The Noble Eightfold Path
The mindful path can be broken down into eight specific sections of practice. They are View, Thought, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration. We can break these eight down further into the three distinct categories of Wisdom (View and Thought), Virtue (Speech, Action and Livelihood) and Concentration (Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration). In today’s discussion, we’ll look deeply at the Wisdom category of The Eightfold Path. From a mindfulness perspective, these are the instructions for how to maximize our mental, emotional and physical potential and how to live in a way that reveals the true nature of all things.
The Optimal View
Simply put, the perspective on life that we are encouraged to hold is one of embracing the impermanence of all things, including ourselves, and knowing that suffering is an unavoidable part of being aware of our own existence. Emerging out of these fundamental concepts is the natural expression of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity that occurs when one is able to see with clear eyes the fact that all beings are struggling with the reality of their temporary nature.
From this perspective, when you hold a view of things that is free from illusion, all of the following seven aspects of the mindful path become possible. Without this clear seeing, any work we do becomes shrouded under false pretenses.
One could also say that the primary perspective we are encouraged to hold is one of constantly striving to observe reality without bias or a preconceived idea about how things actually are. This view places value on the honest experience of the individual over some external entity that is seen to hold the key to what the truth is. We are constantly encouraged to verify the teachings in our own experience and to discard that which does not ring true for us. At the same time, we are careful not to disregard teachings and practices just because they are challenging or make us feel temporarily uncomfortable. We must test reality in a rigorous and fair way if we are to hope to gain anything resembling actual wisdom.
With the fundamentals of possessing a solid perspective on things in place, it is much more likely that our thoughts will emerge out of place of recognizing the basic goodness of everything around us. We come to see that all beings are striving after health and happiness. This allows us to be able to put people’s behavior into a compassionate perspective rather quickly and to appreciate that all of us are fumbling around with the reality of our temporary nature. This does not mean that we have to approve of unskillful behavior that causes suffering for others, but it does help us to see more deeply at the underlying pain that might motivate such behavior.
When we think in an efficient and optimal way, we do not waste our time and energy on petty squabbles, judgments of other people and negative and draining states of mind. We appreciate that there is power in the way we think. When we are able to deeply comprehend this, we then commit ourselves to cultivating a mindset that is beneficial, supportive of ourselves and others along the path of wisdom and free from a sense of ill-will to any living thing.
Yesterday we introduced the concept of the eight categories of focus for our work on the path of mindfulness. We also took a deeper dive into the first two categories of The Optimal View and Optimal Thought, which we paired together in a section we labeled as Wisdom. Today we move on to the three categories of Optimal Speech, Optimal Action and Optimal Livelihood, otherwise known as the group dedicated to the concept of Virtue.
When we watch the news at night, it can seem like the whole world has abandoned the concept of words having meaning. One story after another reveals the latest lie that has been uncovered or the most recent nasty exchange of insults between one side and the other in whatever battle in the public discourse is currently in the limelight. Supposedly, this makes for good drama and gets people’s attention or it wouldn’t be such a prevalent strategy for politicians and reality television.
And yet, it is becoming more and more clear that all of this nonsense is simply ego-driven drama. It should be obvious that speech which divides and breaks the world into “good” and “bad” is not accurate or helpful. Once our eyes have been open to the power of our consciousness and words, we no longer have any interest in engaging in such divisive and unproductive language. From an enlightened place, our words are only used to speak the truth and to support and encourage others on the path to gaining wisdom and seeing things clearly.
Actions speak louder than words. If you are practicing the cultivation of the boundless states of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity, it will show in how you act in the world. You are more likely to be called to serve others, to help wherever you can and to support and encourage those around you on their journey towards a true sense of freedom.
Just as the Ten Commandments of Christianity lay out a list of actions that we are told to avoid in order to attain salvation, there are some basic actions that those on the mindful path are encouraged to avoid. From this perspective, all life is considered to be valuable. We honor that all living things are striving towards health and happiness and we do our best to avoid killing any being. We will also refrain from stealing and engaging in any kind of sexual behavior that is not a consensual expression of love between two individuals.
Informed by an optimal view of things, our actions will seek to bring comfort, peace and encouragement to those around us. Any activity that harms or denigrates others will be appalling to our sensibilities and avoided at all costs.
Many hours of our lives are spent in the work we engage in. It is important that our career supports us in living a life that is helpful to others and ourselves as we move along the path to emancipation from suffering. If we meditate and do all kinds of practices to cultivate peace of mind and openness of heart, but we work in a setting that involves taking advantage of people, misleading others or intentionally causing harm, all that work on self-improvement is wasted.
Take an honest and deep look at the ripple effect that your work has in the world. Does it emanate out the kind of energy that is supportive of a sense of peace, love and compassion or are there aspects to what you do that inherently create more unnecessary suffering in the world? From the mindful path perspective, how you make a living is just as important as how clearly you see things or how much loving-kindness is in your heart. Once you’ve examined the effect your work has on the world, make choices to move in the direction of finding a way to make a living that matches up with the intention of your inner work.
In today’s discussion, we’ll look at the final section of the Eightfold Path, Concentration. This is made up of Optimal Effort, Mindfulness and Optimal Concentration. While the first section of Wisdom revolved mostly around our internal processes and the second section of Virtue focuses on how we take action in the world, the third area has to do with the quality of our energy and intention as we make progress in our personal evolution.
As is the case with most things related to walking the middle path, our effort will ideally be one of balance. We strive to put forth enough effort to keep ourselves moving forward, slowly but surely, while not pushing ourselves so hard as to burn out or fall into more unproductive states of mind and body.
We are also looking to remain balanced when it comes to limiting our exposure to negativity and other activities that compromise our ability to remain grounded in the present moment. Along with avoiding these draining influences, we are encouraged to use our energies in cultivating and maintaining peace of mind and the boundless states of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity.
Our efforts should be continually returned to the path of avoiding unhelpful behaviors and ways of thinking, overcoming our addictions and illusions, developing our capacity to observe and maintaining a serene and compassionate internal landscape.
Much of our work in this course has been devoted to the cultivation of mindfulness skills. Generally speaking, we are striving to be fully aware of our body, emotions, mind and the objects of our mind. Our task is to diligently observe what is alive in our awareness and to notice our patterns of behavior and the tendency we have to push away experiences we perceive as being unpleasant and to cling on to those things which bring us pleasure.
As we’ve discussed in great detail, this awareness will likely lead to the awareness that you are not a solid and permanent self or ego, that suffering is unavoidable and all things are impermanent. Our simple task is to observe our internal and external reality and to constantly and gently seek the truth at the core of things. If we are diligent in our work, we can break through all illusions and move beyond the ego.
We have also invested a significant amount of time and energy in cultivating our ability to concentrate. There are many benefits associated with quieting the mind and remaining disciplined in returning ourselves to a singular task. This intense form of concentration produces a sense of peace, ease and even elation in body and mind. It will also eventually lead to a place of neutrality and balance.
In addition, this ability to concentrate is extremely helpful in all other areas of the work we will do on the mindful path. While an undisciplined mind can get swept away by the smallest disturbance in the individual’s surroundings, a focused mind can withstand all manner of distractions, illusions and temptations. With a focused and serene mentality, we are able to more clearly see the reality of whatever situation we find ourselves in, and therefore we are more likely to think and take action in a way that is in harmony with our true path.