I got turned on to mindfulness for the first time when I was in my last quarter at UC Santa Barbara. I went to a school mental health counselor to talk about the panic attacks that I had been having throughout that school year. I had never experienced anxiety so severely before, and basic mindfulness techniques helped me to recognize these attacks, to understand their causes and to avoid them. In the few years since I’ve been out of school, I’ve continued to use these basic techniques and to develop a more complete meditation practice, drawing on Western and Eastern religions, contemporary philosophy and science, but mostly Buddhist and Zen Buddhist philosophy.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the cornerstone of Buddhist Philosophy, a summary of the eight steps most essential to the Buddha’s teaching. I had heard of the Eightfold Path previous to studying Buddhism, but even after a few years of recreational study, I still didn’t know what it actually was. Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion — it isn’t tied to tradition or scripture the way most other religions are — so it’s teachings have been easily adapted for a contemporary Western audience. Many self-help and psychology books re-purpose Buddhist philosophy for secular readers, but many books on Buddhism written by Buddhists still don’t explain or mention the Eightfold Path.
Even though the Buddha lived 2,500 years ago, the origins of his teaching are pretty clear: Siddhartha Gautama was a prince who, for whatever reason, was unhappy. But there really wasn’t much he could do about it. There were no self-help books to read or TED Talks to watch. His only resources were the various monks, yogis, and ascetics, who each taught their own method of liberation. The only choice he felt he had was to leave his life behind. For many years, he studied with each, but all of them taught their own extreme discipline — ritual worship, or fasting, or meditation. Gautama thought that the answer should be simpler, something that everyone could do.
After going off on his own, he was able, for the first time, to see the universe truthfully and to accept the path that his circumstances had brought him to. This awakening isn’t the “enlightenment” that I had always imagined. Here, awakening means, simply, seeing clearly. I like to think of the Buddha as a spiritual scientist, because of his dedication to a complete and un-biased understanding, and because of his integrity in working towards that understanding. He didn’t have any lab equipment or research funding — in fact, these are the sort of things that would have got in the way of his independent determination. He simply did not trust in anything other than what he could experience in his own mind and body.
The Eightfold Path is the successful result of the Buddha’s dedication. He spent his life teaching this method, which has worked for thousands during his lifetime and for millions since.
For those already familiar with Buddhist teaching, there isn’t actually anything different in the Eightfold Path itself. The Eightfold Path is simply a way of organizing the Buddha’s teachings. But these teachings, together, form an actionable program for spiritual growth, self-improvement, attaining happiness, or becoming-one-with-the-universe. I couldn’t possibly explain everything there is to know about the Eightfold Path — there is certainly more that I have to learn — and many others have spent lifetimes studying and sharing these teachings. But the basic principles of the Eightfold Path are really very straightforward.
In fact, the more I study the Eightfold path, the more contemporary it seems. These steps are structured exactly like contemporary self-help, business, and recovery (Twelve-Step) programs. Yet the way these steps are written often makes them seem esoteric and unattainable. I started writing my own version of these eight steps in order for me to understand them better, but I hope that I can make them more accessible for others as well.
The Eight Steps
The Eight Steps are divided into three sections. The first section is called Wisdom. I sometimes think of Wisdom as being the end goal or result of a spiritual practice, rather than its beginning. Many people become interested in Buddhist philosophy or meditation because they are, for whatever reason, unhappy with their life. Even though it may not seem very profound, just realizing that I’m unhappy and wanting to make a change is a kind of wisdom in itself. These first two steps are all about that.
Step One: Acknowledge the Problem
Just like in the Twelve-Step Program, the Buddha’s first step is to admit that there is a problem. The Buddha explains the problem of unhappiness — and its solution — in four rules, also known as The Four Noble Truths.
Rule #1: Life Sucks. The Buddhist concept of suffering refers to this general sense of un-happiness, dis-satisfaction, or dis-ease with the way things are. This suffering is different than physical suffering — being cold, hungry, or sick — but not separate from it. Life can suck for the rich and healthy as well as for the poor. I don’t think the Buddha was trying to say that life is always terrible and nothing good happens ever. He just wanted to point out that there is a greater meaning of suffering, this sense of dissatisfaction, which is universal and afflicts all people, regardless of their circumstances.
