In this episode, I’ll talk about the Buddhist path that leads to enlightenment. What does it mean to be “on the Buddhist path”? This path is commonly referred to as the Eightfold path and it consists of trying to develop skillfulness in 8 key areas of life: understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
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Transcription of the podcast episode:
Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcribing service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.
Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 41. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today, I’m talking about life on the Buddhist path.
Today, I want to talk a little bit about what it means to be a Buddhist especially in the secular sense, what is life on the Buddhist path? As a listener, you might be someone who’s interested in deepening your mindfulness practice. Is there a process by which one becomes a Buddhist and what does that even mean? How does this apply to a secular Buddhist path?
If that’s you, a listener who wants to take that next step, this podcast episode we’ll discuss a little bit about what life on the Buddhist path entails? In most Buddhist traditions, there is a process by which one becomes an adherent to this path or this way of life. I want to address that a little bit specifically because I’ve recently gone through this on my own. I’ve been studying and teaching Buddhism for many years now, but I recently graduated just this weekend.
I’ve been doing a ministry program with a Japanese school of Buddhism that was based out of Chicago and now it’s in California. They have an American secularized style of Buddhism that infuses several different traditions and that’s where I’ve been studying for years now. This graduation ceremony is what allows me to officially be, I guess, you could say a Buddhist minister now which would allow me to officiate at weddings or funerals or any of the ritualistic aspects of Buddhism and I find this pretty fascinating at the intersection of approaching Buddhism from a secular lens because Buddhism itself is already so secular in nature.
It’s a non-Theistic tradition and yet there are rituals and aspects of it that can feel quite religious. I wanted to address that a little bit with regards to this topic of what is life like on this Buddhist path, on the secular Buddhist path. Remember as I mentioned with every podcast, you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, just use it to be a better whatever you already are. For some people, their spiritual path that they’re interested in is the Buddhist path, the secular Buddhist path.
I want to talk about that a little bit today. In typical traditions with typical schools of Buddhism, the process by which one would become a “Buddhist” and I’m using air quotes here when I say that is that you take refuge. It’s called taking refuge and you take refuge in three things. You take refuge on the Buddha, and the Dharma, and in the Sangha. I want to explain that a little bit, but first of all let’s just look at this word, refuge for a second because refuge is like safety or comfort or another word that I think does a good job of explaining this idea of refuge is anchoring ourselves, an anchor.
What we’re anchoring ourselves to are values and I think this is an important thing because in the Buddhist tradition, it’s values that we’re trying to anchor to not necessarily beliefs. Buddhism is not a dogmatic religion or spiritual path or at least shouldn’t be. To take refuge in the Buddha for example what that means I have mentioned in previous podcast, the podcast on enlightenment that the word Buddha means awakened one. What we’re taking refuge in is in this idea of wisdom into the possibility … I anchor myself to the possibility of being awake, of being awakened myself.
For me, this means essentially I value wisdom. Wisdom is one of my values. I anchor myself to the wisdom that others have taught people like the Buddha and people who continue to teach even to this day. Wise individuals who have found freedom amidst suffering, that’s what I value. The wisdom is a value that I want to anchor myself to so when I take refuge, to say I take refuge in the Buddha, that’s what that means that the wisdom is a value. I want to anchor myself to it and this anchor reminds me that waking up is a very real possibility that I can have freedom from my habitual reactivity which can be the source of so much of my suffering.
Taking refuge or it’s like anchoring ourselves in wisdom. That’s how I would describe that first step. Taking refuge in the Buddha is anchoring myself in wisdom. Step two, you say I take refuge in the Dharma and the Dharma are the teaching … It’s the teachings of the Buddha. To me essentially this means perspective. The teachings give us a perspective on life, on reality that we didn’t have before.
I anchor myself to the teachings that will help me to understand the nature of suffering, the nature of impermanence that things always change. The nature of interdependence that everything depends on everything else, that a flower isn’t just a flower. A flower is also interdependent with the sun and the clouds and everything else. I’ve talked about that. I strive to see reality through these lenses. These lenses of impermanence and interdependence.
This is the anchor, the anchor of perspective that reminds me that I need to take a look at the way that I’m seeing things. In fact, it reminds me of how important of my perspective is, perhaps more so than what it is I’m seeing is the recognition of how I’m seeing things. It’s on me. It’s like turning inward, looking at that mirror. Taking refuge in the dharma is that I’m anchoring myself in the teachings about impermanence and interdependence. It’s a perspective shift.
