Monthly Archives: April 2009

Eightfold Path: The Cooking Pot Analogy

This blog is titled Open Embrace Meditations, and in the first post I explained why, but that was over 50 posts ago (!) so I’ll repeat it here and add a little Eightfold Path twist.

For many years now my intention in life has been to hold the world in and open embrace. The visual image I have of such an embrace is of cupping of my palms the way you do to receive water, or the way you do to hold something you want to look at more closely, or the way you might offer others to share in your joy of something. It is the antidote for clinging or grasping or pushing away.

So now here is this structure the Buddha provides: The Eightfold Path, the last of the Four Noble Truths. Because I have been a meditator for much longer than I’ve been studying Buddhism, I come to these teachings pre-sold to the tenets through my own meditation experience and insights. I recognize in them the pure universal truth that each of us has access to when we quiet down and listen in, that I talk about in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

How wonderful for me to come upon a set of teachings that so beautifully expresses these truths, and provides a structure for exploring them even more fully.

To be honest, it amazes me that these wonderful teachings of the Buddha have survived in tact for 2500 years, in a world where everything gets misunderstood so quickly. You know how if you whisper in someone’s ear in the circle and they pass it on, by the end it comes out totally different?

In so many cases in the world, you have to add in the people along the way who purposely change the meaning not just out of misunderstanding but out of a desire for worldly power. But the Buddhist teachings seems to deflect power over others by continually bringing ourselves back to our own personal access to universal wisdom. The Buddha is oft quoted as saying if you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him. Not very Buddhist! Not exactly Right Action! But the meaning is clear. This is a personal spiritual path based on experiential insights. Every teaching leads us right back to the meditation cushion to sit with our own experience. There are cultural variations as the teachings travel from country to country, and we in the West are shifting the focus to meet our needs. But these cultural differences don’t change the core of the dharma.

So here I am with my intention of an Open Embrace, and how does that translate in the Bodhidharma? Take a look at the Buddhist bell bowl at the top of this blog. When you think about it, it is holding the world in an open embrace. And I can’t help but think that this way of seeing could be called Right View: Open, receptive, non-clinging, supportive, lovingly engaged. When you take in its capacity to emit sound waves that resonate in the core of our being, it reminds us of the oneness of all that is. Right View, right?

So if this bowl Right View, then where do the other aspects of the Eightfold Path fit in? Well, if this bowl made of metal, it could also be seen as a pot. I imagine underneath the pot, warming it, is Right Mindfulness. Then I see that Right Intention is the spark that sets the flame that is Right Mindfulness. Right Effort and Right Concentration are the logs under the pot that fuel the flame of Right Mindfulness. The flame of Right Mindfulness warms the pot to the point that steam rises. The three intertwining threads of steam go out to interact in the world as Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.

What’s in the pot? Our finite life evaporating. And when the pot is empty it returns to being a bell bowl and the logs become ringers, ringing in a joyful reunion of ourselves with our true nature, at one with all that is.

One might say it would be better to not light the fire at all so life wouldn’t evaporate. But lets assume that if this life wasn’t in a bell bowl turned cooking pot over a nice campfire, it could very well be stuck inside a pressure cooker, letting off steam in all sorts of dangerous ways. We know that our lives are finite, no matter how we live them.

Using this new cooking pot analogy we can also explore unskillfulness. Those logs are Right Effort and Right Concentration only when they fuel Right Mindfulness under the pot of Right View. Taken from that position, these logs of effort and concentration can be used to beat ourselves or others up, over-efforting or using concentration practice to serve our greed for pleasure, possessions or power. Or perhaps we set the logs in our path as hindrances and let them stop us from exerting any effort or concentration.

That spark is only Right Intention when it lights the flame of Right Mindfulness. Otherwise it could be unskillfully turned into the intention to do any manner of destructive things. ‘Where are we setting our intention?’ we often ask ourselves. Are we skillfully lighting the flame of Right Mindfulness or are we mindless arsonists creating havoc and destruction wherever we go?

