metablue.jpg (14625 bytes)

November 1995, Volume 3 Nr 3, Issue 27

Attitudinal Healing and the Eightfold Path

I've been thinking about Attitudinal Healing and the Eightfold path of Buddhism. More specifically, I've thought of one of the pathways, Right Livelihood, and wish to examine it in the light of the other pathways and Attitudinal Healing.

How shall we advance ourselves spiritually, become ever more human, if we consider our spiritual life and practice to be accomplished in our spare time? Recognize that our work, job, career, profession, vocation, occupation is a huge investment of resources. Ask whether the rewards are worth the price. Occupation is a good word. It implies a territory, a place, a where in which one is. One occupies space in the workplace. The work occupies space in one's awareness. Consider whether your relationship with work feels as though you've been occupied by an enemy army, or as though you occupy a beautiful home of the heart.

Let me name the Eightfold path, and very briefly define what each aspect is, in light of Right Livelihood.

Dealing with Dukkha

In the 5th century BCE there was a teacher whom we sweetly and absurdly call the Buddha (as though there were only one such being, as though there have not been many through the ages, named and unnamed by our histories, as though such people don't live with us today, as though we are not all potentially Buddha, that is, awakened). This man spoke and taught prolifically, but mostly, he studied and practiced. His was experiential learning under conditions of extremity (starving ascetic and pampered prince) as well as moderation (a traveling teacher with monks who only ate what was offered). His experience led him to insights, which are called the Four Noble Truths:

1. Life is dukkha. This is usually, and I think erroneously translated as "Life is suffering." More accurate definitions are found from Huston Smith and Ryo Imamura.

"Life (in the condition it has got itself into) is distorted. Something has gone wrong. It is out of joint. As its pivot is not true, friction (interpersonal conflict) is excessive. Movement (creativity) is blocked, and it hurts." - Huston Smith.

"Unfortunately, life is full of curve balls such as illness, old age, bad grades, loss of job, income taxes, car breakdowns, death of a loved one, and disagreements. I'm sure you can think of many others. Some people will say, 'Why did this happen to me? Poor me.' Obviously they still expect straight balls down the middle over the plate." - Ryo Imamura.

2. The cause of dukkha is tanha, usually translated as desire. An adequate translation up to a point, tanha may better be understood as simultaneous attachment and aversion. One desires and becomes attached to some things and tries to avoid others. These things may be people, sadness, joy, objects, illness, sensations, ideas, money, and on and on. Things to become attached to, things to avoid. (Buddha did advocate the desire for liberation or enlightenment, and the desire for other sentient beings to be happy and at peace).

3. The third noble truth is that there is a way out, a way to be released from narrow tanha, and to become fully human, in harmony with all the universe; to be both non-attached and fully engaged.

4. And a way out is The Eightfold Path. This is a way of training, a way of living, a road map for being and becoming oneself. It is not based on faith or ritual. It is practical, empirical, psychological and available to each individual.

The Eight Pathways

The eight pathways are:

  • Right Views
  • Right Intent (Attitude)
  • Right Speech
  • Right Conduct (Five Precepts)
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

Not included in the eight is one which Buddha emphasized just as much: Right Association.

Right Livelihood basically means work that promotes life. Spin that out and understand that such work should be nourishing, enlivening to the worker, and a way to serve others. Most discussions of right livelihood these days avoid that word - worker. I suppose it smacks too much of employee or laborer, and such words that imply interchangeable, pawn, powerless, subhuman. But worker is a word deserving recognition. To work means to apply energy to accomplish a task. The energy may be mental, social or physical. Thus a teacher, a president, a store clerk, a poet, a cabby are all workers. And there are people in each of those positions for whom it is their right livelihood. There are also those for whom it is not.

Where one's work is right livelihood, one is energized, creative. They look forward to work. They like it. This is not to say it isn't ever difficult, but that it truly suits them.

I have seen people change jobs and even countries to honor their right livelihood. I have also seen people stay in a position that seemed meaningless a couple of years ago and now seems rich with reward and potential because their relationship to the work changed.

How does right livelihood relate to the other tenets of the Eightfold path? Conscious Awareness. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of right livelihood is that one is constantly choosing and constantly evaluating how one's work dovetails with one's values; that unlike most people, one does not drift along in the currents of career.

Right intent has to do with attitude, an underlying persistent focus on love, on serving others. Since right intent is often translated as right attitude one may understand the concept as a path of attitudinal healing. Imagine how work may be transformed if it is focused and dedicated to such attitudes as:

The essence of all beings is love.

We can love others and ourselves by forgiving rather than judging.

We can focus on life holistically, rather than as fragments.

We can perceive others as either extending love or calling for help.

Right speech begins with attention to language. Many people simplify this directive, insisting that it is the same as "Thou shalt not lie." While this is indeed part of the solution, one mustn't bypass the work of learning how to use speech with awareness and charity. To do less diminishes oneself and others. I may transmit factual information with no intent but to diminish another. Thus gossip may be factually true but it is not right speech.

