The Eightfold Path: A Tool for Living at a Time of Crisis

I was in the thick of putting together my online course, “Love Your Enemies,” when the coronavirus crisis became serious. As a result I’ve felt a little late in responding to what’s going on right now. I plan to start a new course this month called something like “Meditating In a Crisis.” But today I want to share just a few thoughts on that topic, using the Buddha’s Eightfold Path as a framework.

If you’re not familiar with the eightfold path, it’s a comprehensive system of practices that help us move from ignorance to Awakening, from suffering to peace.

The path is not eightfold in the sense that it’s eight stages to be followed, one after another. The eight components of the path can all be practiced in every moment of our lives. You could think of the path being eightfold in that it’s composed of eight lanes — a kind of highway to Awakening. Or if you prefer an image on a less industrial scale, you could think of it as being like a brick path, eight bricks wide. With every step you practice all eight factors of the path. Or you could think of the path as being like a rainbow, except with eight “colors” rather than the standard seven. Or you could think of it as resembling a cord woven from eight threads.

I hope to show you that the eightfold path is a practical teaching, and that it’s flexible and capable of being applied in contemporary circumstances.

Right View (Samma Ditthi)

In this model of practice, we start with examining our views. Views are core beliefs. They’re the basic assumptions we make about life. Some views we have contribute to our long-term happiness and wellbeing, but some detract from it.

Usually we don’t just go looking for unhelpful views. We find ourselves suffering, and then we look inside ourselves to see what we’re doing to cause that suffering.

A lot of us, for example, carry around assumptions like “Bad things shouldn’t happen to me.” And so when a major disruption like coronavirus comes along, it seems unfair and unjust. After all, we’ve just been trying to get on with life, which is difficult enough as it is. And now this? Views such as this, which  encourage us to have self-pity, aren’t going to help us. Closer to what the Buddha would have described as a Right View is the common saying, “Shit happens.” Things change. They sometimes change in unwelcome ways. And we just have to work with that and make the best of it.

Another view, “This kind of thing always happens to me!” is also unhelpful. It’s a maladaptive attempt to find solace in a sense of “specialness,” as if we’ve been singled out by the universe for mistreatment. The thing is that this epidemic isn’t about us individually. It’s a crisis that affects many people, and no matter how it’s affecting us, there are others who are worse off. Focusing narrowly on ourselves isn’t helpful. In fact it makes us miserable.

So it’s helpful for us to become aware of the views we have around the coronavirus pandemic, so that we can let go of those that are unhelpful, and embrace those that are more in line with reality and that help us be at peace.

So, shit happens. That’s true, and it might be helpful to adopt it as a view. But other views, such as “Every difficulty is a spiritual opportunity” can be helpful as well. As the title of one of my other posts says, “All people and all circumstances are my allies.” Including this one.

Right Intention (Samma Sankappa)

Samma sankappa is also sometimes translated as “right resolve,”  “right attitude,” and even as “right emotion.”)  We’re talking about our emotional interaction with the world, and whether they help or hinder our wellbeing

I mentioned above that some views support attitudes of self pity.  The emotion or attitude of self-pity isn’t, of course, helpful. Panic isn’t helpful. Despondency isn’t helpful. These things tend to happen automatically. But since those reactions cause us suffering, what’s being suggested is that we find other ways to respond. Healthier ways.

What’s healthier? Self-compassion helps because it provides us with an inner source of support, encouragement, and comfort as we face difficulties. Compassion for others helps us because it takes the focus off of us personally, and helps us see that we’re all in it together, albeit to varying degrees.

Right Speech (Samma Vaca)

The Buddhist scriptures define right speech like this: “Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter; that is right speech.” They also describe right speech positively, as holding to the truth, bringing people together in concord, as being kind and polite, and as pointing people toward the goal of liberation, or awakening.

So every time we remind ourselves to be compassionate to ourselves and others, we can take that attitude into the way we communicate. Other people, whether we’re separated from them or confined indoors with them, need our support and reassurance. They need our encouragement. Once we’ve shown compassion to ourselves, we can offer supportive, appreciative, kindly words to others. We can express appreciation to those who are doing the crucial work of helping others.

Although it’s not traditionally included in discussions of right speech, we can be mindful of the kinds of speech we expose ourselves to — especially news media that all too often are calculated to provoke anxiety in order to keep us hooked, and social media, which often expose us to inflammatory or false information. You might want to unplug from those, even if just for a couple of days, to see what effect that has on you.

Right Action (Samma Kammanta)

“Action” here is what we intentionally do. Right action is action that benefits, rather than harms ourselves, and others in the long-term. Traditionally this is seen in terms of not physically harming, not taking from others what isn’t freely given, and not engaging in inappropriate sex.

In terms of our current crisis, we can take care to physically distance ourselves from others, to keep our shopping trips to a minimum, to make sure we don’t take from the shelves more than we really need so that others too can meet their own needs, and so on. We can do all of those things in a spirit of care and compassion. We can also act compassionately by (safely) checking up on friends and neighbors, and especially on those that are vulnerable.

