Category Archives: cooking pot analogy

Sniff, sniff. What’s cooking?

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.

dd2dd-cooking-pot-analogy-w-spoonAs 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.


Working with the Eightfold Path

For eight weeks we have been exploring the Buddha’s Wise Eightfold Path in order to incorporate it into our lives in a way that truly serves us.

At any moment we may find ourselves distressed about something. When we recognize the turmoil in our minds, we have options: We can take ourselves into full freak-out mode, distract ourselves with mind-numbing addictions, climb back in bed and pull the covers over our head, mull the problem over endlessly in our thoughts and in conversations with our declining number of friends and family willing to listen, OR, here’s an idea: We can turn to the Eightfold Path to see how we got here and what to do about it.

For example:

If I just got some sad news and my heart is heavy, I can remember Wise Mindfulness and simply be present with what is arising. I can acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as the thoughts and emotions are, there is nothing to fix here. This is part of life loving itself. I can attend all that arises with the compassionate awareness that the pain will shift, change and diminish in time, as all experience does.

Or maybe I feel guilty about something. Can I greet guilt as a useful messenger? Can I open to receive the message, deal with it and then let the messenger go? Yes I can, if I stay present and do some inquiry: Do I feel guilty because of something I said? Then I can look to Wise Speech and see where I misspoke. Was it something I did? Then I can look at Wise Action. In either case, if I am being honest, I can see just how I got myself into trouble. If I can be more conscious of how my words and actions have an impact, I can make apologies and reparations to whatever degree is possible. Then, and only then,  I can let go of the guilt. It’s served its purpose.

Am I feeling ashamed for the way I’m making a living, investing or spending money? Then I can look at Wise Livelihood and see how I might make some adjustments. Sometimes it seems so challenging to make big changes, but the biggest change comes afterwards, with the sense of inner freedom attuning to Wise Livelihood brings.

When looking at any of those three — speech, action and livelihood — I can ask ‘What was my intention there?’ I might discover that my words and actions weren’t aligned with Wise Intention. I might say, ‘Oh, yes, I see that I wasn’t present in the moment. Instead my mind was elsewhere.’ And I might see that I wasn’t being compassionate, either with myself or another.

And if I wasn’t being present, wasn’t activating Wise Mindfulness, then I need to use Wise Concentration practices more in my meditation. So I rededicate my daily meditation practice, consider going on a silent retreat, and make a point of noticing in each moment all the beauty around me, with deep appreciation for this gift of life — even when it feels difficult, painful and challenging.

If I notice myself striving, so focused on some goal that I’m blinded to the moment, or if I see that I’ve fallen into a habit of mindless boredom, stuck on the couch with the remote, never getting the things done that I say I want to do, then I can revisit Wise Effort to see how to bring myself back into balance.

If I feel isolated, defensive, judgmental and am more concerned with how people see me than how I can contribute to the general well being, then I can look to Wise View. I can recognize how my skewed perceptions are causing me misery. Over time, through mindfulness practices, my view naturally shifts into deeper understanding of the way of things. But even without that, I can at least identify that this is where my current challenge lies, and that will inspire me to keep meditating, to do compassionate self-inquiry, to spend time in nature, the greatest dharma teacher of all.


See how all of the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path work together to guide us back to being fully present with joy and gratitude? What a useful tool! But the challenge for many people is how to remember all the aspects. How to become so comfortable with them that we can turn to them in our greatest need. For me, and for many of my students, a list is a hard thing to commit to memory in a way that is meaningful. So a number of years ago I came up with what I call the ‘Cooking Pot Analogy’. I have used it to teach the Eightfold Path over the years, and students agree it makes it so much easier to remember and work with.

31eb9-cooking-pot-analogy-8fp-tifHere is a downloadable copy of the Eightfold Path Cooking Analogy Sheet: 


for you to have on hand for any moment you feel you need it. Keep it handy! Feel free to share.
– Stephanie

The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path

We’ve been exploring the First and Second Noble Truths: the existence of suffering, dukkha, and the causes of dukkha. In the Third Noble Truth the Buddha says, hey, don’t worry, there’s a way out of this mess, and that way is the Noble Eightfold Path.

So here we are in the Fourth Noble Truth which is the exploration of the Eightfold Path, a comprehensive system of practices that helps us see where we’re suffering and offers very clear guidance to end it.