The lovely pot or Buddhist bell bowl is only Right View when it sits solidly upright resting on the logs of Right Effort and Right Concentration, warmed by the flame of Right Mindfulness. In other positions it becomes a different view of life: It can be turned over and hidden under, so we see only darkness. It can be turned on end like a gapping maw, an aching hunger needing to be filled. It can be turned around and used as a shield to keep the world at bay. It can be used as a shovel to dig up and dump on others.

The steam rising in Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood could be used to obscure behavior, meaning or means. Are we talking a lot of ‘hot air’?

So there are many ways to play with this. Like any analogy, you can only take it so far, but as I have just come up with it, I am still exploring it and am happy to hear any thoughts you have about its effectiveness or pitfalls. But I hope it helps somewhat to understand the role of the various aspects of the Eightfold Path, which can be confusing.

I also want to make sure that in my dharma talks I distinguish between the teachings themselves and my freewheeling interpretations. This is a tradition that is open to creative insight and interpretation. But it is also a tradition that, as I said earlier, has lasted over 2500 years intact, as far as I can see. I don’t want to be a person in the circle who is misunderstanding what is whispered to me and passing on misinformation. So please take what is resonant to you. Be inspired to explore the Buddhist teachings further: Read some of the great books that have been written and are readily available. We are so fortunate to have a bounty of Western and Eastern teachers writing in English, bringing the Buddha’s teachings to us. Each has his or her own take on things, so spend a little time finding the authors who most speak to you, who address your concerns and questions.

Since October we have been exploring the Four Noble Truths, since January we have been focused on the Fourth Noble Truth: the Eightfold Path. As a teacher, how satisfying it was in class yesterday to have my students telling me that:

The First Noble Truth is that there is suffering.
The Second is that it is our tendency to grasp and cling that causes this suffering.
The Third is that the end of suffering is possible.
The Fourth Noble Truth is that The Noble Eightfold Path is the means to end suffering by developing Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

We are to remember that despite the use of the word Right on these eight aspects, this is not a list of commandments. Instead these are helpful guideposts (going back to my original analogy I have been using throughout these past many posts – I’m just full of them!), guideposts that shed light on our path as we make our way in life. When we find ourselves suffering in darkness, we can look to the guideposts of the Eightfold Path to shed light on the cause of our suffering. Perhaps we have caused harm through our speech, action or livelihood, and we are feeling badly about it, without even being aware of it. By taking time to focus our attention on our experience, we can recognize our emotions, remember our actions or words, and now we can hopefully make amends and definitely bring more awareness to future interactions.

Perhaps we want to meditate but never find the time. We can look to Right Intention to bring ourselves to sitting practice, and to help us practice Right Concentration with Right Effort to develop Right Mindfulness.

Perhaps we find ourselves always looking at life as evil or useless or some other view that brings us a sense of despair or hopelessness. We can recognize that we need to expand our vantage point, to become aware of the possibility of Right or Wise View, to open our compassionate hearts to ourselves and others, to hold the world in an open embrace instead of pushing away the possibility of happiness.

So let these guideposts light your path. Don’t uproot them and beat yourself over the head with them! That is not their purpose! They are there to remind you that you are human and will err, but you are also a perfect expression of the universe/God/the great is-ness – whatever you choose to call it — continually creating matter out of energy and energy out of matter. Let yourself be a conduit for that great energetic cycle that is infinitely generous and loving. Open to its light and, as the Buddha said, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’

Eightfold Path: Right Concentration

The eighth aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Concentration.
How is this different from Right Mindfulness?

The best way I can phrase it for myself right now is that Right Concentration is a dedicated practice that builds the muscle of mindfulness.

Why isn’t it taught first, not last?
The Eightfold Path is seen as petals on a flower, all working in concert expressing different aspects of a single truth. Although it might seem sensible to teach Right Concentration first (and of course it is taught as part of any meditation practice), teaching it last assures that it is grounded in the wisdom of Right View and Right Intention and informed with the ethics of Right Speech, Right Action and Right LIvelihood. Understanding Right Effort helps to temper the potential for intensity in a concentration practice. And understanding Right Mindfulness adds clarity to the practice.

