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The 8-fold path

A real-time perspective

Most explanations of Guatama Buddha's 8-fold path deal with it as a subject of deep contemplation, outside of the pressures of daily life. However, it is most powerful when used in the present moment.

While the 8-fold path is one of the Four Noble Truths, and is a core part of Buddhist teachings, it is suitable for anyone to use as it doesn't prescribe any beliefs that must be accepted and committed to for its use. It is a non-theistic approach to life and is concerned solely with our personality's thoughts, feelings and actions. It is about making conscious decisions about what we do to make our lives better, and by extension, what we can do to make our societies better.

Contemplation is a process of examining a topic by taking time out from being conscious of the pressures of the present, and going into a state of mind that allows free interplay of conscious and subconscious mind, allowing associations to come into the conscious mind for examination. Conversely, being in real-time requires focusing our consciousness on the acute needs of the present. That doesn't mean that there is no input from the subconscious, but it is treated as just another input into the present consciousness.

The important aspect of being in the present is that it is the only time we can actually make a decision, which is why the present, despite being infinitesimally small, is so potent. So, from a present-time perspective, being able to harness understanding of the 8-fold path can allow us to make the decisions that, over time, will build a habit of thought that is always mindful of where our head is at, so we are not caught out failing to live up to what we expect of ourselves.

Contemplation is still a most valuable activity, as it gives us space to set ourselves up to approach foreseeable challenges before they occur, giving us the best chance to be able to control how they unfold. We can use contemplation to examine how we might do better in future. Even for unforeseen challenges, contemplation sets our mind-subconscious into a better balance to be able to handle them, as the practiced interconnection is better able to be harnessed in real-time. Rather like how training prepares us for the real deal.

Several alternate explanations are listed in Related sites below, and while each explanation may place the eight paths in a particular order, they are all aspects of our one consciousness, so they exist in parallel, and thus we can freely focus on any one of them at any time. As we build up our understanding of them, they all play a part in guiding our consciousness.

Right belief, values, idealism

Beliefs and values are the reference points from which we reason and make judgements.

Unless based on truth, beliefs will create problems when what we try to do is at odds with them. Only truth has the consistency to deal with the real world. We can especially let go of doubts about ourselves. If we have let ourselves down in the past, the only way to believe in ourselves again is to successfully complete what we set out to do. The more success, the better. Of course, we have to be realistic about what we assign ourselves to do.

We needn't be afraid to fail, but we can make sure we spend some time contemplating such outcomes, so that we do not repeat them. Failures are part of our growth, as long as we learn from them. It is an iterative process, so we can be patient with ourselves as well. If we are letting our sense of failure repeatedly get the better of us, we can get professional help to acquire the skills to counter the undermining thoughts and feelings.

Right effort

It takes energy to undertake any activity, and being able to marshal the enthusiasm to persevere is the way to have enough focus to undertake any effort.

Effort is highly dependent upon the emotion of enthusiasm. Not the blind manic charging that some might indulge in, but the sustained drive that is focused on in each moment to bring about the desired good result. Without it, it is like trying to run without knees! However, to be successful, we must be clear, focused and directed in our efforts.

Right meditation, prayer, concentration

Where our head is at defines a lot about what we can really focus on at the time. Centring ourselves in the present, with what resources we need, allows us to follow through on our current task.

Being centred in the moment is helped by practicing mindfulness, contemplation and meditation. No-one is perfect, but the practice makes being in the moment when required much more achievable. Mindfulness is simply about being aware of what we are thinking or doing, and perhaps what is driving us to be doing those. It is a contemplation of the present, but in a safe space.

Right action, conduct

By actions we make our mark on the world. What do we want to be the legacy of our life? How do we want to make the world a better place? Make it happen!

Once we have acted, we have to live with the consequences. We have created the circumstances that will define some aspect of what happens to us in the future. There is action that is known as akarma – action without result. It is a misnomer, as being imperfect, we will always have results. However, it is about doing actions with a balanced mind and perspective – the middle path – where we are neither overly attracted or repulsed by what we might imagine the outcome to be.

Akarma requires what is called dispassion, which, while it sounds like we should be almost bored with what we are doing, it is really about our attachment to the outcome, rather than the process of doing, which should always have a good measure of enthusiasm. We cannot always be sure of the outcome, but we do have control over what we do, so the ideas of dispassion and enthusiasm really reflect those different parts of any activity, and how we approach them for best balance of our efforts and expectations.

Right thought

Thoughts are the seeds around which we wrap a lot of emotions. We can focus on thoughts that attract the feelings and enthusiasm that we want to have.

