The Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path:
- Wise Understanding
- Wise Intention
- Wise Speech
- Wise Action
- Wise Livelihood
- Wise Effort
- Wise Mindfulness
- Wise Concentration
(Excerpts from Recovery Dharma)
If we intend to act in ways that have positive results, and if we’re aware of the true intention and the nature of our actions, then we’ll see better results—better meaning less suffering and less harm.
The word karma literally means “action” or “doing.” Any kind of intentional act—mental, verbal, or physical—is a kind of karma. Skillful or wise actions strengthen our sense of balance, kindness, compassion, loving, and equanimity. When we act unskillfully or unwisely—when we steal, lie, take advantage of somebody else, or cause intentional harm based on our own craving or delusions—it creates an immediate sense of imbalance. It fights with our intention to avoid harming others. Karma is determined by our intention and applies to any volitional— purposeful—action. The result of our volitional actions may be an increase in our happiness or may lead to additional suffering.
This understanding of karma rests on the insight that we are responsible for our own happiness and misery, and that there is a cause to every experience of happiness or misery. From a Buddhist point of view, our choices— which are dependent on our present mental, moral, intellectual, and emotional conditions—decide the effects of our actions. If we act skillfully, with understanding and compassion, it’s possible to cause positive, beneficial effects for ourselves and others. If we act with unskillful intention, we cause our own suffering.
This doesn’t mean that we always have control over our experiences. No matter how skillfully we act, the external world—people, places, and things—might not give us what we want. This does not mean we have “bad karma,” or that we’ve failed. It just means that we’re not in control of everything and everyone. The point is that, regardless of what the outside world throws at us, we’re responsible for how we respond to it and how we tend to our internal world. At the end of the day, we have the choice whether we go to bed as somebody who acted wisely and compassionately, or as somebody who didn’t.
It’s important to note that being responsible for our own happiness and suffering doesn’t mean we’re responsible for hurts or traumas that have been done to us by others, or by circumstances out of our control. Many of us have very real experiences of victimization, oppression, and trauma through no fault of our own. The pain from these experiences should be met with compassion and care, not minimized or pushed away. In recovery, we learn that we don’t have to add an extra layer of suffering to this pain. We can begin to heal, rather than let these experiences control and limit us. Without discounting or ignoring the ongoing effects of trauma in our lives, we begin to understand that our reactions when that trauma comes up for us now can change our experience of suffering and happiness.
Wise Intention (last week’s group)
Wise Intention is deciding to act in ways that produce good karma and to avoid actions that produce bad karma. We start by looking at the kinds of thoughts that cause us to act in wholesome or unwholesome ways. If our thoughts are based on confusion, fear, and greed, then our actions will bring bad results. If our thoughts are based on generosity, compassion, and avoiding clinging, then our actions will bring good results. Thoughts that are based in lovingkindness and goodwill, that are free from the desire or intention to cause harm, lead us to act in a wholesome manner.
Wise Speech is based on the intention to do no harm. We’ve all used speech in a manner that may create harm: lying to keep others from knowing what’s really going on; gossiping with the intention of putting someone down or satisfying our desire to be recognized; ”stealing” time and attention by chattering on and on; or trying to convince others to meet our own needs at the expense of their own. Wise Speech includes all the ways we use our voices, including in writing and online.
The most basic foundation of Wise Speech is honesty or truthfulness. Dishonesty is not just outright lies; it can also take the form of exaggeration, minimizing, or omitting, all with the intention of presenting a false picture or distorting what something actually is. It can take the form of “white lies” to avoid embarrassment or exposure, half-truths to keep from being caught, or seemingly harmless things said at the expense of others. We may say more than we really know to be true in the hopes of appearing smarter or more confident in our position or feeling. Sometimes we say something before we know the truth.
The Buddha provided some guidelines for Wise Speech, in addition to truthfulness. He said to avoid slander and gossip, recognizing that such unwise speech causes conflict and makes the community less safe. So, when we talk about others, we can ask ourselves: What’s our intention? Is it to cause division or exclusion? Is it to cause shame or embarrassment in someone else, or to somehow make ourselves look better at somebody else’s expense? It’s possible to talk about other people with the intention of kindness, generosity, and compassion, to seek understanding or support for another. Gossip and slander don’t do this and instead, cause harm. Similarly, idle chatter and saying things just to be heard or recognized, or to take up time when we’re uncomfortable, can lead people to dismiss or ignore us and may create impatience and intolerance in a community.
A final part of Wise Speech is careful listening. We must listen with compassion, understanding, and receptivity. It can be really helpful to observe how much of the time we spend “listening” to someone else is actually spent judging them or planning what we’re going to say in response. Deep listening—without selfishness, or an agenda—is an act of generosity that lets us build true connection.
The Buddha suggested that we make a commitment to avoid five specific actions that cause harm, a commitment which is known as the Five Precepts. We commit to the Five Precepts as our basic ethical system:
- We set the intention to avoid taking the life of another living being, or from causing harm to ourselves or another living being.
- We set the intention to avoid taking what is not freely given, or stealing.
