Category Archives: Four Noble Truths

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 Livelihood

Upon rereading Right Livelihood from April 2009, I find it still stands without restating, so I encourage you to read it. Of course the word ‘spacious’ can be added to enhance awareness of the moments when we are at a decision-making crossroads. That spacious pause might make all the difference as to how we interact in the marketplace in making a living, spending and investing money. Our choices shape the world we live in, so this is a powerful moment, a moment worthy of becoming centered, grounded and spacious.

In class we discussed how meditation increases our ability to notice our thoughts and emotions enough to see where we are in conflict in this realm. Say, for example, one thought-stream has the intention to be a thoughtful world citizen and another really wants that fruit from 3000 mile away or that cute shirt made inexpensive by the exploitation of workers. With spacious awareness we can pause to sense our interconnection with all beings and we can see more clearly the effects of our actions and calculate more accurately the true cost of our purchases.

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So that brings us to the end of the Eightfold Path, the Fourth of the Four Noble Truths. I hope you have found it a fruitful exploration. In this tradition we are encouraged to return again and again to the teachings, to revisit these Four Noble Truths. The first visit our eyes and ears take in the concepts but they are outside our experience. The second time around, we begin to recognize these truths in our lives and begin to incorporate them into our experience. The third time perhaps they have worked their way into our very bones. They can become the conceptual structure upon which we live our lives.

I encourage you to discover more about the Four Noble Truths from other sources and from your own experience through meditation and living in awareness. With each of the Truths, you can ask questions. For example:

The Buddha says that there is suffering in life. Is this true? How do I know it is true? Am I living with that understanding? How does that understanding manifest in my life?

The Buddha says that the cause of most of our suffering is grasping, clinging and pushing away the various aspects of life that attract or repel us. Is this true? Ho do I know it is true? How does that truth manifest in my own life?

The Buddha says that the end of suffering is possible. Is this true? Am I willing to practice in a way that I can discover for myself the truth of this statement?

The Buddha says that the way to end suffering is through the Eightfold Path: Wise Intention, Wise View, Wise Effort, Wise Concentration, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood. Is this true? Am I willing to practice in a way that I can discover for myself the truth of this statement?

Getting Things Done – Spacious Action in Action

Wherever we are in any given moment we can remind ourselves of our intention to be fully present and compassionate. It’s simple but not always easy to remember, but it is so rewarding that we can soon develop a habit of doing so.

But how does being present and compassionate get things done?

Meditation practice fosters within us a sense of generosity and creativity. Spacious action arises out of those skillful impulses in whatever form is the clearest expression of our natural talents. Do we have the patience and persistence to sit until we are ripe and ready for skillful action? Do we feel we have the time and the permission to do so? Probably not! In our culture we are encouraged to ‘go for the gusto,’ to be goal-oriented, to plan for the future, to dream big, to ‘not stop ‘til we get enough,’ to ‘go for the Gold,’ ‘be all that we can be,’ etc. etc. Where in all these prompts to perfection, all these indications that we are not enough as we are, would be find room for simply sitting? And we come back to that question of how would we get anything done?

Gandhi is quoted as saying, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

How I wish I had heard that quote back in the early nineties when I went through an extended lapse from regular meditation practice because I felt I didn’t have the time! Thus destabilized from my foundation of awareness, I paid no heed to my body’s call for a respite, for a time of silence and sitting. Instead I kept my nose to the grindstone and honored every commitment I made to others, but did not take the time to honor a basic commitment to take care of myself. At that time there were no well-publicized local retreat centers that would provide me with the simple life of sitting that I clearly needed. So what did I do?

I got sick. Illness is the one long-accepted form of retreat in our culture. Get sick in the body or mind and we will be forced to rest. We will become so unskillful or disabled that others will insist that we stop what we are doing and go away and don’t come back until we are well enough to pick up our burden again. Maybe we end up in a mental ward, a cancer unit or a prison cell. And there, if life were fair, the healing would begin. But instead chances are we get caught up in yet another intense culture where we feel threatened and overwhelmed…unless we are able to recognize the opportunity to let go and simply be.

