“But the Buddha’s great contribution to humanity is the assurance that we can all wake up and see things as they are. He not only announced a goal, he provided a map. It’s all right there in the eightfold path.” Paul Knitter, author of Without Buddha I could not be a Christian
Suffering is caused by ignorance. To eliminate ignorance, we need to cultivate wisdom. Not by acquiring knowledge and facts, but by using the Noble Eightfold Path. While each factor is often translated as “right,” I prefer the translation of skillful. The eight factors are: skillful view, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
While it is called a path, the eight factors are not steps to be followed in sequence. They are more aptly described as components, comparable to the intertwining strands of a single cable that requires the contributions of all the each for maximum strength. I see the eightfold path as a spiral, each time you go around you go a little deeper. Each factor changes as you go deeper.
The mindfulness path starts with Skillful View which provides the perspective for practice. Then Skillful Thinking provides a sense of direction. Over time as you come back to each factor, you will see how your practice has deepened.
Skillful View We start with skillful view because we need a bit of wisdom to even begin spiritual practice. We need to see how we suffer, how our life is out of kilter, and that we can do something about it. Skillful view is the forerunner of the entire path, the guide for all the other factors. It enables us to understand our starting point, our destination, and the successive landmarks to pass as practice advances.
For me skillful view began with the inclination to develop my spirituality. As I learned more about Buddhism, I saw that the Five Mindfulness trainings were my North Star, and that the Eightfold Path was the map to get there. More recently my view has expanded to see how my perceptions are colored by my ineffective inner critic, and how accepting impermance helps reduce grasping and pushing away.
Skillful Thinking Skillful thinking arises from skillful view. It is being aware of our habit energies, and avoiding thoughts of attachment, hatred, and harmful intent.
Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested these practices for skillful thinking:
- Ask yourself, “Are you sure?”
- Ask yourself, “What am I doing right now in this moment?”
- Recognize your habit energies.
When I began on this path, I was totally unaware of my habit energies often living on autopilot. Through the practice, I became aware of when I was lost in thought. I discovered that happiness depends on my mental attitude, and not on achieving goals. Today my skillful thinking reminds myself that I already have enough conditions to be happy. So, I can let go of my habit energies that are chasing after external happiness.
Skillful Speech Speaking truthfully, not speaking cruelly or exaggerating. Thach Nhat Hanh says: “Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, “I was just telling the truth.” It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is “Right” in both form and content.”
My speech was anything but skillful when I started on this path. My need to show my expertise kept me from listening, and encouraged the habit energy of interrupting people to tell them what I thought. By slowing down through regular meditation, I have been able to stop interrupting, listen more to understand than to reply, and pay a little more attention to both the form and content of my speech.
Skillful Action Is the practice of touching love and preventing harm, the practice of nonviolence towards our self and others. Four of the five mindfulness trainings (reverence for life, true happiness, true love, nourishment and healing – the fifth is deep listening and loving speech) give us the north star for right action as they teach us to act in ways that reduce suffering rather than increase it.
I began with the unskillful habit energy of brushing anything unpleasant under the carpet. I kept myself too busy to reflect on something good or bad. Breath meditation helped me to slow down so I could be in the present moment. “Taking in the Good” helped me to see and savor the beauty in the world. And loving kindness practice, while it felt mechanical at first helped me to open my heart. Practicing self-compassion gave me to courage to remove layer after layer of armor that I build up to protect myself that really wasn’t serving me very well.
Skillful Livelihood Avoiding occupations that bring harm to oneself and others, a livelihood that doesn’t cause more problems than it solves. Right livelihood is “wealth obtained through rightful means” – that means being honest and ethical in business dealings.
At work I was always honest and ethical. However, I caused more problems to myself than I solved because I often burned myself out by doing too much. I used my accomplishments as a measure of my self-worth. I was never enough because there was always something more to do. Having the luxury to retire, I embarked on a two-year meditation teacher training, which helped me see where I am at, remove my armor and be more open to life. That growth was compounded by guiding meditation sessions at prison and at the library.
Skillful Effort Nourishing wholesome seeds and not nourishing our unwholesome seeds. Using just the effort needed to bring yourself back to the present moment.
I totally misunderstood skillful effort at first, I thought the more effort the better. Through practice I learned the powering through tasks to make myself look good was actually watering unwholesome seeds. The belief that I have to accomplish things and know everything in order to be good enough. My efforts went into doing things for people rather than being there for them. Through practice I began to see this, and started to shift the focus of my efforts from tasks to relationships.
Lately I have been focusing on bringing skillful effort to my meditation practice. When I started I thought I am going to learn how to sit on a meditation cushion if it kills me. That is not quite skillful effort. I am learning to hold thoughts more lightly instead of pushing them away. It seems to be spilling into my life as well, using different things as mindfulness bells to gently bring me back to the present moment.
Skillful Mindfulness is awareness of body, feelings, thought and phenomena, the energy that brings us back to the present moment. The mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached non-judgmental observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment.
When I started on the path, I was disconnected from my body, and unaware of my thoughts. I brushed anything unpleasant under the carpet. When I settled my mind through meditation, I had to play whack-a-mole to suppress unpleasant feelings and thoughts. I learned I needed to develop was my capacity for love, compassion and joy giving me the strength to be with the unpleasant. Through practicing those I learned to be able turn toward the unpleasant. Out in the distance I see equanimity.
Skillful Concentration Right concentration is the cultivation of a single-pointed mind that is centered and focused, calm and relaxed. Right concentration is unity of body, heart and mind.
I thought I had concentration down pat, as I could focus intently ignoring everything that was going on around me. But actually, that wasn’t concentration, I had just developed armor to keep out anything I didn’t want to deal with. By settling my mind and building my self-compassion through years of practice, I am able to concentrate without blocking out everything that is happening the present moment. I can focus on my task, but be aware of what is going on around me. I am spending more time living in the present moment instead of preparing for the future.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When you practice Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration is easy. The energy of mindfulness already contains the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration, you practice looking, listening, and touching deeply, and out of that deep looking, listening, and touching, Right View is the fruit. Understanding and insight grow. As Right View continues to grow, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort will become stronger. When you sit correctly, your thinking is clear, and you act accordingly and practice Right Livelihood. Everything depends on Right View, and Right View depends on Right Mindfulness.”