Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Spacious Eightfold Path

In the summer we studied the First and Second Noble Truth, and then the Third in September. We decided to hold off looking at the Fourth, the Eightfold Path, until the beginning of the year because it works so well with New Year’s feelings of new beginnings and setting intention.

We first encountered the Eightfold Path together in this class exactly two years ago and during our exploration this time we may review previous dharma talks. You can also look in the archive to expand your understanding. They will be in Jan and Feb 2009.

The Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s recommended course for coping with the First Noble Truth: That life contains suffering. It guides us to develop personal insight into the revelation of his Second Noble Truth: That although there is unavoidable pain in life through birth, death, loss and aging, most of our suffering is caused by our grasping, clinging and pushing away of our current experience.

You may remember my talk about holding the world in an open embrace, where I showed pictures of three little girls, one holding on tight to her dolls as if someone was about to steal them away, one pouting with her arms crossed as if something in her experience was unacceptable, and one holding her hands together, palms up, in front of her, and enjoying the frog that was perched there, free to leap off at any moment. (The class saw these photos but I didn’t feel I could put them on the blog as I don’t have rights to them. I am waiting for my great niece or granddaughter to provide the perfect illustrations!)

The Eight Fold Path allows us to experience the Third Noble Truth, wherein the Buddha points the way to end this in-effect voluntary suffering. The Eightfold Path, gives us guideposts that shed light on how to develop a meditative practice, how to be present in the moment and guidelines on how to lead a life that fosters joy, peace and compassion.

Here is a chart of one of the ways I like to envision the Eightfold Path to helps us develop an understanding of how the eight aspects work together. You can see that it is not a path but a circle. Because there is no one right entry point for the Eightfold Path. You can see the lines that connect each aspect to all the others. So that when we are exploring the aspect of Speech, we can see how Intention, Effort, View, etc. play an important role as well.

This circular or more accurately spherical interconnectivity is an accurate representation of life itself, the nature of energy and matter. This diagram has edges and limits, but what it represents is an infinite interconnection. And, not surprisingly, in class the diagram brought to students’ minds images and symbols from some of the world’s oldest spiritual traditions, based in a deep connection with nature.

Now last time we discussed the eight aspects, we used the perfectly acceptable term ‘Right’ when we talked about each of the aspects, so we had Right View, Right Intention, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Effort, Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood. This time we could choose the other term that is used: ‘Wise.’ So we would have Wise View, Wise Intention, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration, Wise Effort, Wise Action, Wise Speech and Wise Livelihood. How does this change your feeling toward the Eightfold Path? Language is so powerful that we can accept something with a change of name that perhaps we bristled at with a different name. Something to notice!

My guess is that neither ‘right’ nor ‘wise’ is perfectly accurate. The word ‘right’ holds tight to judgment and might make us feel confined and tentative, rebellious or afraid to be ‘wrong.’ The word ‘wise’ seems kinder, but also implies that until we ‘get with the program’ we are unwise or foolish…which we may well be, but no need to be rude!

The implied judgment of these two words doesn’t seem very useful to me. Nor does it feel compassionate. So I am going to suggest that we work with another word, a word that has become valuable in our exploration, and that word is ‘spacious.’

Just close your eyes, then say ‘Spacious View’ and ‘Spacious Effort’ and notice how that feels in your body.

For me, there’s no sense of judgment, but instead a physical opening, a relaxing breath, as if a door has been opened. How does it feel for you to translate the Buddha’s terms in this way?

Remember that ‘right’ and ‘wise’ are just translations from the original Pali language. To keep the dharma fresh we are always, through our own explorations, our own meditative practice, rediscovering the Buddha’s wisdom for ourselves. So there is no rule that says because early twentieth century English and American translators chose the words ‘wise’ or ‘right’ that these are the most accurate words to help us understand the dharma. These translators were students just like us, doing the best they could, bringing their best understanding, but also their own upbringing and personal and cultural baggage into the mix, their own grounding in the Judeo-Christian traditions and the Ten Commandments. There is no reason to hold their translations as sacred. When we do this instead of following the wisdom revealed through our own explorations and questioning them for veracity, when we lock ourselves in to other people’s interpretations instead of seeing for ourselves, then what we have is dogma, not dharma.

