Category Archives: Eightfold Path

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: 

eightfoldpathcookingpotanalogy 

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

Is this any way to make a living?

For the past eight weeks we have been exploring the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Now we look at Wise Livelihood. This is not only our work but our interaction in the marketplace: How we invest our money, where we choose to purchase things, and how we interact in these exchanges. With a growing sense of being not just interconnected but actually one seemingly infinite energetic and organic being, we begin to see how what we do affects this wondrous web of life. We’re not locked up in a limited view that believes it’s possible to ‘win’ while ‘others’ lose.

When you are making your living in a way that isn’t aligned with your truest intention, you can feel it in your body — the tension, the anxiety, the out of kilter sensation. If you don’t heed this valuable sensory feedback and make a course correction, you will make an unskillful adjustment to compensate.

You might, for example, compartmentalize your work-life. But then where are you if for a good part of the time you are going unconscious?  You end up living somewhere in the lapse between your truest self and this person who feels you must do this job. Your thoughts are full of justifications, self-blame, guilt and excuses for continuing on this course. You feel separate from what matters to you. Unethical living is painful. Persisting to live in this manner can lead to illness, addictions, depression, despair, falling out with those you love, and a general failure to thrive.

I know this from my own experience. I am a writer and writing is a good skill to have, but it can be put to many uses, not all of them wise. I was in advertising for a decade of my life. It was fun! I loved the creative challenges and the camaraderie. To the degree I was able I made sure my work was ethical, in that the clients I wrote copy for offered useful services. In the most traditional sense of Right Livelihood, there was nothing specifically wrong with my work. But at some level it felt wrong, and I didn’t feel I had the time to look at why. Instead I forged ahead, did what I had to do, and lost myself in the process.

 

Does any of this sound familiar at all? If you are employed, is your work aligned with your ethics? Or is there a quality of sacrificing ethics for the bottom line?

Beyond work, Wise Livelihood has us look at where our money is invested. Where are you purchasing your clothes, food and household goods? What is the impact of your choices in the marketplace? Are you mindful or oblivious in all these transactions? The world is so complex now that it is almost impossible for anyone to live in a manner that is impeccably ethical, even though most of our intentions are good. But to whatever degree you are willing and able, it is worth looking at your choices and seeing if they are aligned with your truest intention and your core values.

Years ago I received a small inheritance from my beloved grandmother, a tiny percentage of some mineral rights in the Texas Panhandle. Each time I got a $30 royalty check it felt like a loving gift from grandma. So I held onto the mineral rights for many years. My husband and I liked to joke that I was an oil heiress whenever the random check would arrive. It was all very sweet and innocuous. But at some level I was uncomfortable with profiting from the oil industry.

Protecting the environment is deeply aligned with my truest intention. I feel strongly that we can only solve all our human problems if we have a healthy planet to sustain us. While I have always felt this way, the increase in global warming really reminded me that I don’t want to be part of the problem. We switched to 100% Deep Green energy for our home. We leased an electric car to be our main transportation. And I sold my mineral rights. I no longer get little checks from grandma, but I have a sense of being true to myself. But I can’t be self-congratulatory, because I can look around and see that there are other areas where my interactions in the marketplace are not as aligned with my truest intention.  It is an ongoing process. But I try to make it a loving exploration rather than a reason to beat myself up. That’s important. When I was younger I had such a strong sense of environmental guilt that I felt like I didn’t deserve to take up space on the planet. I don’t know where that came from, but fortunately I was able to recognize that I am of this planet, and while I need to be mindful of how easy it is to use up way more than my fair share of it, still I belong here. I don’t have to erase myself.

