What’s that smell?

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cooking-pot-no-titleThe aroma rising from something cooking occurs long after all the ingredients have been chopped, measured, mixed and heated. Yet, whether it smells delicious or stinks, it is the FIRST thing we notice. 

Just so, we can see that in the Cooking Pot Analogy for the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, speech, action, and livelihood arise like vapor from our intention, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and view; it is those very words and deeds that are the first clue to whether things are cooking nicely or something needs attention. Our words and deeds are also the way we interact in the world and the only aspects that others see. In the Buddha’s Eightfold Path ALL aspects are equally important. They all work together.

So how do we work with these three vaporous aspects?

Think of a time you had such a really good conversation with someone, and you came away feeling enlivened, enriched, clear-headed and joyful.

Now think of a time you came away from an interaction feeling bad, maybe misunderstood, wronged, angry or guilty.

With this analogy, we recognize that the first example was a delightful aroma and the second was a nasty odor.

The delightful aroma assures us that we are cooking with Wise Intention, Wise Effort, Wise View, Wise Mindfulness and Wise Concentration.

The nasty odor alerts us to check in to see what aspect needs immediate attention. We can use skillful questions like:

“What was my intention in that interaction?”

Maybe the answer is something like,  “Hmm, I was trying to protect myself. I was afraid that…”

Okay, see that word ‘afraid’? The moment we identify fear in our intentions, then we can be sure that our view needs looking at as well. Remember that with Wise View we understand there’s no separate self that needs defending. We’re all in this life together. 

Understanding this, we can have more compassion for ourselves. And when someone else is unskillful, we can recognize that the stink they’re emitting comes from fear, and thus a sense of isolation and feeling they need to defend their perceived separate fortress of self. They are not ‘bad’ per se. They are just not minding their inner cooking! It is much easier to have compassion for other people if we recognize the source of their behavior. This doesn’t mean we give them carte blanche to do harm, but it does anchor us in more wisdom so we know what action or words might be skillful for us in the moment. We might choose not to hang around them or to vote them out of office. But if we get caught up in an inner rant, we only cause injury to ourselves.

This part of our Cooking Pot Analogy reminds me of when our youngest granddaughter spent one afternoon a week with us after pre-school. She has always loved anything to do with cooking and baking, so we often made cookies or some dish. But while it was cooking, we would gravitate toward the toy chest in the living room, and only the smell of cookies burning would remind us we had something in the oven. So we created a little song with the repeating lyrics “Don’t leave the kitchen when you’re cooking” and had a lot of fun with it. It’s a good mantra for living a mindful life.

How often in life do we leave the kitchen when we’re cooking? We forget; we get involved in something else, and sure enough, a nasty odor, or even smoke, lets us know we haven’t been paying attention.

That’s how it is with our words and deeds. They are skillful or unskillful, depending on whether we are paying attention or not. It’s that simple!

It is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It might take a while to learn to even connect a feeling that something amiss in our lives. We might just ascribe this feeling to our lack of ice cream or some external event over which we have no control. That leaves us in a state of helplessness and depletion. If we’re up on the Buddha’s teachings, we might recognize the feeling as one of the three poisons; greed, aversion or delusion. Even then we might not know what to do with it, or where it came from.

But if we can learn to do even a little self-inquiry, noticing when this nagging feeling started, what interaction might have set it off, we are on the right path. The Eightfold Path!

Here’s an example. Maybe I have an unsettled feeling, a mild state of discomfort in my mind. What is it? After a little meditation practice, if I take even just a minute to check in, I might see that I’m feeling bad about something I said to someone. Perhaps my words were unkind, or it wasn’t my story to tell. Or maybe I was in a hurry and didn’t take the time to be as considerate as I might have been. 

Just the simple act of noticing lifts me up a bit, because I am able to recognize that ‘something stinks’ and now I see what caused it, and what I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Before I get caught up in the aversive mind game of telling myself what a rotten person I am, I can use the Cooking Pot Analogy to help me understand what really happened.

Continuing with our example, let’s say that I recognized that my words were unskillful because I was rushing. Rushing is an unbalanced effort, isn’t it? And why was I rushing? What was I hoping to accomplish? What was my intention? I might see that I didn’t want people at a meeting to think poorly of me for being three minutes late. My wise intention to be present and compassionate fell by the wayside, and my unskillful intention took over. Unskillful effort followed suit, leading to unskillful speech.

Whoa! That’s a lot of useful information, isn’t it?

But why was my intention unskillful? Because my view at that moment was unwise. I forgot that there is no separate self that needs to be polished up to perfection and presented to others. And I wasn’t mindful. I hadn’t had time to meditate that morning, so I wasn’t stirring mindfulness with wise concentration practice. I forgot that it needs to be regularly stirred, even while I go about my life, so that I am always present, noticing things with all my senses.

The next time something stinks in your life, remember this analogy and give it a try! You can see that all the aspects of the Eightfold Path work together. Hopefully, you can also see how valuable a tool knowing and referring to them can be. That’s why I created this analogy. Because once you can picture these eight aspects in this way, and see how they work together, you will remember them and use them to cultivate skillfulness and joy in your life!


    1. Thanks for commenting, Skot! I’m glad this post was helpful. I wish you well on your focus on concentration. Two suggestions: Give yourself positive reinforcement in moments of awareness, especially that moment you suddenly realize you haven’t been aware at all because hey that’s a moment of awareness! And make your guidance back to your focus compassionate rather than scolding. Recent studies show habits are not made by repetition as much as by having a good feeling about having done it. Thank you for all your wise effort.


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