In terms of right livelihood, right speech involves advertising, coworker relationships and in this information culture, products also.

The Five Precepts

Right conduct or right action is traditionally detailed in the Buddhist Five Precepts. These directives are like the ethics course Moses carried down the mountain, the second part of the ten commandments. The five precepts are:

1. Do not kill
2. Do not steal
3. Do not be unchaste
4. Do not lie
5. Do not drink intoxicants

A deeper appreciation of the principles may be gained reading this list of the same precepts from Thich Nhat Hanh:

1. Reverence for life
2. Generosity
3. Sexual responsibility
4. Deep listening and loving speech
5. Diet for a mindful society.

If you study any one precept deeply, you find it contains all the others.

First Precept. In our work we can choose to give love rather than find fault. In respect for the interdependence and preciousness of life we cultivate compassion. Reverence for life may take the form of encouraging the cafeteria to provide some vegetarian meals, or using recycled paper stationery, or sending memos on-line rather than on paper. To redirect office chat away from harmful gossip and to delightful humor or sharing stories of our own lives. Reverence for life means acting responsibly, consciously to protect life, to promote love. Forgiveness, compassion and non-judgment are part of this.

It is traditional for students of Buddhism to recite precepts in Sanskrit or in Japanese, depending upon their tradition. The Sanskrit words are beautiful to say: "Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami" translates as the vow, "I undertake to abstain from taking life." A noble and lovely vow. Now read how Thay teaches the same (first) precept to Western students: "I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.

Second precept. Generosity includes both refraining from stealing and also sharing. In many work environments it is territory and ideas which are at issue. The grammar school ethics of not stealing another's candy must be matured into not plagiarizing for example.

Please don't misunderstand. Generosity does not mean becoming less than yourself, or other than you are able. It means sharing time, talent, resources to serve others in a way that strengthens and nourishes your heart.

Prescriptions not Proscriptions

Third and fifth precept. I will take the third and fifth precepts together as many scholars have. Both are about responsible ways of being in our bodies, about sobriety and awareness, about honoring ourselves and others.

I notice that Thich Nhat Hanh (called Thay by students) is careful to present all the precepts not as proscriptions, such as the "Thou shalt not" language of fear which clothes the ten commandments, but as prescriptions, therapeutic training for a healthy, healing life. For millennia, the precepts have been studied and practiced at great depth and breadth. Thay's gift is to introduce people to the precepts in a way that immediately encourages broad and deep application.

Respect for self and others involves knowing how love and desire are different, and when they intersect.

You probably know what sexual responsibility looks like in the workplace, and such issues as sexual harassment, dirty jokes and office love affairs have been given a lot of press. But remember that right livelihood in light of the third precept can also mean taking care not to stimulate sexual desire that is unconnected to love, such as in so much advertising.

Also be aware that, while physical and psychological boundaries are important among co-workers, personal integrity does not mean coldness. It is often said that most people meet their partner through their work. How much more likely this may be if you are engaged in work that you love, which allows you to be most truly yourself. If you are practicing your right livelihood then people see you as you are, and authenticity is imperative if romance is to become deep honoring.

Detox at Work

Diet for a meaningful society refers to what we ingest mentally as well as physically. It is the heart of the fifth precept. You understand how this refers to misusing drugs and other intoxicants. Now consider other toxins we may only half-consciously ingest such as those carried in many magazines, TV programs, conversations. The ancient point of the fifth precept has to do with two things: avoiding confusion and cloudiness of mind; and maintaining health because a healthy person can better think and serve others. Today we know just how deadly substance abuse can be to the abuser and others. And that it is not only chemicals that can be abused, but also behaviors.

Work can be toxic. While OSHA is designed to lessen the likelihood that working people will have accidents or exposure to poisons, it does not address toxic relationships or psychologically toxic policies.

Fourth precept. "Deep listening and loving speech" is how Thay characterizes the fourth precept. Communication occurs in many ways, obvious and subtle, but one of the most cultivated is human speech.

Whatever your work, you communicate with others. To cultivate mindfulness and skill in communications is usually the most valuable talent one can bring to one's work. Those whose professions obviously involve speech include artists and writers, salespeople and teachers. We in the helping professions know vividly how the implicit message is usually heard more clearly than the explicit one: the message within the message.

Loving speech is speech which affirms others and does not judge them. Speech which opens others to exploring and defining their own values, desires and truth is a great gift. It is non-attachment to another's outcome. And the best way to cultivate loving speech is through deep listening.

Love and Mindfulness

Right Livelihood is itself the next part of the Eightfold path. Following that is Right Effort. This has to do with will, which is more powerful than wish. It means moving with focused perseverance. An important part of Buddha's teaching about will has to do with timing. When inspired, fired up, one may have the energy to make great leaps and vaults. These are wonderful, yet usually must be tempered by steadier progress. As the Tao te Ching says, "He who takes the longest strides does not walk farthest."

