To be awakened is to participate in creative acts of engagement with the world in which we exist, including its historical and symbolic structures. If anything, that is the game we are called to engage with, if we awaken as human-beings and not as transcendent super-humans. These creative acts of engagement are ultimately a form of communication. After freedom is gained from the me-making self obsessions and their rootedness in layers of conditioned illusion, to communicate with other human beings may be understood as a recognition of that same potential in the individual, but it may simply be the earned ability to see the individual simultaneously as a product of their world and as a free individual at once and speak successfully to both. For genuine communication to take place we can either baffle and amaze our interlocutor with our new bangles and jewellery, as some do in a sort of weak narcissistic act of parenting, or we can communicate to the individual as a resident of the world they inhabit and to the roles that they are embedded in. It seems to me that the image of the Buddha that has been passed down to us is of the latter model, even if it is a mock image. It seems to me that many traditional Buddhist teachers, who may be quite awake, believe that the best means for them to continue the latter tradition is to spread and sustain the tradition that has enabled them to reach the point they are at. But, for others, and I think this is where a creative act emerges that is of greater value, a pushing through, or delivery of a blindingly sharp observation of alternatives that speak to the time we are in is the most powerful options available to a person who is actually able to see and who feels that drive to disrupt the norms of the status quo. Those are the voices that echo through history in a sense, that are more likely to produce actual change outside of a small circle of followers, or a shift in consciousness within a collective. This type of act, or dedication to pushing through the status quo is what is needed for any real change to occur and for the awakening of an individual to be of any lasting value.
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.
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;
‘(An) unchanging, unitary, autonomous self is non-existent. Our existence is nominal. Devoid of an owned, inherent nature.’ Allan Wallace.
‘All our anxieties and difficulties come from our inability to see the true face, or true sign of things.’ Thich Nhat Hanh
If Buddhism denies a permanent self, then how do we deal with the issue of identity? Who are we really? What is the basis of our sense of being ‘a somebody’ that does indeed appear to exist in the world – to have relationships, work, eat, sleep, piss about on Facebook and read Buddhist books? In Wallace’s words we are informed that there is not a permanent, fixed self; yet a self of some kind does exist, even if it is simply seen at first as the process of moving and shifting reference points, preferences, relationships and roles.
Initial questions in response to the teachings of no-self tend to emerge from the insecurity, doubt and fear that arises in response to the idea that no-self =‘I don’t exist’, when you quite clearly do. You’re reading this, right? Underneath such potential insecurities is the existential fear of non-existence, of being nothing and therefore believing somehow that there is no meaning in our existence. This is a fear I have experimented personally and I am fully aware of how unnerving it can be. However, no-self does not mean that we are merely a mass of biological processes, a cog in the wheel of organic life. Such perspectives on existence constitute a form of Nihilism, which is one of the great mistaken views in Buddhism. So, we can relax knowing that at least in Buddhism, this is not the intended meaning of no-self.
The questions should perhaps be then, not whether you exist, but ‘How do I exist?’ and ‘If there is no permanent central core within me somewhere, then what am I really?’ Discovering that a solid, core self is non-existent should not lead us to deny what we do wake up to each day. Our lives stand before us each morning. A tangible world that starts with our bed, the walls of our bedroom, the home that we inhabit, the street below, the feelings and sensations of warmth and of cold, and so on. The Buddhist path is not about denying life and existence. I like to think of it as the establishing of new rules of engagement and enquiry outside of our conditioned, patterned, personal history and collective blindness in order to see and experience things as they are, unconditioned. We are usually so driven to find final, definite answers that we often lose a sense of what the real issue is. Does it matter what we believe? Sure. Does it matter which position we adopt? Certainly. But do we need to be so concerned with getting the ‘right’ philosophical, religious or psychological belief, the final answer, to define ultimate reality or the end game of existence and life? No. At least I don’t believe so. To do so might simply be another mental construct we use to define our sense of self and position ourselves against, or for, a particular side in the endless debates about the true and ultimate nature of things. It is much more useful and relevant to explore directly the mechanisms within you that shape the reality you experience and live. In this way your personal experience takes precedence over the adoption of particular philosophical stances and the idea of no-self becomes an open invitation to explore the ramifications of such a possibility on your life, not only on the meditation cushion, but also in the moments in-between.
The fourth and final Foundation of Mindfulness is of phenomena. You might be asking yourself right now, ‘But aren’t the body, the feelings and mental activity phenomena too?’ and you would be right. This is an indicator of the way that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness function as progressive steps of integration of awareness within the totality of our individual experience. The idea that these Four Foundations exist separately is false. They are simply steps or stages of working with specific aspects of our experience. As with the previous three Foundations, Mindfulness of phenomena includes not only a resultant and integrative dimension, but also an active, volitional path of techniques and material to work through and integrate. And the key term is integration: when we have full awareness of the body, we have awareness of feeling and phenomena and the quality of mental states too. We break down perception into specific perceptual frames first, and then we build up an integrated perceptual outlook that is inclusive and cognisant of the interdependent nature of all phenomena within our field of perception. We work through the foundations individually because our experience of each of them is polluted by conditioning, patterned and therefore partial living, and our gross and subtle conceptualisation of experience.