Concentration is the last element of the Eightfold Path. Practising all of the eight factors of the path pretty much guarantees us a powerful and transformative journey of discovery, growth and change. If we go far enough down this path, it ought to lead to some sort of liberation from suffering and confusion and awakening to authentic being. This is what the label on the packet suggests, you will have to make your own way and sample the goods to find out whether the claims are true, or not.
The Eightfold Path does not exist out there somewhere and I hope I have made that clear to some degree in these blog posts. It cannot be perfected in any absolute sense and there is no committee to measure your progress, and, most likely, no one will pat you on the back and say well done if you make notable progress on it, and, well, what is ‘it’ anyway? Many followers of Buddhism mistake the external forms, teachings and practises as ‘the’ path. This is a mistake. The Eightfold Path is simply an effective model to inspire, guide and prompt us to action that has been reliable enough to warrant its survival and continued propagation for a couple of thousand years. The path though is ‘our’ actual-personal-experience of putting these practices and concepts into action. We need to start and gain some first-hand experience before we can relate experientially to what is alluded to in the many books out there. The path then is created through the raw elements of our own actions, choices and intent. As we gain first-hand experience we can start to relate to what teachers and teachings are hinting at and decide for ourselves what works and what doesn’t, whether a given teacher or form of Buddhism has its head in a dark place, or if it/they might be worth investing time and energy into. There are many Buddhisms out there and most of them believe they have the final say on what Buddhism is. Outside of institutions and organisations, authoritative figures, leaders and followers is the simple matter of an individual, or a group exploring the consequences of dedicated practise on this human life, in this time and place.
Getting away from the computer screen, unplugging our ears from an iPad, putting the beer back in the fridge, and settling in for twenty or thirty minutes meditation requires effort. There’s no getting away from it. Modern technology, and in particular the internet, promises instant gratification, satisfaction and stimulation. Meditation does not. Perhaps meditation is the antithesis of the internet? Meditation brings us to where we are and slows everything down so we can see clearly, so we can feel deeply, and gain insight into our human condition. It provides a space where we let go of indulging the impulsive desire to absorb more and more data, to open a browser for the umpteenth time, to track down the latest video on YouTube, the latest track on iTunes and surf ever onwards to further, new stimulation. And effort? How unfashionable. Why pay when you can download for free, why leave the house to go to the bookshop when almost everything is freely available within that dark screen of limitless magical images.
I have always been interested in the world as mirror, as macrocosm of our microcosm, and in this regard the internet is a wonderful manifestation of our collective ability to constantly distract ourselves with busyness and with seemingly important and vital tasks, which simply cannot wait. The internet has given rise to an obsession with instant updating, and a new form of anxiety at the thought of not being in touch and digitally connected. But what are we connecting to and how real is it? How does this new relationship with data, bits and bytes absorb our energies and efforts? We have created a new experience of reality based on immediacy where waiting and delay have vanished. The internet and computer technology may increasingly give rise to artificial experiences that provide instant gratification of desires that would otherwise be complex and perhaps impossible to meet in the world outside the confines of digital screens.
In the world of flesh and blood, of earth and stone, effort is almost always required to create or achieve anything meaningful and worthwhile. Long-term investment and commitment produces results and rewards that cannot be rushed. Whiskey and fine wine are aged and better for being so and the best of human qualities are the same. Maturity and wisdom require long-term commitment to growth and a concerted investment in entering the depths of human experience. The culture of instant gratification and access will undoubtedly change younger generations’ relationship with knowledge, entertainment and stimulation of the five senses in unforeseen ways and it is likely that many will indeed be positive. Will the pendulum swing and the value of real flesh and bones experience becomes equally attractive again as a counter-balance to noses glued to screens? Who can tell? Much of this new wave of being is caught up in a great deal of physical separation and isolation; cinema attendance is in decline and book shops are closing down on a monthly basis. It is quicker and easier to watch a film at home and order books from Amazon. The raw meat and bones experience of dynamic tension that marks a more complete approach to living in the world can only take form in relationship with the phenomenal world with all its messiness and paradox, and progress in engaged practice can only come about through a concerted and dedicated effort to transform our experience with matter. A digital version is simply not enough.
As most of us do not work in the aforementioned unethical trades, the question of right livelihood will primarily concern the way we work. It can be useful to start by looking at whether our relationship to our job, workplace and colleagues contributes to the creation or maintenance of forms of gross and subtle suffering for ourselves and for others. This may be as simple as recognising that a poor attitude affects not only the approach we take to the events of a working day, but contributes to the establishment of an unpleasant working environment and perhaps even a culture of bad attitude that permeates the working establishment. An ethical approach to work is to honour our agreements (contractually, verbally and interpersonally) and be as impeccable as possible. We dedicate ourselves to excellence as a commitment to ongoing development and we align our use of energy with practice. We use the working environment as a sphere of activity in which we firstly learn to recognise patterns of reactivity, or aversion, and how our preferences, attraction, play out. We let go of frenetic reactivity to stressful circumstances and seek to align with the movements of our working day in a way that allows us to maintain internal balance and presence. It is an ongoing art to do so. It is likely not possible in all working environments and this is the point when a change of circumstances may become necessary. If our working environment demands too many hours, too much stress inducing work, excessive aggressivity, or the giving away of our autonomy and individuality, we may need to consider a different career path if we are dedicated to long-term meditation practice.
