In the first noble truth Buddha explained that there is suffering running through our lives from birth through to death. In the second truth he told us about some of the causes of this suffering, namely the three poisons. In the fourth truth, he explained what path we can take to start the process of destroying the three poisons. This path is known as the eight-fold path.
This is how Buddha described the eight-fold path:
‘And what, monks, is the noble truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of desire? Just this very eight-fold path: appropriate view, appropriate intention, appropriate speech, appropriate action, appropriate livelihood, appropriate effort, appropriate mindfulness and appropriate concentration.’
This path is not a religious path and doesn’t require rituals, prayers, ceremonies, or even for you to become a Buddhist. It can be looked upon as a path that leads to us living a responsible life and so anybody can practise it. So, it isn’t a Buddhist practice, it is more of a lifestyle practice.
The eightfold path comprises of three aspects and I will take each aspect individually and explore the appropriate ways to approach the path. The first aspect is seeing clearly, which includes view and intention.
So, let’s start by looking at the view? The view refers to the understanding that we cause most of our emotional suffering ourselves, the understanding that everything is impermanent and the understanding that things happen due to causes, which in turn lead to consequences. Here I will concentrate on the understanding of cause and effect.
So, what do we need to understand about cause and effect? It is important to understand that our actions of body, speech and mind have consequences. You may think that, ‘I understand that actions of body and speech have consequences, but how can our thoughts?’ Before we do any action, it starts off as a thought – first we think and then we act. This thought can be conscious or unconscious, but it is there before any action. So, it is important to realise that our thoughts also have consequences.
Whatever we do and say will become a cause for our future conditions. I am not talking about future lives here; I am talking about this life. We are the architects of our future. This is how we should be thinking. We should not be thinking that our lives are conditioned by some system of reward and punishment meted out by an outside force. This way of thinking is just shirking our responsibilities. Of course, it is easier to blame someone else for our problems, we love doing that, but this will not help us bring about a change for the better in our lives.
Put simplistically, if we act in a kind, caring, helpful and compassionate way, we will be helping to build a good future for ourselves. This is not some metaphysical law; I am just stating the way life is. If we act in a bad way by not caring for others, stealing, lying, cheating, killing and generally acting in a harmful way, people are not going to want to be associated with us or help us when we need it. This is the way of the world. Also, if we are a kind and caring person our conscience will be clear, and this will also reduce our emotional suffering and certainly help us during our meditation and mindful awareness practices.
There is no scientific evidence for this, but just look at your own experiences and I am sure you will see that your actions have consequences. If you kill someone you will be caught and sent to prison or put to death. However, if you are not caught, you will have to carry the torment, anguish and guilt around with you for the rest of your life, fearful every time the doorbell rings. Either way there are consequences for your act of killing.
Having said that, I am not suggesting that if we act in a good way the whole of our life is going to be rosy. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen, but it will reduce the chances of bad things happening. It will also put us in a better frame of mind to be able to cope with these unfavourable situations when they arise.
We don’t live in a bubble, so the actions of others are also going to affect us. Other people’s causes and effects overlap our causes and effects until there is a huge web of interconnected causes and effects. So, we have to remember that when something unpleasant befalls us it is the result of a large number of causes. This will stop us adding anger and frustration to an already difficult situation. It will also prevent us from struggling with something that is beyond our control. This will at the very least reduce some of our emotional suffering.
When we have the appropriate view regarding cause and effect, it encourages us to live an honourable life. This is a life where we take responsibility for our actions.
Some people find it hard to get to grips with cause and effect, so I suggest you sit quietly and reflect on it. That way, you will understand that things can only come into existence due to a cause or causes and not randomly or magically. Every cause will ultimately have an effect. So, all of our actions of body, speech and mind are going to have consequences. This should encourage us to act in a skilful way.
The next element of the path is intention. What I am talking about here is your motivation and conditioning, as it is these forces that move us into doing actions with our bodies, speech or minds.