This makes sense given our general life experience of the word ‘concentrate.’ The word may bring up associations that cause tension. “Concentrate!” a teacher tells us, as if squinching our brains up tight and hunkering down over our paper will somehow produce the desired result. “I can’t concentrate!” we tell our kids when they are racing around the house as we are trying to do the taxes or some other equally challenging task. From these experiences, concentration seems to be about being able to think really really hard. And it’s really really hard to do.

Right Concentration is something else entirely. Done with Right Effort, it is a steadying of the mind so that we can sustain a clear focus on a single object or experience, or sustain a broad awareness of all experience that occurs from moment to moment.

Developing Right Concentration begins with relaxation. A little metta (loving kindness) practice is very helpful to soften the tension that can build up around the prospect of concentrating. “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be at peace.” When we really feel ourselves bathed in the infinite loving kindness, this incredible unconditional good will, our muscles and minds relax quite naturally.

In Vipassana (insight) meditation we focus on the rising and falling of our breath. But in developing Right Concentration, we can also experiment with other objects of focus: a candle flame, a shell, a flower, allowing ourselves to become fully absorbed in the experience. Choose your object, then close your eyes and do a little metta practice. Then in the light of that loving sense of presence, open your eyes and gaze upon the object of your focus. Allow the labels, associations, memories, etc. to rise and pass as part of the experience. Allow the background to come forward and recede, as part of the experience. Simply be with whatever arises.

Bring the fruits of this experience into your regular meditation, with your focus on the breath. Bring the fruits of this experience into a walk in nature, noticing, noticing, pausing whenever something draws your attention. Forget about getting anywhere. You are already here. Bring the fruits of this experience into your daily chores. Allow the water in which you wash your dishes to captivate your attention. Bring the fruits of this experience into your relationship. Aren’t your loved ones, your friends, your co-workers each as uniquely fascinating as a rose?

This kind of deep absorption is a lovely gift we give ourselves through the exercise of single object focusing. Next we can experiment with expanding our field of focus. We are fully aware of our bodily sensations and all that the senses perceive: sounds, smells, tastes, textures, temperature. A sound will become dominant and we stay with that until a it passes, then the most dominant sensation is our heartbeat, so we stay with that awhile, etc. Whatever arises we notice with a soft and open attention. Whatever thoughts or feelings arise we notice as well. They are simply objects of curiosity arriving and leaving this field of our awareness. As if we were sitting in Grand Central Station enjoying the comings and goings of people and trains – all the hustle bustle – as we sit holding the whole experience with great compassion in this still point of center.

We will undoubtedly have the experience of our thoughts getting caught up in story about some aspect of our experience. Upon hearing a sound, our habit of mind is to identify its source, so not surprisingly we may find we have sent our mind to investigate and conjecture. Left to its own devices without the intention to be present and the practice of Right Concentration, we may get caught up in further habitual thought patterns. We might wonder ‘Who would be making that noise at this time of day? Don’t they know better than to…’ Judgment gets into play. Then memory might leap in. The sound reminds us of something else. The person making the sound once did something else to annoy us. We may feel victimized. Why can’t I live in a quieter place? Which sparks a daydream about a little house in the country, etc. etc. You know all too well what I’m talking about. Our minds may have different patterns, but they all have patterns, patterns of story making. And all the stories are sticky like flypaper. The flapping paper always looks enticing, always seems to promise something fascinating, but then there we are, stuck in the story again.

Fortunately, unlike the poor fly, we truly can unstick ourselves at any moment. Right Concentration is the gentle practice of staying with whatever arises, hearing the sound as pure sound. And if we succumb to the lure of the flypaper story, Right Concentration paired with Right Intention can bring us back to the present and Right Mindfulness.

You may be familiar with the work of John Cage, the 20th century avant-garde composer. His most famous and controversial composition, titled 4’33” is performed without a single note being played. Imagine the first audience in 1952 waiting for the piece to ‘begin.’ For four minutes and 33 seconds Cage offers the audience the chance to listen to …the sound of an audience. Whatever coughing, restless stirring and maybe whispering sounds occur become the composition. Cage creates a formal place and time to frame these few minutes of direct experience.

