The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s prescription for completely curing ourselves of unhappiness. And like any good medicine, it doesn’t only work in one way. It’s a very holistic treatment that works on several different aspects of our lives at once – in fact, every aspect of our lives is included here, if we’re practising fully.
The way the path is laid out invites us to pay attention to three particular areas of development, traditionally known as sīla, samādhi and pañña, or ethics, meditation and wisdom. These three aspects support each other like the three legs of a tripod, and all of three of them need to be equally well developed, if our practice is to keep deepening.
The ethics part of the path is made up of right speech, right action, and right livelihood. (“Right” here can also be translated as wise, or appropriate.) These three path factors are about how we show up in our daily lives and in the world. So ethics includes our relationships: how we relate to each other, and how we relate to ourselves. On the most basic level, are our interactions harmful or helpful?
The second leg of the tripod is meditation. In terms of the Noble Eightfold Path, this comprises right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. I’ve given quite a few talks on right effort which you can find online.1 The other two path factors, mindfulness and concentration, are particular approaches to meditation.
Concentration can more accurately be translated as “non-distractability.” It’s the ability to develop unwavering focus. When the mind is calm and stable, it’s easier to see clearly. So right concentration supports right mindfulness, that capacity to be present with our experience, non-judgmentally, in the service of clear seeing, or insight.
This clear seeing, insight, flows naturally into the wisdom leg of the tripod, which is made up of right view and right intention. Traditionally, the path starts with these two factors. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation though, because if there was no wisdom to begin with, we would never get started on the path. But wisdom is also the fruit of the path. It’s where all of this is leading.
Upward spiral of progress
So rather than being linear, there’s a circularity to this path – or perhaps more accurately, a kind of spiralling upwards. With wisdom, we start to pay attention to how we’re living our lives. And when we refine our ethical standards, there’s less conflict, less drama, less anxiety. The mind is naturally quieter, which helps our meditation deepen. And out of this deeper stilling of the mind clear seeing, or insight emerges.
When we see more clearly, we understand how to refine our actions in the world. Our ethical standards become higher, which in turn, strengthens our meditation practice. And again, this leads to deepening insight, understanding, wisdom …
How is this relevant right now?
I wanted to highlight these three aspects of the path, because in times of turmoil, it’s easy to lose balance and react, rather than respond. At such times, it feels even more important to examine what I’m doing in light of all three of these domains – of ethics, meditation, and wisdom – to check whether I’m emphasising one of them at the expense of the others.
For example, particularly in light of recent political developments, there can be impatience with silent meditation practice and even the wisdom teachings, in favour of social and political and environmental activism. But if that action is not grounded in contemplative practice and rooted in the wisdom of the dharma, it often has unfortunate consequences. The phenomenon of burn-out is well known. And I may end up inadvertently fuelling the negative energies that are at the root of all these challenges.
On the other hand, if I just unconsciously put all of these difficulties in the “too-hard” basket and keep withdrawing into silent meditation practice, then I may be practising “spiritual bypassing” rather than genuine equanimity.
So I’m making the commitment to at regular intervals, look honestly at my practice to see which of these three arenas might need strengthening, to bring it into balance with the others.
That’s partly why I included “Wise non-action” in the title of this month’s post. I wanted to highlight that for most of us, our default response to challenges tends to be one of immediate action, or rather, immediate REaction. Something happens that we don’t like, that’s painful, that hurts us or someone close to us, and our default setting is to act out of old habits: namely compulsion, aversion and/or delusion. Or greed, hatred and ignorance, as they’re also sometimes translated
We all know the results of those kind of actions. Usually they make the situation worse for ourselves, as well as others. Wise Non-Action, then, is an invitation to challenge ourselves to look more closely at what’s motivating our actions, and if necessary, to practice Wise Non-Action – at least until we can get clearer about what a more skilful response might be.
This is how the three arenas of practice can work together:
We take time to sit with whatever it is that’s challenging;
To contemplate it in line with the Buddha’s teachings, the wisdom of the dharma;
And then, to engage with the world as ethically as we can, with an underlying commitment to non-harming.
Van Jones again
This is in line with what many leaders are asking of us in relation to current political challenges and social justice issues. For example, in last month’s post I shared a video by Van Jones, an African-American leader and political commentator, in the aftermath of the election. In it, he suggested that before taking any action, we take time to:
- grieve and heal;
- gather information;
- build community.
“And then from an authentic place, not pushing … not ‘I gotta do this, I gotta do this, I gotta do this’ – that’s gonna give you a bunch of do-do, and we’re not trying to do do-do – we want you to BE … and be connected to who you are, and why you care so much, and why you love folks so much. We want you to be deeply grounded, deeply connected, so we can make wise decisions going forward.”
First Noble Truth
Notice how he said be connected to “why you care so much.” Right there is often both our strength, and the source of the problem. It’s where our natural and deep caring collide with the truth that often the world is not how we’d like it to be, others aren’t how we’d like them to be, and we ourselves aren’t always how we’d like ourselves to be.
For most us, it’s a huge challenge to accept that truth, to just sit with our discomfort, pain, or hurt and not do anything about it – not outwardly, anyway, and not at first.
One useful initial response though, that’s almost always appropriate, is to acknowledge to ourselves that discomfort, pain, or hurt. And to offer ourselves some kindness and compassion, before we go looking for it from others – because it may or may not be available externally. All of us though, can develop the capacity for self-compassion, and self-forgiveness.
In short, in the midst of all these many challenges that we’re facing, we do what we can, and we try to forgive ourselves and the world for not being perfect!