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The Noble Eightfold Path: A Modern Guide to Wellness
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 18, 2019
Ancient Buddhist wisdom that provides a practical guide for growth in the modern world.
Let me be straight. I love wellbeing. I don’t care if a fragment of wisdom flows from a prophet, a sage, a psychologist or a mechanic, as long as the teaching brings wellness. Truth, however, is a little rascal, difficult to discern, often mixed with the chaff of thoughtless speculation. There’s not a nation, religion or therapeutic practice with exclusive right to truth, wisdom permeates all of existence. We are intelligent humans, whether we live in deep in the rainforests of the Amazon, an oasis in the Sahara, or on the crowded streets of a big city. We have the capability and unalienable right to pursue happiness—or what I refer to as physical and mental wellness. The human pursuit for wellness is not a new concept. Uncovered writings from the ancient past reveal that human wellness was part of human history—a product of thinking minds. The Noble Eightfold Path is a blueprint for wellness, guiding valiant explorers of wellness over 2500 years ago.
The Noble Eightfold path has modern day relevance. A timeless wisdom that can guide the twenty-first century student, parent, or senior with the sensible direction it provided to ancient Buddhist practitioners.
We have the capability and unalienable right to pursue happiness.
When reading ancient Buddhist principles, we must remember that Siddhārtha Gautama, c. 563/480 – c. 483/400 BCE did not preach unbendable dogma. His teachings were not framed with a “follow or be damned” commandment but, instead, thoughtful guidelines that lead to the cessation of evil in our lives. Gautama taught principles that neither demanded extreme asceticism nor encouraged self-centered indulgence. “His was a Middle Way, a path that led through wise restraint of desire, through thoughtfulness as to values and through concentration on the highest.” (Goddard, 1930, p. 12).
The teachings of Gautama are not a refined philosophy; instead the intention is to encourage mental discipline to invite greater spirituality and enlightenment. “It is a method of mind-control that leads through the restraint of physical desire, the encouragement of thoughtfulness, the practice of mental concentration, to a self-realisation within one's inmost nature of highest truth.” (p.13)
Goddard states that the Noble Eightfold Path is the essence of Buddhist teachings. “The Golden Path is, then, the essential feature of Buddhism, and it is around that that all else gathers and is unified.” (p.25) As such, the path is a valuable source of information, worthy of study and reflection.
The noble Eightfold paths can be divided into three distinct practices: one for greater wisdom, one for greater physical discipline, and the last for greater discipline of the mind. (Morgan, 1956, p. 28). As we practice this trifecta of wellness, we transform our lives.
We achieve greater wisdom through the first two noble paths--Right Understanding, and Right Mindedness.
We have Right Understanding by aligning beliefs with reality—the natural laws. We can’t obtain wellness without respecting the natural laws. Action must be appropriate for the desired outcome. We can’t travel in the wrong direction and expect to arrive at the right destination. Blessings are predicated upon laws. We want the blessing we must have right understanding of the foundational laws of that blessing. When we act on false beliefs, our actions are disorganized, and we ultimately fail. The more we do (when it is wrongly directed), the more discouraged we become. Our level of action isn’t wrong; it’s our direction.
When actions are not appropriate to secure an intended desire, we have wrong understanding. For example, if we desire relationship security but act with manipulation to secure it, the goal is never achieved. Certainly, we may try, and our manipulations may momentarily sooth the frightened mind; but the action ultimately destroys trust—a necessary ingredient of security. So, the more we act, the more insecurities flare.
Natural laws exist for financial stability, physical and mental wellness, intimacy, and wisdom. We must have ‘right understanding’ to guide our actions towards the desired blessings. All blessings are predicated upon natural laws, and only by following those laws can we achieve the blessing. We must have right understanding.
Right Mindedness is our attitude. When we have a fragmented state of mind, we easily tire, and quickly abandon efforts to change. Most great achievements require significant work. To maintain consistent effort, we must nurture a positive view of the task, believing that we have the strength, that others will assist, and that success if possible. Right mindedness is the possession of a healthy personal narrative that motivates. Kenneth Morgan writes that right-mindedness “is an act of will, a firm determination to renounce all the things that stand as obstacles to the realization of one's ideals.” (1956, p.28).
The right mindset gives resilience to work through the challenges of existence; the strength to keep going when obstacles obscure our view. Motivational speakers often focus on this path, creating ‘right mindedness’ for followers.