I feel very lucky to have lived without physical suffering, and with a family and community that has always supported me. So when my panic attacks happened, I didn’t understand what I had to be anxious about. I like to think about it like this: Even though my life seems comfortable enough, there are a lot of times when I’m sitting in traffic, or waiting in line at the Post Office when I think this really sucks. And in those moments, I start thinking about what it would be like to not have to deal with those things. Sometimes it’s something little like having to clean my dog’s vomit, but sometimes it’s worrying about having enough money for rent, or dealing with the death of someone close. All these frustrations, great or small, are an inherent part of life. We are always fighting against them, and this sense of discontent underlies all of our experiences.
Rule #2: Life Sucks because of Me. We can spend our entire lives frustrated by our circumstances — there’s always going to be something else in the way. The Buddha says that the problem isn’t the circumstances themselves, but our attitudes towards them. As long as I find myself wishing for something different, better, faster, or easier, I’m going to be frustrated because I’m imagining something that doesn’t exist and isn’t going to. No matter what my circumstances are, it’s human nature to want something more. I say life sucks because of me, not because suffering is my fault or anybody’s fault, but because this frustration arises from human nature — it’s hardwired into our consciousness. This is probably the biggest concept in Buddhist philosophy: that the sense-of-self that forms our needs and desires also causes our frustration.
Rule #3: Life doesn’t have to suck. This is the good news: human nature is a complicated thing, and it’s just as capable of embracing difficulty as it is rejecting it. The Buddha worked and succeeded in finding a way to accept his circumstances and to overcome his frustration. He didn’t spend his life teaching that life sucks and there isn’t anything you can do about it.
Rule #4: Don’t let your life suck! Making a change like this isn’t easy, but you have to believe that these steps work. The Eight Steps are a really deliberate set of actions for behavior and meditation which are specifically designed to help break away from these dissatisfied attitudes. These steps can help us to become aware of our own and others’ suffering; to become aware of the possibilities that exist beyond frustration; to learn compassion and expand our sense-of-self; to fully inhabit a greater worldview; to see the universe clearly; and to accept our circumstances.
Step Two: Let it Go
The second step is also just like in the Twelve-Step program: it means making the decision to trust in these rules and to follow these steps wherever they lead. But it’s a little more than that too. This step also means deciding to let go of all the things about yourself — the origin of unhappiness — which get in the way of achieving something better.
The second section is called Morality. I like to think of this as the Buddha’s version of the Ten Commandments; this is the part where he says what you should and shouldn’t do. Unlike the Ten Commandments, though, the Buddha’s rules aren’t quite as explicit — the Buddha was not an authoritative patriarch like the God of the Old Testament — but most of the rules are pretty much the same.
Steps Three and Four: Love Your Neighbor
The Buddha divides these steps into rules for speech and rules for action, but I think that they can both be summed up with the same few words: Don’t be a jerk.* I could also sum them up with this or any other version of the Golden Rule: If you don’t want somebody to do it to you, don’t do it to anybody else. Unfortunately, it’s easy to learn this in kindergarten and then think that it isn’t practical enough for adult problems — that it only applies to name-calling and hair-pulling. But that’s just not true.
Cultural knowledge sometimes tells us that we have to be selfish in order to succeed. But respect and compassion only become more important as we grow older and more responsible for our actions. Practicing kindness towards others helps me to step outside of my own needs and desires.
Step Five: Love Yourself
If Steps Three and Four are about treating other people with kindness, then step Five is about treating yourself with kindness. But it’s sometimes easier to know how to take care of other people than it is to take care of yourself. Sometimes when we’re feeling frustrated or upset and we think we need a strong drink or an afternoon binge-watching Netflix, what we really need is some quiet space, someone to talk to, or just a good meal and some decent sleep. This step is about learning to make healthy decisions for the body, mind and spirit. It’s also about making the decision to remove the things we do which are satisfying in the moment, but don’t help in achieving our goals.