I was heartened to read recently that in an Alabama prison there is an ongoing meditation retreat program for inmates who choose to participate. I wasn’t surprised that it has been extremely successful and that the recidivism among the members of that incarcerated sangha is much lower than the rest of the prison population.

When I was diagnosed with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome) I felt fortunate that my illness was not life-threatening. All I had to give up was a career with which I’d had a love/hate relationship, half our family income, and the ability to do more than one thing a day beyond feeding my family and cleaning our home. Suddenly my overwhelming array of choices was eliminated.

Imagine that! If you could only do only one thing a day, what would it be? It became so clear to me who and what nourished me and who and what drained me. That was the deciding factor for any social encounter, any outing or any activity. The foods, films and people that put me into a tailspin of weariness were off the list. Television and novels that had been my days-end vacation were off the list! How had I not noticed that all these things were draining me? How had I not noticed that my nice corner office at work had been abuzz with freeway noise that I couldn’t hear after a while. How much energy had it taken for me to provide an inner muffle for that sound?

This discovery of what nourished me and what drained me was the product of my return to meditation, the one thing I could do as much as I wanted during my illness. In fact, for nine months I experienced a physically-enforced personal retreat. Through meditation I touched that deep connected mindfulness that creates the possibility of skillful spacious action. Until then I paid little attention to the many decisions and choices I made during any given day. I did what I had to do to get things off my plate, to get past where I was and onto some more tolerable future place. No wonder I got sick!

Now, thanks to the widespread practice of meditation and the development and appreciation for emotional intelligence, we have greater access to and greater acceptance of the knowledge to recognize when we are on autopilot, when we are becoming unskillful. We also have the resources available in the form of meditation instruction and retreats that can provide us with the ability to stay present and compassionate. Yet many of us are still not giving ourselves permission to let go for even a half hour a day and give ourselves what we need.

In the state I had been in working up to my illness, I was so disconnected that I didn’t feel deserving of anything for myself. I also felt that it was not something I could ask for. At some level I hoped that someone would give it to me, but I didn’t speak up and let it be known that I needed it. When my doctor told me I needed to quit my job, I went on half-time. But it wasn’t until I used that freed up time to meditate and get in touch with the inner wisdom that each of us has access to that I got it that I needed a complete time out in order to heal.

So what is it that kept me from asking for what I needed? It was a sense of unworthiness. Imagine sitting at the dinner table, feeling you have no right to ask someone to pass the salt. When I began meditating, I recognized that I was an intrinsic part of the universe, deserving what every being deserves, no less, no more. With that awareness I could accept my seat at the table and if I needed something, I understood that if I couldn’t reach it, it was reasonable to ask whoever was closest to it to ‘please pass the salt.’

I could also begin to recognize others who also felt undeserving of a seat at the table and I began to see that the table is infinitely expansive and there is plenty of food for all, so part of being at the table was inviting everyone to take their seat, their rightful seat that for whatever reason they had vacated or hadn’t been told was theirs.

What does it mean to you when I talk about accepting your seat at the table? What does it mean to you when I say ‘Feel free to ask for what you need?’

When we talk about skillful action we also talk about unskillful action because it helps us see more clearly. In this imaginary table we have constructed, we might see that there are those who see the seating and the food as limited, who look like they are sitting at a poker table and accruing chips instead of at a dining table with plenty of food and delightful conversation.

We can look at our own actions at the table. Are we eating off someone else’s plate? Are we telling others what they should and shouldn’t eat? Or are we allowing each other the full reign of our own seat and table setting?

How are we relating to the plate in front of us? Is it full or empty? Is it enough? Is it too much of one kind of thing and not enough of another? If we are looking longingly at another person’s plate or wishing we were in another’s seat, we can return to our mindfulness and skillful inquiry to ask what is driving that desire to unseat someone else or take what they have when there is plenty at the table and we already have a seat?