When I went to research the original Pali for these terms to see what other words might come up, I didn’t find them (I’m not much of a Buddhist scholar!) but what came up was a quote of the Buddha’s saying that ‘wisdom is neither hearsay nor tradition.’ This for me meant I am on the right track in exploring language that best reflects my understanding of the teachings.

In class we talked about discussing these aspects using the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or even ‘wise.’ The class caught on a lot faster than I did, and in our discussion, I was habitually saying ‘right’ and had the whole group piping up to correct me saying ‘spacious!’ My years of having learned it in the traditional way are giving me a challenge now!

It is my hope that by using this less judgmental and open word, we will keep our own spacious awareness ever present, as we listen, discuss and explore together these key teachings.

If you haven’t been in class or following along on the blog, then this idea of spaciousness might be confused with spacey-ness. But spacey-ness is unconscious or numbed by fear, while spaciousness is a subtle but profound shift into clarity and awareness of the interconnection of all being. Spaciousness provides the ability to be fully present in every moment in order to respond to life, even challenging situations and emotions, with understanding and compassion rather than fear. Spaciousness is the ground out of which all effective and meaningful action arises. Ineffective and negative behavior arises out of fear. If this sounds strange to you, please take the time to revisit the posts on fear and spaciousness.

For quite a while now we have been and will continue to practice noticing our physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise in our spacious field of awareness. So notice this: the thoughts, the body sensations and the emotions that come up for you upon being presented with this idea of spending time focusing on what might be seen as a ‘to do’ list; and secondly how it feels to be a little creative with our interpretation of what this list is called.

Remember how last week we talked about the many component parts of any emotion we may observe in our experience? Well, the Eightfold Path is a tool that helps us to explore and discover the components of any experience.

So we are not changing the subject by taking on the Eightfold Path, but adding a whole wonderful skill set to our ability to be present with our experience and notice what is happening. It’s like we have been handed a microscope and a telescope. Our understanding has the ability to deepen exponentially by using what is offered here.

Over the coming weeks we will explore each of these aspects individually, and especially when we come to Spacious Action, Speech and Livelihood, we will be bringing in examples from our own lives and lives we have observed to work with. We will share these examples and apply what we have learned to noticing what works and what doesn’t.

The Buddha’s world was full of challenges, but we’ll want to explore how to apply his Eightfold Path to the challenges of our world, such as cell phones, emails and texting when we explore Spacious Speech. When we explore Spacious Livelihood, which includes all the commerce aspects of our lives, we’ll want to look at our behavior in the area of conscious consuming when so much of what is offered comes from half way around the world perhaps at great environmental cost and human degradation such as underpaid or child labor. We’ll want to explore how we can make living less of a tightrope with so many ways to go wrong, and more of an interconnected supportive net. With spacious awareness and an understanding of the Eightfold Path, we will explore and discuss, finding ways to stay mindful and kind in the world we live in as it is.

So this is an adventure of enriching personal and universal discovery, not a scolding to conform to rules of behavior. Each time we come round to a teaching we have visited before, we deepen our understanding, we shift from thinking about it as something abstract outside of our experience, to experiencing it directly and finding it helpful, and then to living it fully, operating from that place of deep understanding.

And so we embark again on the Eightfold Path, or we might call it this time the Eightfold Circle of Interconnection, since we’re in a renaming mode! We set our intention to keep the dharma alive by fully experiencing it in our own way, applying this received wisdom to the specific challenges of the age we live in, and by using, with gratitude, the Buddha’s teachings to spark our own insights and deepen our understanding.

Noticing: Enzyme Action for Emotion

Last week we experimented with expressing our thoughts in a very present conscious way, a rather stilted awkward way, almost quoting our thoughts as we noticed them. By setting these thoughts off in quotations, we remind ourselves that we are not the thoughts.