Then the third one is you take refuge in the Sangha and what that means it’s friendship and support. I anchor myself to the companionship and the support that I need in order to be a better whatever I already am. There’s a phrase in the Dhammapada that says,
“If you find a wise person who points out your faults and corrects you, you should follow that person as a sage as you would a revealer of treasures.”
I really like that sentiment and I think all of your listening to this can identify with that to have a friend, someone that you know. Maybe you know them in person, maybe you don’t but someone that you can rely on who just tells you as it is, not in a mean way but in a genuine way they help you or they inspire you to be a better version of who you are. We all have someone like that. Then that’s what this whole part of the refuge is that I want to be with other like-minded individuals who are aspiring to be better versions of themselves.
That’s my community and I’m going to take refuge in that. I’m going to anchor myself in this community of people who inspire me to be a better version of what I already am. Those are the three refuges. Essentially what it takes to become a Buddhist in most schools is you just say those three things, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma and I take refuge in the Sangha.”
I wanted to explain that because I think more important than saying it is recognizing what does it mean? You don’t have to say it, it’s just something in your mind that you recognize. I’m going to anchor myself, take refuge in wisdom. I’m going to take refuge in knowledge, learning, understanding, perspective and I’m going to take refuge in friendship and support. Not just for the support that I need but my willingness to be a support to the others who are also on this path. That’s it. There’s really nothing else to it.
It’s not explained this way. It almost doesn’t even seem like it’s a religious thing at all. It almost seems like that’s common sense. Who wouldn’t want to be on that path? That’s how I view it. It’s like, “Well, yeah. I think a lot of people are on this path without even realizing that they’re on this path.” They already value the knowledge and wisdom that comes from people who are wise and not just religiously or spiritually but it could be people who contribute to wisdom in our world.
People who spread those teachings. I think you get the point. That’s really what it means. I anchor myself in wisdom, I anchor myself in perspective and I anchor myself in friendship and support. To me that’s essentially what it means to be a Buddhist especially a secular Buddhist. Those are the three things. Now, very common in Buddhism is the teaching of the eightfold path. What that means, these are the eight areas in your life that once you decide this is the path I want to be on, the path that leads to more wisdom and more compassion, now what? What should I focus on?
The Eightfold Path
That’s where the rest of this conversation will go because the eightfold path is the traditional path that a Buddhist … (I’m reluctant to even say a Buddhist but someone who’s aspiring to wake up). Maybe we’ll call it that. Someone who’s aspiring to be a better whatever they already are. These eight areas are important areas in your life that you would be able to focus on and work with to accomplish that. Accomplish being a better whatever you already are.
Let’s talk about these eight areas. The eightfold path consists of these eight areas like I mentioned and they are understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. These are referred to as the eightfold path. This is why the simple of Buddhism is a wheel with eight spokes. This is what it’s referring to but it’s important to understand that this isn’t a moral code to be followed. It’s a guide. It’s meant to be a guide for specific areas in my life where I can experience and discover the nature of reality for me, from my perspective.
Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story in his book, Old Pathway Clouds where the Buddha says, “I need to stay very clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality but it’s not reality itself. Just in the same way that a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.” The eightfold path is to be seen like that, it’s a guide. Consider that standpoint. Then it’s common that you can take these eight areas and you can divide those even further into three groups.
The moral disciplined group which would wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood, some traditions will translate this as right speech, right action, right livelihood. I like to use “wise”. Another word that also translates well for the original pali, that‘s used is skillful. You could do skillful speech, skillful actions, skillful livelihood. I got sidetracked for a second. Group one was the moral discipline group. Group two is the concentration group. These are wise effort, wise mindfulness, wise concentration and then there’s the wisdom group which is wise view and wise intention.
Another way to think of these three categories is that three of these are training me to have a higher, moral discipline. The other group, these are trainings in the higher form of consciousness, a higher state of consciousness. Then the third group is a training in higher wisdom, increased wisdom. Let’s just go through these one at a time. The first one and in my opinion, the most important one in this group of higher wisdom as wise understanding or wise view. Sometimes these are used interchangeably.