What are we afraid of? It always comes back to that when we get to a place of scarcity and contraction.

On a silent retreat at Spirit Rock a while back I realized that ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to prove, nothing to hide and something to give.’ It wasn’t the first time I had realized that, but somehow phrased in that way, it was something I could write down and pin to my bulletin board where I can see it every day. It still informs me, and sometimes surprises me.

Once we begin to see that, even though we still have habituated patterns of fear-based beliefs and behaviors, we can begin to rest in awareness. We can really appreciate what is in front of us, even when it isn’t all chocolate pudding all the time. We can learn to look around and see what needs doing and understand what it is we bring to the table, what we have to offer from our set of skills and gifts and interests. Through the practice of meditation there is a natural shift of focus to what we have to offer, what is upwelling inside us from our natural generosity of spirit without any sense of agenda or recompense, just a joyous love of life and gratitude for this experience, even though it is sometimes painful and challenging.

Since we are not monks or nuns, since we are not on retreat constantly, we have options and challenges. Our needs are not taken care of by others. But in some deeper sense, we are taken care of. For those who believe in God, there is the personified understanding of being children of God, held in a loving embrace. For those for whom this personification doesn’t resonate, there is the scientifically based understanding of the interconnectivity of life, that we are all stardust, one being, and that each of us, even those suffering and struggling with outrageous misfortune, are intrinsically valued.

Maybe we feel we are not valued by some specific other – a parent perhaps — against whom we may rail, feeling abandoned or brutalized. But if we continue to come back to our intention to be present and compassionate, we will shift from feeling dependent on the permission, admiration or love of others. They don’t own the table. They don’t have to pull out our chair. We begin to see we are already seated, already here, at the table of life, nourished by the wholeness of being, accessed at any moment through awareness of the present and a willingness to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

So this is the way we get things done. We accept our seat at the table and we maintain the clarity and compassion to enjoy the interactions with others around us, to pass the salt to whomever needs it, and to not be afraid to say, “Could you please pass those sweet potatoes? They look mighty tasty!”

Fix-it? Forget it!

We were discussing the Second Noble Truth, and how we can each notice the way we create suffering for ourselves through clinging, grasping and pushing away our experience instead of holding it in an open compassionate embrace. A meditator said that she was noticing this, but that she hoped that the Third Noble Truth was going to offer the next step: How to fix what we notice.

I said that the noticing is all there is. Now this may have been a tad disingenuous because of course the Buddha offers the Eightfold Path (The Fourth Noble Truth.) I suppose it could be regarded as a fix, but I see it more as a circle of light with which we surround ourselves in this practice. Each aspect of the Eightfold Path is a guidepost shedding light that helps us see where we have strayed too far from the core of consciousness and compassion. But the Eightfold Path itself does not fix anything; it simply brightens our way so we can notice. The noticing itself is the one and only step in this process.

The minute we try to fix whatever arises in our thoughts, we are caught up in the stickiness of suffering. Our ‘noticing’ is fault-finding and once we have found a fault, like a fissure in a tooth, we want it ‘taken care of.’ We want it drilled, filled and made perfect.

This is a reasonable response, a naturally arising thought from our creative brain activity. But in this regard, when it comes to releasing from tight constriction into a spaciousness of mind, you can see that this fault-finding fix-it methodology is more likely to shut us down, make us feel defensive and constrict us, rather than open us to feel more and trust in the process. Thus our desire to fix ‘the problem’ undermines the process.

The only tool that is up to the task is this ‘noticing.’ At first our noticing might be rather coarse, full of judgment and attitude, like “Oh there I go again with my big mouth,” or “Yup, I see how angry I get at the least little thing that person does.” Even this has some consciousness to it, some willingness to acknowledge what is happening, or why things are happening as they are, even if we are harsher than we need to be. If this is where we are, we can acknowledge that this is considerably more skillful than not noticing we’ve said something offensive or not noticing our own anger or what seems to trip our trigger.