The Eightfold Path is traditionally divided into three types of practices:
  • Wisdom practices, panna, are Wise View and Wise Intention.
  • Virtue Practices, sila, are Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood.
  • Concentration practices, samadhi, are Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration.

This is the third go-round of teaching the Eightfold Path that you will find on this blog. The first time the aspects were all ‘Right’ — Right View, Right Intention, etc. The second time I wanted to explore the quality of spaciousness that really helps us be able to handle whatever arises in our experience, so I emphasized this by calling the aspects Spacious View, Spacious Intention, etc.

This go-round is the first time we are approaching the Eightfold Path coming from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, just as the Buddha taught it, and together we have been studying and practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness over the past year, so this time I think we are ready to give these eight aspects the label ‘Wise’ — Wise, View, Wise Intention, etc. We have earned it!

But feel free to refer to posts from any of the previous iterations. They all work together.

What is most different about how I have evolved my teaching of the Eightfold Path is the creation of the analogy of a pot sitting on a campfire to help us better understand how these aspects work together, and what role each one plays.

Each aspect of the Eightfold Path is a vital part of what makes the whole thing cook. Everything needs to be there — the match, the well laid logs and kindling, the pot, the contents of the pot. If any one of these is missing there will be no dinner! Just so, the Eightfold Path gives us a means to create a happy meaningful life, and a way to see where it’s not coming together. Did we forget the matches? Are the logs misaligned? Does the pot have a crack in it? Did we forget to fill the pot?

The main difference between the cooking pot analogy and the traditional way of looking at the Eightfold Path is that with the cooking pot analogy, the virtue practices of wise speech, action and livelihood arise as steam as a direct result of the coming together of the other practices.

While anyone would acknowledge that this is true, a good case can be made for entering the Eightfold Path by practicing, to whatever degree one is able, these virtue practices. But each teacher must adapt the teachings to his or her students. In my case, I teach a class of women of a certain age who have been practicing their own virtue practices for their whole lives, trying to do the right thing and say the right thing. The challenge for us needs to go a little deeper than simply being nice. Nice we’ve got covered. But there’s a big difference between being nice and being kind in a deep and caring way. So we will be looking at our deep intentions, and questioning how effective we are if our view is unwise, or our effort is unbalanced or our intention isn’t clear, and how skillful can we be if we are mindless.

So we will approach these eight aspects in the order that will provide deeper understanding of their interrelated nature, and surest results of wisdom.

Spacious Action – ‘It’s not the load that breaks you down’

When we look at our cooking pot analogy of the Eightfold Path, we can see how Right Action or, as we are experimenting with it, spacious action arises as steam out of mindfulness. So, theoretically, if we tend the pot, i.e. hold our consciousness in spacious view, fueled by spacious effort, sparked by spacious intention and stirred by spacious concentration, then spacious action will arise quite naturally. Theoretically. In reality that doesn’t always happen. Why not?

Many of us compartmentalize our lives, so that once we are done with our meditation or our silent retreat, we re-enter our ‘real life’ as if it is something quite separate from what we have just been doing. Thus we quickly fall right back into unconsciousness, back into that murky soup of habituated patterns of thought, behavior and speech. We forget that the practice of meditation is to develop skillful means to stay aware, to stay conscious, and to stay clear and compassionate throughout our lives, not just during meditation. Not just on retreat!

Action, how we conduct ourselves in all areas, is not some separate function but an intertwined co-arising aspect of the Eightfold Path. It can be an entry point to the path if we become aware of how our behavior is impacting our well being and the well being of others. This observation may come upon us at any time with or without the benefit of meditation. The difference is that with a strong meditation practice we have skillful means to see the whole of what is happening. Without the practice, the recognition of unskillful action may be used as just another way to beat ourselves up, another way to blame someone else or some cause or condition for our behavior, another binge, and another sinking into deeper and deeper murkiness. But, sometimes the recognition comes with an insight that leads us to begin meditating, and thus it can be an entry point to the Noble Eightfold Path. Perhaps it was yours.

If so, the next step is still and always to return to our skillful intention to be present in every moment and our intention to be compassionate. Thus we are able to see our actions more clearly and we can look at them without running away.