We can make our thoughts as clear and balanced as we can, as then our emotions have a clear place to be anchored to, and so we will be in a much better state of mind to decide what emotions we want to have at work in a situation. If we give into negative emotions, we will then find thoughts that strengthen them, corrupting those that otherwise may have spurned us on to positive action. Half-baked thoughts feeding into unbridled emotions are the recipe for performing regrettable actions. We can choose what to feel, but we have to direct them with our thoughts.

Right speech

Speech can wound in emotional ways that can debilitate.

It not only affects those towards whom we have directed it, including ourselves, but, as we become sensitive to the effects we have created, it wounds us. We can instead use speech to inspire ourselves and others, lifting us to be and do better.

A list of questions we can ask ourselves before speaking are known as the Four gates of Patanjali, a Hindu sage from about 2000 years ago.

The 4 gates of speech are:

  1. 1Is it true?
  2. 2Is it necessary?
  3. 3Is it kind?
  4. 4Is it the right time?

Obviously, if more people followed this line of questions, we would have a lot less troubles between people. If we see that what we say would fail these gates, we may get the sense that we must need to shut up most of the time. However, while failing a gate basically means shutting up, if what we want to say passes all four gates, we must say it, as it is needed right then.

However, not passing does not mean that something should not be said. After all, something triggered a reaction and that thing might still need attention. So, rather than use the gates to stifle speaking per se, we can treat it as a real-time opportunity to find a better way or approach to say what may really be needed at the time. It is a way to stop using reactionary speech, and use proactive beneficial speech instead.

Right livelihood, mode of living

We can be living our lives in a way that promotes ours and other's well being, and not just so we don't feel disappointed with what we have done.

We can contemplate what occupation or career we feel is best for us, but equally important is how we go about the minutiae of our day. The headspace through which we are doing our tasks defines how well the tasks achieve their goals, and thus how we and others feel about ourselves and the work in general. We can use contemplation to define how we want to view and feel about work, and what would be best for us and our personality traits. That will make it easier for us to pull our attitudes back into line when faced with the troubles that working life can bring up.

Living doesn't just happen at work, so how we approach family and friendships is subject to exactly the same needs regarding our attitudes and approach. We can be real and genuine in all relationships, and not be afraid to assert our needs, or help others to assert theirs, even if those seem to require sacrifice of some of our desires. There is a balance in how we manage all our life's activities, and contemplation and respectful discussions with those involved will help that. We will be happier by choosing the right balance.

Sometimes, right livelihood might mean to that we not be involved in some industries like gambling or liquor, even if we feel like dabbling in them. This might seem like a contradiction, or even hypocrisy, but there is a difference between being an occasional user, and being involved in the supply and promotion of it. It doesn't mean that other people must not, but that it is better for us if we don't. It is a personal choice for us that doesn't need to be made by others. However, just because others do, doesn't mean it is alright for us to. We have to make our own choices.

A good starting point is to think whether how we make our living or live our lives adds real value to ours and others' lives. Are we relying upon people being addicted, mentally or physically? Does what we do tend to get people to use up excessive amounts of time or money that they could mostly put to better use improving their lives? We can be engaged in activities that make us feel that we have freely given the best of ourselves to doing the best that we can.

Right memory, understanding, discrimination

If we cannot look back at our past with correct and clear memory or understanding of it, we are most likely to repeat past mistakes, or make worse ones.

We may regret a lot of what we have done, or be disappointed by what others have done. In the end, they occurred and thus are past, and unalterable. What we have to decide is how much they influence what we do now about making our future a better one. We can learn to come to some understanding of how the past needs to be seen in light of the needs of our present and future. The past led to now, but we can change the future by what we decide now. We can decide how much of the past still needs to be accommodated, and act accordingly.

Memory has to be based on truth to make the best decisions, as the uncluttered truth cannot feed garbage into our reasoning processes. Removing the clouds of regret about the past can allow us to see it more clearly.

Focus in the present

This section lists some simple questions that can help us to become mindful of what we are doing in the moment, and so enable us to quickly decide what we want to be focusing on instead.

Questions to help bring you to the best focus in the present are:
1BeliefHow do I want to view this situation/person?
2EffortTo what and how can I best direct my efforts?
3MeditationWhere do I want my head at?
4ActionWhat activity would I best be doing?
5ThoughtWhat can I best be thinking about?
6SpeechWhat is the best I could be saying, if anything at all?
7LivelihoodWhat can I be doing that is worthy?
8MemoryAm I understanding/seeing the past correctly?

The important thing is to shift our focus to the present as quickly as possible, and not drift into internal discussions. Those can be done when we have time to relax. It is about marshalling our resources in real time to achieve the maximum benefit.

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