The next step is not to ‘fix’ what we have noticed, but to refine the quality of our noticing.

Noticing is polished to a rich sheen through meditation practice, both concentration practice and metta practice. This is why we practice and why it is ongoing. The practice is the way we keep our tool of noticing polished.

At first we might think that meditation is a place we go, a retreat we take to get a breather from the hectic life we lead. And if it offers this, that’s lovely, but it is not the purpose of meditation. The core purpose is to develop and refine the ability to see with clarity and compassion whatever arises in this moment.

You can think of the knife-sharpener or the silverware polisher performing a vital service. This is a good way to think of meditation because it takes away the allure of thinking it is about having a mind-blowing experience. It takes away comparing one meditation with another. It is just the practice of being as fully present as we can be in this moment with as much compassion as we can manage right now.

It is just polishing our ability to notice what arises. There is no bad or good meditation, only this taking the time to do the task, to do the practice. If it creates inner peace, sparks creativity, etc. all to the good. The knife sharpener at his grinder and the silver polisher with her felt cloth also may experience this quieting down of the mind. And all the while the knives get sharpened, the forks get polished and the food is well cut and served. Just so, with meditation practice insight, we polish and refine our ability to notice what is arising in this moment and to hold it with acceptance, wisdom and compassion.

And through this practice we can see how the quality of our noticing shifts from, “Oh God, there I go again” to something along the lines of, “Ah, thinking. Noticing a tightness in my jaw when that thought arises. The emotion that arises with it is a sort of_____. Hmmm, the associative images that are arising are ______. Making space in my field of awareness for this to simply arise and fall away.

This kind of inner process could be called a dispassionate curiosity. Although the subject is personal, we are willing to allow for the possibility that it is inherently human, that we –though unique and individual in our own ways – are dealing with a universal stream and we are constantly testing the waters. It is not our job to fix the water, but to become more skillful in navigating in it. We can only do this through noticing the nature of the tides, the undercurrents, the weather, etc. We tune in. We notice. We notice everything.

So through our regular daily practice of meditation this quality of noticing gets polished up into a tool of self-exploration and expansion, rather than a weapon of harsh judgment that cuts us to the quick and leaves us to find a hole to hide in while we lick our self-inflicted wounds.

As you give yourself this gift of meditation, trust that whatever noticing you experience is sufficient for now. Yes, with regular practice, over time the noticing will become more insightful, but judging your state of noticing now as lacking is just another sticky dukkha delivery system, just another tarbaby to get caught up in. So trust the process, trust that as long as we live there is the polishing.

Let your light shine.

Coming into relationship with what is

Coming into relationship with what is – that’s what we are doing in our practice. We can stop running around pretending, covering up, or reframing the truth. Instead we open to whatever arises in our experience in this moment. Whether it is pain or beauty. We acknowledge it. We let it all in. No extra added ingredients, no preservatives, just this, life expressing itself through us and around us. The unvarnished, unedited, unqualified moment to moment multi-dimensional experience of existence.

The Four Noble Truths are all about this coming into relationship with what is. By acknowledging that, along with all the delight and wonder, there is also pain and suffering, we can relax a bit. The cat’s out of the bag! What a relief! We don’t have to keep pretending that there’s some iconic perfection of a life that we must strive to fulfill in order to be allowed to be here. This is life. Just as it is in this moment.

This is not a passive stance, not “Oh well, I might as well give up and accept that I will never amount to anything, that I will never be happy.” Quite the contrary! This is actually a very empowering stance. Standing fully in the reality of this present moment is the only point of power we ever have.