Wise View / Skillful View
Understanding or view is essentially the recognition that the way I see something may not be the way it actually is. It’s recognizing that it’s just the way that I see it. I can’t get past that. My reality is influenced by the way that I perceive things. This is like walking into a barn at night and there’s a coiled hose and I think it’s a snake. In that moment, it doesn’t matter what it is, the only thing that matters is what I think it is. All of my actions, everything I’m going to do from that moment on is governed entirely by my perspective.
This is why it’s so important to have a wise view or a wise understanding of reality because reality may not be what I think it is. If I were to act immediately as if it was a snake, I’d jump or I do whatever it is I’m going to do, I’m acting at this point not based on reality but based on my perception of reality and that’s why it’s so important to at least recognize or distinguish that there are two realities. There’s what is and then there’s my story around what is.
Everything that I do in life is revolving around the story that I’ve created around reality but that’s not the same thing as reality itself. This is why this first one is so important. We want to be wise about our understanding or our view of reality. Wisdom if we were to turn that light in the barn so to speak suddenly I realize, “Oh, that wasn’t a snake, that was actually just a hose.” Now my entire set of actions from that moment forward are also changing and shifting based on a new understanding of reality that’s different from the understanding of reality that I had a few minutes ago when it was a misunderstood way of perceiving reality.
This first spoke of the wheel essentially it’s about continually seeking after wisdom to help us to learn to see the world the way that it really is. Now, you could sum this up in the two components of impermanence and interdependence. Those are the two most common ways that we misinterpret reality. We think that things are independent. There’s this and there’s that. This doesn’t rely on that. This is twisting that and realizing, “Wait, this is because of that so I cannot separate this and that.”
Again, this is the exercise with the flower. You can’t separate the flower from the bees or the flower from the sun or the flower from the clouds and the rain and the soil. You start to realize, “Wow. Everything is interdependent.” That will start to fundamentally shift one of my misperceptions about reality which is before that, I only saw things as things. There’s this and there’s that and they’re all separate.
That starts to shift and then the other huge area where that shift is in terms of impermanence where we tend to see things as permanent and our understanding with a change in perspective is we realize nothing is permanent. Everything is always changing. I can’t isolate something and make it a permanent thing because there’s no permanence there. We do that with people. We believe someone is a certain way or circumstances may seem to be a certain way. They seem really negative. Later we discover they weren’t what we thought they were. This is the whole parable of the horse and who knows what is good and what is bad. That’s totally in terms of impermanence.
Those two things really start to shift the way that we understand our understanding or view of reality. That’s that first spoke, wise understanding, wise view. We work with that through looking at impermanence and interdependence. The reason I think that’s the most important one is because once we’ve understood the nature of reality is that it’s impermanent and interdependent, it starts to change that we view reality. With this wise view, all of the other spokes become easier to understand or to implement or to practice.
Wise Intent / Skillful Intent
With that, let’s look at the second spoke of the wheel which is wise intent. Intent is everything on the Buddhist path because a lot of the things that we do in life, we’re not really aware of why we’re doing them. When it comes to trying to reduce suffering, we need to be aware of the intention that we have with regards to the things that we’re saying or doing. When our intentions stem from anger or hatred, they’re more likely to cause harm than if they’re stemming from a place of happiness or gratitude.
Because we know that our tendency is to be reactive, it can be very difficult to be mindful of the intent behind our words and actions because sometimes we’re just reacting. There’s no thought to the intent. It takes practice to learn to become aware of our intentions. In some traditions, I remember you can model your behavior after someone as an ideal. I remember the bracelets as a child that remind you, what would Jesus do or they have what would Buddha do?
What Would I Do?
The goal here is to become very familiar with the answer to the question, what would I do? What would I do? That’s really all that matters in the end, isn’t it? Why do I say the things that I say? Why am I doing the things that I’m doing? Intention is the way that we understand that? You practice by asking yourself why? As you’re reacting to things, why am I so angry right now? Why am I feeling this way? Why am I experiencing this emotion? You can do this with the positive and negative because if I’m being really kind to someone, I can ask why? Why am I being kind? You may discover, “Oh, I’m trying to be nice to them so that they’ll lend me money.”