This element is divided into three sections and Buddha explained it this way:
‘And what, monks, is appropriate intention? intentions of letting go, Intentions of freedom from ill will, intentions of harmlessness. This, monks, is called appropriate intention.’
The first section is sometimes talked about as renunciation, giving something up, rejecting or abandoning, but I think a better way to describe this is the act of letting go. What we are trying to let go of is attachment to, or craving for, sensual objects.
I personally believe renunciation is never going to work. The more we try to renounce something, the more we get ourselves entangled in it. If you are fighting something, you are giving it power. So, in that way, for me, renunciation will not work. This is why I say let it go, because by doing that you are giving it no power and it will begin to disappear on its own. What I mean by letting things go is that we don’t get ourselves ensnared by over thinking, judging, comparing or criticising, we don’t engage the desire, we allow it to arise, we acknowledge it, let it pass and we move on. Of course, that is easier said than done but this is where our mindfulness practices help a lot. If we are present with our thoughts, we will catch the desire as it arises. This gives us the opportunity to follow the desire or let it go.
Clinging to desires is one of the origins of our emotional suffering, but when we try to let things go, a strong feeling inside stops us from succeeding. This happens because we are so attached to our desires. It is never easy to suddenly just let them go, but it certainly is not impossible.
If we believe sensual objects are going to give us true happiness, we will start clinging to them and this will in turn shape our thoughts and actions. We will become attached and our emotional suffering will begin.
It takes time to change our perceptions and it is not going to be easy. We have to slowly start chipping away at our clinging attachment to sensual objects, whether it is to people or belongings. Step by step we reduce their hold on us.
How do we let our clinging desires go? There are several ways, but I believe the best one is to contemplate impermanence. By doing thisyou begin to realise the impermanence of things, you understand that everything is temporary and there is nothing solid to get attached to. So, when a clinging desire arises you do not have to hold on to it, you can let it go. Just keep reminding yourself that, ‘This is temporary and will pass.’
Freedom from ill-will
This is when we do not have any thoughts of causing others harm.
Ill-will stems from clinging to our ego and can arise when we are unhappy with someone, jealous, have too much pride, anger, have an aversion towards someone and so on. For example, when someone, such as our friend, partner or family member has hurt us, and we start wishing bad things to happen to them. Ill-will is often an emotional reaction. It doesn’t necessarily follow that we will act upon our ill-will, but as our actions are driven by our thoughts, the potential is always there to do so.
The best way to liberate ourselves from ill-will is to foster the thought that other people, just like us, are fighting against the physical and emotional suffering running through their lives. They also want to be free of this emotional suffering and want only peace of mind. If we think like this, it will cause goodwill to arise within us. So, caring for others’ feelings and showing them genuine warmth replaces ill-will with a sense of compassion and kindness.
Now when I talk about caring for others, I am not talking about sympathy or pity, but real empathy. This is when we put ourselves in other people’s shoes and truly understand that they wish to be treated kindly and with warmth. They too are struggling to make sense of their lives.
These days, we tend to ration our kindness to people we are friendly with. This way of acting can be selfish and goes part of the way to explain why there is so much ill-will in the world today. You need look no further than the vile comments people post on social media or how some politicians talk about each other to see an all too common manifestation of ill-will.
So, how do we go beyond ill-will and build a feeling of goodwill towards others? One way is to do the following practice, which is a reflection on kindness and is split into three parts, which embraces three types of people we encounter in life: those we are friendly with, those we are not friendly with and the biggest group by far, those we do not care about one way or another. The point of this practice is to open our minds and build friendliness towards all three types of people.
Start by sitting comfortably and lightly closing your eyes. Focus your awareness on the breath flowing in and out of your nose. Don’t change the breath in any way, just let it flow naturally.