I had a conversation this morning with someone who had dreaded looking at Wise Livelihood because she felt that her work would not meet the requirements. She was relieved to discover that in the traditional sense, it did. But even so she is still not happy with her work, but that discomfort seemed more related to Wise Effort, or the lack thereof. Like many careers these days, she is expected to be in constant communication from the moment she wakes up in the morning, with IMs (instant messaging), email and phone parvatticalls with clients and staff. We discussed the possibility of making sure she does a regular practice of meditation each morning, even if only for ten minutes before launching into checking emails. And then to make her workday like a dance, being so fully present, so anchored in physical sensation, so much about creating spaciousness with compassion, that she could actually perform all the interactions as part of her practice. If this sounds like a tall order, it certainly is. But she is a practiced meditator, and if anyone can do it, she can. It will be an interesting experiment.

 


I have written an number of posts on Wise Livelihood, shared below. But I have also added a link to a Wikipedia definition of ‘Benefit Corporation’, a new way of incorporating a business so that all participants benefit, not just shareholders. This seems like such a skillful trend!

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benefit_corporation

https://stephanienoble.com/2014/01/11/wise-livelihood/

https://stephanienoble.com/2011/05/01/spacious-livelihood/

https://stephanienoble.com/2009/04/08/eightfold-path-right-livelihood/

Wise Action

 

alt=The next aspect of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path we’ll explore is Wise Action. We can all easily come up with examples in our lives of unwise action: Maybe the time we tripped and hurt ourselves, the time we left the burner on in the kitchen and forgot about it, or the time we ended up with indigestion from over-indulging.

Unwise action is often frustrating, sometimes painful and can be dangerous. So how do we develop more Wise Action in our lives?

First we check in with our intention. This is always the first place to go whenever we feel out of sorts. Is our intention wise? Is it a wise loving intention that promotes taking care of this gift of a physical body to the best of our ability? Or are our actions seated in some sense of self-hatred that assures that they are likely to be unskillful?

We can also look at our effort. We might see that we are trying so hard to accomplish something that we are not taking good care of ourselves. Or, we are under-efforting, and not meeting our body’s needs. Wise Effort arises from Wise Intention and the two work together to bring balance and effectiveness. It’s an area to explore.

What about Wise Mindfulness? If we hurt ourselves or others it’s often because we weren’t being mindful. We were thinking about other things and we had an accident of some kind. Is there any accident that we caused that didn’t arise out of not being fully present in the moment? If everyone on the road were being mindful as they drive, would there be any accidents? This is why self-driving vehicles are safer. A computer-driver is not making grocery store lists, talking on the phone or texting, daydreaming or caught up in an emotional storm. Instead it is constantly noting all causes and conditions. Theoretically we could drive as well as computers, but instead we let our minds wander and boom. This is no small problem! In the US alone, there are over 30,000 traffic deaths per year, and many more serious injuries.

What about Wise View? Our actions become unskillful in relationship to other people when we believe them to be separate, alien and threatening. It’s a scientific fact that we are not just made of the same stuff, but are seamlessly interconnected with all being, but coming home that reality is sometimes difficult because we are caught up in destructive patterns of emotion and thought. And the result is violence. When we are able to come to Wise View, our actions are more skillful.

Beyond violence, other unskillful actions arise from unwise view: All manor of addictive behavior that is destructive to ourselves and those around us.

Last post we looked at Wise Speech. Now we can recognize how unwise action can be activated by unwise speech. Words that are hurtful can lead to bodily harm.

See how all the aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path work together? When we recognize that something in our life is off kilter, that we aren’t being skillful or wise in our actions, we can explore more fully where exactly is the lack of wisdom in this particular case.

Often our actions are reactions. This makes them intrinsically unskillful and likely to cause trouble for ourselves and those around us. As we cultivate wisdom, our actions rise out of that wisdom. They are not reactive. They are, instead, responsive. What’s the difference? Reactivity is mindless, on auto-pilot and rooted in fear. Responsiveness rises out of a sense of being interconnected to all life. The action is rooted in Wise Intention, a loving intention that has no expectation.