Now, that I understand that intent, that’s not a noble action or that’s not … My intent may reveal to me that I’m increasing suffering and not reducing suffering even if I was doing on the surface what seems like a nice gesture. Maybe if I genuinely care about a person, then maybe my intent is different. You want to understand your intent. You want to be keenly aware of your intentions and if the whole point of this is that we’re trying to become liberated or free from our habitual reactivity then it’s vitally important to understand our intentions or to at least be aware of our intentions.
That’s how you can decide if you need to create new intentions or perhaps let go of old intentions or it’s when you understand your intent that you can be more at peace with why you do the things that you do because you know it’s not out of a reactive habit that you may not be aware of. That’s where intent comes in and intent will play a role with everything else from here moving forward. For example, so those are the two spokes under wisdom. The next spokes, the next three spokes are in this genre of moral discipline.
You’ll see how intent comes into play here because the first one is wise speech. We’re talking about communication speech. It’s not just talking, it’s the way we communicate with ourselves and with others because communication is an essential part of creating a peaceful and harmonious life both for ourselves and others because we’re social creatures and communication is perhaps the most important part of our human relations.
Wise Speech / Skillful Speech
Wise speech is learning to communicate with others in a way that minimizes harm or that doesn’t cause harm or that doesn’t cause harm. Like I said, this isn’t just speech, this is writing, texting emailing, Facebook’ing, whatever form of communication you’ve got going on because lying, gossiping, insulting, that’s not wise speech, those I think are obvious. They don’t minimize suffering but on the flip side of that, it’s important to understand that neither are compliments that you don’t mean. That’s also not wise speech or promises you don’t intend to keep that would not also be wise speech.
Sucking up to someone that you’re trying to impress because you’re trying to get something out of them. Those would be examples of unwise or unskillful speech. This is where intent comes into play because I may do that without knowing that that’s what I’m doing but once I have a thorough understand of my intent, now I can catch, “Oh, that’s actually not very effective speech.” It may be causing more harm even though I’m saying something nice to someone because I know the intent behind it.
Wise speech, considers why you say something on equal grounds as what it is that you say. It’s not just what you say, it’s why are you saying what you’re saying. Wise speech does not always have to be pleasant. It’s not about just being nice. It’s not about withholding ideas or opinions because you don’t want someone to disagree with you or to feel upset because you have a different view from them. The important part here is that it’s always sincere, it’s always genuine. It’s like the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism.
I think we all know what that’s like. We all know the difference between the two. Receiving criticism from someone isn’t a problem but sometimes it’s the intent behind it that bothers us. Are we trying to cause harm, cause pain or are we trying to be genuine and authentic and expressing something. That’s the difference here with wise speech.
Wise Action / Skillful Action
The next one is wise action and this is another spoke here, wise action is essentially a conduct that’s proper and necessary for whatever situation you’re in. For example, here’s another scenario with wise action correlated to intent and correlated to speech. I imagine during the Second World War when there were families that were hiding Jews in their home, if the Nazis come knocking like, “Hey, do you know where the neighbors went?” It would be wise speech to say, “No. I don’t know where they are,” even though that’s a lie.
A wise action could be hiding them in your house even though you know maybe that was against the law if they had made a law about that or whatever. You get the idea of what I’m saying here. Wise action sometimes includes the sense of doing the right thing in a moral sense. It closely resembles the guideline for behaving appropriately according to the situation and the context. Again, this is why it’s going to be super important to understand what is my intent and what is my view. How do I view the world?
Someone without wise or skillful view or understanding of reality may think that they’re living according to wise action when they’re not. What they’re doing actually isn’t wise. You can see that. We don’t want this to be a set moral code because the problem with that is that morals change and they evolve overtime based on time and based on place, society, where you live.
If we just adhere to the moral code of some place in time, that may not be the wisest form of action for our specific time and our specific place. This is an expression that says, morality is doing what’s right regardless of what you’re told. Obedience is doing what you’re told regardless of what’s right. To me that sums up this idea of wise action. We want to do what’s right more than just do what we’re told. Those are two different things.
Wise understanding, wise thinking, wise speech all the previous ones we’ve talked about will give rise to wise action where your wisdom leads you to behave fittingly in any scenario that you might be in. Wise action is not a set of rules to be followed to the letter. That’s why in Buddhism, there’s not like the 10 commandments or there’s nothing like that because those are just wise action. What is wise action? Guess what, you have to figure that out.
