The final aspect of the eightfold path is staying focused, which is achieved by effort, mindfulness and concentration.
Without applying effort, we are not going to reach any of the goals we set ourselves. Here I wish to highlight the effort required to avoid harmful acts and develop helpful ones.
These are split into four parts, namely the effort to avoid, the effort to overcome, the effort to develop and the effort to maintain.
This is a list of the harmful acts we need to avoid and overcome.
- Sexual misconduct
- Divisive speech
- Harsh words
- Inappropriate view
We have to put in a great effort in order to avoid these ten harmful actions. This is achieved by setting ourselves boundaries and ensuring we stay within them. In my own case some of them came easy to me and others were fairly difficult, but by putting in the effort and setting myself redlines, I manage to avoid them for the most part. But none of us are perfect, so we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves.
The next place we apply effortis to overcome the harmful acts that have already arisen. This one is a little trickier, particularly if they have already become a habit. The first thing I suggest you do is to rate the above list of harmful actions from one to ten – one being the act you do the most and ten being the one you do the least. Be honest with yourself, even if it is painful, or there will be no point in doing the exercise. Now, start with number one on your list and each day set an intention to refrain from doing the act. This exercise will help keep it in the forefront of your mind. If you do unwittingly perform a harmful deed, don’t get frustrated, just reaffirm your intention. This is where mindful awareness comes into its own because you are going to have to be vigilant of your actions. Slowly work through the list until you feel confident that you have by and large overcome them.
The set of skilful acts we have to develop and maintain are the opposite of the harmful acts.
- Kind speech
- Pleasant words
- Helpful words
- Appropriate view
The third effortis to develop skilful acts that have not yet arisen. The perfect time to think about and cultivate these helpful deeds is during your daily meditation or reflection session. If you review each day which actions have been helpful, and which have been harmful, you will see a pattern emerge. You will then be able to see what you need to work on.
During your reflection session, write down the ten helpful acts on a piece of paper. Then grade them from one to ten – ten being the act that comes naturally to you and one being the act that you have to cultivate. Those you grade from one to five are the ones you should work on. At regular intervals, do the grading again. Note your progress every time and recommit to developing the helpful acts you need to work on.
The final effortis to maintain the helpful actions that have already arisen. This follows on from the previous effort. There, you contemplated which helpful acts you need to work on. Now focus on the ones that come naturally and need no great work. You should also remain mindful of these helpful deeds, so they can become an even deeper habit. It is no good lying sometimes and telling the truth at other times; stealing sometimes and not stealing other times; getting totally drunk one day and then saying you don’t drink another day; or being faithful sometimes and cheating on your partner at other times. These helpful acts must become natural and spontaneous. It needs a great amount of effort to keep these going, because if you do not stay watchful, they can easily drift away from you. Perseverance and vigilance are key here.
Whether we are on the eightfold path or not, we still should try to be mindful, and maintain an awareness of where our actions are taking us. If we don’t, we are not going to find the peace of mind we are searching for. So, let’s look at the different aspects of the path I have laid out in the last three posts and examine how we can approach them mindfully.
We cannot just jump into our practices without first having an appropriate view. Of course, cultivating positive experience is what our practices are all about, but if we have no clear picture of where we are going and why, we can quite easily flounder. We need to know what and why we are doing any practice and see clearly how it will fit into our lives. We need to study and think to gain a clear picture in our mind before we dive into our practice. A firm and stable foundation is required. Mindfully setting our intentions for travelling on this path and implementing a meditation practice is a wonderful way to become motivated. It allows us to stay on track. It is therefore important to have well thought-out intentions and stay mindful of them.
Mindless speech can often divide people and make them feel disconnected. In contrast mindful speech helps us heal rifts and make better connections with each other. I feel that if we practice mindful listening, which is being totally engaged with the other person and allowing them to finish their sentences, mindful speech arises naturally, and we can enjoy genuine dialogue.
We need to mindfully check in with ourselves during the day to ensure our actions, physically, verbally and mentally, are not harmful to ourselves or others. This strengthens our practice, so we maintain the goal of responsible living.
Usually livelihood equates with survival – earning money so we can live. But when we are being mindful of our work, we can see that it is also about contributing to the common good. It is not just about money; it is also about giving back to society. We have to be mindful of any harm we may be causing ourselves and others.
Of course, we need to put effort into whatever we are doing on the path to ensure success, but there is such a thing as too much effort. We need to be mindful of the amount of effort we are putting in. If the effort is causing tension, it is too much. If the effort is not producing any results, it is not enough. Be mindful of how much effort you are putting into the path and your practices.