Wise Action in a Changing World

In general we are uncomfortable with change, even change we had hoped for. It takes us time to adapt, to mourn the loss of what was and come into some comfortable relationship with what is new. In part this is due to our habitual nature. We are used to doing things a certain way and suddenly we have to pay more attention. For example, moving into a new home can be exciting but stressful, not just because of all the boxes to unload and phone calls to make and things to arrange, but also because we were operating on autopilot in our old situation. We didn’t have to think about it. We knew where everything was. We knew the route by heart to the old home, and our body just naturally goes there. This new route takes some purposeful thinking.

This is true with a new job, a new relationship, a new physical challenge or a new leader. It all takes some getting used to. And that’s not easy.

If the change was something we chose, then we are buoyed by the excitement of an opportunity or challenge. We can still find it stressful, but overall we feel good about it. But if the change was not of our choosing then there is no excitement to buoy us up. We find ourselves floating and sometimes drowning in a sea of difficult emotions.

If that sounds at all familiar, then let’s explore skillful means to survive and even thrive in that sea of change.

First, we need to recognize that change is the only constant. From the day we were born, we and everything around us has been in flux, growing up, altering circumstances, changing course. Walking in nature we recognize the cycles of seasons. Nothing stays the same.  

Second, we can see that we have always somehow dealt with change and have survived. But is survival enough? Most of us want a little more from life than mere survival.

We can look at the way we have dealt with change to see if it was skillful. Or are we reacting to what comes up in our lives with emotions and actions that seemed skillful when we were eight years old? As adults, if we take the time to pay attention, we have the capacity to see that these are not skillful. But because we are not taking the time to explore, evaluate and reassess, we may still be handling things in childish ways: sulking, lashing out, acting up, hiding out, unwilling to look at all sides of an issue. We may still see from a child’s eye view: That the world or someone in our lives is the cause of all our problems and we totally helpless to do anything about it.

Is this true? For most of us this may be true in some areas and not in others, because we have paid attention and grown in some areas, but are still on autopilot in regard to others.

Insight meditation is developing a strong healthy habit of meditation, mindfulness and compassion. AND doing self-inquiry. Especially after a period of meditation, when the mind is quieted down enough so that our innate inner wisdom can be heard, we can begin to question some of our assumptions about things.

So when we feel adrift in a sea of change, meditation and inquiry can allow us to become like dolphins, able to inhabit the experience more fully and more joyfully. Coming into the moment, we can recognize our reactivity, and how we are causing ourselves misery. We can see how we get stuck in nostalgia, stuck in anger, or lost in despair. We don’t get unstuck by pushing any of these emotions away. We get unstuck by cultivating spaciousness, compassion for ourselves and others, allowing whatever is present to be there, but also noticing what else is also present in this moment.

At any moment, in our body and in the world, there are both pleasant and unpleasant things going on. Noticing both allows us to expand our view, to hold all that is going on in a skillful way. And from this noticing we find we are able to be fully present and rooted in a more peaceful and loving intention, so that we make wiser choices and wiser actions.

Past dharma talks on Wise Action:

https://stephanienoble.com/2013/09/30/wise-action/

https://stephanienoble.com/2011/04/02/the-five-precepts-intrinsic-to-right-wise-or-spacious-action/

https://stephanienoble.com/2009/03/11/eightfold-path-right-or-wise-action/

What is Mindfulness?

laos buddha-curt firestone

Photo credit: Curt Firestone

Through the regular practice of meditation — insight, vipassana or mindfulness — we cultivate the ability to stay present with whatever is going on in our experience. It is not an escape from the difficulties of daily life. It is practice in skillfully relating to whatever arises in our experience with more compassion, spaciousness, awareness and kindness.

Next week I will be sharing effective concentration practices to cultivate mindfulness. But for now, let’s look at what mindfulness is, and what it is not.

Mindfulness is being in the moment, noticing what is present, using all our senses. It’s also noticing any desire for things to be different or to get more of whatever we are experiencing. When thoughts and emotions rustle through, as they will, we notice them without getting lost in them. If we discover we have been lost in thought, we gently return our attention to the breath.