This step has been the subject of debate since the Buddha first started teaching. For instance, the Buddha says no drinking at all, but I’m not the only one who thinks that that might be overdoing it. While drinking — and many other behaviors — can obviously become unhealthy, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a beer with your friends on a Sunday afternoon. Everybody is different, with different needs and different desires. I think that the Buddha intentionally left this step vague in order to encourage everyone to make their own decisions.
The third section is called Concentration because this is the part where it takes dedication and focus to bring good intentions to life.
Step Six: Do Something
This step is like a four-point checklist to make sure that you’re following all the previous steps. These points are so simple they should be obvious, but if you’re frustrated or upset for any reason, chances are that you could probably be following them better.
1. Don’t do anything that’s going to make you feel bad.
2. If you already feel bad, don’t do anything that’s going to make you feel worse.
3. Instead, do something that will make you feel good.
4. And when you feel good, try to stay there.
Obviously, this step is more difficult in practice than on the page, but I find that just thinking about my frustrations in this way helps me to make healthier decisions for myself. The trickiest part is knowing how to stay in a good place once you’ve found it. This requires learning to listen and pay attention to your body and mind, which is the next step.
Step Seven: Pay Attention
There is so much more to say about mindfulness practice than I can possibly hope to explain here. But a basic mindfulness practice is how I got started on this path, and the basic idea of mindfulness is so simple: pay attention.
Mindfulness practice always begins with the awareness of the breath — the lungs as they fill and empty, the chest and belly as they rise and fall. The breath is the fundamental rhythm of the body, but it is easy to forget about it because there are so many other things to think about. If we can pay attention to the experience and nuance of each individual breath, we can begin to pay attention to the other sensations of the body — on our skin, our muscles and bones, our hearts and stomachs — and outside of our bodies — the sensations of sound, sight, and touch This awareness can expand outward from sensations to feelings, emotions and thoughts as we experience our bodies and environment.
Mindful attention is the tool that allows us to understand what makes us feel good, what makes us feel bad, what experiences are meaningful, and what leaves us feeling empty. Mindfulness has become popular in recent years because this awareness of our own negative thoughts and feelings makes it easier to understand them, detach from them, and let them go. But mindfulness is so much more than this strategic mind-hacking. The experience of expanding awareness unfolds a world of sensations and experiences that are always around us but are easy to ignore. This is the reward we receive for learning to let go of our desires and frustrations. Buddhist practice isn’t about finding some meaningful reality either “out there,” or “within yourself,” but about recognizing the entire world that we have always been a part of.
One of my favorite thoughts about mindfulness is from “Mindfulness on the Go,” by Jan Chozen Bays. She writes that mindfulness “is a way of expressing our gratitude for a gift that we can never repay.” Again, there is so much more I’d love to say, but the thing about mindfulness is that it’s so easy to sit down and try it for yourself.
Step Eight: Sit Down and Shut Up**
In the last step, the Buddha describes what it’s like to become completely absorbed in meditation. It takes a lot of time to reach that kind of concentration. I’m not that experienced, and not a lot of people are, but meditation can still be really helpful and enjoyable even if you only do it a little bit at a time.
Mindfulness practice isn’t meditation exactly, but it’s not different than meditation either — if you can be mindful, you can meditate. There are many different ways to meditate, but most of them require sitting down and shutting up. The idea is that if you’re not moving and not talking, getting rid of all the little sensations and stimulations that distract the mind, you’ll be able to focus more purely on the mind itself.
I think that meditation is the last step here because it’s the most difficult, but also — arguably — the most important. For many people it may not seem necessary, but if you have the time and space to do it, I hope you’ll give it a try.
A Few Final Notes:
Now that I’ve gone through all the steps in the order that they’re normally written, I think it’s important to say that they don’t need to go in order. I didn’t even know the Four Noble Truths until after I had started a meditation practice. But mindfulness has continued to help me understand the nature of suffering, and learning how to take care of myself has helped me to be more understanding of others. All the steps connect to each other in this way.
I hope I’ve managed to show how simple these steps are, but I’ve also included a chart below with the most important stuff. I’ve tried giving each step a silly name so that they’re easier for me to remember, but some of them really suck. Please feel free to throw my words away and find the ones that mean the most to you. Thank you, and have fun!
* I stole this from Brad Warner’s book, Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master, 2016
** Also from Brad Warner. Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye, 2007