Now, start reflecting on your friends. This is the easiest way to begin because you already have a certain amount of warmth towards them. Think of a close friend and start to reflect on their positive qualities and their acts of kindness. A note of caution here: try not to use someone you are sexually attracted to because kindness could quite easily turn into lust. It is also recommended that you do not use the same person each time or else you may get attached to them.
By reflecting on your friend’s good qualities and kindness, positive feelings will arise. Once this has occurred, you should move away from reflecting on your friend and concentrate on your feelings that have arisen. These feelings should be your primary focus. They should be feelings of warmth and empathy. Spend some time being aware of this warmth and see how happy and peaceful it makes you feel.
Keeping the above feelings in mind, move on to the next type of person, someone you dislike. Picture this person in your mind and examine him or her closely. See the person’s pain, suffering, loneliness and insecurity. See that all he or she really wants is to have a peaceful mind. Now start to radiate the same feelings you had for your friend towards the person you dislike. Project all the respect, warmth and kindness that you can muster.
Finally, picture a person you pass by everyday but do not care about one way or another. Again, feel this person’s pain and see how all he or she is looking for is peace of mind. Radiate your warmth and kindness towards this person and imagine how that makes him or her feel, and in turn, how you feel.
This is a simple way of cultivating respect and warmth for everybody, regardless of whether you know them or not, whether you like them or not. Remember, though, that this is not a reflective exercise that you do only in the privacy of your home. It should be applied to your daily life so that you cultivate a friendly and open attitude towards everyone without discrimination. That of course includes yourself, so if you are feeling a bit low or your self-compassion needs a boost, you can start this practice by radiating warmth and kindness towards yourself.
You should now have started to have feelings of goodwill towards others. These feelings should move you towards actions that are not harmful. Remember, our mind controls our actions, so feelings of goodwill should lead to more skilful actions.
Everybody wishes to be free of emotional suffering but are often gripped by discontentment, anguish, unease, dissatisfaction and other kinds of suffering. People have their own private suffering, but we should understand that we also play a part in that suffering by not showing compassion for them, by not caring for their well-being and by not seeing that, they, like us are trying to free themselves from all forms of suffering and have peace of mind.
There are various reflections that you can practice that will help you start developing compassion for others.
Do these reflections on the three types of people mentioned in the goodwill section. However, this time choose people who you know are suffering, and radiate compassion towards them.
Again, start your reflection on a friend who you know is going through a rough time. Reflect on that person’s suffering directly and then reflect on how, like yourself, your friend wants to be free from pain. You should continue this reflection until a strong feeling of compassion arises within you.
Remember, compassion is not pity or sympathy, but is a form of empathy. Pity and sympathy stem from our own emotions, which are not stable or reliable. Whereas empathy is where you put yourself into another person’s shoes and feel what they are feeling. The beauty of this is that you are not projecting your thoughts and prejudices but are actually seeing things from another person’s point of view.
Once you start experiencing a strong feeling of compassion for your friend, hold onto it and use it as a standard for the same practice we will now do as we reflect on the two other types of people.
Think of a person you know who is suffering, but whom you dislike, and then reflect on their suffering. See the world through their eyes, try and understand what they are going through. Try to genuinely feel their pain and suffering. Once you have achieved this, start radiating the powerful feeling of compassion you felt before.
When you feel such strong compassion for a person, it is difficult to dislike them anymore because you now understand that they feel suffering, just like you.
Next, think of a person you really have no feelings for one way or another. Start reflecting on how they also have causes for pain, sorrow, anguish and dissatisfaction. Again, once you have truly felt their pain, start radiating compassion towards them. This exercise helps you realise that we are all prone to suffer in the same way, and there really are no strangers in this world.
By doing these reflections, you will slowly be able to open your mind and expand your compassion towards more people in your world. You will start to see that all of us are the same. By doing this reflection you are not necessarily going to be able to directly ease another’s suffering, but you are going to be more open to doing so, as your compassion for them grows.
This ends the ‘seeing clearly’ aspect of the eightfold path.