With mindfulness when we notice a recurring pattern of thought, we can pose a question — Is this true? for example — and then be fully present for the answer when it comes.

Mindfulness is not viewing things from a lofty remote location as an observer, separate from life. It is instead continuously cultivating boundless awareness, holding all that arises in our experience with great compassion, being fully present in this body-mind, grateful for the opportunity to be alive in this form.

With mindfulness we don’t make anything ‘other’ or ‘enemy’ So we are not pushing away, blaming or punishing any aspect of self, or making anyone person or situation a scapegoat for the challenges we are facing in this moment. What presents itself as either/or can be investigated more closely to reveal it’s both/and nature. With mindfulness we open again and again to these kinds of possibilities. We discover the most skillful way to deal with antagonism is to engulf it in the power of infinite loving-kindness. When we slip into the pattern of other-making, we feel stuck in the sludge of fear that drags us down and causes us to be blind to the true nature of life.

We see how in every moment we are given the option to make skillful choices, by staying present, anchoring our awareness in physical sensation. We are powerful beyond measure when we are living mindfully. We can be responsive rather than reactive. We can dance with all that arises rather than let it keep us on the sidelines or engaged in a battle. We see that every moment is a pivotal point of power, where we can act on our truest intention with wise effort, or we can go mindless and fall into habitual behavior, driven by fear.

Mindfulness is not something we have to struggle for or chase after. It arises of its own accord through dedicated meditation practice that is rooted in wise intention and wise effort.

As we cultivate mindfulness in our sitting practice and in our daily lives, we feel some release of fear-based tension. Or at least we notice the presence of tension, which is an excellent place to start.

With mindfulness life doesn’t get ‘perfect’. But difficulties become more permeable, and we see bridges and networks revealed where we thought there were only walls. 

With mindfulness thoughts have enough space to not be constantly in conflict. And there’s room for the ‘I don’t know’ mind to hold all life with reverence and awe.

With mindfulness we can appreciate this gift of life, in whatever form it has taken, through whatever experiences we find ourselves in. The comparing mind is seen as just a fear-based pattern that softens and dissolves as we continue to practice.

Mindfulness also softens and releases the ‘if only’ mindset that had us trapped in the belief that causes and conditions are the source of our happiness, when in fact joy arises simply out of being present, aware and compassionate with ourselves and all beings.

Mindfulness is quite a life-enriching benefit to come out of spending minutes a day in meditation practice! It costs nothing. And the list of health benefits is long and scientifically proven.

As you practice, let go of expectations, but note growing awareness, growing compassion and growing sense of aliveness.

As with the other aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, I have given a number of dharma talks over the years, and you can check out their companion posts for further understanding. https://stephanienoble.com/?s=right+mindfulness  and
https://stephanienoble.com/?s=spacious+mindfulness

Do You Get an ‘A’ for Effort?

wise-effort-handsAs we look at the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, at first glance Wise Effort seems the easiest to understand. We see from our own experience and by observing others how over-efforting and under-efforting cause all kinds of problems in life, from the tense host striving to make everything ‘perfect’, causing her guests to feel uneasy; to the couch potato who seems unable to move forward in life; to the ambitious dreamer who seems always in motion but whose wheels are spinning.

Any of these sound familiar? Using the Eightfold Path as a guide for self-exploration, we see that this is not about self-improvement or changing who we are. We are instead looking at patterns in our thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are causing us, and probably those around us, unhappiness. These patterns do not define us. But they may be confining us a bit, and that’s why we want to look more closely.

To investigate, we don’t use our overdeveloped muscle of critical facility, the fault-finder that is often particularly adept at turning inward and causing misery. Instead, with regular meditation, we cultivate mindfulness, compassion and spaciousness where all the tight patterns are able to loosen, soften and quiet down. Only when the cacophony of harsh judgments and strident opinions have been given enough space to settle down, do we have the opportunity to hear the quiet, calm, loving voice of our own inner wisdom, our Buddha nature. This is one of the great gifts of regular meditation practice.

