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.
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.
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;
The Eightfold path is the Fourth Truth and it features eight arenas of practice. They are all inter-related. They can be followed sequentially if one is so inclined, although each feeds and amplifies the others. They are taught sequentially in order to give a theoretical framework and a direction for developing a practice that involves all areas of our lives. The Buddhist path is very often a logical one. It presents a problem, a solution and a systematic model to follow for creating change. In this regard it has a lot in common with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Like CBT it requires effort, consistency and follow-through in applying strategies in order to stimulate real, lasting change. It is not the passive perusing of books, but a hands-on approach to systematically working with how we have constructed our subjective experience of the world and the dismantling of great parts of it in order to give rise to authentic, awakened living. When looking at the eightfold path it’s important to understand that ‘our Eightfold Path’ is both created through volitional action, and met, through discovering a naturally emerging way of living that is in harmony with the flowering of awareness and presence. The key to understanding this classic teaching is to view it as an integrated and inclusive model for bringing awareness and presence to multiple arenas and aspects of our lives. It is a reliable basis for starting out and for coming back to when things get a little too confused. It is also a mirror of ideals and the potential present in applying ourselves to this cornerstone of the Buddhist quest. It reminds us that when our general communication is out of step with our aspiration to be a better version of ourselves, it weakens our ability to be present, connected and open. It remind us that our mindfulness is impacted by the way we act and work. The Eightfold Path helps us to appreciate the interdependent nature of human experience and how unconscious behaviour in one area of our lives will have consequences for the others.
The 8 Arenas of the Eightfold Path
1. Right View: our general outlook, core beliefs, ideas about ourself and the world
2. Right Intention: decision making, intending, choices
3. Right Speech: our general communication, how we use language
4. Right Action: our behaviour, both habitual and impulsive
5. Right Livelihood: our job, way of working
6. Right Effort: how we use our energies, how we apply ourselves
7. Right Mindfulness: how present we are and connected to experience, authenticity, meditation
8. Right Concentration: gaining insight, wisdom, mental discipline, understanding
This marks the beginning of a new series of posts on a post-traditional approach to Buddhism. This initial offering is on the Four Noble Truths. I realised that I needed to get to grips once again with this essential Buddhist teaching and do my best to rework it into contemporary language.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths was the first teaching given by Siddhartha after he awakened/achieved enlightenment. It is the first major teaching on the Buddhist path and is found in pretty much every Buddhist school. The Four Noble Truths is a summary of the path of awakening defined in four logical, interdependent steps. They have been defined quite differently throughout time and by different schools with ramifications for how they are understood and received. The number of people for example put off by one of the original translations into English of the First Noble Truth is impressive. ‘Life is suffering’ is certainly a turn off and fails to match the life experience of the average westerner. Life is clearly not a cesspit of misery. The pleasures of life attest to this and certainly defining it in such pessimistic terms is a non-starter, unless you happen to be a full-time masochist! A more approachable yet traditional phrasing is;
1.The truth of suffering
2.The truth of the cause(s) of suffering
3.The truth of the end of suffering
4.The truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering
As advertising for the Buddhist path, it still kind of sucks, but at least we don’t need to all start drinking heavily to dull the pain and depression that the initial phrase might have inspired. I still find this wording though to be almost clinical, academic and a little unworkable. Here’s a contemporary rewording that, in my opinion, makes the teaching more accessible ;
1.Suffering, unsatisfactoriness, dissatisfaction, disappointment, illusion and confusion are an inescapable part of life.
2.There is a root cause for these.
3.There is a way to work with and eventually remove this cause.
4.There is a practical method for doing so accessible to anyone willing to apply themselves.