I find it’s a good idea whenever you’re setting out on a new endeavor to take stock of where you’re going, why you’re going there and what you want to do on the way. The new year is a new endeavor of sorts, so before diving into any major goals I want to pause for a little bit and review a few ideals at the foundation of my philosophy.
Being a Buddhist, that would be the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. As I get older and gain more experience, my relationship to these basic ideas shifts and deepens. How could it not? Everything changes, after all, and it’s worth noting where and why my understanding is different now than it was last year.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the prescription Buddha gives for letting go of our attachments and easing the suffering inherent in life. It’s easy to think of it as an eight-step program, where once you get to the final part you should have arrived…somewhere. Either to enlightenment, or at least a better version of yourself. But the Path doesn’t work that way. It’s a circle, or maybe a spiral, a cycle, something that puts you right back at step one when you think you’ve finished. We think enlightenment is a destination, but really it’s the journey itself, finding new ways to be present in every moment.
So why walk the Path when it only leads back to itself again? Because step one is never the same step you remember. Your experiences give new insight, and the world offers new opportunities to adapt your practice to whatever’s in front of you. The wheel may turn, but each revolution is its own distinct circle.
The Noble Eightfold Path is frequently divided into three groups: prajna, or insight; sila, or virtue; samadhi, or meditation. Each group prepares us for the next one. In order to practice moral virtue, we must have the proper insight. In order to practice meditation effectively, we need to live virtuously. But in my experience, this isn’t so linear as that. Life is messy, and we hopscotch between steps in our practice all the time.
Right Thought: Eliminate ignorance and preconceptions to gain a clear understanding of the world. We sapient beings are consummate storytellers. We’ve learned to label the things we see in our experience, and we’ve come to build relationships and associations with all the labels we’ve accumulated. Our brains are wired to bundle everything we interact with into a continuing story; this is how we build our personal, societal, natural histories, how we learn to make sense of the world. We fill in the gaps of our knowledge with assumptions. We continue to make associations long past their usefulness. Eventually, our minds are so cluttered with false assumptions and bad associations that we don’t really see what’s right in front of us.
To me, Right Thought is an invitation to declutter ourselves. Our attachments are often formed around the junk in our minds, and it can be easy to miss what’s really happening because we add our experiences to a story that may or may not be correct. The very first step of the Path is reminding ourselves that our perception is not necessarily reality, and that everything we encounter — no matter how familiar — is unique. Because nothing is permanent, every moment is something new.
Right Intention: Commit to ease suffering for all beings by committing to mindfulness. You’ve probably heard the story about two monks who come upon a woman crossing the river. She asks them to be carried so that she doesn’t come to harm, and even though his order expressly forbids touching a woman, the older monk obliges and sets her down on the other side of the river. The younger monk fumes about this for some time, until he finally calls out his elder for breaking that vow. The older monk says “I’ve left that woman at the river. Why do you still carry her?”
This parable is all about Right Intention in my mind. The older monk sees an opportunity to ease someone’s burden and responds with compassion. The younger monk, attached to his vows, only sees a broken rule. While results certainly matter, and we can cause grievous harm with only the best intentions, it’s still important to look within ourselves when we take action to make sure we’re clear about the effect we want to have. This requires radical honesty with ourselves. Even if we fool other people, we can never fool ourselves. The karma we generate is birthed from our intentions; sooner or later, we reap the consequences.
Right Speech: Communicate mindfully by being honest, compassionate, constructive, and even-tempered. Now that we have aligned our thought and intention, it’s time to express them. I know I have a bad habit of being mindless with my speech. I’ll reflexively say whatever comes to mind with a certain prompt, or blurt out a thought I find funny without thinking about the context. It’s unfathomably easy to hurt someone with speech, especially on this here Internet, especially in these times where our emotions lead us around by the nose, pulling us into fight after fight. Sometimes we’re just uncomfortable with silence, and need to say something to ease that internal tension.
What I would give to be one of those people who doesn’t speak unless something needs to be said! But, at the very least, I can be a bit more mindful about the effect of what I’m saying — both in real-life and online. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the value of silence. You learn a lot through observation and active listening. It can be grounding, allowing you to absorb what’s in front of you without attaching it to this ongoing story. So, when I speak, it’s a response to what’s really being said and not just what I perceive is being said.
Speech is one of the most fundamental ways we interact with the world and our fellow beings. Doing our best to be honest and constructive builds a foundation of trust, compassion, and good will in our relationships. It’s a simple thing, but so powerful.
Right Action: Do the necessary thing to bring harmony and ease suffering. Do not kill, steal, lie, or connect mindlessly. This is a big step, and one open to the broadest interpretation. For many Buddhists, this means no meat or no sex — not even being in a position to be tempted by it. At the very least, we can agree that killing is not a harmonious act. Neither is taking something that isn’t ours, or misleading the people around us. Any action that causes more suffering in the world is not Right Action; it’s up to each one of us to be honest about our interpretations of that and accept where that leads.
For me, it means doing what I can to make the world a better place. Lying has been a survival mechanism for me in the past, and I have trouble avoiding it as an instinctive response. I try to own up to harmful lies, knowing that they degrade the strength of my relationships in ways that are hard to repair. While I’m not a vegetarian, I also try not to participate in systems that promote the suffering of other animals. I try hard to make sure that my mental health issues don’t make the lives around me harder. I make it a priority to put the people I talk to at ease when I can. I do what I can to ease the suffering of the people around me.