Once we have accessed that inner wisdom in meditation, we can recognize it at other times as well. We can actively seek it out at any time, just by quieting down and listening in. And over time we begin to align more and more with that wiser way of seeing what is actually going on in our experience. We become less reactive and more responsive. When it comes to effort, we are better able to identify the cause of our unskillfulness. We can see what’s really happening with the examples I gave above:

If you relate to the host who wants everything perfect for her guests but instead creates tension, let’s review Wise Intention from the previous blog post. We can see that her intention is not wise. Why? She is fearfully caught up in wanting people to see her in a certain way, in order to admire, respect and love her. She is busy shoring up her separate identity. That is literally off-putting. She puts people off by setting herself apart. She wants to be seen as the kind of person she aspires to be.

A wise intention, such as the intention to be compassionate to herself and all beings, would ensure that she takes care of herself, takes on only as much as she can handle, asks for help or, if she can afford it, hire help, so that she can be fully present to interact with her guests. If this means she doesn’t get a write-up on the society page, so be it! If that was her intention, it was painfully unwise. What people respond to is coming into a space and being greeted by a person who is fully present, fully engaged and not freaking out about whether the space or the food is up to the standards of some magazine editor who probably eats mostly take out in her NYC apartment anyway.

After a dharma talk of setting truest intentions one student came up to me and said that she thinks her truest intention is authenticity, but she wasn’t sure about the wording. That reminded me of an insight I had on a silent retreat that has stayed with me for many years, and has helped me and students I’ve shared it with again and again. I promised my students I would include it here. It is:

I have nothing to hide.
I have nothing to prove.
I have nothing to fear.
I have something to give.

See if this phrase empowers you to live without regard to how people see you. For me, it helped me to stop seeing myself as an object being viewed by others, and allowed me to simply live from the center of my being. This is a challenge women often relate to more than men. Men are generally encouraged to ‘Be your own man.’ But women, traditionally, have been encouraged to put others first and to polish themselves up to be beautiful objects in body and manner in order to attract a mate. Even the princesses among us who promote themselves as the center of the universe are caught up in needing to be objects to be adored, totally dependent on exterior approval. Plenty of men fall into this pattern as well. But rather than demanding that others see us as the center of their worlds, it is possible to live with ease and clarity, making all our efforts grounded in wisdom.

If you related more to the couch potato, your compassionate investigation will not include derogatory terms like ‘couch potato’! That’s not your wise inner voice but one of the many judgmental ones that contributed to the pattern of lethargy you find yourself succumbing to. Set a wise intention — to meditate regularly, to be compassionate, and to attune to the muscles that want to move and the mind that wants a challenge. As a kindness to your heart, eat sensibly and get up and move about. Find the natural strength and fluidity that is within you, waiting to be set free. That is compassion. If you just can’t muster the will to make an effort, ask for help. But choose someone who will help you investigate what’s going on rather than a drill sergeant who makes you feel even more miserable about yourself even as you ‘get into shape.’ Compassion is not giving in to your most fear-based patterns of thinking, but attuning to the vibrant potential for living fully in every moment.

You might be inspired by this story from PBS Newshour called ‘Back on my feet’ : http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/morning-run-can-first-step-homelessness/

If you recognize yourself in the dreamer with the spinning wheels, your compassionate investigation will be to notice the circular patterns, the walls you have set up and the short circuits in your thinking that bounce you back to square one again and again. By living in the future, imagining some perfect life, you are completely missing the offerings of this moment. No matter what your situation, no matter how imperfect, there is in this moment some beauty, some light, something funny, something touching. There is a zen story that speaks to this:

There was once a man who was being chased by a ferocious tiger across a field. At the edge of the field there was a cliff. In order to escape the jaws of the tiger, the man caught hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff. Dangling down, he saw, to his dismay, there were more tigers on the ground below him! And, furthermore, two little mice were gnawing on the vine to which he clung. He knew that at any moment he would fall to certain death. That’s when he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth.