Right Livelihood (Samma Ajiva)

Traditionally, right livelihood means doing work that, at a minimum, doesn’t cause harm. Ideally our livelihood would involve work that’s materially, emotionally, and spiritually beneficial to others.

Many of us aren’t working right now, of course. But we could regard “work” here as what we do with our time. Right livelihood could include taking care of ourselves — for example by exercising as best we can, and making good use of our time, so that we’re learning and growing. It’s been great to see so many people making use of opportunities to practice online. And maybe there are household tasks you can do — getting rid of clutter, doing some gardening, and so on. Those things can leave us feeling much better and create a sense of normality.

Right Effort (Samma Vayama)

“Right effort” brings us back to what’s going on inside ourselves. Traditionally it’s the work we do to prevent the arising of unskillful states of mind, and to generate skillful states.

Right speech concerns what we say to others, but a lot of our communication is internal — it’s self-talk. So we can observe our thoughts, and when we find that they’re making us stressed and unhappy we can drop them and turn our attention back to our breathing, and our bodily sensations more generally. And perhaps we can find more helpful ways of talking to ourselves: “In this moment, I’m OK.” “May I be well and happy, and at ease.” “Today I am grateful for this, this, and this.”

Right effort doesn’t just cover inner speech, though. It’s the ongoing effort to extract the mind from anxiety, anger, craving, doubt, and avoidance, as well as the effort to cultivate kindness, compassion, patience, courage, and so on.

At a time of crisis, worry is one of our “go to” unskillful states. It’s important to recognize that worry isn’t “bad.” It’s just unhelpful. Focusing on things that might go wrong in the future doesn’t solve anything and in fact it makes us unhappy right now. Our inner work involves recognizing that worry has arisen. It involves letting go of worrying thoughts, and coming back to our immediate sensory experience. And it also involves finding ways to bring more helpful mental states into being.

Even if we drop our catastrophizing thoughts, we’ll find that feelings of anxiety persist. If you’re familiar with my teachings on self-compassion, you’ll know that I encourage people to regard anxiety as communications from a part of you that is suffering. And our right effort here is to connect with our innate kindness and to offer support for that struggling part of us. Having done that, we are more at peace, and we’re freer to offer kindness and compassion to others.

Right Mindfulness (Samma Sati)

To do any of the above, we need to have mindfulness. We need to have the ability to observe our minds, to see how we’re thinking and what our attitudes are. We need to see what effect those thoughts and attitudes have on how we’re feeling, and on how others feel, and so on.

And so in every one of the factors of the path that I have mentioned so far, we practice mindfulness. In fact it’s helpful if we cultivate an attitude of mindfulness all the time, or at least as much as possible, by coming back to the sensations of the body and to what we’re perceiving in the world, being aware of our movements, observing our feelings and attitudes, and so on.

This is probably the single most important thing we can do for ourselves in a crisis. We can stay grounded in sensory reality and stop ourselves from being pulled into the world of catastrophizing. We train ourselves to recognize when we are getting sucked into anxious thinking and to instead come back to our actual present-moment experience.

Right Concentration (Samma Samadhi)

Samadhi is usually translated as concentration. It doesn’t necessarily mean concentration in the sense of narrowly focused attention, though. It really means having continuity of awareness. To practice any of the factors of the path requires concentration. When our attention is all over the place, jumping from object to object, it’s hard to cultivate skillful states of mind. We might for example start off intending to cultivate kindness, and find that a moment later we’re daydreaming. So we need to train ourselves to stay on track, at least for long enough to bring about change in our habits.

The ultimate benefit of concentration, the Buddha said, is that it helps us to observe and appreciate the arising and passing of things. Once we realize that anxiety arises and passes away, and that in fact it’s arisen and passed away tens of thousands of times before in our lives, we start to take it less seriously. One of our big fears when we’re anxious is that we’re going to be stuck that way. But it always passes.

And in fact, as we focus more closely on anxiety and see that it’s just a sensation, arising and passing away in every moment, we realize that in a sense there’s nothing real there. Anxiety is like a flickering movie show — a magical display that entrances the mind. And once we start to realize how we’ve been repeatedly fooled by this movie show, we start to become immune to its enchantments.

Three Core Factors

Three of the factors — view, effort, and mindfulness — have a special place in the eightfold path. As the Buddha put it, “These three things keep running and circling around [each of the factors of the path], namely: right view, right effort, and right mindfulness.”

When we’re cultivating or practicing each of the factors of the path we need to understand that there’s a benefit in doing so. We need to have a view that it’s beneficial to be ethical, mindful, and so on. So, right view is always involved in practice.

We need to have the mindfulness to recognize whether what’s going on, or what we’re doing, is skillful or unskillful, helpful or unhelpful, leading to peace or leading to suffering. Mindfulness is always involved in practice.

And we need to put effort in to letting go of unskillful habits and to cultivating skillful ones. Effort is involved in all practice.

So these three factors—view, effort, and mindfulness—are involved in every moment of practice.

So, I hope you can see how a traditional teaching like the eightfold path has very direct relevance to our practice in a crisis such as the one we face today. Hopefully I can go into this in even more depth in the course I’m planning to put together.


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