Walking the Path – The Noble Eightfold Path

There is a clear path out of suffering. The Noble Eightfold Path is reworded here in a practical way to move you to greater peace and wisdom in your life.

If you would like to spiritually Awaken, there is a system of actions you can take that walks you along this Path to Awakening. I’m not sure why modern meditators have lost sight of the reality that living completely without stress and suffering is entirely possible for everyone. After all, starting from the very first sermon the Buddha gave, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma, this path out of suffering is the entirety of what the Buddha taught after his enlightenment.

As I’ve explored this strange incongruence over the decades, I have come to the realisation that this path out of dukkha, the path out of suffering that the Buddha so clearly articulated, is simply not properly understood, let alone practised. My intention in this paper is to help illuminate this gap.

Imagine your life as a wheel. In the olden days, wheels were just solid wooden disks rotating around an axle to allow heavy objects to be transported. Most people’s lives are like the wheels of long ago, before the idea of spokes came along. You are carrying a lot of unnecessary weight around, but know no better. The idea of introducing spokes is to allow you to do whatever you need to do with more efficiency, because you have gotten rid of the unnecessary baggage.

Traditionally, the Noble Eightfold Path is thought of as 8 practices that lead to liberation from samsara, but I teach these as a group of 5 spokes, each representing the result that we are aiming to achieve. There are a few reasons for this.

First, a list of 5 is an easier list to remember than a list of 8. In the Buddha’s time, people were accustomed to remembering long lists. Nowadays, we don’t train our brains that way and cope better with shorter lists. As a teacher of many decades, I always want to not just impart knowledge, but also help you remember it and regularly put it into practice. So, I created an acronym for the list of 5 to spell SPOKE, to help you recall, and practice, all 5 more easily.

In my experience as a psychotherapist, meditation teacher and spiritual life coach and mentor, as well as three decades of meditation practice, I have found the most important first step in helping you achieve whatever you want is to have your aim or aspiration clearly in your mind. So, each of the 5 spokes is written with the aim in mind. Each aim is also in the present continuous tense (you know, action words with i-n-g at the end of them), so you remember that this is a continual process of development.

The 5 spokes, or aims as I have reworded them, are:

  • Stabilising Your Attention
  • Prioritising Your Actions
  • Opening Your Awareness
  • Knowing that Leads to Understanding
  • Expanding Your World
Pain is an inevitable part of life, but we need not suffer it. Find joy along the Eightfold Path, here re-envisioned for peace and wisdom in a contemporary age.

If you imagine a wheel with 5 spokes, you will clearly see that in order for the wheel to function optimally, every single one of these 5 spokes is essential and balances the others. You will also see that in order to get to the destination of fully awakening to the truth of what the Buddha taught, after you complete one rotation of the wheel, you can incrementally move forward by continuing to roll along and further refine your actions.

So, although I initially teach this system in a step by step manner, once you start rolling along the path, you will start seeing how each of these spokes works synergistically with the others. And as you roll along, you will be cultivating each aim to an increasingly greater extent, and ever deepening your process of awakening to wisdom.

I’ll now map how these 5 spokes match to the Noble Eightfold Path, so you can clearly see that this is the exact system the Buddha taught.

Stabilising Your Attention refers to sammā-samādhi, or right concentration. The translation of samādhi as concentration is associated with a host of confusions in our society, so I would prefer not to use this translation. I have chosen to instead point to the aim of what you are trying to achieve in this spoke of the wheel: Stabilising Your Attention.

Culadasa’s book, The Mind Illuminated (TMI), clearly sets out a step-by-step process of training your mind through attention and awareness, in order to stabilise it. The book is, of course, a lot more than this, but most people are not able to see the gems of wisdom scattered throughout. I have systematised the other aspects alluded to in this book, as well as a multitude of other excellent Dhamma talks and books, through this 5 spoke system to practically implement the Noble Eightfold Path into every aspect of your daily life.

The second spoke of the wheel, Prioritising Your Actions, is a conglomeration of three of the Eightfold path: sammā-vācā (right speech), sammā-kammanta (right action), and sammā-ājīva (right livelihood). This is about aligning your speech and actions in such a way that all the actions you take in the world are congruent. Absolute alignment of your actions results in the most effective use of your energies towards your ultimate aim of liberating your mind. This is why I have called this aim Prioritising Your Actions.

