Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Inner Work


For the week of March 15, 2010

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The Eightfold Path

Some 2500 years ago, the Buddha and his disciples elucidated what is known as The Noble Eightfold Path, which prescribes a way toward freedom. This venerable teaching, in various interpretations, has been at the core of the Buddhist way ever since. For the non-Buddhist as well, the Eightfold Path offers enormous value in unlocking our hidden potentials. While the Buddha neither asserted nor denied the existence of God, we can clearly see that the Eightfold Path brings one closer to God. And while this particular teaching does not explicitly address love and compassion, clearly those qualities were taught by the Buddha in other contexts and are developed in following the Eightfold Path. In the coming weeks, rather than rehash what has been taught and written at length about the Eightfold Path, we will revisit each of its eight aspects with a new perspective.

The English translations traditionally given to the names of the elements of the Eightfold Path are:

    1. Right View
    2. Right Intention
    3. Right Speech
    4. Right Action
    5. Right Livelihood
    6. Right Effort
    7. Right Mindfulness
    8. Right Concentration

Now these eight aspects, though typically listed in that order, are not meant to be taken in a linear, sequential fashion. Rather we practice them in parallel, in an eightfold mutually supportive synergy. Each aspect interacts with all the others in creating a complete and robust path toward freedom, wisdom, and compassion.

By way of preparation in this introductory week, we note that these eight titles all begin the word “Right.” How do we know what is “Right” in Right View, Right Intention, and the rest? It means much more than just correct. Consider other descriptors of the meaning of “Right,” such as appropriate, proper, skillful, intelligent, and compassionate. In doing so, we see that it is not enough simply to study, either books or with a teacher. To truly follow this path, one must also develop one’s own insight, one’s own vision, intuition, and creativity, and one’s own taste for the truth. The path cannot be learned by rote, nor by simply following some set of moral prescriptions, such as the ones usually included under Right Action.

How do we know what’s right? Something in us does know and we call that something conscience. It does not lie. But we can mistakenly construe our own self-centered urges for the promptings of conscience. And those same urges can cause us to misinterpret, ignore, or bury the actual indications of our conscience. To acquire the taste of conscience, we pay attention to our feelings, our intuitions of what is right and what is not. We test that against common sense and ordinary morality. If what our conscience appears to be telling us passes that sanity test, then we may go with it, which brings us to the further test of evaluating the results of going with it. Through this trial and error process, we learn to hear the promptings of our conscience and distinguish it from our self-centered or fanciful impulses.

As a complement to conscience for guidance on our path, we need something else that the Buddha recommended — investigation. In this context investigation means looking into our own experience, looking into the inner workings of our mind, feelings, body, and awareness, and seeing how various actions, inner and outer, affect our inner life. Investigation brings to light many situations and processes, about which conscience can then guide us. For example, certain teachers and teachings may not be appropriately adapted to our current state, skills, quirks, and possibilities. But our conscience is always in touch, if only we can be in touch with it.

A third factor complementing both conscience and investigation in discovering our way is exploration. We bring our creative flair to our inner work, to our meditation, presence, and prayer. We look carefully and deeply and try new approaches, not necessarily ones we have been taught. Not everything can be taught nor put into words, particularly the deeper realms and more subtle aspects of spirituality. Through exploration we push beyond our inner envelope and into uncharted inner territory. Investigation and intuition of conscience guide our exploration toward the Light.

We will look at conscience again when we come to Aspect 4, Right Action. For this week, investigate and explore your inner experience to notice your intuitions of what is right. See how you respond to those sometimes inconvenient promptings.


        

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