As we are all too aware, work takes up a considerable amount of our waking life. That may be good news for some, but for many it is not. Work is a must for a great number of people: an obligation that would be preferably avoided. Even though this attitude is being tested by the global economic crisis we are currently going through, once you step outside of job anxiety, the same dissatisfaction that so many have in relationship to work remains.
So, what can be done about this? A dichotomy seems to emerge between two basic approaches to an unsatisfactory working life. The first is to accept your lot, view experience as experience and let go of any particular preference. In the light, this is taking a sort of Zen approach of accepting what arises, which is easier said than done, but certainly possible. In the dark it’s resigning yourself to circumstances, because to change would either be impossible, or simply not worth it. These two excuses arise as pretence voices with lots of baggage in tow.
The second approach recognises a genuine necessity for change and engages in the search for more meaningful work, and more rewarding circumstances. Both are important to recognise and develop familiarity with and are certainly not mutually exclusive. The basis for working effectively with either is having a sense of the genuine priority in a given period and a sensitivity to timing.
There have been many books written about finding the job of your dreams. Many of them are very good and have certainly helped many people change their lives and find more rewarding work. For many people this is certainly something to look at, even in challenging economic times like the one we are living in. There is no doubt that when we are enthusiastic about the activity we are investing our energy and time into, we work better and we feel better doing it and it is easier usually to remain present and open to experience. In an ideal world we would all have the job of our dreams and dedicate ourselves to doing the best we can whilst at work.
In this blog post I explore right livelihood in its typical Buddhist format, and then I look at the relationship between affecting change on our lives and dealing with life circumstances as they are, and in particular how this plays out in the world of work. The first part then will cover the Buddhist issues of right livelihood concerning job selection and our contribution to the world through how we make a living. For those of you who’ve found my take on the world of Buddhism stimulating to some degree, the second part of this blog post will explore the relationship between the self-development field and Buddhist deconstruction of the self.
Let’s get started then
Right livelihood is an extension of right action and right speech. It therefore concerns the way we interact with the world and in this case how we interact with work. In a way this step on the eightfold Path is relatively straightforward. There are two questions that we need to ask ourselves in relationship to the work we do;
Does the way I earn money and make a living contribute to suffering in this world?
Does my work support my practise and provide conditions in which I can actually practise as I need to?
If the answer is yes to the first, your work may fit into one of the following categories. There are the classical definitions found in most traditions for determining wrong livelihood.
1.Selling arms, or dealing in weapons and instruments of death and torture
2.Dealing in slavery including prostitution (I would add slave labour too)
3.Dealing in meat including raising cattle for meat, slaughtering & butchering
4.Selling alcohol, drugs, or poison (does this include tobacco?)
In looking at these definitions of wrong livelihood, it seems that we can make a clear distinction between the first and the last two. Yet, even in exploring the first two there is ambiguity and I can’t help but feel that a decisive split from associating ourselves with these two potential forms of livelihood seems to be an expression of both excessive idealism and naivete. As general guidelines, they are on point, but as is almost always the case, there will be exceptions to the rule.
Part two continues by exploring the themes of theft, sexual misconduct, and cruelty as the basic elements of unethical behaviour.
In exploring these three areas of unethical behaviour we might reach the conclusion that actively practising their opposites could be a good idea. Instead of killing, that is taking life, we might see that preserving life and creating the right conditions for healthy life to emerge are the logical counter. If we were to take this logical conclusion on board, then some of the ethical behaviour that I outline in part one would make more sense. With that in mind, let’s begin the next phase of our meal together.
Taking what is not given (give me my fork back)
Theft doesn’t require a huge amount of discussion. Outside of stealing and robbery and so on, it is generally an issue of being clearer in our choices. Taking paper from work, or stealing a pen from a shop due to mindlessly placing it in your pocket are both examples of taking what is not given.
There is a need to apply care to the small things. We are asked to be more present in how we are occupying the spaces we move in. Potentially unseen consequences to our actions can be countered by living with integrity and striving for impeccability in our actions coupled with conscious choices. In lateral thinking puzzles there is a classic scenario designed to see if you would return a lost wallet full of cash if you found it with no ID inside. Another concerns helping an old lady up the stairs, even if it entails missing your bus. Right Action is in great part the returning of the wallet, assisting that old lady and basically being willing to help when it’s needed. These are actually forms of generosity.
