The ‘Four Right Exertions’ of Buddhism Teach You How to Regain Control of Your Own Energy

Getty Images/Tim Robberts
There's a quote by author Iain Thomas that goes: "And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, 'This is important! And this is important! And this is important!... And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, 'No. This is what’s important.'" The "four right exertions"—a 2,600-year-old teaching of the Buddhist canon—offers guidance about how to make a habit of reclaiming what's important.

In her debut book, Tea and Cake with Demons, Adreanna Limbach highlights how modern minds can use the ancient wisdom to channel their energy like the precious resource it is. "I’m a sucker for structure, and the Four Right Exertions is a gorgeous framework for highlighting the amount of choice we actually do have in how we spend our energy, all while taking inventory of what is worth the precious resource of our attention," says Limbach, a MNDFL meditation teacher. "It has likely survived the test of time for a reason—because it’s legit helpful."

"We live in an attention economy. Money is made by capturing our eyeballs and clicks." —Adreanna Limbach, author of Tea and Cake with Demons

This year seems like a fairly appropriate time to learn how to control our own energy, right? A recent Well+Good sleep survey revealed that, of nearly 1,500 people, 92 percent of respondents feel fatigued more than one day per week. Burnout is rampant. And the average person only has about 4 hours and 26 minutes of free time per week.

"We live in an attention economy. Money is made by capturing our eyeballs and clicks. The important thing to keep in mind here is that where our attention goes, our energy follows. Between the advertisements, the dings and dongs of our digital devices, the things that we need to do, have to do, want to do—of course we feel like our energy is tapped out," says Limbach.

How to cultivate the four right exertions, according to a meditation teacher

1. Guarding

"The first of the  four is classically called 'guarding' and refers to setting boundaries," says Limbach. "If you’re feeling burned out, overwhelmed, or scattered, this is a great place to start." To illustrate how your boundaries should work, Limbach says to imagine a garden where you're growing, say, roses and tomatoes. With just two plants under your wings, you're can nurture and protect them. But if you let hydrangeas and basil and lillies join the party, your garden may get overrun.

"Out of a simple respect for ourselves, we need to build fences that help to preserve our wellbeing. Not walls. Walls don’t allow any communication to pass through. However, we need fences of discernment around our garden that clearly delineate what we can and cannot do, allow, and tolerate," she says.

PracticeSaying no. "Especially to the things that you feel obligated to do," says Limbach. "You want to prove that you’re nice, competent, capable, accommodating and worthy—but that actually leave you feeling quietly resentful or tapped out."

2. Abandoning

True to its name, the second tenet of the four right exertions is all about saying goodbye to things that no longer serve you. "We’re talking harmful habits here, which could range on a wide spectrum from debilitating procrastination to a full-blown untended addiction. These habits tend to suck a lot of mental-emotional energy; especially if they leave us with the residual sludge of shame and isolation," says Limbach.

According to the teacher, many of these habits develop over time as a desire to take care of ourselves in one way or another. So have empathy when you're trying to rid yourself of them.

Practice: "One way to apply the principle of 'abandoning' could be as simple as noticing the impulse to reach for your phone to check social media for the zillionth time today, and instead choosing to take a few breaths instead. Tiny moments of choice add up," Limbach says.

3. Arousing

Don't let your mind jump to the dirty! Now that you've identified the things actively adding value to your life, Limbach says it's time to redistribute your energy. "Now that we’ve set some boundaries and pulled some weeds, what do we want to plant in this newfound space that we’ve created? Arousing is the aspect that invites us to get aspirational with what we’re evoking through our effort," says the teacher.

Practice: Ask yourself: “When am I the best version of myself and what are the efforts that sustain this? What practices make me feel impulsively generous, open and kind?” This could come in the shape of anything from a hobby to a dream job to buying that sparkly dress you've been eyeing.

4. Maintaining

"The fourth exertion is known as 'maintaining,' and invites us to make a habit of appreciating what is already working well—and to give ourselves a bit of credit for our efforts. In the garden analogy, we might think of this as savoring the fruit that has ripened," says Limbach. When we've identified the good stuff, we can make sure that our energy continues to flow in that direction.

Practice: Ask yourself: "What is the beauty that already exists in your life?" on a regular basis. 

How yogic breathing works:

Here's how a meditation expert learned to befriend her mind. Plus, the best tunes for your meditation practice

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...