[This piece was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the March/April issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]
Mostly, evolution happens to us. Sudden changes in circumstance force us to adapt. When fleet-footed tigers found us, we learned to run faster. When storms raged around us we learned to build shelter. When the low-hanging fruit was gone, we grew a little taller.
But not all evolution is involuntary. We can choose to change.
The world’s wisdom traditions are rife with practices designed to help us do just that.
A prime example is Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.
Buddha taught that we live in a state of suffering, dissatisfaction, and incompletion, but that it doesn’t have to be that way. Our suffering is generally rooted in self-obsession and endless craving. We want things to be different than they are – it’s too cold, it’s too hot, I wish it would rain, I wish it would stop raining. When we turn the key and the car won’t start we get angry and upset. It’s not the dead battery’s fault. Batteries die. The suffering is generated solely by our strange, ridiculous demand that batteries be immortal.
To undo the damage, Buddha suggested that we reduce our suffering by reducing its cause, namely, self-centered craving and expectation. Conditions around us would infinitely improve if we simply stopped resisting them and moved instead into complete acceptance. And the good doctor offered a prescription to help affect this change – the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.
Right view means understanding the nature and the cause of suffering, and the method of release. We just talked about that.
Right intention means resolving to stop being sick and start getting well. This is the part where you choose to consciously evolve. It won’t happen if you don’t choose it.
Right speech means using language impeccably, telling the truth, and avoiding language that harms yourself or others. Words are thoughts made concrete. They create reality. Make a new reality.
Right action means behaving ethically in all areas of life. If this has to be explained to you in great detail, you might be in real trouble.
Right livelihood means working for a living in a way that honors yourself and others. Even our work life is part of our spiritual practice. Be ambitious, make money, create things, but do it in a way that honors the dignity of all life.
Right effort means finding the middle path between doing nothing and overdoing everything. Slow and steady wins the race. You must exert effort, but be vigilant against manic obsession. Nobody likes a spiritual Nazi.
Right mindfulness means gently monitoring and shaping mental content. Our thoughts shape our lives, so let us consciously shape our thoughts. In this way we re-create the whole world.
Right meditation means cultivating a regular practice of intentional consciousness and spending time in the silence, knowing that it is from silence that our strength and wisdom comes.
The purpose of the eightfold path is simply this – to reduce self-obsession. The rest takes care of itself. As we walk this path our hands unclench, our eyes grow clear, and the knots that strangle our hearts loosen. It’s not so much that solutions arise – problems simply recede. We renounce attachment to ego-centric expectations and come to love what is. As the contemporary Zen teacher John Tarrant puts it, “Suffering is the statement, Not this. Enlightenment is the statement, What is this?” Coming out of criticism and into acceptance, we give ourselves the gift of a joyful life.
But it takes time to undo a lifetime of habitual sleep-walking. You won’t awaken from reading a book, going to church, attending a satsang, or traveling to a weekend retreat. Yet all those things help by paving the path one brick at a time. But in the end, you have to start wake-walking all on your own, and the Noble Eightfold Path is a very good map.