Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Eightfold Path

[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.

Friday, February 5, 2016


Meditation is the fine art of stillness.
            It’s difficult at first because our mind, like a torrent after a storm, doesn’t know how to be still. The mind’s nature is motion.
Beginning meditators all make the same mistake – they try to control the mind. Of course it doesn’t work. They fail, give up, and say things like, “I can’t meditate.” I have a better idea. Instead of fighting against mentation, what if we stopped struggling and slipped beneath the thought-stream?
            In that stillness we’d realize that meditation is easy because meditation is doing nothing.
            In fact, once you strip away all the concepts, suggestions, and specific practices proffered by skilled teachers for thousands of years, meditation is as simple and elemental as breathing.
            At first glance, meditation seems childishly simple-minded. Silly even. But upon deeper reflection the truth looms into view. Only something this simple, natural, and unadorned could lead to such indescribable treasure.
            It’s hard to say when meditation began. The earliest record of its practice dates back 3,000 years to ancient India. In the Vedas, the Upanishads, and other sources we read accounts of yogis who learned how to still their minds to the point where finally, for the first time, the thrum of underlying existence could finally be heard. By investigating this vast, interior space yogis began to realize that ordinary, everyday consciousness is caught up in the immediacy and noise of our individuality – a cloud of conflicting desires and fears centered primarily on self-aggrandizement. But with a little practice they learned how to slip beneath the waves of surface consciousness and into the infinite depth within.
            They gave this nameless depth a name – Brahman-atman. Around the world others discovered it too. They called it by other names, some personifying it, others leaving it impersonal. All of the gods were born here.
            The great discovery of the Upanishads, and of the mystics of all traditions, is our fundamental identity with this ultimate ground of being. We are That.
            And the most direct method for realizing this oneness is meditation. Sure, there are other ways – devotion, worship, study, selfless service. They all work. Nor are these various methods mutually exclusive. Blend and adapt them in any way that works best for you.

How to Meditate
            Keep it simple. Sit in a chair. Uncross your legs and put both feet flat on the floor. Let your hands rest comfortably in your lap. Close your eyes and allow your breathing to follow its own natural rhythm.
            Without strain or struggle, slightly lift the top of your head so that your spine straightens. Allow your shoulders to drop. Let any tightness in your neck and shoulders slip away. Feel your body move into a state of relaxed alertness.
            Turn your attention toward your thought-stream. Notice that a steady flow of thoughts continually arise and fade. No matter the specific content of these thoughts, notice that you are not your thoughts – you are the witness of your thoughts. Your thoughts are not having you – you are having thoughts. This simple awareness is the beginning of an enormously significant shift.
            Simply observe your thoughts come and go without trying to control any of them, as you would watch traffic from your hotel room balcony in a foreign city. The light turns green, the light turns red, here comes a truck, there goes a taxi. We control none of it. And we identify with none of it. We are not the traffic. We are simply the witness.
            Soon you begin to realize that you have identified with your thoughts for way too long, and this fixation has kept your attention turned away from the boundless depth within, the witness of those thoughts.
            Feel the peacefulness of the awareness beneath the waves of the thought-stream. Without turning it into a thought, simply feel the aliveness of Being. It is not an experience you are having because at this level of awareness there is no more you – there is only awareness. The distinction between subjective and objective has dissolved. That duality was just a thought. We have moved beyond the realm of thought.
            When the busy-mind generates thoughts, and it will, simply witness them come and go without resistance or judgment. You are free.
            Begin to bring your attention back to the surface. Move your hands and arms. Open your eyes. Choose gratitude and appreciation. Feel the deeply relaxed aliveness in your hands, your arms, your face, your entire body. Feel the peacefulness and acceptance that lingers like a scent. Carry this gratitude and serenity into all of the activities of your day. Look behind the eyes of everyone you meet and know that they too are the temporal presence of this eternal, infinite aliveness. Feel mercy, understanding, and loving-kindness buoy you through the storms that lay ahead. In meditation you have found your core, and the understanding that you are not alone – that you are one with the infinite significance of existence itself. With neither arrogance nor false humility you stand in equanimity and egalitarian harmony with all that is. You are not better than anyone, nor are you beneath anyone. All of reality is a field of infinite value, and We Are That.
Why Meditate
            In our current age, the Age of Science, we insist on facts. Mystical experience is no longer verification enough. We need proof. Fine. There’s plenty to go around.
            A long and growing list of studies document the medical efficacy of meditation. Meditation heals our depression, reduces our drug and alcohol addiction, strengthens our immune system, speeds our post-surgery recovery, and literally, physically alters our brain. The parts of our brain that specialize in fear, stress, and anxiety shrink. The parts of our brain that generate joy and satisfaction grow larger. Neural circuitry is rewired. To say that meditation changes us is no figure of speech. Meditation changes us in profound and lasting ways – such is the power of consciousness to heal itself.
            There are many varieties of meditation and numerous teachers and techniques. YouTube is a great resource. Attend a local workshop or satsang. Maybe Vipassana is your style, or Zen, or Transcendental Meditation, or Mindfulness Meditation. Some varieties are linked explicitly to a spiritual tradition, others are entirely secular. Some use mantras or visualizations. Others just focus on the breath. But one thing’s for sure – meditation is no longer exotic or unusual. It’s gone mainstream. It’s as American as apple pie.  
            Laugh about it. Have fun with it. Experiment. Trust yourself. Meditation works because it opens a door, a door that’s been closed for a long, long time, and through that door our own inner light begins to illuminate the path before us.