Through this skillful process, this Eightfold Path of developing more clarity and compassion in our minds, our hearts and our lives, we begin to understand that even though we are fully responsible for our actions, they do not define us. Absolutely we need to rectify any suffering we have caused to whatever degree is possible, but we do not need to defend our behavior. There is no excuse possible. Coming up with one is just another self-protective device, based on the erroneous assumption that we are a unique isolated fortress rather than an intrinsic and beloved part of the rich and wondrous flow of life. Excuses keep us churning in the miasma of misery and foster more and more unskillful action. So when we are unskillful, we own up to it. We recognize the error. We understand that error is part of the human experience, arising mostly out of fear and unconsciousness. Think of anything you have done that you wish you had not done and see if you weren’t afraid of something. It might have been a little something but the ramifications were great, like you were afraid of being late so you were speeding in your car and had an accident. But that little fear of being late might be seated in a larger fear of losing love or respect, of being separate. (Being on time is a show of respect to others, of course, and is skillful behavior that starts well before we get into the car, but once we are in that heavy vehicle with all its capacity for harm, with the responsibility for the well being of ourselves, our passengers and everyone else on the road, then driving mindfully is our highest priority.)

Most of us don’t like to own up to how very afraid we are. It helps to see that it is a common part of the human experience to lose our awareness of our interconnection with all of life.

Through meditation practice, renewing again and again our intention to be present (conscious) and compassionate (sensing our deep connection), we begin to be more skillful in our behavior. We become more even in our behavior, not treating some people one way and others another. We behave as if everyone matters. Everyone does! We relate to people from that deeper more connected source of being, and we respond to that deeper more connected source in them. (Think about the phrase ‘namaste’ — the God in me bows to the God in you.)

We stop worrying about what others think about us, and we find we care more about them as an integral part of life. We lose any desire to impress them and instead gain the joy of seeing them happy, finding that when we stop needing to defend ourselves, to prove ourselves then we can focus on what we can share with others, with the world that brings more joy and awakening.

This is a huge and wondrous shift! And it comes through awareness practice. Not just during meditation, but continuing throughout our day, day after day. The ongoing support of our practice enables us take responsibility for our actions, to correct our errors, to loosen the stranglehold of destructive habits and to feel our actions as a dance of interconnectivity rather than a battle that saps us of our will to live.

So, actions are not automatically wise, skillful or spacious because we see meditation as separate from the rest of our lives. But there may be other reasons as well. Old patterns of behavior, deep seated fears as yet unexplored erupt in ways that create unskillful actions. When they do we may be disappointed and feel that our practice isn’t working. But it is! Because now we are able to see the unskillful action, and begin to see the patterns of fear that are still operative because still unconscious, still stuck in the sludge at the bottom of the pot!

Remember that at first, before we started having a regular meditation practice, we couldn’t see these patterns. We justified the behavior they caused and pooh-poohed that the matter could have been handled any other way.

Once we begin to see our unskillfulness we might feel ashamed and guilty. We might stop meditating because we don’t like what we see. This is a challenging stage because we are still defining ourselves by our thoughts and actions and now we see ourselves as ‘a person who does bad things.’ We are still unaware of but firmly attached to the fear-based patterns that caused the unskillfulness. But at some point, if we can just hang in there and give ourselves as much loving-kindness as possible, we begin to see more clearly and the patterns are much more noticeable because they don’t fit anymore. They stand out against the more spacious experience of our life as the tight and toxic sludge that can still be stirred up by certain events and conditions.

I remember finding myself almost twenty years ago in a shouting match with my then teenage daughter. That had been our pattern for a while, but on that day I saw myself more clearly. I saw my out of control and shouting behavior and I started to laugh. It was so absurd to be once again in this pattern of behavior that in no way expressed my true feelings for this child I loved so much. Needless to say she was a little surprised. I’m pretty sure that was the last shouting match we ever had. We found other ways to communicate, ways that were more accurate expressions of my concerns for her well being and her desires for the freedom to live her own life. This is not to say that we never had misunderstandings, but it was a great breakthrough for me to see a leftover destructive pattern arise in my growing awareness. These kinds of breakthroughs remind us that the practice is working! If they feel few and far between, just keep resetting your intention to be present and compassionate.

At times this kind of exploration and self-discovery is painful. We may simply want to get rid of or bury patterns, but this just fuels them. We might be over-efforting, digging too deep too fast. Insights arise out of awareness. If you have to put on an oxygen mask and dive into the depths, you may be forcing the exploration beyond what is skillful in this moment.

