I’m sure I’ve done this before — I may have even claimed that I would be running through the entire Noble Eightfold Path until I got distracted by something or discouraged into thinking that I had no business speaking up about this or that no one cared. But I think it’s important to get my current understanding of these steps down on paper; mostly I would just like to be able to refer to this in a couple of years to figure out what where I was and how I’ve built upon (or changed) my understanding. So this is mostly just…me talking to myself, but feel free to jump in and offer your perspective at any point!
The Noble Eightfold Path is basically the Fourth Noble Truth — the truth of the path that leads to awakening. The Four Noble Truths themselves form the basis of Buddhist thought — the truth that suffering in life is inevitable; the truth that this suffering is caused by attachment, or grasping after the good while shutting out the bad; the truth that there is a way out of this suffering; and finally, the truth that the way out is through the Noble Eightfold Path.
The first step on the path is that of “Right View”. What I find fascinating about this is that while it may be the first step, it’s also just one in a continuum. The Buddhist wheel is a symbol of the path and the reality that the last step leads you right back into the first. As our concentration and meditation on reality improves, we find that we must make refinements in our view to compensate. With our foundation strengthened, we then go about the work of sharpening the path we walk.
So what is “Right View” anyway? It’s an accurate understanding of reality and our place within it — realizing who we are, how the universe works (including the recognition of all of the stuff we don’t know about it) and the “useful fictions” we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives. In many ways, I recognize that using Rabbit as a totem for working with fear is one of those and that really it’s simply a framework I like to use to make myself more comfortable with the work itself. I also recognize that in order to truly work with fear, I will eventually need to confront my need for that fiction. This doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of the paradigm — I can still have my preferences, even if I’m not attached to them — but it does mean understanding and embracing the inherent emptiness of it.
Right now, the world feels like a pretty hostile place. On a personal level, I’m someone who’s had a pretty hard life and even though I’ve been lucky enough to get to a pretty good place there are still so many things I struggle with — intimacy, confidence, concentration, to name a few. And looking at the state of our country and the world, there are so many terrible things that we’re running out of time to address. The effects of climate change are happening right now, even though we’ve been warning ourselves for at least 50 years about it. Our political climate has become so toxic that reconciliation feels impossible, right at the point where we need to come together in order to take decisive and drastic action. There is a strong current of anti-intellectualism and the willful abandonment of empathy running through us at the moment, not just here in the United States but in many countries of the developed world. As resources become more scarce and our climate becomes more unstable, the concerns about refugees and displaced populations will become even more dire and important. And so far, our reaction has been to cling to the things we have all the more tightly and turn out those in need. Facing our own oblivion, we’re regressing back towards our worst impulses as a species.
For someone as fearful and anxious as I am, it’s a very difficult time. But what Right Understanding offers is a chance to set aside my fear and despair to look deeper into the forces that drives our behavior. If I can better understand myself, I can better understand people — because we are often guided by the same basic impulses, expressed in very different ways.
Understanding the nature and cause of suffering — its universality, and the fact that so often we inflict it on ourselves — allows me to see a commonality with even the people who have a very different, difficult view to digest. I understand that many of these people are afraid, just as I am, and that they cling to a situation that was good for them but must now change. Nothing is permanent; everything changes. Our time as the dominant society in the world, a capitalist country that is entirely dependent on oil, is coming to an end. In order to adapt, we must stop grasping the way it was as a society. We must have a clear vision of what is actually happening, first and foremost, if we want to have any chance of doing something about it.
I know how difficult this is for me. I love my apartment, and my job, and my set of friends. I’m very attached to them. Losing any of them would cause me great pain, and it would be very difficult to accept the loss. Asking the same of millions of other people, who have their own reasons for clinging so tightly, is not easy. But it’s also necessary.
Right now, my view is that life is an inherently impermanent state of being. What my life looks like now is not what it will look like a year from now. It’s already changed drastically from what it has been, multiple times. I’ve left elementary school, middle school, high school, college. I’ve changed jobs and ended relationships. I’ve moved to entirely different cities. And while these upheavals have required time to resettle, I’ve always been able to do so. Sooner or later, my life will change again. Eventually, I will need to face the biggest change of all — my life’s end. Facing that with grace and dignity means loosening my grip of it, and accepting what this means.
Fear is a direct block of that work. Fear makes us want to hold on tighter, to never let go of what we have, to force ourselves to make sure everything is exactly the same. And it’s also understandable. The unknown is scary. Change can be terrifying. Especially when we’ve got things just the way we want them. But even the best of times end, and that doesn’t mean what comes next is going to be worse than before. It’s just different.
The fear of change has been occupying my thoughts a lot lately. So Right Understanding for me has been directed towards unpacking that. Being able to identify the ways in which I’m afraid can help me better recognize fear in others. Being able to loosen my fearful grip on reality can help me to be compassionate with others who are still unable to do so for whatever reason. Even when they make me angry, exasperated, fearful or anxious, I can still see them for who they really are — people, like me, who are simply afraid. They may express that fear in unacceptable ways — through bigotry or hatred or selfish behavior — and while I can condemn those expressions of fear I can still have sympathy and compassion for that underlying cause.
That’s very important to me. And I do get it wrong a lot. But it’s the ideal I strive for. People like Trump and his supporters aren’t monsters, even though they’re frequently doing monstrous things. They’re just people who are facing down big changes on a societal level and too terrified to loosen their grip on the status quo. Understanding that, sympathizing with that, and sharing the ways in which we too struggle with it might be the best thing we can do to reconnect with them and move forward together.