Practicing the Eightfold Path

Practicing the Eightfold Path

A dharma talk by Danielle MacCartney


Last week, we discussed the Eightfold Path. At practice, one of the members asked how we could practice the Eightfold Path. Like most things in Buddhism, there isn’t really an app or a schedule or a strict set of behaviors where you can check off that you’ve done your dharma practice once and for all. Practicing the Eightfold Path is something we do over and over again, in each moment. We can create reminders – many of us set an electronic timer to chime at particular times of day to remind us to meditate, to be mindful, to practice a particular behavior, and so on. What I’ll discuss here are various ways to help practice all or part of the Eightfold Path.


If what we’re talking about are ways to incorporate the Eightfold Path into our daily practice, it is, of course, more complicated than a simple chime. Then again, it is also exactly as simple as a chime. Welcome to the seeming contradictions of Buddhism. Regular meditative practice will deepen our understanding and embodiment of all the elements of the Eightfold Path, but there are additional practices that can help us gain better clarity of some specific elements.


The first two elements of the Eightfold Path – view and intention – are bundled together in one “basket” encompassing aspects of wisdom. A practice to cultivate wisdom is difficult to describe, but daily meditative practice can help. One technique is silent, mindfulness meditation. When we sit in silent, mindfulness meditation, we can become increasingly aware of the patterns of our thoughts and feelings. With practice, we can better recognize the ways that our thoughts and feelings create our suffering – helping us realize the Four Ennobling Truths (there is suffering, suffering is caused by craving, suffering can end, by following the Eightfold Path). That realization is embodied in Right View. If we can deepen our awareness of and ability to recognize these truths, we can alleviate our suffering.


A meditative practice that can help us practice appropriate intention is loving kindness meditation. With loving kindness meditation, we start by cultivating loving kindness towards ourselves and gradually extend that intention to all living beings. Think of a phrase that inspires loving kindness and visualize it, such as one of the following:


  • May I feel loving kindness
  • May I be free of harm
  • May I be free of suffering
  • May I be happy
  • May I be free of pain
  • May I be healthy and strong
  • May I live peacefully


Next, direct this phase towards a dearly beloved person, such as a family member. “May [this person] feel loving kindness.”


Direct this phrase towards a respected person, such as a teacher or admirable coworker. “May [this person] feel loving kindness.”


Direct this phrase towards a neutral person, such as a neighbor or coworker you know, but for whom you have no particular positive or negative feelings. “May [this person] feel loving kindness.”


Now, direct this phrase towards a hostile person, someone you find difficult or offensive. “May [this person] feel loving kindness.”


Extend this phrase to all living beings, “May all living beings feel loving kindness.”


You can replace “loving kindness” with whatever intention you’d like to cultivate. When you practice with the intention of cultivating that feeling or behavior, you are exercising your ability to embody right intention.


The second “basket” includes components related to ethical behavior – speech, action, and livelihood.


To practice skillful speech, consider committing to pay attention to your speech. Each time you notice you have spoken mindlessly, without purpose, or harmfully, make a note of it – increase your awareness of your speech. Once we become aware of our patterns of harmful or idle speech, we can then commit to speaking in intentional, helpful, and kind ways.


Likewise, with skillful action, we can make note of and commit to being honest in our actions, respecting other people’s property, avoiding committing harm, and acting in compassionate ways. It may be helpful to reflect on our actions at the end of the day and to begin the day with the intention of engaging in honest, helpful, and respectful actions.


Engaging in right livelihood asks us to think about the productive work we do. Does our livelihood contribute to human flourishing in some way? To cultivate this component, pay attention to your work – are you working in a way that is beneficial to yourself and others? Are you appropriately engaged at work? Does your organization contribute to the flourishing of others in some way? You don’t have to be a religious leader to contribute to the flourishing of others. If your work contributes to conditions of equanimity, you are engaging in appropriate livelihood. Like most components of Buddhism, it is most helpful to approach your livelihood with compassion. In our culture, we deride many forms of productive labor – we’re not doing the “right” kind of work, we think. But, if our work supports us and our families and if our work creates conditions for others to flourish – even in minimal ways – we should recognize ourselves for that livelihood.


The third “basket” asks us to cultivate moral culture – appropriate effort, concentration, and mindfulness. Appropriate effort asks us to examine if we are applying ourselves sufficiently for a particular context – are we trying too hard or not hard enough? We can practice this by maintaining discipline in our meditative practice. We can commit to meditating every day. The duration of the meditation is less important than the regularity of the practice. Additionally, ensuring that we’re sitting in the appropriate posture could help us practice appropriate effort – investigate the recommended postures. You can find a good explanation here


Appropriate concentration asks us to devote our full attention to one point. We can cultivate this component with a focused meditation – bell, flame, guided, and so on. With a focused meditation, the point is to put all our attention on the anchor – the sound of the bell, the sight of the flame, the images of the guided meditation. When our minds start to wander, come back to the anchor over and over again.


Finally, there are many ways to cultivate mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh discusses many mindfulness techniques, including mindful dishwashing. The next time you wash the dishes, pay particular attention to all the aspects of dishwashing – how the water feels, how the soap smells, the colors and textures of the dishes, and so on. The point of mindfulness exercises are to become increasingly aware of the aspects we often ignore. Many times when we are, for example, washing dishes, we are thinking about something else (in my case, how quickly I can finish washing the dishes so I can do something “important”).


Pick one aspect to practice this week. Do it consistently and fully and make note of any new insights you develop as a result.