- We often think feeling better about our lives means having a different life, more things, a better partner/job/home, or losing weight.
- We find true joy and peace in waking up to the lives we have right now.
- We can learn to wake up to our lives by following the Eightfold Path outlined by the Buddha.
- The Eightfold Path involves shifting our mindsets, increasing our mental discipline, and living in ways that benefit ourselves and others.
If you are about to make more half-hearted, stale resolutions for 2023, I urge you to consider something different this year.
Whatever has made its way onto your resolutions list—be it the nearly universal goal to lose weight or something more original—there is an underlying motivation that all our resolutions share: we want to feel differently than we do today. Often, we interpret this longing to feel different as a message that we need to have more, do more, look better, etc.
This year, what if the goal wasn’t to change your life but to change how you feel about and engage with the life you've already created? What if you could really notice and sink into moments of joy and peace rather than rushing ahead to your next task? What if you could slow down and respond intentionally rather than reactively to daily irritations? What if you could feel genuine appreciation for each day, each breath that you are given, even if nothing external changes? What would it be like to really come alive?
We can begin to live more fully, meaningfully, joyfully, and intentionally right now. We don’t have to wait until we lose weight, get a different job, find the right partner, etc. The Buddha has a path for this process of waking up: the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path is one of the seminal teachings of the Buddha. It’s essentially the prescription for living “the middle way,” which, according to the Buddha, is the path to enlightenment and freedom from suffering. The Eightfold Path is the solution to the challenges of life outlined in the Four Noble Truths and the formula for finding greater fulfillment in the life we have, whatever the circumstances.
Below are the eight components of the path, sketched out briefly. There is a lot of complexity to each teaching. You will notice that each step of the path begins with the word “right.” In this case, “right” is a translation that is not intended to be the opposite of “wrong” or imply another morally bad way. Here, "right" simply means an intention to benefit yourself and others. Additionally, these are not given in a specific order or intended to be practiced in a linear or stepwise manner, as mastery of each complements the others. In their combined usage, the greatest impact can be achieved.
The first two elements of the path I will describe have to do with mindset. These are the “why” of the path, as well as the aspects of wisdom to the path. These are:
- Right view. This essentially entails seeing things as they are. It involves understanding the nature of things, free from ignorance and bias. This is our endeavor to understand the Four Noble Truths and the natural laws of the world, including ourselves, our habitual ways of being, and how they serve us. It means seeing clearly the truth of ourselves and the world around us.
- Right intention. This principle refers to noticing and being intentional about the mental energy that drives our behaviors, such as our cravings, jealousies, and hatreds. These emotional experiences are not repressed or rejected; instead, we simply accept the arising of these emotions without allowing them to generate behavior that’s unwise or unkind. Additionally, we actively cultivate our commitment to ethical behavior and take opportunities to improve ourselves.
The following three elements of the path have to do with behavior. These are the “how” of the path, offering practical principles for ethical and wise conduct. They are:
- Right speech. This principle refers to paying attention to our words and avoiding lying and harmful speech. It also extends to self-critical internal speech, which is harmful to ourselves.
- Right action. This has to do with behaving in ways that are non-harmful to self and others. This includes no killing, stealing, or sexual misconduct.
- Right livelihood. This principle refers to being intentional and ethical in how we make a living. We don’t make a living off of the suffering or harm of others. This principle is designed to reduce harm to others and help us live with greater peace and less shame or guilt.
The remaining three principles have to do with “what” we engage in our life: the quality of attention we bring and what we do. These are the aspects of mental discipline. These steps are:
- Right effort. Right effort refers to the fact that we must exert effort in the appropriate amounts and directions in order to cultivate goodness in our lives. We don’t exert too much effort and exhaust ourselves, and we aren’t lazy. We take responsibility for our role in our life circumstances and actively engage in efforts to nourish qualities like joy, equanimity, peace, and concentration. We endeavor to do so joyfully, as joy helps replenish us on the long journey.
- Right mindfulness. Right mindfulness is the cornerstone teaching that makes the other components of the eightfold path possible. Mindfulness is about paying attention to what is occurring in the present moment without judgment or bias. It entails precise and accurate attention to what’s happening without the influence and distortions of our past experiences, beliefs, expectations, etc.
- Right meditation or right concentration. Meditation is the training ground for developing the capacity to stay mindful and to see clearly the nature of your own mind. If mindfulness is attention to all things occurring in a given moment, concentration is the attention paid to one facet of the experience. This is why we often focus on our breath or a mantra during meditation. Practice with meditation increases our capacity for concentration, allowing us to stick with a task without distraction, and leads to deeper states of awareness over time.
If you feel intimidated by these principles' breadth and implications, you're not alone. These intentions and practices can take a lifetime (or many) to master. And, truthfully, the idea isn’t for you to master them. You aren’t a monk dedicating your life to making every waking moment align with these teachings. You are just a human being taking the time to think about how to live life more fully.
Adopting an intention to wake up to your life is not as straightforward as setting a few rules for yourself as new years resolutions. Yet, it is a far more forgiving process: all it requires is a commitment to a process of growth. It is a shift in mindset more than anything else. To fully absorb the meaning of the mindset, you will need to understand and apply all eight principles.
If you are eager to begin on the eightfold path right away, I recommend starting with "right mindfulness" or "right meditation." A strategy for "right mindfulness" could be to do a simple body scan when you wake up and go to sleep and to find moments during the day when you can drop out of your thinking mind and notice what is happening within and around you.
A daily five to ten-minute breath meditation could get you started on the "right meditation" practice. Both mindfulness and meditation are like strength training for the mind, which support our capacity to understand and engage in the other steps.
As you undertake this process, you will find that your attention will naturally move more into the present moment. Your capacity to see, appreciate, and make sense of your life will expand. Your confidence in your own behavior and your impact on the world will increase. You will enjoy greater relaxation and yet greater engagement with the easily overlooked miracles that happen every day, right in front of your eyes.
In short, you will wake up. In so doing, you can stop planning for a better future life in X, Y, and Z ways, and you can sink your teeth into the wondrous life you already have.
I look forward to taking this journey with you!