the eightfold path: skillful effort, skillful mindfulness + skillful concentration

Sangha committed several months to the study of how we “live into community” and the purpose of gathering as spiritual friends to build our capacity for skillfulness and resilience. To that end, we’ve contemplated the Eightfold Path as a set of embodied practices that help us develop wisdom, ethical action, and various faculties that support our meditation.

The Eightfold Path is the fourth of the 4 Noble Truths:

There is Suffering.
There are Causes of Suffering (craving/attachment).
There is an End of Suffering.
The Noble Path is the End of Suffering.


Our journey on the Noble Eightfold Path winds up with three mental faculties — Skillful Effort, Skillful Mindfulness, and Skillful Concentration. With the development of our ability to regulate, shape, and direct the movements of our mind, we harness the power to cultivate and refine the first five “liberating” actions — our understanding, thinking, speech, action, livelihood — that help free us from cycles of suffering and discontent.

Skillful Effort refers to the quality of the energy we apply to our actions (both in meditation and in the world). Are we struggling, feeling sluggish, practicing half-heartedly and part-time, or wrestling with self-defeating patterns of doubt and worry that we’re not getting it right? Are we striving, approaching our practice ambitiously and overzealously, or straining ourselves with self-limiting habits of perfectionism or a goal-oriented mission for self-improvement?

Are we applying skillful understanding of how our brains and bodies function and of the conditions that create fluctuations in our energy so that we can be flexible, patient and gentle? Are we approaching our meditation practice and spiritual development with diligence — lovingly, compassionately, wholeheartedly, consistently, and creatively?

I highlight diligence here because in my study and practice of the 5 Spiritual Faculties, I discovered that, at its root (latin: diligere), it meanslove, take delight in.” Whereas in common usage, we erroneously associate diligence with painstaking, rigorous or arduous work. So this re-claiming and re-imagining of how we use our energy resonates deeply with me. It feels more aligned with the quality of skillfulness, where we take care with how we apply ourselves — balancing the amount of stimulus and ease based on the conditions present — so that we are not creating habit energies of pursuit, ambition, craving, clinging or avoidance, resistance and aversion. And when those do arise, we are able to (re)examine them, readjust and transform them without criticizing or condemning ourselves.

Skillful Mindfulness may seem at first glance like a redundant term because we generally associate mindfulness with being a beneficial or at least “neutral” ability to pay attention. However, as we learn to pay attention to what is arising in body, heart, and mind, there is a possibility of our awareness taking a hue of criticism or hyper-vigilance that becomes unskillful. We lose the quality of ease, non-attachment, and non-judgment when we begin to ruminate or fixate on sensations, thoughts, emotions, perspectives.

Thus, cultivating the energy of skillfulness within our mindfulness is an invitation to ground ourselves in The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The Buddhist discourse “Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness” (Satipatthana Sutta) details this thorough and measured process of liberating ourselves by abiding with full awareness of body and breath, feelings, mental states, and objects/qualities of the mind:

“A practitioner remains established in observation of the body in the body, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful, having abandoned every craving and every distaste for this life.

…remains established in observation of the feelings in the feelings, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful, having abandoned every craving and every distaste for this life.

…remains established in observation of the mind in the mind, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful, having abandoned every craving and every distaste for this life

…remains established in observation of the objects of mind in the objects of mind, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful, having abandoned every craving and every distaste for this life.”

 — from Transformation + Healing by Thich Nhat Hanh

Skillful Concentration is  understood as the mental capacity to merge skillful effort with skillful mindfulness to direct our attention toward a single-point of focus in our meditation practice. For example, we can cultivate steady focus on our breathing, by chanting a mantra, counting malas, gazing at a yantra or into candlelight.

Unfortunately, the dominant conception of being an experienced  meditator is equated with being “successful” at concentrating and sitting stock-still for otherwordly periods of time. This idea is also upheld by teachers and practitioners who are fixated on being strict disciples of spiritual discourses written eons before science and technology would uncover the vast range of cognitive functioning. Lacking an understanding of neurodiversity, they promote a rigid “one size fits all brains” standard of learning.

As a homeschool educator and wife to a person living with a traumatic brain injury, I am keenly aware that favoring “concentration” as an optimal mental state and evaluative measure of progress in meditation (aka the flagstones of enlightenment) also presumes and privileges practitioners who have neurotypical development. So I’ve long been called to expand our perception and practice of concentration in order to minimize the anxiety and frustration that can arise in practitioners who have difficulty focusing. The invitation instead is to conjure the image of absorbing or being saturated with qualities we wish to embody like joy, equanimity, compassion, steadiness, nonattachment. We can then return to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and contemplate the phyiscal sensations,  emotions, thoughts, images, memories, narratives and experiences we associate with such attributes.


look deeply

The featured image is my sketch of the Four Exertions, which inform our efforts to: cultivate skillfulness by watering and maintaining what has arisen while arousing or awakening skillfulness that has not yet arisen; and to transform unskillfulness by releasing and not dwelling in unskillfulness that has arisen while guarding against and not fueling that which has not arisen.

other liberating actions of  the eightfold path

on skillful understanding + skillful thinking
on skillful speech, skillful action + skillful livelihood

the eightfold path: on skillful speech, skillful action + skillful livelihood

3jewels-cwestquote

Sangha is studying how we “live into community” and the purpose of gathering as spiritual friends to build our capacity for skillfulness and resilience. To that end, we’re contemplating the Eightfold Path as a set of embodied practices that help us develop wisdom, ethical action, and various faculties that support our meditation.