It’s not appropriate for me to say…what might be wise action for me may not be wise action for you because it depends on place and time as well. As we know from the story of the parable of the horse who knows what is good and what is bad, we know that right and wrong are often subjective especially in different societies and different time periods so what may be acceptable in one society or one time in history is often unacceptable in another time and another place.
Imagine those times when people finally figure it out and realize, “Oh, slavery isn’t okay.” Maybe it seemed like it was for a long time but then consciousness elevates, awareness elevates, new perspective shift and that’s why you’re always working with this, it’s not a static thing. Suddenly somebody, somewhere realize, “Hey, this isn’t right. We shouldn’t be doing this. This is not wise action. If it were stagnant, if it were a static thing, a set of rules, that gets really complicated because life isn’t stagnant, life isn’t fixed, life is continually changing and evolving therefore wise action should not be an absolute thing. It shouldn’t be a set moral code, like a set of commandments.
You’re going to want to … Life on this path entails wise action that will arise naturally out of having wise understanding or wise view, wise speech, wise intent. I hope that makes sense how those start to correlate.
Wise Livelihood / Skillful Livelihood
The next one we’ll look at is wise livelihood. This is the one that addresses what we do for a living, how do we make a living, how do we interact with others while on the job because we need to determine for ourselves if what we do for a living is causing more harm or more good for ourselves and others.
Again, this is a very personal thing that arises naturally out of having a wise view and a wise intent. If I understand my intent and I understand the way that I perceive the world, it starts to give me the ability to decide is what I’m doing … Is this the type of job or career that I want to have where I feel like it’s improving. Am I helping myself and others to be better, whatever they already are or am I not?
Some things are obvious, like being a hired hit man. It’s very obvious that that would not be wise livelihood because you’re causing more harm than you are good for yourselves and others. It does require that balance between what’s good for you and what’s good for others or for the environment or you can start to see how complex this can become. There’s another aspect to all is it also includes how we interact with the people that we work with, customers, coworkers, things like that.
Again if I’m embezzling funds from my employers, stealing food from the fridge at work, those are examples of unwise livelihood even someone who’s trying to do good like a doctor, they may be doing good but they’re at the same time causing harm because maybe they’re taking bribes from a pharmaceutical company to prescribe a certain type of medicine over another one knowing that this one wouldn’t be as effective as the other one but I get paid more if I prescribe this one. There is another example of wise livelihood.
That’s also another example of where intent is really important. I need to understand why am I doing this? Is it just for the money? What is the intent behind the action, behind the livelihood? At the end of all this, ultimately it’s just up to us to make the judgment call regarding the way that we make a living. You make your living, you know why you do it? It’s a good idea to incorporate wise intent in this process. Maybe you can ask yourself why am I doing what I’m doing?
I’ve had to do this in my own life. I remember one specific job where I was really uncomfortable with the type of work that I did because we sold supplements and it was a deceptive form of marketing where some of you may be familiar with this tactic where you sign up for a free trial of these pills and then you think it’s free but a month later they start billing you and they make it really difficult for you to cancel that automated bill.
I work for a company that did that and I had to ask myself, why am I doing what I’m doing? Am I comfortable with this? I was always uncomfortable knowing people were trying really hard to figure out how to cancel these ongoing bills and it was a widespread practice at the time but at the end of the day, I decided that wasn’t a career I wanted to be in. It wasn’t a type of work I wanted to be involved with because I felt that for me personally I was uncomfortable knowing the harm that it was causing on others, the inconvenience it was causing others to have to put up with the job that I was performing.
In ended up leaving that job. I found another job where I didn’t have conflicting feelings around my livelihood. That’s the idea behind why is livelihood. With those, that deals with the training and higher moral discipline with speech, action and livelihood. Again, you see how important it is that those are correlated with an understanding of what my intent is, wise intent.
That leads us to the last three spokes of the wheel. These are the training and higher consciousness or higher awareness and you can start to see how they all start to feed on each other because the better I am at having effort that effort may be what helps me to understand my intent and that intent helps me to be introspective and understand that maybe what I’m doing for work isn’t what I want to do for work. You can start to see how they rely on each other.