I am sure that there were members of the audience who took the performance as a joke. If they took it as a joke on them, they were probably angry and that anger fueled attitudes toward every subsequent exposure to anything in art they didn’t readily understand. If they felt they were ‘in’ on the joke, because they were clever enough to ‘get it’ then they might have been smug, and they tripped over that smugness in every subsequent experience, never allowing themselves the pure joy of not knowing.

No doubt others barely noticed what had happened, so tuned into their own thoughts, so ready to tune out of whatever experience was presented, that those few minutes were a blur, and afterwards they looked around asking, “Wha..?”

Some chalked it up to a waste of time but let it go as soon as they were out the door. “What can you expect of artists? They’re all crazy, just confirms what I’ve always said…”

Others, after two or three minutes of this strange un-event, probably started noticing the quixotic tumble of their own thoughts and emotions: the confusion, irritation, amusement, impatience, aggravation — whatever arose from this unusual situation.

Of these, some may well have become aware of the noise in the hall as pure sound, and they may have had a profound experience of being fully present for whatever arises, experiencing the sounds of coughs and stirrings as a life symphony.

No doubt, some of those who did probably turned that into a sticky story of how insightful they were, shoring up a sense of identity to protect them from the dreaded void. But others were undoubtedly affected deeply and began to experience the world around them in a very different way.

As a meditator practicing Right Concentration, why not give yourself 4 minutes and 33 seconds to formally be attentive to the composition that arises right now. Even as you read this, there are sounds and sensations around you to attend. Sensing in to your body, its pulsing energy and whatever else is present right now; sensing sound as pure sound rather than the ‘sound of’ something happening; looking around you, allowing the light and shadow to become prominent, then allowing color to become prominent, then allowing foreground and background to dance with each other; feeling the texture of your clothes on your skin, the pressure of your feet or buttocks resting on the surface below you.

Both deep absorption and spacious awareness are Right Concentration. And Right Concentration is possible even when the kids are racing around the house! Just think of them as a gift of awareness from John Cage.

Eightfold Path: Right Mindfulness

In the practice of meditation, we learn to continually bring our thoughts back to the present moment whenever we find them wandering. We learn to use our many senses to engage our minds in the moment. We tell ourselves, ‘Be Here Now.’

It is challenging to go against life-long habits of the mind where the past and the future have commanded central roles in our thinking process. The effort we exert to become aware of our habits and to bring our mind back to the moment may feel a bit strained, and the results are often fleeting. This can lead to frustration, but we remind ourselves that developing any new skill is challenging. We continue to meditate and to bring awareness into our daily lives because we find that we and those around us benefit from our increasing spaciousness of mind, even though we may only be able to bring our minds to the present moment a small percentage of the time.

Having learned about Right Effort in the post before last, we might now question whether we need to try quite so hard to be mindful. If practicing mindfulness is a task or a chore we add to our daily to do list, then it is neither Right Effort nor Right Mindfulness.

Thinking again about the challenge of developing a new skill, consider playing the piano for example: At first it is all about the position of our fingers on the keys. We do endless drills to let our fingers learn where they should rest and how far they should reach to play the notes. But if we stay with it long enough for our fingers to feel at home on the keys, keeping our focus on the mechanical aspects can get in our way. As we become more adept at fingering, we can relax and allow ourselves to sense into and open to the music itself.

And this is exactly how it is with being present. At first, yes, the practice may seem a bit mechanical, our reminders to ourselves a bit nagging. This is normal. But at a certain point — and when this happens is totally individual — there is a shift where we realize that we don’t need to tell ourselves to be in the moment, that the moment itself claims us. We are naturally interested in the moment, perhaps awed by it, as if each moment were a new painting or poem to really see or hear. This is not a chore! This is a delight! This is life unfolding, fresh in every moment!

(Perhaps this sounds like being high, but those who have ever done drugs see how paltry drugs are in comparison to this grounded sustainable sense of being fully present with life as it is. This is a high that supports our physical and mental well being, while drugs threaten both.)

So how do we know when this transition comes? Well, the same way we knew when we no longer needed training wheels on our first bicycle. Perhaps we just had a sense that the training wheels were getting in our way, inhibiting our natural ability to ride. The extra trappings started to feel clunky. The same can be true here. The trappings of extra efforting begin to feel clunky, unnecessary – extra baggage no longer needed.