Greed is the opposite of generosity and a form of theft too. We may have money and feel the right to purchase whatever we desire, ‘I’ve earned it, it’s my money’, you say. But greed is all about taking too much. It is having a lack of dignity in what you consume too. We become like a leech, sucking the life out of the world in order to feed a mindless hunger for more. There are countless manifestations of this. Among the most topical at present are obesity and vulture funds, but perhaps bankers are today’s best example of taking too much. The 1% that has the vast majority of the world’s wealth is a blindingly clear example of why greed is wrong. For that 1% to own all they do, they have to have taken it from the 99%, and even though our economic system congratulates them for it and western society has legalized such behaviour, we all know it is wrong and bad for the 100% in the end.
I want to remind readers that I am not an authority on Buddhist matters. I simply write about my own understanding and the conclusions I have reached after many years of practising a variety of Buddhist traditions and hanging out with all manner of Buddhist organisations, schools and other. Right Action brings us into the field of behavioural adjustments, and is often equated with morality, a touchy topic, which I will freely explore with my own ideas. When first approaching Right Action as the next blog post, I was not at all motivated as I wanted to avoid repeating the themes covered in Right Speech. Well, the social dimension opened up the topic for me and I found myself having something to say. As far as I am concerned meditation practice must be an eventual avenue to engaging socially, which is essentially the point I make below. That said, let’s eat.
A little antipasto
Applying awareness and presence changes the dynamic we have with experience, and our interaction with it: is this not obvious? Moments are not enough however; we need to build capacity as Ken McLeod reminds us.
Avoidance of rigid systems of behavioural and therefore social control is highly appropriate for the day and age we live in. But how do we decide whether our actions are appropriate, or inappropriate, integrous or otherwise? Here’s a clue: look at the bigger picture and apply copious amounts of awareness and engagement.
Avoiding excessive moral lecturing on how we should or should not inhabit our bodies and actions, is not only a right, but a must if we are to exhibit any degree of autonomy and make the path our own. But where should we lead our wagons?
Right Action is divided into three areas. It concerns the avoidance, or elimination, of killing, theft and sexual misconduct. That sounds easy enough, right? However, both killing and theft have less explicit aspects that make their total avoidance, well, unavoidable. Sexual misconduct is less ambiguous and easier to respect as a moral code one may choose to adopt, although I would be cautious in laying out non-negotiable moral edicts here and strongly believe religion has no place in our bedrooms.
But what is the motivation for moderating our actions if we do not succumb to holy authority, or guilt? Surely, in this day and age, we should be able to do as we please, as long as it doesn’t harm anybody, right? This is valid, but we need to pay attention to the bigger picture, and for most of us, that is simply not happening enough.
As with Right Speech, Right Action emerges out of Right View and Right Intent. Therefore the underlying motivation for taking care with our actions is to reduce suffering. This is in keeping with the Four Truths.This applies at a local level with regards to our immediate circle of influence and extends to the social impact our choices and actions have on the wider world. With their often unseen consequences, the impact of our daily choices are of real importance. In fact the nature of not seeing is one of the key failings that permits us to avoid assuming responsibility, and therefore authority, for our actions.Yet, once you are aware, what comes next?
Speech is energy in motion and it feeds movement. When we are mindless in our speech, it tends to go out and feed ongoing patterns of fixed referencing that define the roles we end up in, and identify with. These roles are multiple; an interwoven network of positions that emerge through creative belief manufacturing, the stabilising of dependable feelings, the fabrication of pre-set emotional modes and the fixation of linguistic patterns that affirm our stance in relationship to the fundamental symbols that make up our personal world in all its fictitious glory.
Speech is energy in motion. It feeds movement, and therefore, can lead us out of our ongoing patterns of fixed referencing, and release us from roles that are no longer ‘comfortable’, or helpful. Speech can be used to seed intent into our fields of experience, giving growth to budding, and then strengthening, awareness and new perspectives. The choice is ours. Do we wish to be imprisoned in half-asleep living, or wake up and step outside into a more authentic experience of our lives? There are risks of course, and it’s not really easy, but if you have tasted deep dissatisfaction with the fictitious illusions that makes up so-called normal, then you might just be ready to take a plunge into unknown depths.
Taking on the dialogue
Right speech is one of the easiest of the Eightfold path elements to relate to. Why? Because we are constantly engaging in speech, whether externally through conversation with others, or, through our internal dialogue, which is the inexhaustible conversation we sustain with ourselves. Speech provides ample material for us to work with as meditators and in order to pursue more constructive speech, the instructions are simple. The challenge for us, however, is to make the instructions fit our world, and our ongoing and unfolding experience. For Right Speech to become a path and a strategy for change, its basic fourfold ethical basis has to be applied with discipline and consistency.
Firstly, we need to experience and recognise personally how we actively engage in the four misuses of our voice, as well as get clearer on the intent that is behind our habitual speech patterns. As early Buddhism displays, lists can be very useful. Making your own list on when, why and how can be very useful as a basis for further action. In order to arrive at the point where these patterns become clearly visible, we need to continue in our practice of meditation so that awareness increases, and so that we can bring awareness into dialogues. Then, we simply need to ask ourselves some pertinent questions and leave enough space for honest and frank answers to emerge. The following might be a good start;