When we are being mindful, we are fully aware of, but not tangled up in, the various aspects of our experience – the emotional, the physical, the spiritual as well as the social. Mindfulness covers our complete engagement with life.
I will talk more about mindfulness in my next post.
If we wish for a mind that is at peace we need to learn how to focus single-mindedly on an object of meditation. However, what I want to highlight here is a particular type of one-pointedness. It is a wholesome type of concentration. A killer about to murder his victim, a soldier on the battlefield or a burglar about to break into your home all act with a concentrated mind, but they cannot be classed as a wholesome one-pointedness.
Buddha stated that appropriate concentration is dependent on the development of all the preceding seven steps of the eightfold path:
‘Now what is appropriate concentration with its supports and requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors, appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort and mindfulness, is called appropriate concentration with its supports and requisite conditions’.
While concentrating on appropriate view, you have to stay focused on cause and effect. Whatever intentional actions you do—be it with your body, speech or mind—will create a reaction in the future. You have to be naturally aware of this fact whenever you perform any intentional action. You also have to stay focused on the impermanence of everything, or you may find yourself getting attached to things, which in turn will cause you to suffer. We tend to have a fixed and solid sense of self, which is not an accurate view. This again is going to cause us suffering in the long run. I will talk more about these points in future posts.
Next, you should concentrate on appropriate intentions. Our intentions should be to help and not harm ourselves and others. To achieve this, we have to remain centred on what is motivating us. We have to ensure our mind isn’t being driven by any of the three poisons or is clouded by ill will, because if it is, our actions of body and speech will reflect that, and we will end up harming someone. By reflecting on what motivates you, it will ensure you do not intentionally cause harm.
Now we come to concentration of appropriate speech. A lot of the time we open our mouth before engaging the brain, and because we are not focused, what comes out can be harmful, unkind and unhelpful. We lie, use divisive speech, use harsh words and gossip with such ease, it is frightening. It is as if our mouth has a life of its own. To counter this, we have to concentrate on our speech. Lying is never going to help anyone. When we use divisive speech, we are not making friends; we are just causing divisions between people. Using harsh words to someone’s face is going to hurt them, and gossiping is a waste of time. So, we have to have the appropriate level of concentration towards our speech, and then we will learn to talk in a way that is both helpful and kind.
Concentration of appropriate action is where we direct our attention towards the actions of our body. This will ensure we refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and other harmful actions of the body. Buddha advised his son, Rahula, to reflect on any deeds he is thinking about carrying out in this way: Is the deed going to cause harm to himself or others? If so, do not do it, as it is a bad deed entailing suffering. However, if you reflect on the deed and it is going to be helpful to yourself or others, or at the very least, not harmful, you should do it again and again, as this is a good deed entailing happiness. Thus, we must be sure we are fully in tune with our actions, so that we are aware of when we are helping or harming.
This brings us to concentration of appropriate livelihood. We have to ensure our work does not bring harm to anybody. We may be doing a dangerous job and if we do not concentrate on our actions, we may bring harm to someone.
Whatever we are doing we have to be sure we put in the appropriate effort and appropriate mindfulness. If we do not concentrate our effort on all of the steps in the eightfold path, we could become lazy or distracted, and this could lead to us harming someone or something. If we do not focus our mind on the present moment, it may lead our thoughts to drift back to the past or jump forward to the future. Neither of these are helpful. By concentrating on the present moment our minds will be calm and our actions kind and helpful.
When our mind is not focused it flaps around like a fish on dry land. It simply cannot stay still and jumps from one idea to another, from one thought to another, there is absolutely no control. Such a distracted mind is consumed by worries and concerns about what has happened or may happen in the future. It doesn’t see the whole picture and distorts reality.
But a mind that has been trained in concentration can remain focused on its object without any distractions. This allows the mind to become calm, clear and open. This calm, openness can then be taken off the cushion and used in the outside world. This will allow us to stay single-mindedly aware of all stages of this eightfold path.
Following the eightfold path is not easy because many of the things we have to change or let go of are very dear to us. We are passionate about them and have often invested an awful lot of time cultivating them. Letting these unhelpful things go can disturb us. Therefore, change takes diligence, discipline and mindful awareness. We have to understand each of the eight steps and then implement them. They have to become a part of our lives; only then will our minds be at ease and we will gradually reduce our emotional suffering and start to experience the true peace of mind we have been desperately searching for.