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.
Losing Sight of Suffering
I’m not sure why, but some modern meditators, spiritual seekers, and Buddhist practitioners seem to have lost sight of the goalposts. They seem to think it’s some kind of a given that living free of stress and suffering in the modern age is impossible.
In the first sermon of the Buddha, the First Noble Truth states that suffering is a characteristic of life. But people often lose sight of the fact that the Third Noble Truth clearly states there’s a way out of suffering. And, the Fourth Noble Truth indicates this to be the Eightfold Noble Path.
My intention here is to bring fresh understanding to these principles and truths by re-envisioning the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism for present-day practitioners.
A Turning of the Wheel of Dharma
Imagine a wheel as symbolic of your life, a popular enough metaphor. A long time ago, wheels were solid wooden rotating disks. Most people’s lives are like these wheels – before spokes came along! You are carrying extra weight not knowing any better.
The innovation of spokes led to the swifter movement of wheels. The Dharmachakra wheel uses spokes to represent different aspects of teachings. Traditionally, the Eightfold Path was represented by eight spokes.
However, when I teach this Noble Eightfold Path as a clear way out of suffering, I teach all these eight principles condensed into five. And, there are some very practical and pertinent reasons for doing this.
The Eightfold Path Re-envisioned
In the Buddha’s time, people were accustomed to memorizing. These days, how many of us can remember an eight-digit mobile phone number?
In my meditation services, I try to empower students to recall principles in their daily practice. For this reason, I created the acronym SPOKE — which condenses the eightfold path into five!
S – Stabilising your attention.
P – Prioritising your actions.
O – Opening your awareness.
K – Kindling your understanding.
E – Expanding your world.
As a meditation teacher and spiritual life coach of over three decades, I find there is one crucial skill in achieving success – having a clear aim or aspiration. Meditators often neglect this and don’t have a clear focus in mind.
Each of the 5-Spokes is therefore written with a clear aim in mind. Each is also stated in the present continuous of ‘~ing’ to encapsulate the continual process of development.
All spokes balance each other out for optimal strength, form, and function. Gradually, by refining your practice one rotation at a time, you will arrive at your destination. There will be bumps in the road as well as ups and downs, but life’s journey, like all journeys, is hardly even straight and easy.
5-SPOKES and The Eightfold Path
In my personal tutorships or group seminars, I generally teach this system spoke by spoke. But as you progress, it’s easy to experience the synergy and the deepening of awareness and awakening unfolding.
I will now map these 5-spokes to the Noble Eightfold Path in a way that maintains the integrity of what the Buddha taught.
Spoke 1 – Stabilising your Attention
Stabilising your Attention refers to sammā-samādhi (right concentration). Since ‘concentration’ leads to a host of confusions in English, I prefer instead to use ‘attention’ which is more suitable.
Culadasa’s book, The Mind Illuminated (TMI), is core to how I teach samadhi. It sets out a clear step-by-step process of training the mind in attention and awareness towards mental stability. Within this 5-spoke system, I systematise Culadasa’s key concepts and those of other Dhamma discourses.
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Spoke 2 – Prioritising your Actions
Prioritising your Actions is an amalgamation of three axioms of the Eightfold Path. These are sammā-vācā (right speech), sammā-kammanta (right action), and sammā-ājīva (right livelihood).
Right Speech encompasses 5-strivings, meaning you should speak in a truthful, beneficial, timely, pleasant, and kindful way. Everyone, at some time, has experienced the negative consequences of not doing this.
Right Action in the basic sense means abstaining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Once addressing a soldier, the Buddha elucidated that killing in a vengeful and hateful state of mind in the course of such a duty was wrongful action. The Buddha was quintessentially pragmatic rather than dogmatic.
In another context, you may be unhappy in your work, but express this to your superior in a heartfelt way. Because your intention is right, your boss may offer to retrain you or move you to a job more conducive to your Right Livelihood.
When these first two axioms align, this congruence, or lack of internal conflict, quickly unburdens the mind of stress and needless suffering. In turn, this then accumulates to right living.
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Spoke 3 – Opening your Awareness
Opening Your Awareness refers to sammā-sati (right mindfulness). Again, due to different definitions of ‘mindfulness’, I prefer to use the word awareness.
Meditation is more than focused attention on a particular object. Opening your Awareness goes beyond to encompass the arising and passing away of phenomena. For example, in expanded or meta-awareness, you develop the ability to tune into the arising of stress and anxiety before it manifests. This means you can ‘nip it in the bud’ and be proactive rather than getting up in a full-blown situation.
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Spoke 4 – Kindling your Understanding
Kindling your Understanding refers to sammā-diṭṭhi (right understanding or view).
Right understanding isn’t a question of simple clarification. It is a gradual and layered process of slowly building upon truthful information, applying it in daily life, and reaping the fruits of your own experience. With each iteration, a deeper understanding can be kindled until this culminates into true insights.
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Spoke 5 – Expanding your World
Expanding your World refers to sammā-vāyāma (right effort), and sammā-saṅkappa (right intention).
Right Effort starts with recognising the beneficial qualities you possess, and those that you don’t. Likewise, detrimental (non-beneficial) qualities you have, and those you don’t. The idea here is twofold. One is to Strengthen the beneficial qualities you possess and Cultivate those you don’t. Likewise, to Abandon detrimental ones, and Prevent manifesting those you don’t possess.
Beneficial qualities, or the 10 Perfections, include generosity, non-violence, kindness, patience, renunciation, wisdom, perseverance, honesty, diligence and equanimity. These are essential qualities for living in happiness and peace. The intention to cultivate these sets in motion Right Effort.
Right intention in Buddhism includes all co-dependencies (paticcasamupada) and not simply some singular intent. My intention to write this included sitting down, composing my thoughts, pressing the keys etc. Intentions compete and overlap with each other, or one may replace another if we lose focus.
Gradually, we grow our awareness of this interrelated co-dependency rather than focusing on the basic cause to effect. Right Intention also includes things we choose and choose not to do. This leads to deeper understanding and the ability to avoid narrow-mindedness, blame, and accusation.
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Walking the Eightfold Path with Integrity
As I have tried to show, each of these spokes is intricately related to the others.
The more you are able to Stabilise your Attention, Prioritise your Actions, Open your Awareness, and Kindle your Understanding, the more you can Expand your World.
This leads directly to you being able to direct your intention and effort towards your chosen goal(s). In other words, when your aspirations (spokes) are aligned, every action you take is one step closer to living more freely with less stress and ultimately free from suffering.
This is entirely possible, and this is the original path out of suffering that the Buddha clearly laid out.