But if we take them off too soon, we will fall back into the habit of dwelling in the past or future. So we need to be mindful of our needs and not strive to be rid of that which supports us in our practice.

Some clues to being ready are noticing that we are: Becoming more aware of sensations in the body and taking heed of the body’s messages about our emotional or mental states; discovering that certain situations cause us to be less mindful and finding ways to craft our lives more skillfully; giving up multi-tasking so that we can stay present with our experience; arranging our schedule so that we create quiet spaces between events for our own rest and renewal; finding skillful means to stay present in difficult situations and to not add fuel to the fire by falling into fear.

All of these incremental steps allow us to be more mindful more of the time. And so perhaps we can transition from so much efforting to be mindful to opening to the naturally arising mindfulness within us out of our growing love and gratitude for life. Perhaps instead of reminding ourselves to come back to the moment, we can ask ourselves, “Where is the beauty in this moment?” and really give ourselves over to experiencing our surroundings with fresh eyes and ears, inviting ourselves into the spacious joy, the celebration of this precious gift of life.

This is Right Mindfulness. When life itself is so very interesting, even in the most ordinary moments, that we find ourselves fully present for our lives, enjoying discovering the depths and multi-layered dimensions of being absolutely where we are, our attention needs no effort.

But we are human. We will, by our very nature, get tripped up by the past or the future, and by old habits rising up at times of turmoil. That’s when we can turn to the guideposts of the Eightfold Path. If we have wandered into suffering, we can look at the guideposts of the Path and question what is going on. The light cast by the guidepost of Right Mindfulness is often bright enough to guide us back, because so much of our suffering is caused by not being mindful. We dwell in the past, regretting, reminiscing, revising history, laying blame; and we dwell in the future, worrying, planning or fantasizing. In this state we are bound to be unskillful. We can’t end our suffering if we aren’t present for the only moment in which we have the power to do so: This one.

As we spend more and more time fully in the moment, we fall in love with each moment, welcoming it and bidding it adieu as we greet the next. We no longer hold out for the moments we used to think were the ‘good’ ones, where life is ‘perfect.’ No matter what our situation, even if we are in incredible pain, we can sense in to the richness of life.

When I presented this dharma talk a question came up that a lot of other people probably share:

“If we are always in the present how do we plan?”
Being in the present does not preclude planning. We set aside a block of time in which we are going to plan something and that is our focus. But that is very different from the persistent thread of planning and daydreaming that runs through our minds all day, distracting us from being fully present with our current experience. When planning is the experience we want to be present for, then that’s Right Mindfulness.

Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood

For many of us, how we make our living is tightly woven into who we are. One of the first things people ask us when they meet us is “What do you do?” because how we choose to make a living offers people clues into many other aspects of our identity, including our values, skills and interests.

In inner exploration we discover that what we do is not who we are, yet the Buddha acknowledged the importance of our work life. It is the action we do all day for most of the days of our adult lives, so our work needs to be Right Action if we are to free ourselves and others from suffering. This is called Right Livelihood.

On the surface Right Livelihood seems pretty straightforward. The Buddhist sutras offer guidance on the kind of jobs that cause suffering, and if we adhere to them we should be set in this department. Check this one off our list! But as we explore this aspect of the Eightfold Path, we find that it is just as tricky and deep as Right Speech or Right Action because it has multiple aspects.

The first and most obvious aspects is to choose a job that is in keeping with our deepest values so that we are not fighting inner battles every time we go to work. I worked for a decade in advertising. The better I got at my job the more insidious it seemed. I realized that I was learning how to trade on people’s fears. In essence every ad ever written says,’ Without this wonderful product you will be less.’ Less attractive, less happy, less safe, less productive, less appreciated. Just less. A real dukkha making job!

I refused to write advertising copy for products or companies I didn’t believe in. I remember saying no way to a liposuction client. I had my limits! But even if every word I wrote was true, it didn’t feel like Right Livelihood to me. By the end of the decade I wrote an eight page harangue about how advertising was the root of all evil. I may have gotten a little carried away, but clearly it was not the profession for me.