But I could always be doing more. For now, it’s enough to be mindful about each moment, aware that everything I do is a decision. It’s really hard, but I’m getting better at making more harmonious ones.
Right Livelihood: Engage in work that helps your fellow beings, spreads compassion and enlightenment. I’ve always found this to be an important step on the path. It feels impossible to me to walk the walk if you’re spending ⅓ of your day doing something antithetical to your beliefs. At the same time, it can feel equally impossible to find a job that feels like it’s not actively contributing to harm in some way. We’re trapped in a system that rewards greed, dishonesty, selfishness, and an almost-pathological level of disregard for the well-being of others.
But like so many things, this is a matter of perspective. Unless we’re opting out of the system entirely, laypeople have to find a way to pay the bills. To that end, I’ve always tried to seek out work that I could be proud of, that allowed me to find ways to benefit people large and small. Even in big corporations and tech companies, there are ways to bypass anti-consumerist policies to help those who need it. It might not be as satisfying as actively dismantling these systems, but I admit there is quite a bit of satisfaction to be found there.
At any rate, I’ve found that making your job one that helps people, spreads compassion and ease is the best way to practice this step. With the right intention, we can work wonders anywhere, just where we are.
Right Effort: Make sure your focus isn’t too tense or too slack; everything in moderation. This is the first step for samadhi, or meditation, the main tool Buddhists have in our belt for practice. As my meditation practice has deepened, I’ve come to appreciate this idea more. It’s easy to sit with a goal in mind; eventually, my mind will be empty and I’ll be closer to enlightenment. When we come into it with this attitude, we see our thoughts and emotions as distractions in meditation, undesired intrusions into the clear blue sky we seek to cultivate.
But that, too, is an attachment that needs to be released. Meditation is not an active quest for an empty mind. It is an opportunity to sit with what’s there, accept whatever may be happening, and experience the impermanence of what arises. It really helps to think of our mind as the sky, and to think of our thoughts and feelings as the clouds that float by. Sometimes, things are stormy and covered in grey; other times, things are relatively peaceful. Our job is not to damn the clouds for bringing rain, but to sit with the conditions as they are, observe what they’re like, and remind ourselves — gently — to pay attention.
My meditation practice has become a lot friendlier now that I’m observing my thoughts and emotions instead of dismissing them. This has changed my self-talk away from the meditation bench so that I approach difficult emotions or thoughts with patience and curiosity instead of judgment. And that has changed the way I deal with others, allowing me to deal with them more compassionately.
Right Mindfulness: Be present with your emotions and intentions throughout the day. It’s not enough to cultivate mindfulness while you’re meditating. The entire point is to take a little bit of the bench with you throughout your day. I’ve found that the more you meditate, the easier it is to do this. You learn to recognize emotions more easily and quickly, and you train yourself to separate emotions, thoughts, and actions. Now when I feel angry or upset — something that happens frequently with my Anxiety Disorder and rejection-sensitive dysphoria — I can sit with that feeling knowing it will pass. I can investigate the causes of those feelings and think about how best to respond to that stimulus. It’s a lot better than reacting out of anger, fear, or hurt, I can tell you that much.
At the risk of going off on an unrelated rant, this feels like a common flaw in people’s religious practice. We go to church, or temple, or engage in these rituals to access an altered state of consciousness, sure — but those practices are only helpful if we take these states out into the world with us. The teachings of various religions and philosophies are meant to be incorporated into our daily lives, into our every action. Otherwise, the ritual is empty and these altered states are useless.
Right Concentration: Maintain your entire focus on the task you intend to complete. This feels like it could be at odds with the moderation prescribed in Right Effort, but I don’t see a contradiction in practice. To me, it’s a call to simply be present with your decisions without distraction. In other words, when you’re washing the dishes, just wash the dishes.
Our world is a carnival of distraction. At least in the United States, there’s a constant push to see multi-tasking as the norm even though there’s strong research indicating this is an impossibility. We’ve evolved to focus on one thing at a time, and even though we’re quite good at switching tasks there is a cognitive cost to doing so in rapid succession. I’ve found that my mind becomes agitated when I try to do too much at once, and my attention is fragmented so it’s neither on what I’m doing or whatever I’ve done before; I’m thinking of all the other stuff I need to do.
As someone with ADHD, Right Concentration looks different to me than it does to someone without it. My mind is naturally distractible, and it takes extra work for me to corral Monkey Mind into some semblance of stillness. Through meditation, I’ve gained a greater understanding of what the cycles of my mind look like. And through contemplation, trial and error, great patience, and radical acceptance, I’m settling into my own version of better concentration. I can even start to see the benefits of my brain’s unique features, leaning into them so that bugs become features. I have to say, it’s pretty neat.
So, that’s the rundown of the Noble Eightfold Path for 2023. I can’t say that I’ve been able to let go of attachments consistently, but the practice is a slow, steady, iterative process that eases the grip. I’m better able to absorb changes and adapt than I was before, and I have the path to thank for it.
On Friday, I’ll finish up with the Bodhisattva Vow and the Metta Sutta, a strong guiding principle for me ever since I found it years ago.