We are simply noticing patterns of behavior as they arise in this moment through awareness, compassion and inquiry. In the light of our growing mindfulness, we can see them for what they are, acknowledge them, learn from them and let them go. (Remember our image of holding the world in an open embrace, neither clutching nor pushing away.) Then our actions will be more spacious, arising from compassionate mindfulness. Until then we use the unskillful actions we notice as information for our inquiry to discover what we are afraid of and what old patterns of fear are still holding such power over our behavior.

Where do we begin this exploration? We start from where we are and work with what we have. Discovering what that is takes spaciousness as well. Chances are we have readymade long-held assumptions about who we are and how we are, but spaciousness allows us to take the time to inquire into the veracity of our assumptions. Many of our assumptions were made when we were quite young, when we were sponges for any information about ourselves and were ready to accept other people’s opinions without questioning the source. Conversely we may have been overwhelmed by other peoples’ opinions and in an effort to protect ourselves we shut out even useful insightful perception.

Either way, we have cobbled together the vehicle of our beliefs about ourselves into a reasonably functional means of getting around in the world. So what if the wheels are square and the ride is painful?

We suffer because we keep relying on this cobbled together transport instead of taking the time to investigate what it is that’s creating the rough ride. For some of us, this investigation might be therapy because what is coming up is too difficult to deal with alone, or because a more formal relationship is useful to keep us on track with our investigation. But even then, meditation is a great aid to the process. Learning how to meditate every day and set the intention to be present and compassionate with whatever arises can be the process or can aid the process. In either case the Eightfold Path supports us by offering the means to discover the source or sources of our misery through spacious inquiry and noticing our patterns of thinking, our patterns of behavior and our beliefs about ourselves and the world as expressed through our thoughts, emotions and sensations.

Lena Horne is quoted as saying, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” This is exactly what the dharma tells us. It is not our mother-in-law or spouse or child or job that is the problem. It is the vehicle of our beliefs, this cobbled together contraption of dispirit malfunctioning parts that causes pain every time we carry our load along. And when we hit a bump or a pothole in the road, an especially challenging time in life, then it makes the load feel even more difficult to carry.

So do we need a mechanic? Maybe! Like a good mechanic we need a keen ability to listen and notice where there is discord in the functioning of these patterns of thinking and behavior.
The literal translation of the word dukkha (suffering) is ‘ill-fitting axle hole,’ so this vehicle analogy has deep roots in the dharma.

In Jack Kornfield’s book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry he reminds us that meditation is not an escape from life, that it is not about going off and having mind-altering experiences, the ultimate legal high. Yes, in meditation we lay our load down, but after meditation, or after our silent retreat, we pick it up again. If we are grumpy that we still have a load to bear, if we are sad to have our meditative experience over and ‘real life’ back to deal with, if we are thinking ahead to the next time we can get away to the cushion, the retreat center, the walk in the woods or the tropical beach, then we are missing a crucial aspect of the dharma: “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

I am not a backpacker, mainly because I backpacked across Europe when I was nineteen and it was painful in every possible way so I have had no inclination to replicate any portion of that experience. But I see how backpacks today are designed of lighter materials and designed to carry the load differently, taking into account laws of physics and human anatomy, so that even if carrying the same amount of stuff, the load is lighter. So that’s what we are doing with our spaciously imbued Eightfold Path. We are giving ourselves the means to investigate how we are carrying our load so that we can pick it up again and carry it more joyfully.

Eightfold Path: Spacious Concentration

I am teaching the Eightfold Path in a slightly different order than is traditional*, because two years ago when we explored these concepts, I created the analogy of the cooking pot to view the whole set of eight aspects as a helpful way to remember how these aspects work together. So this time, with a slight refinement in the analogy, we are working in the order that makes sense for building upon that analogy. We started with the ‘pot’ itself. Imagine the Buddhist bell bowl that I ring at the end of meditation and that graces the masthead of my blog. The ‘pot’ holding the world in an open embrace, cupped, and that well represents Spacious View.