The Buddha spoke of 5 aspects of what we could strive for in Right Speech:
Truth – we should endeavour to always speak the truth
Beneficial – what we say is beneficial to others and ourselves
Timely – choosing when we say things is as important as the first two points
Pleasant – we say things pleasantly
Loving-kindness – we speak from a space of loving-kindness

Think about times you may have said something that may not have corresponded exactly with all five of these aspects of Right Speech. What could the ramifications have been? Is there any other consequence you may not have noticed before?

Right Action relates to abstaining from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. How could you take this notion of Right Action beyond the obvious?

Right Livelihood is found in many suttas. Mahācattārīsaka Sutta in Majjhima Nikaya says:

And what is Right Livelihood? Right livelihood, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right livelihood with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions; there is right livelihood that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.
And what is the right livelihood with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones abandons wrong livelihood and maintains his life with right livelihood. This is the right livelihood with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.
And what is the right livelihood that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The abstaining, desisting, abstinence, avoidance of wrong livelihood in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path.

What do you make of all this? How can following these guidelines help you Stabilise Your Mind? What difficulties arise for you as you contemplate taking these guidelines to their extreme?

The next spoke of the wheel, Opening Your Awareness, refers to sammā-sati, or right mindfulness. Again, because there seem to be different definitions of mindfulness around these days, I prefer to use the word awareness. The aim in this spoke of the wheel is to open your awareness, such that you are not simply being aware of random things, but rather opening your awareness to more useful aspects of the Dhamma to help you achieve full liberation in your life.

For example, in my one-year program for dedicated practitioners called Accelerate Your Awakening, I introduce students to the teachings of Sayadaw U Tejaniya, who teaches Mindfulness as a Way of Life (the name of my foundational 6 week program). This practice is a practical version of what is talked about in the Bahiya sutta.

Step 1 of TMI’s 4 Step Transition also begins with an open awareness, but it is unfortunate that most people only use this as a cursory practice without realising the powerful possibilities in exploring this in more detail. It is only in Stage 9’s Mahāmudrā practice (meditation on the mind) that this practice is revisited.

Many Awakened teachers solely rest in this state of pure Awareness, which highlights the fact that this practice of Opening Your Awareness is perfect in the beginning, in the middle and at the end.

I have called the fourth spoke of the wheel Knowing that Leads to Understanding. This refers to sammā-diṭṭhi, which can be translated as right understanding or view. Ultimately, this is the understanding of the reality of kamma, paṭiccasamuppāda, the three characteristics of existence and the many profound teachings taught by the Buddha. The practical point of this spoke of the wheel relates to timely teachings that can be transmitted as insights. In our world of content overload, our aims of understanding and insight need always to be at the forefront of our minds.

The final spoke, Expanding Your World, refers to sammā-saṅkappa (right intention) and sammā-vāyāma (right effort). In order to achieve your goal of Awakening, you need to direct your intentions and efforts in the right direction. The extent to which you can do this is the extent to which you will be able to Expand Your World and live with ultimate wisdom of an Awakened being.

Another word for effort in Pali is viriya. Culadasa talked of viriya as conscious power, or the use of attention and awareness in combination. We spend the bulk of our time during my one-year program cultivating this spoke of the wheel. Here, I emphasise developing skills in regularly finding the optimal interaction between attention and awareness throughout the day, honing skills in noticing intention (particularly when taṇhā, or craving, is present) throughout students’ seated meditations and daily life and cultivating the ten pāramī in every moment of their lives.

You may already be able to see that each of these spokes is intimately related to the others. The more you are able to Stabilise your attention, Prioritise your actions, Open your awareness and have clear Knowledge that leads to real understanding, the more you will Expand your world and be able to direct your intentions and efforts towards your chosen goals. In other words, the more you are able to align all your aspirations, the more every action you take will lead you one step closer to the destination of complete freedom from stress and suffering.

This is entirely possible, and this is the path the Buddha clearly spelt out.

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