Wise Effort / Skillful Effort
The next one is wise effort. This is essentially what it takes to put into practice all the other parts of the path. This is the effort on our part if we want to experience any kind of positive change in our lives. It’s going to require effort whether it’s to learn a new skill. I want to learn music for example. I’ve got to learn to read music or sports. It takes a lot of practicing business skills. I might have to go to school.
Whatever it is I’m trying to do, there’s effort required to do it. We can usually look at ourselves and recognize if we’re going to give the proper amount of effort or not, we can decide that before we go into something. Without effort, there’s usually very little or no progress. Our effort affects everything that we do in the world. You’ll know this if you’ve ever tried to accomplish any kind of goal and you failed for example, a common one for a lot of us, around new years as we decide we’re going to start going to the gym and we’re going to get in shape.
The reason that we don’t that a lot of us don’t and I put myself in there because this happens over and over. What I realize is here’s a lack of effort. What else could it be? Effort is what plays a part in that. For me, I’ve tried to learn to play the guitar for almost 10 years and I’ve never really done a good job with it because it’s the effort to how to be put in to do it. That’s where I struggle.
The key to accomplishing a goal is directly connected to the effort that you put in to what it takes to accomplish it. I know that I’ve put time and effort in the other things I wanted to do and that worked out really well for me. It took a lot of effort to start putting this podcast together. That hasn’t been a big problem. You can start to see where and how much effort are you putting into the things that really matter in your life. This is especially important when you’re looking at relationships, jobs, hobbies, lots of other things but relationships.
Do you put the effort in required to maintain the relationship with your loved one or with your spouse or significant other, with parents, with siblings? A wise effort is about prioritizing our effort and all of the things that we do because there are a lot of things we want to do in life and we need to prioritize and decide where does the effort go? Where am I going to dedicate time to make sure that I accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish?
Now, with Buddhism, we talk about this that we’re trying to become a “better whatever we already are.” We’re trying to be improved and be better at how we live to be less reactive. To be less reactive isn’t going to happen because I just decide, “Okay. I don’t want to be reactive anymore.” It doesn’t work that way. In fact, I’m going to be reactive and one of the first things I’ll be reactive to is reacting to the fact that I cannot be reactive.
Now, I’m mad on two layers or levels because I don’t want too reactive anymore so now when I am reactive, now I’m mad that I got reactive because I already know that I don’t want to be reactive. You can see without effort, there’s no form of awakening or enlightenment or liberation from habitual reactivity. It doesn’t happen without effort. It’s the effort that this specific spoke is relying on am I going to put time into meditating? Am I going to put time into reading more books to understand these concepts? Am I going to put the effort it requires to seek podcast episodes that continually push me towards a better whatever I already am? That’s effort. That’s where effort comes in.
Wise Mindfulness / Skillful Mindfulness
After effort, we’ve got mindfulness. Again, you see all of these start layering on each other. Wise mindfulness is about being aware. It’s about paying attention. Now, being mindful helps us to stay anchored in the present moment because typically we’re not in the present moment. We’re either regretting something in the past, anxious about something in the future, but to be mindful, it’s practice because it does indeed require practice which is going to require effort to be more mindful.
We’ve all experienced the scenario of driving somewhere only to realize that you weren’t really paying attention. You finally get there and you don’t realize how you got there or you miss a turn. You’re driving on the freeway, you’re on the phone and you realize, “Oh, crap. That was my exit. That idea of being zoned out or distracted, we do this a lot in a lot of areas of life.” It’s not just while we’re driving. That’s an area where we notice it but that’s not the only time it happens.
When we’re not mindful, we’re not aware, we’re missing things that might be happening right in front of our eyes. I think of this a lot as a parent, mindless parenting. I don’t want to look back and think, “Oh, man. I missed that phase with my kids when they were this age or that age or doing this or doing that.” Not because of intent or because of effort, it might have entirely to do with the fact that I wasn’t mindful. I just wasn’t aware.
I think this becomes really helpful when we think about this in the context of time. We’re constantly stuck in the past of the future like I said. That makes it really difficult to be mindful of what’s happening in the present. Wise mindfulness is about learning to anchor ourselves in the present moment. It connects very closely with meditation with effort because we want to be mindful. We want to be aware of the things that were not even aware that we’re not aware of.