He never before realized how sweet a strawberry could taste.

So set the intention to meditate, then listen in to that wise inner voice, the one that helps you set an intention to be present in this moment, compassionate with yourself and all beings. Discover how to live fully in this moment and your life will unfold in its own way, more and more aligned with your truest intention. Let your life surprise you with its gifts!

Wise effort is not how much we accomplish, but the kind of the effort we are making in whatever we do. Often when we are exercising we are caught up in a goal: To get to the end of the course, the trail, the time period allotted; to change the way our body appears so that it will be more attractive or acceptable; to have bragging rights that we are able to run or even won a marathon. There’s nothing at all wrong with winning, but focusing on that isn’t wise effort. We can win with wise effort and go on to enjoy the activity. Winning with unskillful effort leaves us exhausted and without a sense of purpose in our lives.

Wise Effort is meditating on a regular basis, setting up and sustaining a daily practice. Kudos for that! Once we are sitting, we continue to use Wise Effort to stay present and compassionate with ourselves, to adjust our posture as we so that it is both erect and relaxed, and we rely on the bones instead of the muscles to support us, and if we notice any tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree we are able.

Goal-setting in meditation is not wise effort, sabotaging our ability to stay present and compassionate. The goal stays ever distant, always on the horizon. When we shift away from imagining the outcome and instead cultivate in this moment a spacious way to be in relationship with all that is occurring right now, we become available to insight and deepened understanding.

Awakening is both potentially instantaneous and a lifelong rich exploration. It happens each time we become fully present, each time our heart is cracked open a bit more with compassion, each time we recognize that we and all beings are intrinsic to the whole of being. We become more and more familiar with our Buddha nature, that wise inner wisdom that speaks softly, has no agenda and all the time in the world. So it really is up to our Wise Intention and our Wise Effort to practice meditation, become more spacious and available to attune to that inner wisdom. All the fear-based judgments and opinions within our thinking mind have enough room to co-exist and feel heard, even if they don’t get to rule the roust. We understand the protective impulse of their fear-based intentions. Over time we begin to see them for what they are: patterns of thought initially launched by some words or actions of someone long ago, who was unskillful because of all the fear-based patterns they were dealing with. Another opportunity for compassion. Which is not the same as condoning or approval of behavior.

Our Wise Effort is to keep cultivating spaciousness and compassion, for ourselves, for everyone in our lives, even those who push our buttons, and for the contributors from the past whose own unskillfulness set off an unskillful pattern within us. This is our practice. Sometimes it is skillful to put distance between ourselves and someone who pushes our buttons. Although we are developing inner wisdom, there is no reason to force ourselves to confront our demons constantly. In fact, we are actively seeking our community of people who support us in our wise effort, and letting go of actively involving ourselves with people whose fear pushes them to antagonize us. At some time we may be ready to sit with them, but we can give ourselves permission to wait until the time is right. Meanwhile we send them infinite lovingkindness whenever we think of them: May you be well. 

Wise Effort has a quality of effortlessness because the exertion is appropriate for this body, mind, time and place. It is enough to keep us engaged in an optimum way and mindful so that we are not prone to accidents.

What are some examples in your own life of wise or unwise effort? What might be a skillful way address the challenge?

On silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, all attendees are given yogi jobs so they have a hand in helping to maintain cleanliness or create meals. Over the years I have worked in the kitchen, vacuumed dormitory hallways, swept porches, cleaned bathrooms and maintained the Council House. But on one retreat I really wanted as little potential interaction with other retreatants as possible, so they gave me the job of scrubbing shower stalls.
Right away I noticed my lack of enthusiasm for such a task, including an aversion to being in a small windowless space.

