One of the Buddha’s most handy-dandy teachings is called the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s a practical tool for sorting out what’s going on in our lives and to see exactly where we’re making ourselves unhappy. Like so many of the Buddha’s lists, it’s challenging to remember. So I developed a visual metaphor that my students agree makes it super easy to recall and therefore use when we need it.
I’ve taught the Eightfold Path so many times over the past ten years that I didn’t think there was anything new to add, but this week I thought up one more useful addition to this metaphor. But first, a review:
The Eightfold Path consists of Wise Intention, Wise Effort, Wise View, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration, Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood.
As you can see from this simple illustration, ‘intention’ is the flame or spark that gets things going. Of course all will turn out better if our intention is wise.
Then there are the logs. A laid log fire is good metaphor for ”effort’ because it needs to be balanced — not lopsided, not too much kindling, not too little, etc. Even with the best of intentions, if our effort isn’t wise, things don’t go the way we intended, do they? If we’re striving and over-doing, we exhaust ourselves and everyone around us. If we get sluggish and don’t make any effort, nothing gets done. So Wise Effort is important to notice and cultivate.
The pot sitting atop the fire is our perspective on life, our understanding of how things are, our view. If our view is cracked it doesn’t function. Wise View is created out of regular practice and the resulting clarity of insight into the nature of life. We come to understand how impermanence is central and necessary to all life. We come to understand that there is no separate self, no isolated identity that needs to be shored up and shined up to please anyone. Instead we sense into the deeper understanding of dependent co-arising — this is because that was; this is not because that was not — and the patterns of interdependence of all being. And finally we see that suffering is caused by not understanding and embracing impermanence and the oneness of all being.
So that’s the pot. But what are we cooking up inside the pot? Mindfulness! That’s what we cultivate in our meditation practice and throughout our days: awareness and compassion, being truly alive in every moment, awakened to all our senses, able to perceive passing thoughts and emotions that arise in our experience in an open friendly embrace. Now this Mindfulness we’re cooking up is not a stew we can just put on the back burner to simmer. It’s a risotto! It needs to be constantly stirred by the spoon of Concentration (the various concentration practices, like following the breath, done on a regular basis to fine tune our ability to be mindful). Because what happens when we’re not mindful? All kinds of problems, mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings and frustrations, right? Without wise mindfulness, view, effort and intention, we just think life sucks and we’re the suckers who got stuck with it. At least some of the time.
But when the spark of intention is wise and the logs of effort are balanced, the pot is wholesome, seasoned by the mindfulness it contains; and the risotto is well tended, what happens?
Steam rises from the cooking pot in the form of Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood. Our words and deeds are informed by these other aspects and are naturally wiser and kinder than they would be otherwise. So instead of strapping duct tape on our mouth and handcuffing ourselves in order to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing, we focus on cultivating wise intention, effort and view, stirring the risotto of mindfulness with our practice. We pay attention to our language and actions, of course, but followed in this way, it is not the struggle it once was when ‘me and my big mouth’ used to duke it out in the alley.
See how it works? Now here’s the new addition:
Even though the steam that you see arising from the pot comes last in our learning about the Eightfold Path and in our practice, the steam is the first thing we notice in life. Think about it. Something smells delicious coming from the kitchen. Yum, right? The pleasant aroma flavors our whole experience of life. We come alive in our senses and all’s right with the world. Realtors know to bake cookies in a home before an open house, or to put on a pot with some cinnamon sticks in the hot water. They know that our sense of smell activates positive memories and associations that can make a house feel more desirable.
But what about when it doesn’t smell so good? We rush to the kitchen to see what’s wrong, don’t we? We know from experience that either the recipe wasn’t any good, or wasn’t followed, or the temperature’s not right or it’s been on the flame for too long. All kinds of things could have happened to make that stench. But whatever it is, we don’t just sit around and complain of the nasty smell in our own home. We do something about it, right?
So why when we are troubled in life, when we are suffering, we often do just that? We complain about the ‘stench’ in our lives but we just keep keeping on. We don’t go check out what’s causing it. The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is a wonderful tool for investigation, and especially with this Cooking Pot Analogy, it becomes super easy to see what stinks!
The smell from the kitchen happens pretty far along in the process of cooking, after all the ingredients have been chopped, measured, mixed and heated. Yet it is the FIRST thing we notice, the first thing that tells us if it’s going to be a tasty meal or a disgusting disaster. And in the same way, in this analogy, even though our words and deeds arise like steam from our intention, effort, mindfulness and view, it is those very words and deeds that are the first thing that let’s us know whether things are cooking nicely or whether something needs attending in the kitchen.
Let’s use an example. Maybe I have an unsettled feeling, a little nagging state of discomfort in my mind. What is it? After a little meditation practice, if I can take even just a minute to check in, I notice that discomfort and do a gentle self-inquiry. It might become clear that I’m feeling badly about something I said to someone. Perhaps my words were unkind. Or perhaps it wasn’t my story to tell. Or maybe I was in a hurry and didn’t take the time to be as kind and 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 know what caused it, and what I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But before I get caught up in telling myself what a rotten person I am, I can use the Eightfold Path Cooking Pot Analogy to help me understand what really happened.
Let’s say that I recognized that my words were unskillful because I was rushing. Rushing is 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. But let’s not stop there. Why was my intention unskillful? Because my view in that moment became 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 wasn’t stirring the ‘risotto’. I forgot that it needs to be constantly stirred, even while I go about my life, so that I am always present, noticing things with all my senses, no matter what. (Which is a delightful way to live, by the way.)
Try playing with this analogy yourself. If you want to read more about it, or any aspect of the Eightfold Path, use the search field on the right. Eightfold Path and all the aspects of it are discussed extensively in many of the posts.
And if you have questions, comments or experiences that illustrate how useful working with the Eightfold Path can be, please share by clicking on ‘Reply’ at the top of the post.