The Eightfold Path is the fourth of the 4 Noble Truths:

There is Suffering.
There are Causes of Suffering (craving/attachment).
There is an End of Suffering.
The Noble Path is the End of Suffering.


The wisdom pair of Skillful Understanding and Skillful Thinking carries us to gates of the three ethical actions where we may examine how silence and discernment give shape and dimension to:

Skillful Speech — What we choose to say, how we choose to say it, and when we choose to say it. Speech is a form of action (the cause of karma) that is fueled by the quality of our understanding, thinking and intentions. It may be guided by factors that create a more skillful impact (the effect of karma) in the world.*

*(I use world here to encompass our daily encounters with people, places, and all manner of things.)

Skillful Action — How we choose to respond to the world as embodied in our conduct (direct/indirect; personal/interpersonal; private/public). The behaviors/activities we engage in and abstain from that reflect the quality of our understanding, thinking, and intentions.

Skillful Livelihood — I am compelled to expand livelihood beyond its common denotation as the work we do to earn a living. This is also coupled with a desire to suss out the snares of privilege and shame that arise when we narrow in on ethical employment without considering socio-cultural and economic factors that influence where and how we work. Looking deeply at the root meaning of the word itself unearths a broad view of how we cultivate our “way of life” and includes all the choices/actions we make to nourish and sustain a sense of living well (values, interests, experiences and relationships). Our livelihood then reflects and is informed by the quality of our understanding, thinking, intentions and actions.

Our contemplation draws on Audre Lorde’s essay, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action:

What is the quality and impact of our silence?
Where does our silence show up as fear or avoidance?
When can it cause harm?  When can it be a tool for healing? 

Where can it be shaped into a tool of resistance — a healthy boundary to guard against toxic communication?  A way of standing in our commitment to non-violent, compassionate action?
In what ways do we use meditation and practices of discernment as skillful means to transform silence into skillful speech and skillful action?



other liberating actions of the eightfold path

on skillful understanding + skillful thinking
on skillful effort, skillful mindfulness + skillful concentration

 

on the dharma shelf | “the transformation of silence into language + action”

“Each of us is here now because in one way or another we share a commitment to language and to the power of language, and to the reclaiming of language which has been made to work against us. In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation.”

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.

The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.

And there are so many silences to be broken.”

~ Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

I cannot think of a reading that is more aligned with Sangha’s study of Skillful Speech, Skillful Action, Skillful Livelihood. This trio of ethical actions on the Noble Eightfold Path holds deep resonance with our commitment to living into community where inclusion and liberation are seeded, watered and nourished!

Read the full essay (via Cal State @ San Marcos).
Look back at skillful understanding and skillful thinking and the qualities of skillful communication.

criteria for skillful communication

3jewels-vacasutta

Last December, I was invited to give a presentation to fellow members of my local Facilitators Guild on the 4 Gates of Speech after referencing them in one of our monthly meetings. As I prepared, I discovered overlapping ideas across various wisdom traditions and expanded my presentation into a list of Criteria for Skillful Communication below. 


Cultivating skillful communication is more than an intellectual endeavor. It is an embodied mindfulness practice comprised of Deep Listening and Skillful Speech.

We learn to listen deeply by paying attention to our thoughts, perceptions, bodily sensations, and emotions while listening to others and while speaking. Through this process, we can discern what to say, how to say it, and when, if at all, to say it–which is the foundation for impeccable speech.

Intention: To foster understanding and compassion.

Actions: Draw upon silence in order to give full awareness to our experience in the moment and to reflect on our speech before, during, and after speaking.

__________

Before speaking, let your words pass through these gates.
__________

Origins in Philosophical + Wisdom Traditions

I. 3 Sieves/3 Filters ~ Attributed to multiple sources (i.e. Socrates, Quakers, poets).

Is it True?
Is it Kind?
Is it Necessary/Useful?

II. 4 Gates of Speech ~ Possibly Sufi; misattributed to Buddhism.

Is it True?
Is it Necessary?
Is it Helpful?
Is it Kind?

III. 5 Factors of Right Speech ~ Buddhist; from the Vaca Sutta (italicized text mine).

It is spoken at the right time.
Will it be Heard, Received and Understood? Does it Improve Upon the Silence?

It is spoken in truth.
Is it Factual, Sincere, from the Heart?

It is spoken affectionately.
Is it delivered Gently, Kindly, with Compassion, Equanimity, