The Buddha was big on lists and I’m big on the Buddha, and lists are certainly part of why I like practicing meditation as much as I do. The Buddha’s lists spark a lot of confidence. Lists like the Eightfold Path make enlightenment seem doable. You just list it out, attack one thing at a time, and then cross it off. Boom! You’re enlightened.
There was a time when that was exactly my approach. You can guess that it wasn’t quite as easy as I hoped it would be. I’m not going to blame the Buddha for my aggressive attitude towards practice. And I can’t even blame him for the negative way he phrases his message.
To cease suffering is basically a double negative, “do not” sort of message that says the result will be that you will stop suffering. Eight whole steps and all you get is to stop suffering? With fewer than 600 million participants (which is about 7% of the world’s population), Buddhism, lists aside, actually hasn’t captured much market share with the stop suffering message.
I think the Buddha would have had even more takers if he had phrased things a little more positively, not been afraid of a little spin. . .It sounds so modern, too: Get Quiet and Feel Great in Eight Simple Steps. Too bad I wasn’t around to help. Le sigh.
Actually, I get why he did it. Like I said, in my experience practice isn’t easy. If you commit to practicing meditation, it’s nice to understand that practice requires something of you.
Before we go further, here’s a refresher, adapted from Buddhism for Dummies, that sums up the requirements of the Eightfold Path:
The Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path of Buddhism, also called the Middle Way, is a way to stay focused, balanced, calm, and energized (that’s one of the reasons I like it). Please read these brief descriptions of each part of the path:
- Right understanding. Understanding that the Four Noble Truths are sacred and true.
- Right thought. Committing in thought, word, and deed to practice meditation.
- Right speech. Avoiding slander, gossip, lying, and all forms of untrue and abusive speech.
- Right conduct. Refraining from violence (ahimsa) along with any form of stealing or sexual impropriety.
- Right work. Refraining from employing yourself with work that forces you to violate yourself or others.
- Right mental attitude or effort: Cultivating positive rather than negative thoughts, emotional balance, as well as minimizing emotions such as anger and jealousy.
- Right mindfulness. Having a clear sense of one’s mental state, bodily health, and feelings.
- Right concentration. Using meditation to reach the highest level of enlightenment.
I rephrased the components of the eightfold path to sound positive when I could, as an experiment. The truth is, though, that life is hard — and I think that the Buddha wanted to make sure he made that point without apologies. So why would you want to make things harder for yourself by limiting your behavior?
Why Does Right Conduct Matter?
The reason is that — like practicing anything you want to get good at — in order to live your best life you have to refrain from certain things and actively pursue others. When it’s an instrument, you spend time practicing, and the time you spend practicing limits your time to do other activities.
It’s relatively easy to be objective about how well an instrument is being played. Most of us can hear a violin squeak or sense that something is “off” when the instruments involved are not in time or tune with each other.
Right conduct matters because it boosts confidence, reduces anxiety, and increases your capacity for joy. I look at it as a kind of symphony of effects through body, mind, and soul. In fact, think of your soul as a tuning fork, and your actions as the notes you are playing. Right conduct enhances harmony and reduces conflicts of all kinds.
Although “well-behaved” is kind of a prissy word, I think it communicates a little of the resistance most of feel when we think of having to follow rules. Nevertheless, good behavior makes me feel better about myself and more generous towards others. It’s relaxing and serenity-inducing to know that I’ve done what I was obligated to do along with acts of love and creativity, haven’t done anything I regret, treated people fairly and honestly, and remained in integrity with my values.
In yoga, there is a term called tapas, sometimes translated as “burning zeal for practice.” Tapas are commitments, like maintaining silence, fasting, or repeating mantras. These acts are meant to increase the heat of your practice — in other words, to create passion. They are also a — hopefully gentle — crucible for burning away old mistakes and misdeeds.
When I was younger, good behavior felt like more of a sacrifice, and it was harder to maintain. I resisted good behavior because it made me feel unfree. After 20 years of practice, tapas is starting to make sense to me because I can feel myself reaping some of the rewards (maybe not of enlightenment, per se, but certainly less stress and more joy) of all the time I have put into it.
The beauty of practice is that if you are consistent over long periods of time, even if you aren’t perfectly consistent, it is a cumulative investment in yourself. Over time, just like practicing an instrument or anything else, it becomes easier and more joyful to do. And then it doesn’t feel like you made a sacrifice because you got the gift of playing beautiful music.