If our thoughts dwell in the past, we find ourselves incapable of being engaged with the present in a full and meaningful way. It is an unstable stance in which we are constantly pulling the rug out from under ourselves. For example, we may feel that because of some past event we don’t deserve this moment. So we can’t even see the invitation we are offered to fully partake in the richness of life. It is valuable to notice what messages from the past are streaming through us in this moment, to notice what we are telling ourselves and question the source of that message. We are often seduced into using the past as a measuring stick to determine what we are capable of doing. When the thoughts tell us things like, “I flunked algebra so I can’t do math related things,” or “I come from humble origins so I don’t belong in this rich person’s mansion,” then we can see that we are standing in the past and thus not fully present. While we may feel more comfortable in certain areas than others, or in certain places than others, it is still valuable to question that comfort, to question all assumptions whenever they start chaffing and causing suffering by making us feel there are areas that are off limits to us.

Likewise, although projecting into the future feels powerful, as if we are in control of our destiny, this stance sets us up for comparing everything that happens to some imagined ideal future. It makes us vulnerable to ‘lose’ things we never had to begin with – an accomplishment, a house, a child, a mate. It is possible to create suffering out of dashed hope, a mirage created in the past that haunts the present, making this moment seem incomplete. Standing in the future leaves us so totally out of balance, so outside of our immediate experience, that we are unable to receive the gifts that are arising in this moment, opening doors to futures beyond our limited imagination.

We may feel we are in the present even as we hold ‘the broad view’ of our lives, able to take measure of our achievements and our failures, our strengths and our weaknesses. We feel this informs us, but our broad view is not broad enough or informed enough to take as truth! Staying present with what is — not just at ‘this time in our lives’ or ‘this week’ or even ‘today,’ but in this millisecond, this fleeting flash of consciousness — is an opportunity to step into the very specific experience of being alive. Just because something bad happened this morning doesn’t mean the whole day needs to be flavored by it. We are so easily seduced into calling it a ‘bad day’ or a ‘bad week’ or even a ‘bad year,’ so ready to ring in the new with the thought that it will somehow save us. We are so desperate for a blank slate, but then so ready to call it ruined by anything that happens. This is nonsense! Truly! Staying fully present in the moment, we don’t need to wait or throw away whole blocks of time! We recognize the unique nature of each moment and let it stand on its own, unencumbered.

If at some unitive moment of deep clarity we get a glimpse of our whole life, then we may understand how all our harsh judgments, expectations, disappointments and demands were totally off the mark. But for now, it’s just better to remind ourselves that there’s a whole lot we don’t know. This moment fully experienced is the only access point to deeper clearer perception.

The basic practice of meditation invites us to open to whatever arises in our thoughts, emotions and senses, acknowledging it, perhaps even noting it, saying, for example, ‘planning,’ all within the spacious awareness of the breath rising and falling, if that is our focus. We often talk about ‘returning’ or ‘coming back’ to the breath, and this may be useful at first but, for me it seems that it eventually gets in our way, like training wheels on a bicycle when you’ve achieved a sense of balance. It is misleading to suggest that we have ‘gone’ anywhere. There is no ‘away’ and no place to ‘return’ to. We have been sitting here in this position the entire time. Our thoughts have been streaming through the field of our awareness. Sometimes they are so powerful, or our energy feels so scattered that our awareness gets disoriented, as if a wave has turned us upside down momentarily. Over time, with practice and clear intention, we develop skills to keep ourselves oriented in a way that our minds can handle whatever waves of thought or emotion that pass through without getting so completely disoriented every time.

This spacious mind is a place that feels safe, where even though we may experience pain, we can sit quietly with it and begin to see it more clearly. It is a place where we notice the heavy arsenal of weapons we carry, and we can lay them down and rest. We can see how we have created fun-house-mirrors that distort our view of ourselves and the world around us. We can see through our faux confidence in the fancy sword-play techniques we use to go into battle with any thought or deed that threatens to unmask some deep core belief we hold to be true about ourselves and the way of things. We recognize our fear.

We may see how we create mine fields that we then walk through or discover that others have stumbled upon, and we then see the pain caused by our unconscious emotional bumbling. Over time we may see what trips the triggers, what ignites the fuse to the bombs we set off, and later regret. All of this and so much more we sit with and allow to rise and then fall away, giving it all the same kind compassionate attention we give our breath that rises and falls.