Since I was in a state of mindfulness from seven or so hours of meditation a day, each day as I took up my sponge, squeegee and scrub brush, I discovered a shift in my attitude toward the work. It started with bare tolerance, trying to be a good sport. Then I noticed some hope of praise for a good job, or at least a lack of criticism for a poorly done job.
Then, because these were the showers the retreat teachers used, I did it as a service in kind, out of gratitude for their teachings.
A few days in I sensed into my body — my arm rotating as I scrubbed, my legs supporting me as I reached or crouched. I felt my mind attend this as a simple meditation, a place to put my consciousness. I felt my breath steadily fueling this engine of activity.
I let go of any concern for the outcome. The shower stalls were scrubbed every day, by me on this retreat, but by other dedicated retreatants throughout the years before and after me.

As a practice of mindfulness. This exercise trained me in Wise Effort more than anything else I have ever done. The first thing I did when I got home after the retreat was to scrub our shower stall! But the lasting effect was a change in how I tend all my necessary tasks. They are yogi jobs I do for a set period each day, and with daily application, I can trust that all will be done.

So coming into the present, noticing all the judgments and opinions that arise in relationship to what we are doing, we develop a skillful relationship with even the most mundane tasks. In this way all we do becomes part of our practice. That’s Wise Effort.

No one has our individual answers. But if we notice that we are out of balance in the area of effort and that this under or over efforting is causing problems, then we can skillfully test out either taking on physical or mental challenges, or we can let up on the whip a bit.

I have written many posts over the years on Wise Effort. Feel free to explore more.

Find Your True Intention

What is your true intention?
startwithheart
Jack Kornfield says that setting a long term intention or vow is like setting the compass of your heart. I love that. A compass of your heart. Wherever you find yourself in your thoughts, emotions, decisions and challenges, there’s the compass of your truest intention that can guide you.

In fact all eight aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path form a helpful guide for us to rely on when we find ourselves at a crossroads. And we are always at a crossroads, because whatever our current situation, even if we can’t change the circumstances, we have a choice about how we relate to what’s arising in our experience. We can mindlessly react out of fear and potentially do something unskillful, even harmful. Or we can align ourselves with our truest intention, use our wisest effort, deepen our understanding of the nature of things, cultivate mindfulness and come up with the wise words and actions that make the best possible response to the situation.

And if we have done something unskillful, we can use the Eightfold Path to figure out where we went wrong. Instead of wallowing in misery, guilt and self-loathing, we can actively investigate and then renew our intention. It’s a very handy-dandy guide indeed!

Over the next eight weeks we will explore all eight of these aspects. We begin with intention, in part because it is the first week of the new year, but also because finding our truest intention will help us in our exploration of the other aspects. The other aspects might help us to refine our intention as well.

For now, we can test whatever current intentions we may have to see if they are true. Especially right after the new year when we to one degree or another often create resolutions. Most popular ones are to lose weight, to exercise more, etc. Nothing wrong with either, but they are not our truest intentions. And if our short term goals are not aligned with our truest intentions, they usually fail.

Why do they fail? Because they are rooted in fear. It’s like choosing to run on a gravel road barefoot. How long will you last? The ‘gravel’ is all the negative inner thoughts we have to contend with that force us to constantly question and justify our set intention. There’s another option. One that is full of kindness and compassion, and rooted in a deeper understanding of life. We can choose to run on the Eightfold Path that is truly supportive.

To find our true intention we might start with the intention to meditate on a regular basis. If we follow that intention and develop a regular habit of meditating, we find an opening, an easing of tension, a softening of that harshly critical mind — the one that builds walls rather than bridges, that strives to be clever rather than kind, the one that thinks it has something to prove. We discover that our striving comes from a sense of separation, and that sense of separation is rooted in fear. We discover we have nothing to hide, nothing to prove and nothing to fear from simply being fully alive in the world. And, once we understand that, we discover we have something to give. We can engage in life with a loving generous spirit.

Once that regular habit of meditating is in place, we find our understanding deepening and widening, and our truest intention becomes broader as well.