Once we have the pot, we need a few other things to start ‘cooking.’ We need to have on hand — readily available in any moment — the match to ignite the flame of our practice and that is Spacious Intention. We need the underlying logs, the fuel that keeps the flame burning, and this is Spacious Effort, the crossed logs representing the balanced effort required to support our practice and Spacious View. Too little effort and the fire goes out, too much and all is consumed in flame. Spacious Concentration is the spoon with which we stir our consciousness, creating a vortex of clarity and focus. The consciousness inside the pot may at first be murky, like when you add sugar to water and it turns opaque. But over the flame of Spacious Effort and with the focused stirring of Spacious Concentration, the murkiness disappears and consciousness becomes clear. The result is Spacious Mindfulness. As it continues to heat, held in Spacious View, fueled by Spacious Effort, sparked by Spacious Intention, and stirred by Spacious Concentration, a naturally occurring steam rises out of mindfulness in the form of Spacious Action, Spacious Speech and Spacious Livelihood, going out to interact with the world.

I like to teach the three steams last, because only when we get some clarity and awareness can we begin to notice for ourselves where we are unskillful in action, speech and livelihood. If we go there first, we can get stuck in self-righteousness, feeling we know how to be good, we’ve got this down; or we can feel scalded by what we perceive as scolding and get defensive. If we are told by a teacher that our actions, words and ways of earning a living are unskillful, without developing the clarity to see this for ourselves, we will most likely stir up a murkier, less conscious stew out of our lives, receiving the teachings as judgments, accusations that either anger us or leave us in despair. Coming from a Judeo-Christian background, as the majority of us do, these three areas can easily be taken as just another set of commandments, which would be a total misrepresentation of the Eightfold Path and its purpose.

So, Spacious Concentration. It sounds like an oxymoron. That’s good! Oxymorons attract the mind, like a puzzle to play with. Zen koans seem to be oxymorons of a sort. With each new aspect of the Eightfold Path, I spend a week of investigation with replacing ‘right’ or ‘wise’ with the word ‘spacious’ and it continues to be a rich exploration. Sometimes spacious seems quite natural, like Spacious View. But concentration seems perhaps the least likely to make any sense.

The word ‘concentrate’ may bring up associations that cause tension. Concentration seems to be about struggling to think really, really hard, with our brain laser focused on some problem.

But in fact the traditional teachings of concentration practices, called the jhanas, were developed by the Buddha to help us create the space for a spontaneous experience, like the one he remembered having as a child. Perhaps you remember a spontaneous experience in your life of sensing a state of open awareness, a unitive state, a state of loving kindness, a state of being known as vital and valued even while being as miniscule as a drop of dew on a rose petal?

This spontaneous awakening into bliss is not unusual. I’ve shared some of my early experiences of these ‘brief relief’ respites from the illusion of isolation. I imagine that many people who meditate are those who, whether they remember it or not, have had such experiences and, like the Buddha, believe they can experience it again and perhaps sustain that clarity.

Here’s the Buddha’s story: The young boy Siddhartha was sitting under a tree, observing his father doing a ceremony when he found himself in a state that was both pleasurable and powerful. Powerful enough that he remembered it many years later, when he abandoned the ascetic path after six years of self-imposed deprivation, pain and difficulty. He had been phenomenally skilled at all the ascetic exercises he undertook, but knew in his heart that something was missing. We can imagine him thinking “It shouldn’t have to be this hard,” and then remembering that naturally-occurring childhood state while sitting under a tree. He decided to see if he could replicate that simple experience. So he went and sat under a tree, what we now call the Bodhi tree or tree of awakening because he set his intention to sit there until he awakened. And he did, and the rest is Buddhist history.

The jhanas are specific instructions he developed for the cultivation of what I think could fairly be called a state of ‘unitive’ awareness during meditation. We have not been formally practicing jhanas, but what we do as our meditation is very much akin to it. First develop the ability to stay present with the breath, then expand that awareness so that the breath is just a part of the experience. The jhanas cultivate the ability to let go into a state that is beyond labels or words but is not lost in a fog of unconsciousness or dreamy. It may be experienced as light or many other ways, and the experience is both pleasurable and powerful enough to make a significant long term impact. As meditators we have no expectation of experiencing such a state in any given meditation. Instead we are cultivating the spaciousness of mind to receive such a state, and, at the same time, creating spaciousness in our lives, whether we ever experience bliss or not.