Resting in this state of non-judgmental awareness, we understand that this is what it is to be human, to err, to bumble, and to go unconscious. Having laid our weapons and shields down, we can cultivate compassion for ourselves and for those in our lives who act out of this same bumbling unconsciousness.

Here, as we sit with what is, things can get very simple and very clear. Stories fall away, leaving only the residue of emotion that finds some physical expression – an achy chest, for example. We rest with whatever arises. If we find a physical sensation, we attend it with openness and compassion, not trying to change it, but simply letting it fill our experience in this moment, letting it be as big or small as it wants to be, letting it sink like a rock or lift like a feather. We hold it in a compassionate open embrace, and let it inform us. This physical sensation exists in the present moment and, held in awareness, may transform. Opening to what is present in this moment is powerful healing, not just the physical pain but for the associated emotional pain as well.

This practice of quieting and opening is not unique to Buddhism. It is a part of every spiritual tradition. And it is not uniquely spiritual. It is a natural state we are born to experience. If not honored as valid and valuable, we lose it.

I remember as a small child having this quality, being able to shift into this kind of open accepting awareness. Perhaps you have noticed, as I have with my granddaughter, that children seem to have a way of self-nurturing, of calming themselves down when they have become over-stimulated. It’s important to honor that ability and not try to commandeer the experience. When we make this self-nurturing activity seem oddball, then a child naturally looks for that sense of calm through other more socially accepted means: Mindless television, video games, snacking, etc. – all those unskillful avenues with potentially painful side effects that we as adults may find ourselves pursuing in an effort to self-nurture, to find that calm quiet place to simply be.

So we may come to meditation as if it’s some foreign experiment in mental transformation. But when we actually sit, we find we are coming home to something we once knew, even if only briefly, and it feels as welcoming and safe as our long lost ragged blanket or love-worn teddy bear.

As we practice, we see how giving ourselves back this spaciousness also gives us back a sense of openness and playfulness in our lives. It gives us other more skillful means than weapons to approach any challenges we may face.

When we talk about embodiment, this anchor to the present moment, this effective means of healing, we are not talking about something foreign either. As babies we began very much in our bodies, very much in the body of being, feeling undifferentiated and physically connected to the world around us. So as a very important part of our practice, we sense in to the body.

Words are useful, but they can only point to experience, they cannot be the experience itself. So it is the senses that really ‘knock some sense’ into us, really show us wherein resides the core story, what one might call ‘the big lie,’ that we tell ourselves, the one that keeps us feeling separate, judged, shamed, and afraid.

If this sounds off-putting, remember the embodied experience in turn enhances our ability to savor the sweetness of life. So it is a great gift, this ability to sense in. To feel the boundless nature of energy expressing itself as breath, temperature, vision, sound, smell, touch, texture, pressure, tightness, release – is life itself and the way to joy in living.

Embodiment practice is the way to discover for ourselves the Second Noble Truth. It is the most immediate way to be with what arises, to recognize suffering, to accept it into our experience in order to know its roots and associative behaviors, emotions and thoughts. So when you are sitting, fully inhabit the body. When you are walking, fully inhabit the body, letting go of all ideas of where you came from and where you are going, just this moment of experience, open to the kaleidoscope of senses telling you everything you need to know.

That is the practice.

Second Noble Truth: Insight

With the First Noble Truth we recognize the fact that there is suffering in life. Though it sounds harsh, this recognition to a degree relieves us of the anxiety about why we aren’t always perfectly happy. Once we have this recognition, once we sit with it awhile and mull it over in our minds, we may come to the Second Noble Truth.

The Second Noble Truth is an insight into the cause of our suffering. The Buddha had this insight when he sat under the Bodhi tree. He saw how there is pain that is a natural part of earthly existence, but that we create suffering on top of the pain. How do we do that?
The Buddha saw how we cause suffering by clinging to what we like and pushing away or denying what we don’t like.