I remember at one point saying to a co-worker, ‘I feel totally separate from myself.’ That would have been a nice clue to have heeded, instead of just laughing it off as a strange sensation. What my inner wisdom was trying to tell me was that I was being untrue to my own core set of values, as well as struggling to be the role I thought I should play.

I didn’t quit. In many ways I liked my job. It was often fun and creative, I enjoyed my coworkers, I was helping to support my family and secure our future. But finally my body spoke up. Illness as messenger. I came down with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome). I write about this more in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, so I won’t go into it here, except to say that I hope others in a similar position won’t wait for an illness to force them to quit a job that makes them feel ‘separate’ from themselves.

So how do we determine if the work we do is harmful to ourselves or others? Fortunately we are not totally on our own to figure this out. We have the Five Precepts to guide us. As you may recall from our discussion of Right Action, they are:
Refrain from killing or harming other beings.
Take only what is freely given, refrain from stealing, exploiting or deceiving.
Refrain from misusing of our sexuality.
Speak truthfully and kindly
Maintain clarity of mind by avoiding intoxicants.

And we have the Buddhist sutras that add a few specifics: It is not Right Livelihood to deal in arms, slaves, meat, alcohol, drugs or poisons, or in making prophecies or telling fortunes.

If you do none of the above, hooray! But we need to delve a little further. If we work for a company, we need to make sure that it adheres to the precepts as well. If we work for a large corporation, this is challenging, as corporations are legally required to make as much profit as possible for their shareholders. Between what is legal and what is ethical from the point of view of the Buddhist precepts, there is a lot of wiggle room. So we need to do some research about our own company, because our job is intrinsically entwined. Now if our company is not, in our view, living up to ethical standards, we have the choice of leaving or of staying and trying to change the ethical culture. But if we want to end the suffering of ourselves and others, we don’t get to say “Just doing my job, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.” Right View, that vaster vantage point in which we sense our connection to all that is, precludes pretending that we are somehow separate in all this and therefore not culpable.

So, say you’ve chosen a profession that is Right Livelihood, your company is highly ethical – yay! Now there is the way in which we do our job to consider. Bringing all the aspects of the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts to bear on our interactions with co-workers, clients, patients, customers, suppliers, etc. means bringing loving kindness into every interaction. As always we start that loving kindness with ourselves, so we are not beating ourselves up all day every day. Then we send metta to each person we meet, each email we send, each voice we hear on the phone.

When we act as a conduit for infinite radiant metta (loving kindness) we transform our own experience and the experience of those around us. This is powerful stuff. In fact, power as usually perceived in the workplace – who gets to boss whom, who gets the fanciest title, the corner office, the most money and best perks – that kind of power pales in comparison to the empowerment of infinite metta. Think about it: The supposed result of all that power and perks is happiness. But being a conduit of metta brings immediate, expansive and true happiness. The other is just fool’s gold. Some perk!

All right, you’ve chosen a profession that is Right Livelihood, your company is highly ethical, and you bring loving kindness into your interactions at work. So now you can check Right Livelihood off your to do list, right?

Well, not so fast! Because Right Livelihood isn’t only about how we make our living but how we, by our behavior in the marketplace, set other people up to make their livings! If we don’t make our living by killing animals but we benefit by others doing so, i.e. we eat meat, poultry or fish, then that is not Right Livelihood. We are contributing to the harm, both to the beings who are killed and to the person we are encouraging to do the killing – i.e. letting other people do our dirty work for us.

If we raise crops using chemicals that poison the environment, that is clearly not Right Livelihood. But if we knowingly purchase those crops we are also culpable, because we are helping to create a market where it is not commercially viable for a farmer to cease using those chemicals.

If we employ people at wages that leave them and their families hungry and at risk, then obviously that isn’t Right Livelihood. But if we purchase the products produced by manufacturers who treat their workers poorly, then we are also culpable.

And then once we make a purchase, we are responsible for it. If we dispose of it in a manner that harms the earth, that is not Right Livelihood either.

As an investor, Right Livelihood asks us to investigate thoroughly what exactly we are using our money to support when we buy stock.