You might pause for a moment now, or for a few minutes after your meditation practice when your mind is quieter, to see what comes up for you when you ask ‘What is my truest intention in this life?’ And then simply allow whatever response arises to come up. Notice if what comes up is loving, calm, wise and undemanding. That’s your Buddha nature, your wise inner voice, offering guidance. If what comes up is full of shoulds or shouldn’ts or this is a bunch of bs, well that’s just an inner aspect that is rooted in fear, trying it’s best to protect you from the dangers it perceives everywhere. While we offer these kinds of voices respect, we can also respectfully decline to be motivated by them. Make room for that inner wisdom to be heard. It may be challenging amidst the cacophony of more frantic thoughts, full of judgment and skepticism. But if you sit quietly enough for long enough, you will create enough space for it to be heard. Because it isn’t going anywhere. It is always within you. You may not have heard it because we tend to pay attention to what is loudest, fastest and most demanding. Inner wisdom is none of those things. But it is there offering lovingkindness and the wisdom to give you exactly what you need right now. Let it tell you your wisest intention. Then write it down, bring it to mind often, and see how living with that intention shifts the way you relate to life. Maybe you begin to see the gifts rather than only the problems. Then you know you’ve set a wise intention.

For a number of years now I have been living with two intentions: To be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation; and to be compassionate with myself and others. These two intentions have stood me in good stead. Feel free to try them for yourself and see if they are your truest intentions too. I begin my daily meditation practice, and I use them throughout the day as I make choices at every turn. When I’ve forgotten my intentions, I see pretty quickly how valuable they are, and I return to them with renewed appreciation.

One way in which I was not connecting with my two truest intentions was in relationship to my weight. I had a lifetime of thought streams running through me that were pretty compelling. They went something like this: You’re fat. Well, you’re not THAT fat. What’s wrong with being fat? Why do you want to lose weight? Who are you trying to impress? I don’t want to have to buy a larger set of clothes, so I need to diet. It would be fun to look great in that outfit on that model in a magazine. But what kind of attention would I be trying to attract? etc. etc. You know the drill. A lot of inner conversation and very little positive action. Mostly self-deflating sabotage.

Then one summer day I ate my neighbor’s delicious home-grown cherry tomatoes as if they were candy and, because I hadn’t had any oil or bread (I found out later) I developed a horrendous case of heartburn. I’d never had heartburn, didn’t know what was happening, so called the doctor. The advice nurse said get to the hospital pronto. So I did, and ended up spending the night in the cardiac unit under observation. The next day the cardiologist put me on the treadmill and assured me that my heart was in excellent shape. ‘But,’ she said, ‘as a kindness to your heart, you could lose a little weight.’

As a kindness to my heart? Those words sang out to me, so aligned were they with my truest intention. Suddenly all the inner conversation fell away. All my wimpy resolutions to lose weight fell by the wayside. All I had to do was live my truest intention and be kind, compassionate to my dear little heart. I had never ever thought of my heart that way. It was always just a pump. I was grateful that it was reliable, but it was just so much plumbing. Now, with the doctors words, I had something I could work with by simply widening my intention to include my heart.

Just this week I saw a study on PBS News Hour about how important emotion is in motivation. When we look at the experience I had, we can see how suddenly the doctor offered me an emotional connection to my heart, a request to be kind to it. So as we set our intentions, we might consider their emotional content. Fear is a short sprint motivator but backfires and fails in the long run. An intention based in love is a lifelong relationship.

If you set a lifelong intention, you can set short term goals that are aligned with your true intention, and they will be much easier to meet. If they are not easy, investigate!

If you don’t have a meditation practice, establishing one as a kindness to yourself, your family, friends, coworkers, and the world, is a great place to start. (If you don’t know where to begin, start here.)

If you have an established practice, congratulations. You might in meditation find some inspirational insight that guides you to your truest intention that speaks to any challenges you face right now.

I have taught the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path several times, so here’s a link to other posts on the subject: [READ MORE ON FINDING YOUR TRUEST INTENTION.]