He recognized a trait that has since been identified as part of the make up of all multi-celled creatures. These chemically-driven states of desire for pleasure and fear of pain are produced by our brains in order to help us survive.

So why would we want to get rid of these traits? First, we are not focusing on getting rid of anything. Instead we open to everything that arises in our experience, holding it in an open embrace of awareness.

As we become aware of these traits in our own nature and when we see them in others, we may see that often times we are not using them just for survival. We are grasping, clinging and pushing away or denying everything in our lives, not just things that are necessary for our survival or threaten it. These inherent traits of all animals have in humans turned into hyper-activated habituated tendencies.

Why is this so? Perhaps with our more developed frontal cortex — the part of the brain that enables us to imagine infinite possible outcomes — we are constantly activating physical and chemical reactions to imagined situations. Our overactive imaginations in our constantly thinking minds with all the re-runs, re-dos, application of acquired knowledge and sheer fabrications, have put us into mental over-drive. The result is an almost constant state of fear. This is not the fear of something we are actually facing in this moment, the way a deer will run away from anyone that comes too close. This is an ongoing state of mind that, lacking any current threat, will create imagined ones to fill the void.

What does fear do to us physically? If you’ve ever noticed a spider shrink into itself when it feels threatened, you know that that is what we do as well. A baby at four months is suddenly a little more wary of strangers, and her first response is to shrink a little into herself for a moment while she assesses the situation.

We adults do this too, but we easily end up staying there, tightened up into knots of tension, where we get stuck in a state of perpetual sense of alarm and isolation. We can’t sense our connection because we are locked into a hard separate stance. When we discover a connection with some particular person, situation or object, we are so relieved that we cling to them, and can’t bear to let this moment pass where we feel some relief from our ongoing sense of isolation. So we go from Teflon to Velcro with no place in between, with no way to inhabit our bodies and our being that is truly comfortable and easy.

Over the past weeks of exploring the First Noble Truth, I have been asking you to really notice how you cause suffering in your life. And what you have mentioned are the very tendencies the Buddha saw in his insight about how we create suffering in our lives: greed, aversion and delusion. Most of us fall more heavily into one of these tendencies, but all of us have some of each. So let’s take them one at a time.

Greed
When we experience pleasure and get attached to it, want it to continue, don’t want to let it go, begin to identify with it, start to need it like an addictive fix, go unconscious around it – a bit of a brain bypass that has a quality of time-out relief to it – this is the grasping, clinging, clamping down upon nature of the greedy mind.

Aversion
The tendency toward aversion brings up critical thoughts, judgments about people, behaviors, environments, aesthetics, conditions and situations. Nothing is every quite right. Even the most delightful situation could be improved upon, if only….

Delusion
This tendency is the head in the sand, or a certain grogginess that can be easily swayed and confused. If it takes a stand, it’s a stand of denial, not wanting to face facts.

Now all these traits have some positive aspects: Greed can be experienced as a zest for life. Aversion can be creative, transformational and problem solving. The delusive trait can see all sides of an issue and may pave agreement among disparate ideologies. But all can cause suffering.

These three tendencies – this grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying – are simply things to notice as they arise in our experience. Recognizing them is useful. Using the labels of greedy, aversive or delusive is not useful. We have more than enough labels already, thank you very much!

Seeing a tendency in ourselves is cause for celebration, not shame. It’s not our fault that these tendencies exist. Nature programmed us this way to keep us alive.

Our impressively developed brains continue to make an increasingly complex system of technological developments. When we steep ourselves in this hive of activity constantly, when we keep pace with the rapid-fire nature of modern life in our culture, we quite naturally succumb to one or more of these traits that cause suffering. Needing a retreat from the hubbub, we may choose unskillful means to numb ourselves with drugs, intoxicants, gambling, shopping, mindless eating, and other addictive behaviors. These are the answers readily provided by advertisers, so they are usually the first recourse.