So Right Livelihood takes into account not just how we earn a paycheck but how we interact in the marketplace. It takes into account every person whose life is touched by our interaction, and the very earth as well.

Now this is a lot of responsibility! By this time in my dharma talk my students were ready to join a monastery in order to avoid all these complicated pitfalls! Stop and notice if you are feeling in your body any sense of burden or exhaustion. Perhaps you feel Right Livelihood is impossible, given that as consumers we are not often given enough information to make wise choices, and the thought of having to do the level of research required to do so.

So what do we do? We do the best we can. That’s going to be different for each of us at different times in our lives. But keep in mind that Right Livelihood is a guidepost on the Eightfold Path that lights our way to liberation, the ending of our own suffering. When we are suffering, we can look to it and see if any of our actions are causing this suffering. We might experience this suffering as being at odds with our true selves, having developed a schism between what we believe and what we do. At that point it becomes less painful to change our actions than to continue to suffer the schism. We just want to be done with the ongoing inner battle, and come into a sense of integrity, wholeness.

When we access Right View and see our deep interconnectedness, then we really get how we harm ourselves when we harm workers on the other side of the world by supporting the industry that oppresses them — when all we thought we were doing was getting a great deal on a cute shirt!

Living in that place where our actions and our values are not aligned is uncomfortable. I know this from experience. The process is ongoing. It starts with noticing not just our actions but the excuses we make for our actions, and in the process of observing with great compassion, we may begin to observe a shift. This shift into a more connected sense of non-harming, where we take responsibility for our actions in a more joyous way and let go of the punishing, sacrificing mentality we had thought would be necessary, is a lovely gateway to liberation. But it doesn’t happen overnight. If we beat ourselves up about it we slow the process and squelch the possibility of truly coming into alignment.

Once we come into some sense of alignment, it’s important to continue to be mindful, noticing our thoughts and actions. We may become unskillful in a different way, developing a sense of purity around this, vowing that from this day forth we will live in perfect Right Livelihood, and make it our mission that others do the same. All we can expect from such action is misery in our ambition, our striving and our failures; as well as misery for those around us who will tire mighty quickly of any proselytizing we do in our new conversion.

As the Buddha did, we find the Middle Way. This is not the half-hearted way, mind you, and certainly not the half-assed way! This is the way full of mindfulness and compassion for ourselves and others. When we allow this awareness to unfold gently and with Right Effort, we create joy and ease, and, to the best of our abilities, Right Livelihood.

Eightfold Path: Right Effort

Right Effort brings joy and ease. If after meditation we feel neither joy nor ease, then we have not exerted Right Effort. This is true in any other activity in our lives as well.

Effort is expending physical or mental energy. We can feel energy in our bodies, so we can feel when we are straining or when we are resisting making an effort. We can feel when we are trying too hard, over doing it or when our efforts are half-hearted at best.

Each of us has a wide range of energies within us, depending on multiple physical, emotional and environmental factors. But most of us have a set point somewhere in the mid range, a default position. It’s easy to know where our own set point on this range by checking in with our natural inclinations. If we generally can’t sit still and want to go for a run or are restless for a mental challenge, our energetic set point is on the high side. If we’d rather snuggy down with a book and a cup of tea — not just after an active period, but as the main event of our day — then our set point is on the low end.

It’s useful to know our natural set point in order to recognize when effort will be needed. For the high set point, effort will be needed to sit still. Sitting meditation may be a challenge, either physically because the body wants to move, or mentally because the mind is racing.

For those with a low set point, effort will be required to take on physical or mental challenges. This is no reason to beat ourselves up, calling ourselves lazy. But it’s also no reason to limit ourselves to a sedentary life. We just accept that more effort will be required of us for active challenges.

If we have a high set point, we may cut ourselves off from activities that require us to sit for periods of time or ask us to pay attention. Our restlessness seems to preclude this kind of passive participation, and we may mourn that loss or we may prefer to judge those activities as worthless. But we don’t have to limit ourselves this way. We just need to develop patience as we learn a different kind of effort than the kind that challenges our muscles or our brain.