Again, that doesn’t happen just because. It’s like, “Okay. I want to be mindful. That’s great and sentiment but what am I going to do about that?” That’s how mindfulness correlates with all these others which leads us to the last spoke of this wheel. This is concentration and this is the practice of focusing the mind on one thing. If I want to be mindful or aware, it’s going to require the ability to at least concentrate. To concentrate on what it is I’m trying to do in that specific moment. This is where meditation comes in. This is the great tool that we used to practice concentration.
I know we typically think of meditation as someone sitting with their legs crossed on the floor and their eyes closed but it can be so much more than that. It can be the concentration that we put in to washing the dishes or when we’re walking. We’re just walking when we’re doing anything. A really common one that I noticed in my own life is when I’m eating, a lot of times I’m not really eating, I’m eating and I’m looking at my phone. I am checking up what’s on Facebook, I’m reading the news, checking emails and then you’re done eating.
If someone were to ask me detailed questions about my meal, I wouldn’t really know. This is a lack of my ability to concentrate so concentration is when we’re doing something we’re just doing that thing and there a Zen story about this with an enlightened person. When they eat, they eat and they walk, they walk. I say, “Yeah, anyone can do that.” The difference is when you’re awake and someone who’s awakened when they walk, they just walk. They just walk because that’s what they’re doing.
When they’re eating, they’re just eating. I think that’s when we can all correlate to our own eating habits. I don’t know about you but anytime I go somewhere to eat, if I look around, more than half usually at 3/4 of the people there, they’re just on their phone. When was the last time that you actually ate and just ate. That was your whole goal, “I’m only eating.” I’m concentrating when I’m eating. I’m paying attention to what this taste like, what this is feel like in my mouth, all the experiences of eating.
Alan Watts says you can make any human activity into meditation by simply being completely with it and doing it just to do it. I would challenge you to try next time you go eat somewhere, try eating meditation where you’re just eating and that’s all you’re doing. You’re not doing anything else. That’s concentration and the opposite of concentration would be distraction. I just think about distraction as the opposite because we all know what that’s like. We live in a society in a culture that’s constantly bombarded with opportunities for distraction whether it’s the chime on your phone or the billboard on the street or the commercials, what TV, text email, whatever it is and we’ve got thousands of distractions that are all competing for our attention virtually anywhere you look at any given time of the day.
Wise Concentration / Skillful Concentration
Distraction prevent us from seeing life as it really is because we don’t know. We’re seeing all kinds of other things. Distraction prevents us from understanding the truth about ourselves and others. This is what we’re trying to accomplish with wise concentration is to have the skill and the ability to be with something for a moment, to concentrate on when an emotion arises for me and I’m sitting here and I’m upset.
Am I trying to distract myself out of it? Don’t be upset, turn on the TV. It’s like that’s a distraction and distractions can be fine but here’s what I’ll never know if I constantly react to my emotions in a way like that. I’ll never be able to sit with an emotion and say why am I upset? I’m sitting here and I’m upset. Why? Imagine being able to sit with your emotion, to concentrate on it. You may gain insight out of that. That’s the whole purpose of this with concentration. What can I discover that I didn’t know that I didn’t know?
Those are the eight spokes of the wheel, the eightfold path. If you were to enter this, think, “This is a way of life I want to live. I want to practice Buddhism as a philosophical way of living.” What does that entail? It’s essentially this, these eight areas. These eight areas that you’re going to strive to be more aware of to be skillful with in your life and they are understanding or view. How do I view the world? How do I understand reality? Am I skillful in the way that I understand what’s unfolding right now in front of me or am I not skillful with that?
Next is intention. Do I understand my intentions? Then it goes into speech, action and livelihood and from there we’ve got effort, mindfulness and concentration. Those are the eight areas that make up the eightfold path. As I mention, this is a path that you’re constantly working on right. It’s not like a linear thing that you think I’ve got to master this before that one makes sense. You’re always working on all of them.
Sometimes you may be working a little more heavily on one spoke versus another. There’s no particular order that you need to go with although I do like to emphasize that the first spoke is the most important because with wise understanding or with wise view, the rest start to arise naturally. When I truly grasp and understand the nature of impermanence and interdependence, it changes the way that I talk to myself and others. It changes the way that I act.