Many Buddhist practitioners are concerned about getting attached to bliss states. This is probably why traditionally the aspect of concentration is taught last, and the jhanas are reserved for more advanced students, as they could be so easily misunderstood as escape routes. Without a grounding in fundamental Buddhist concepts and substantial practice in mediation, a person could think of the bliss state as a goal to be pursued, akin to drugged states that allow them to forget about their lives. Our intention through meditation is not to escape challenges and responsibilities, but to transform our relationship to them, to rest in spacious compassion and clarity that allows us to be fully present with whatever arises in our lives. Our intention is to be responsive rather than reactive, skillful in our speech and actions, to be conduits of loving kindness rather than purveyors of misery.

The ongoing practice of Spacious Concentration can fundamentally alter the brain so that we can perceive the inner workings of the mind and have fruitful insights, which we will discuss more when we explore Spacious Mindfulness.

Spacious Concentration is the practice of staying fully present, refining that focus to a fine point of stillness in the here and now and letting go of all else.

The word ‘spacious’ that at first seemed to create an oxymoron when linked with the word concentration, now clearly has an important role. The very word ‘spacious’ helps to release tension in our bodies, in our minds, giving us room to let go.

Developing Spacious 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 unconditional sense of good will, our muscles and minds relax quite naturally.

In Vipassana (insight) meditation we focus on the rising and falling of our breath. But if we like, we can experiment with objects of focus from other traditions: a candle flame, a shell, a flower or a mantra, allowing ourselves to become fully absorbed in the experience.

There are two kinds of concentration: deep absorption and open field awareness. We practice both regularly in class. Alternating between the two, giving each sufficient time to be fully felt, is a skillful way to develop Spacious Concentration. If you think about our cooking pot analogy with Spacious Concentration as the spoon with which we stir consciousness as it simmers and transforms into mindfulness, you know that there are times when you need to stir constantly, like when making risotto, and other times when you can stir and then rest from stirring, but you never lose awareness that you have a pot on the stove.

In class we did more intensive concentration practices instead of discussion. I encourage you to do the same on your own. Also you might want to revisit the previous post on Right Concentration.

*Traditionally teaching starts with the panna or wisdom practices of Right View and Right Intention, which we did. But then tradition takes us to the Virtue Practices called sila, which are Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, perhaps because these practices could be undertaken even without a meditation practice. Then the samadhi or concentration practices of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are taught. But again the Eightfold Path is circular, the petals of a lotus opening, so any place we start is just fine.

Eight Fold Path Meditation

Now that we have explored the Eightfold Path, the next step is to incorporate it fully into our practice. Using our analogy of the Cooking Pot from the previous post (review if you’ve forgotten or haven’t read it), we can build the fire of mindfulness in our meditation practice.

(Only use this visualization if you feel you want to make your meditative practice more precise. If you are quite satisfied with your meditation as it is, don’t mess with success!)

In meditation, when we discover that we have been lost in thought or a groggy state, instead of just bringing our focus back to the breath, we can use the following steps to refine the practice:

Ah! Thinking! – We have noticed we are lost in thought (or in a sleepy fog), but now we are back in the present moment.

Set the spark of Intention – We remember our intention to stay present in the moment and to be compassionate in the process. We don’t judge ourselves for having been lost, but rejoice in coming home to the moment.

Fuel the log of Effort – We notice if we are holding tension anywhere in our body or if our body has slumped and bring ourselves back into energetic alignment.

Fuel the log of Concentration – We bring the focus of our attention to the rising and falling of our breath.

Fan the flame of Mindfulness – With our focus steadily on our natural breath rising and falling, we fan the flame of mindfulness.

The above process may feel a little cumbersome at first, and, as I discovered in class, it is cumbersome to lead as a meditation because the words get in the way. But visualizing it can be very useful and powerful, and with practice it will become smooth flowing and feel more natural.

I was asked why we don’t mention Right View, Right Action, Right Speech or Right Livelihood in this meditation. Well, in meditation our only job is to mind the fire of mindfulness. And it reminded me how our ancestors sat around the fire, keeping it burning through the night, and how their form of meditation was staring at the flames.

With the Cooking Pot Analogy, we have the added benefit of visualizing our spark of intention underneath the pot (Wise View). By keeping the whole process in our lower abdomenal area (dantien in Chinese, hara in Japanese) we are encouraging being rooted in our core instead of in our heads.

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.’