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.

These opening lines of the Dhammapada (sayings of the Buddha) are like ideas presented in A Course in Miracles, which posits that we invent the world we see. One is not a victim of the world one sees because he or she invented it.

Right Mindfulness is the cultivation of compassion in our very thoughts, and even below the level of thinking. If we witness our thinking we see how flighty and ephemeral thought and emotion are. The reality of our being is love. Love is the constant. Not desire. Not attachment. Not distraction. Not aversion. Love.

As we become aware of the flightiness of human thinking we can develop compassion for ourselves and others. As we become aware of the effects our thoughts have on the world, we can resolve to become more conscious, more aware, more loving.

If we do our work mindfully we are in the moment, truly present to the task at hand. Not worrying about the future or the past. Work that engages us in this way, so we are often so absorbed that we don't know where the time went, from which we emerge relaxed...such work is probably our right livelihood.

Meditation practice is what Buddha called Right Concentration. I'll not discuss meditation here. There are excellent guides - published works, human teachers and in your own intellect and heart - to meditation. I urge you to consider these suggestions:

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Be gentle and patient with yourself.
  3. Be consistent and disciplined.
  4. Remember all great art tales years of patience.
  5. There is some physical, psychological, spiritual benefit at any level of lovinfkindness meditation.
  6. Keep it simple.

I emphasize simplicity in meditation because it is simple. Simple doesn't mean easy. It means elegant. Better to train your mind and body so that you can meditate anywhere than only being able to meditate in your special room or your special cushion.

Sangha and Right Association

Finally, there is the ninth aspect of the Eightfold Path, Right Association. As each of the precepts contain all the others, so do the strands of the path interrelate. We are social beings, a fact too often ignored at work and school. Society, companionship, is one of the most underacknowledged values people have for their jobs or careers. It is vital to most.

There is a Sanskrit word, Sangha, which is variously interpreted, as exclusively as "ordained Buddhist priesthood", and as inclusively as "the virtuous friends and teachers who help us on our way."

In our work, if it is right livelihood, we are aware of Relationships: with ourselves, with our colleagues or co-workers; with those we may supervise, with those who may supervise us; with our clients, customers, patients; with the community. A crucial aspect is having a supportive, aware community of friends, colleagues, mentors, "who help us on our way." Although Right Association is not one of the Eightfold Path, Buddha considered it a preliminary step to embark on the path, and a priceless companion in our practice.

Sadly, most people in our society move through their day with low consciousness, little volitional awareness of the forces of desire, aversion, emotion and ephemera which buffet them about. As we develop more conscious awareness, we may quite naturally find ourselves in the community of those on a similar path of awakening. We may have to seek them out. We may find fellow seekers among our co-workers or our clientele.

It is a very useful practice to see everyone as a Buddha, everyone as your teacher. Those who disagree with or scorn you, those who dismiss you or exasperate you are often more important teachers with harder lessons than those who embrace you. But, it takes an awareness of great spiritual maturity to be continuously surrounded by such challenging "teachers."

Most of us will do better, love and work better, if we have, and create for others, a supportive environment. It is said that Robert Ingersoll declared that if he were God, he would have made health contagious instead of disease. You have probably noticed that emotional health is as contagious as emotional disease. Huston Smith interprets Buddha as teaching that, "We would associate with Truthwinners, converse with them, serve them, observe their ways, and imbibe by osmosis their spirit of love and compassion."

Other Thoughts

I take refuge in the Buddha, who has shown a way to live;
I take refuge in the Dharma,
The way of understanding and love;
I take refuge in the Sangha,
The community in awareness and harmony.

{A vow for taking refuge in the triple gem of Buddha - Dharma - Sangha.  This is a traditional ceremony. an acknowledgement of devotion and confidence.]

The last words of the Buddha were, "Be a lamp unto yourself." He didn't say, "Go running to this teacher or that teacher, to this center or that center" - he said, "Be a lamp unto yourself.

Charlotte Joko Beck

Fulfilling spiritual life can never come through imitation. It must shine through our particular gifts as a man or woman on this earth. This the pearl of great price. In honoring our own unique destiny, we allow our most personal life to become an expression of the Buddha in a new form.

Jack Kornfield

Publications Update

Metaphoria is now distributed both in the printed word and via the electronic medium of the Internet.

To our on-paper readers: we have switched from photocopying issues to using a high speed Rizograph duplicating process (see masthead page 2.). The October issue was small as part of a trial to using this process. We are committed to the larger format and have returned to it.

To our E-mail readers (or those wishing to receive the newsletter via E-mail): Metaphoria is distributed on the Internet to an E-mail distribution list. To be added to this list (see masthead page 2.) please drop us a note at the mailing address or or visit our WWW homepage at:

1995 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

Return to Homepage