Most of us know from personal experience that when undertaking a new exercise regimen, we can sabotage ourselves if we do too much on the first day. We may injure ourselves or have such an unhappy experience we can’t bear to repeat it. We learn that if we begin small and add on incrementally, with dedication and patience we will achieve our desired results.

This is also true with meditation. If you are not a meditator and would like to start, begin with a few minutes of sitting in silence following your breath. Then gradually build up to 30 or 40 minutes. To expect yourself to be able to sit for 40 minutes the first time out may set you up for thinking meditation is not for you.

We also know from experience that if we don’t feel like getting off the couch and out on the walking path, when we do we feel better. And this is also true for meditation. The effort is simply setting the intention and getting ourselves to start.

As well as sensing into our bodies to see if we are exerting Right Effort, we also want to notice our thoughts – the stories we tell ourselves that support over-exertion or giving up: “I don’t want to stop until I’m done, no matter how I feel, because I’m not a quitter.” “I have to prove how good I am to myself and or others.” “People won’t like me unless I’m perfect.” “Why should I bother? It won’t make any difference,” “If I can just accomplish this one thing everything will be perfect in my life.”

Whatever our stories are, it is worthwhile to really listen to them, follow them back to their source, see if there is someone else’s voice in there – a parent, teacher, childhood friend perhaps? By exploring with great compassion the roots, intentions and fears expressed by these stories, we can begin to unravel the tight knotted tangle of thoughts that trip us up and cause us to be unskillful in our efforting.

The spacious presence that we develop through the practice of meditation is key to Right Effort. In the practice of meditation itself, there is a certain amount of effort required: The effort to honor our intentions to bring ourselves continually back to the present moment and to be kind. The effort to stay relaxed but alert, without fidgeting or falling asleep. Every time we meditate we are practicing Right Effort. We notice when our efforting becomes tense or strained. We can see how unskillful this kind of effort is, how it takes us out of the moment, is potentially harmful and counter-productive.

If we don’t feel joyful or at ease after meditation or other activities, then it is this aspect of the Eightfold Path that we might want to ponder. Like all the aspects of the Eightfold Path, Right Effort is a guidepost to show us where we may be causing ourselves and others suffering, and to cast a light on our path toward freedom from suffering.

Right Effort is finding the Middle Way, as the Buddha did. As a child and young man, no effort was required of him. He was coddled by his wealthy family. So, not surprisingly, when the opportunity arose, he was drawn to the opposite extreme and followed the ascetics for whom deprivation was a spiritual practice. To attain enlightenment he was told he must exert great effort, denying every desire of his body and mind. He was exceptionally gifted at doing so, but it didn’t fulfill what he was seeking. Finally, he rejected both extremes, indulgence and asceticism. He found the Middle Way to be the clearest path the end suffering.

So when we feel ourselves straining, putting our well being at risk, this is not Right Effort. When we feel ourselves slipping into oblivion, this is not Right Effort. Right Effort is fully conscious, fully alert, yet relaxed and buoyant.

Think of a violin or other stringed instrument. If the violin strings are pulled too tight what happens? If they are too loose what happens? The violin can only make beautiful music when its strings are neither too tight nor too loose. And so it is true with us as well. With spacious awareness we can tune ourselves to Right Effort.

Right Effort comes from a deeper connected place within us. Quieting down and settling in, we find this calm connection and from there anything we do will feel almost effortless because it will rise up from within us in a natural font. Does the tidal water make an effort to rise? No, it is a natural arising out of its nature and surrounding conditions.

This may seem all well and good if we are in touch with our deep connection. But what if we are not aware of it? How do we get aware of it in order to experience this effortless Right Effort?

In this case Right Effort is simply getting ourselves to our cushion to sit. Once there, our effort is to follow our breath and notice and then let go of any ambition for achievement, fear of failure, anticipation of results, reflection on past experiences or judgment about ourselves, our teachers, our fellow meditators, our parents, our culture, a higher power, or any other object of blame for our current state of suffering.

By using the least amount of effort possible to bring ourselves back to the breath, to awareness of this present moment, we don’t waste our energy with tension, regrets or recriminations. We simply accept our humanity and celebrate this awakening to this moment, and then this one. Again and again.