Today I’d like to do the same thing with emotion. In our practice we will continue noticing thoughts, and also be available to notice emotions if they arise as well.

Depending on our personal nature, we each have emotions we are more familiar with. Anger is not an emotion that comes up for me very often, but it did the other day, and I had to be careful not to get too excited at having the opportunity to notice all the aspects of my experience of anger, lest the anger dissipate too quickly, before I had a chance to learn more of its nature.

Here are the things I noticed about anger:
• A sense of being disrespected, taken advantage of, taken for granted.
• A feeling of being in the right, entrenched in my position, stuck in a toxic sludge with a feeling of sinking in deeper and deeper to my entrenched position so that I could not see any other view, even if I wanted to.
• A sense of wallowing that felt kind of pleasurable, like a pig wallowing in the mud.
• Disgust and judgment at this indulgence.
• Disappointment, not getting what I wanted, which led to:
• The realization that I had had expectation as a precursor, my imagination having established a quasi-reality of a future moment to which I had become much attached. The disappointment was the wrenching away of that unlived future moment, and the anger arose quite naturally out of that wrenching away of something I wanted to experience, something I felt promised, if only by my own imagination.
• A wondering what is the fear that fuels the anger, as it is my experience that fear is at the core of all negative emotion.
• Sensing a very tender fearful aspect of self clinging to ‘a cherished moment that will never be’ because someone ‘stole’ it from me.
• Betrayal, loss.
• Confusion, a beginning to question whether I had misunderstood the agreed upon arrangement by which my expectations were meant to be fulfilled, but were instead dashed.
• An opening to the possibility that there was no disrespect intended by the other party, just a misunderstanding.
• Curiosity began to soften the feelings. Noticing an opportunity to explore and understand this emotion better. The ability to infuse some awareness into the mix with the recognition that I am not the emotion I am experiencing.
• A release of tension in my body.
• A realization that the decision to explore gives me a sense of control in the situation, whereas I was feeling uncomfortably out of control. Not so out of control that I acted out involving others, but an inner sense of being caught up in a powerful surge of something and feeling emotionally on hyper-drive and somewhat overwhelmed.
So these were the many stages that made up my experience within a matter of ten minutes sitting with it.

Some people might feel that it’s self-indulgent to take ten minutes to just follow an inner process of an emotion that would have been better just tolerated or stifled. Others might feel that ten minutes would never be enough to process an emotion, that I’m kidding myself if I think that anger is gone. Notice what you feel about it.

What I notice about this process is that it is taking something that seems like a huge thing, an all-encompassing thing, in this case anger, and bringing sufficient awareness to start noticing all the small parts that make it up; then notice how these parts change.

Does this sound familiar? It is exactly the process we explored when we talked about physical pain: how it is not just one experience but a multiplicity of smaller component experiences, in fact a symphony of sensations that rise and fall, come and go.

And so it is with emotion. We have these labels for them: anger, for example, and we have a mental construct of what anger is and what it is to ‘be angry.’ But with awareness we see that just like physical pain, it is made up of many smaller component pieces, each of which is in a state of flux, changing in every moment.

Bringing our full attention is like bringing an enzyme of awareness to break down the toxic sludge. That’s the power of spacious compassionate mindfulness!

Now anger is not an emotion I experience a lot. I have others that are more familiar. With a more familiar emotion the experience is more challenging because it is harder to really notice. Emotions we live with constantly feel normal to us and it’s hard to notice ‘normal.’ But with attention, compassion and patience, this noticing can begin to shed light on the many different aspects of the entrenched emotion and allow for insight, understanding, softening and perhaps release.

It’s important to remember that this process is not about getting rid of emotion. If we believe that we have dealt with it, we will be horrified to discover it showing up again. Instead we can be appreciative of the fact that we notice it more when it arises.

I once wrote an article titled “Emotions as Honored Guests” that helps us understand that emotions are not enemies, and that trying to lock them out or do battle with them merely transforms them into something more dangerous.

With spacious compassionate awareness, we give ourselves the gift of being fully alive, able to experience any thought, sensation and emotion as a dance of discovery.