Yet it is not just in this advanced technological age that humans cause themselves suffering. The Buddha didn’t have a cell phone or a computer, nor was he a jet-lagged jet-setter. In fact he spent his whole life within a very small mostly rural area, living amidst nature. Yet he knew suffering, and he saw it manifest in all the humans he knew as well.

Sometimes people get misty-eyed about some more quiet ‘simpler’ time, thinking that happiness was much easier to come by in the old days. ‘Simple for whom?’ is what I always wonder, because when I look back I see intolerance, enslavement and injustice. I am so grateful to be living now!

Not to exonerate the era we are in from these same forms of blindness. We continue to disrespect and trash the earth and, because of our vastly greater numbers, the impact is much greater. We trash our own bodies with faux food, and our governments wage war against each other over access to resources. And we live at a pace that is unsustainable and cannot be compensated by a week on the beach every summer.

But we are also, to a much greater degree than in past centuries, recognizing ourselves in each other, recognizing our connection to all of the inhabitants of this small blue planet. There are many movements afoot — not just in spiritual communities — that are slowing down the pace of life, acknowledging the value of this moment, of staying present.

Regardless of what era we live in, the development of the human brain has created this potential for creating misery, for getting out of balance. And the further refinement of it, through the insights of the Buddha and many other awakened beings, offers us skillful means to end, or at least cope with, our suffering.

The first step on this path is being able to recognize these traits of grasping, clinging, pushing away and denying as they arise in our experience. This is a great step to awakening! Don’t shut down now just because it feels uncomfortable to acknowledge something that seems to reflect badly on you. It doesn’t! Relax! We’re all in the same boat here.

So now as we explore for ourselves the Second Noble Truth, the challenge is to stay open. Yes, I know, this feels so personal, but it’s universal. And if we can gently but firmly be present to notice these tendencies in ourselves, we can begin to experience more spaciousness.

The key to sitting with the Second Noble Truth is to tap into compassion. We approach it with a great deal of metta, loving-kindness so that we won’t be swallowed up by the aversiveness that might be prompted by this inner discovery. Agh! I don’t want to be like that! Or I’m not like that!

No one said this work is easy, but there are ways to make it easier. I had a wonderful teaching a few months ago, watching my newborn granddaughter sleeping peacefully in her bassinette. Then suddenly she started rooting and struggling, waving her fists and poking her tongue in and out, wanting, wanting, wanting something, anything to stick in her mouth. How strongly I related to that! I recognized myself, the way I will sometimes roam the kitchen, looking in the refrigerator and the cupboards looking for a little something to stick in my mouth.

What an awakening it was for me to see that this is something born in me. My granddaughter was two weeks old! I didn’t invent this craving, I don’t have to feel shame for it! Of course, it’s not a free pass to eat everything in sight, but it is a deep acceptance of my own nature.

And then she gave me another insight, one that reined me in from forging my way to the kitchen. I noticed that after 30 seconds or so, her wanting, wanting, wanting passed, and she slipped into deeper sleep. She let it go. It passed. And if I pay attention, if I don’t rush to fulfill my wanting, if I sit with it a bit, I notice that yes indeed, she’s right: the wanting does pass.

So working with the Second Noble Truth is both humbling and enlightening. We are not trying to see how bad we are. We are accepting that we are human and finding some peace in that awareness. And perhaps we can hold it lightly, take ourselves less seriously, and feel less as if we have some fortress to defend.

Acknowledging and noticing is a continual process of creating spaciousness and awakening. It is made more painful if we see ourselves as isolated individuals up on a stage with judges about to call us out. If we can let view go, let ourselves be held in loving-kindness, if we can see ourselves as the small children we once were and hold ourselves with parental love, then we can begin to see each of these traits as clues to suffering, rather than one more reason to beat ourselves up.

So I hope during the week you will allow this level of noticing to bring about insights. And I hope that you receive the insights with great compassion.

This is the practice.

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.’