“In order to carry a positive action, we must develop here a positive vision.” ~Dalai Lama
The next three paths pertain to physical discipline—the conquest of worldly appetites. They are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.
The first is Right Speech. Language is powerful. The stories we tell potentially carry damaging poison, hurting tender spirits. Right speech requires attention to the words that flow from our mouths, repressing destructive communications. Right speech is truthfulness, refraining from gossip, and crudeness while inviting uplifting, grateful and loving speech.
“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” ~Buddha
The next noble path is Right Action. Right action is acting ethical. Many live in moral blindness. True, we must be concerned about biased imposing of cultural beliefs. However, ethical standards have a purpose and serve the individual and the communities well. While we may never come to general consensus of exact standards, we should keep the conversation alive, discussing the good and evil of different rules of conduct. We live in expanding communities that demand mutual respect and healthy cooperation. This requires some general rules of conduct. We can’t succumb to the popular notion that everyone should do as they please. This is the beginning of crumbling societies.
“We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.” David Brooks (2016).
The next path is Right Livelihood. Our livelihood impacts our lives for good and bad. Our careers contribute or draw from community wellness. Not all careers are noble. Some fields prey upon the weak and vulnerable, spreading addictions and promoting deception. Commitment to ill directed goals is corrosive to the soul. We can’t live in psychological wellness if majority of our time is devoted to a destructive career. A conflict between what we do and who we believe ourselves to be destabilizes mental wellbeing. The psychological dissonance forces self-deceptive protections to ease the conflict, leading to disconnection from reality. Many destroy lives, justify their actions, and feel uncomfortably happy. We must find an honorable path to financial security to support mental wellness. We can be a part of the solution; not part of the problem.
The last three paths apply to discipline of the mind. They are Right Efforts, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
Right Effort pertains to our thoughts. The Buddhist doctrine teaches that right effort is to limit the evil thoughts that arise and extinguishing the evil thoughts that have arisen. However, suppression alone is not enough. We also must also encourage good thoughts, nurturing the thoughts that lift so they expand and permeate our lives.
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” ~Buddha
The path of Right Mindfulness has gained popularity over the last several decades, now a staple of western psychology and wellness. Scientific studies support the proclaimed benefits of being mindful. Modern medicine backs the findings and even prescribes the practice of mindfulness to patients suffering from a variety of illnesses.
Right Mindfulness includes:
Right mindfulness is not blissfully (or bitterly) drifting in ignorance; but an awakening to the complexities of existence; an awareness of the flow of thought and feeling pulsating through our body. This attunement to feeling and thought provides a powerful source of feedback, providing the mindful observer with information missed through casual observations. We find similarities to mindfulness in Daniel Siegal’s Mindsight, Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and the psychological “Theory of Mind.” These modern equivalents provide helpful hints to adding mindfulness to our lives.
The final path--Right Concentration. The modern catastrophe of stimulation overload is we skim through the mass of data and live a superficial existence, swayed by only the information that screams the loudest. We limit thought and embrace stupidness. With right concentration, we must routinely sacrifice the noise of social media, video games, and television so we can delve deeper into the secrets. We achieve depth by reading from the best books, meditating over deeper thoughts, and interacting with intelligent others that stimulate wisdom and challenge simpleness.
We can’t wait for something interesting to commandeer our attention. We must direct the search. When we aren’t accustomed to thinking, the practice bores. We, instead, feed our brains with rubble of the nonsense that goes viral. Media targets simpleness. We must combat shallowness with practices of learning. Deep thought, hardy research, and integrating reflection are products of purposeful planning. We need to escape the fluff to have space to concentrate on the meat.
Cal Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (Newport, 2016)
The timeless wisdom of the Noble Eightfold Path develops our souls, inviting increased wellness to weary travelers. So, when life stalls, and depression and anxiety loom remember: Right Understanding, Right Mindedness, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. With these staples of wellness, we can guide our modern life. These noble pursuits serve as beacons, giving direction to explorations into wellness and bring the explorer to a more pleasing destination.
Brooks, D. (2016). The Road to Character. Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition
Goddard, D. (1930). The Buddha's Golden Path: A Manual of Practical Buddhism Based on the Teachings and Practices of the Zen Sect, but Interpreted and Adapted to Meet Modern Conditions. London: Luzac.
Morgan, K. W. (Ed.). (1956). The Path of the Buddha: Buddhism Interpreted by Buddhists. New York: Ronald Press.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing; 1 edition.