects they have on others and our selves. For example, if we aspire to meditate every day, we imagine becoming a meditator, the newfound peace, and less anxiety. Or you might imagine becoming a fit and healthy person, and you visualize a future self that exercises most days of the week, feels light in your body, enjoys active pleasures like biking with friends or hiking. 


A shift in identity will follow changing our habits, but choosing who we want to become helps us understand what processes we need to adopt in order to become that person. (Emptiness of the self at work here!). The most powerful wishes come when the outcome is meaningful to us and is an expression of our values. Living in accordance with our values is a path toward happiness. Engaging in the positive process is a type of success that can reliably bring us satisfaction. External success may or may not be achieved. External success may not deliver the happiness we believed it would, but acting in accordance with our values will bring us peace whatever the outcome. Outcomes are invariably unpredictable, but good will come if we make positive changes.


“Identity change is the North Star of habit change” —James Clear


  1. Steadfastness. What is the smallest, most manageable step you can take in the next 24 hours to move in the direction of your goal? Very clearly identify the first step, according to your capacity. Plan the step for the following day, and even at a certain time and place. Make the plan specific. The plan, “I will meditate tomorrow” is less likely to be fulfilled than: “I will meditate tomorrow morning after I have my coffee while still sitting at the kitchen table.” Try to make one small step toward reaching your new identity each day. If we diligently put these planned steps into action, from this steadfastness will come a newfound confidence. We will eventually be confident in our new identity because we have performed this activity steadfastly over a period of time. 


  1. Joy. Try to make the plan for change a joyful one. We won’t do what makes us suffer for very long! Adopting new habits will be challenging, but the experience can’t be very unpleasant. The spiritual path should be a joyful one if we are practicing correctly. Try to make your plan for change as easy and pleasant as possible, like setting out your meditation cushion the night before if you intend to meditate in the morning. 


  1. Rest. Rest is a power of effort. Plan to take rest and have a break. Also, when we have an unexpected rest (when we diverge from our plan or slip up,  don't feel that you have failed, you just needed a little rest from all that willpower!) Steadfastness means we are going in the direction of our dreams, not that we are perfect.


From Atomic Habits by James Clear:

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]. 

Meditation. I will meditate for one minute at 7 a.m. in my kitchen. 

Studying. I will study Spanish for twenty minutes at 6 p.m. in my bedroom. 

Exercise. I will exercise for one hour at 5 p.m. in my local gym. 

Marriage. I will make my partner a cup of tea at 8 a.m. in the kitchen.


If by giving up small pleasures great happiness is to be found, 

the wise should give up small pleasures 

seeing (the prospect of) great happiness. (Verse 290)

—Buddha, The Dhammapada


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References with Links

Buddha (1986).The Dhammapada: Verses and Stories. Translated by Daw Mya Tin, M.A. (Website). Edited by Editorial Committee, Burma Tipitaka Association Rangoon. Courtesy of For free distribution only, as a gift of dhamma.


Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits. Avery.