- We set the intention to avoid causing harm though our sexual conduct, and to be aware of the consequences and impact of our sexual activity and desire.
- We set the intention of being honest, of not lying, and of not using speech in a harmful way.
- We set the intention to avoid the use of intoxicants and intoxicating behavior that cloud our awareness.
We need to continually reflect on and question the intentions behind our actions. We may have moments of clarity, but these can quickly pass, when old habits or thinking resurfaces. We commit to constantly reminding ourselves of our intention to Wise Action: to act in ways that are non-harming.
For most of us, our work occupies so much of our time and attention, so how we choose to make a living takes on special importance. We try to avoid jobs that give rise to suffering, and seek work that does no harm or reduces suffering. The Buddha mentions five kinds of livelihood to avoid: trading in weapons or instruments of killing, trafficking in or selling human beings, killing of other beings, making or selling addictive drugs, or business in poison. We’re encouraged to avoid occupations based on dishonesty or injury. Whatever our job is, we can practice it mindfully, with an intention of non-harm, of easing suffering, and of compassion.
Wise Effort is the first of the concentration group. It means concentrating our effort on understanding and recovery and awakening. Wise Effort isn’t based on how much we should meditate, how much service we should do, or how much time we put into healthy activity. Instead, it’s the intention to devote balanced energy to supporting the other parts of the path, particularly wisdom.
Energy or effort is devoted to letting compassion, lovingkindness, generosity, and forgiveness arise when they’re not present. If we find ourselves reacting with anger rather than compassion, fear instead of generosity, blame instead of forgiveness, we can ask how we would respond if those positive factors were present, and begin to respond more skillfully. Being hard on ourselves, beating ourselves up, and suffering from perfectionism are all familiar feelings during addiction and recovery. When we shame ourselves for not being good enough, not trying hard enough, not being enough, these are perfect opportunities to practice Wise Effort, to reflect on the question, “In this moment, how can I be kind and gentle with myself?”
Pacing ourselves is important, alternating periods of activity and rest. We need to be aware of what our mind, emotions, body, and recovery can handle right now, and avoid the stress that can come from pushing ourselves too far, too fast. We need to avoid those things that put us into unskillful mind-states, and try to do things that return us to a more easeful way of being in the present moment.
Try to remember that whatever your experience is right now, it will pass, often in unpredictable ways. Remind yourself that you don’t really know how long an unpleasant or painful experience will last. Try to be open to recognizing and investigating the experience while it is present, without interpreting it as a permanent part of your experience. Recognizing that the craving, experience, or thought will pass makes it easier to avoid the impulse to make an immediate, unskillful response.
Mindfulness asks us to be aware and to investigate, without the reactivity and grasping for control that leads to suffering. We learn to stay attentive to what’s happening without having to either react to or deny what’s happening.
Our minds can get lost in how we react to experiences. When something happens, we almost immediately begin to create a story, plan, or fantasy about it. We have a thought about an experience, that thought leads to another, and on and on until we’re far from a real understanding of the experience itself. Mindfulness is noticing the experience in that moment before we get lost in the judgment of the moment or the stories we spin about it. Rather than blindly following our reactions and responses to an experience, mindfulness allows us the space to choose to respond skillfully and from a place of wisdom and morality.
Mindfulness encourages us to be open to and investigate the painful experiences (and our habitual reactions to those experiences), rather than to deny, ignore, suppress, or run from them. Most of us have been conditioned to be our own harshest critic from early on, especially during our fixations on substances and behaviors. We carry the shadow of that judge with us, even as we seek recovery, giving ourselves negative feedback and scrutinizing every effort we make, holding ourselves to impossible standards of perfection. Letting go of that inner critic allows us to be mindful in the present of the efforts we are making, mindful of the compassion and lovingkindness we’re learning to make a part of our practice and our lives. Remember that we often talk way more harshly to ourselves than we ever would to somebody else. It’s useful to notice when we’re treating ourselves too harshly, and then shift attention to what we are doing well. We can acknowledge the negative thought, and then gently let it go.
The purpose of concentration is to train the mind to be focused and undistracted. This circles back to the wisdom section, where we try to be focused on wise understanding and wise thought, without being distracted by habitual perceptions and reactivity.
Most of us, early in meditation practice, are distracted by things around us. Our concentration is interrupted by a noise outside the room, a pain or discomfort in our bodies, our own worries or judgments of the experience, boredom or weariness, or thoughts and plans. These distractions can lead to a feeling of unease or restlessness. This is perfectly normal. In our addictions, we nurtured the habit of distracting ourselves; for many of us, it has become a survival technique. Concentration meditation gives us the opportunity to meet this habit with kindness and patience rather than resistance.
Concentration, like the rest of the factors of the Eightfold Path, is a practice. As with any practice, it takes time and effort to learn a new way to focus attention. In meditation, simply noting the distraction, accepting that it exists, and then refocusing, is the practice. Our habitual patterns can seduce us into thinking we’re doing it wrong, into judging our practice, or into giving up. Don’t let them. When we observe what the mind is telling us and react with compassion, knowing we have the power to recognize it and refocus it, we strengthen our ability to concentrate.