It increases the desire to have more effort to be a better whatever I already am. A search to have all these ramifications, all based on the first one, the right view or the wise view. This is a path. It’s an ongoing practice that can bring about a new sense of awareness and perspective into everything that you do. I want to emphasize again this is why Buddhism is often referred to as a practice because it’s not like you get it, you’re always getting it because you’re always trying, you’re always practicing, you’re always trying to be a better whatever you already are but you never actually get it.
Just that concept itself to be a better whatever you already are, how do you win that game? You never say, “Oh, I did it. Now I’m the best whatever I already was.” It’s not about that. It’s about being better. Whatever you are, now be better and you finally get there. Will not be better, but you never get there. You’re always practicing to be a better whatever you already are and you accomplish that by keeping in mind these eight areas of your life that you want to focus on.
Maybe you can write them down. I like to have a little visual representation of the eightfold path with the eight spokes on the wheel and each spoke is the word written out and it reminds me these are eight areas that I am committed to being better at in my life. Maybe not even being better at but if anything understanding these. I want to understand these eight areas in my life because the simple act of understanding them already makes me better at them. View this as a guideline for the specific areas where you want to focus on in your life to help you become a better you. That’s it. It’s that simple.
There’s nothing to believe in, there’s no set of commandments. It’s not like you have to be … Nobody says you have to be … You have to have intent. It’s not that. I just want to understand my intent, why do I do the things that I do. It’s not about saying, “Do this. Don’t do that.” It’s just saying, “Whatever it is you’re doing, know yourself. Why are you doing it? Why do you do that?” At the end of the day, it empowers you to know what would I do? What would I do? That’s what we’re striving for here. That’s what combats this instinct to just be habitual, to just habitually react and I don’t even know why I’m reacting.
I’ve got these eight areas in my life that I’m committed to and dedicated to trying to be a better whatever I already am and they all start with that first commitment that I make to be on this path to take in refuge. The commitment I’ve made to understand what my values are. I value wisdom, I value knowledge. I value friendship and support. I take refuge in those three aspects of my life. I have friends and family that form the backbone of that journey that I’m on.
I have books and sources that I go to learn the knowledge that I need to anchor myself and these teachings that are going to help me be a better whatever I already am. Of course there’s the first one that I anchor myself and all the great teachers that have come before me whether it be the Buddha or Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama or any other teacher.
They don’t have to be Buddhist but those are the ones that I mentioned because that’s the path I’m on but it’s not restricted. Wisdom is not confined to a specific tradition. It’s not like, “Well, wisdom is only found in Buddhism.” Wisdom is found in every tradition and it’s our job to seek it. Whatever tradition you’re in, find the wisdom, anchor yourself to it. That’s taking refuge. You can be taking refuge in the Buddha so to speak without believing in Buddha at all or being Buddhist. You could do that the moment you anchor yourself to wisdom from whatever tradition.
That in a nutshell is my explanation of life on the Buddhist path. This is the path I have chosen and most recently like I mentioned, last week have made this official for me as a Buddhist minister. I’m honored now to be in a position where I can officiate that friends or people’s weddings. I can do more with it but people have asked me, “Now what? Now, what’s going to happen? What does this mean now that you’re a minister?” It’s like it doesn’t mean anything different. This is the path that I’ve been on.
What I just explained in this podcast is a summary of life on the Buddhist path for me and that’s the path three years ago, four years ago, five years ago and today, and tomorrow but all in the context of impermanence. It’s just what it is right now. Hopefully you can get some information out of this podcast that will help you in your path to accomplish the goal of being more awake, being a better whatever you already are. That’s really the only goal. There’s nothing beyond that.
As always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. Remember you can always learn more. If you’re new to these concepts, listen to the first five episodes of this podcast in order or you can find these concepts explained in my book, Secular Buddhism Eastern Thought for Western Minds which is on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. You can get more information on all that on secularbuddhism.com but that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m really looking forward to recording another podcast episode soon.
Now, I have the time that I’ll be able to do this more often and thanks to the support from a lot of you listeners that’s giving me the ability to dedicate more time and resources and effort to making this a podcast that is beneficial so that every time you listen to it, you gain something out of it. I want this to be something that’s valuable and I’m also creating other resources that I’ll be able to explain later in my future podcast. That’s all I’ve got for now. Thanks again for taking the time to listen and until next time.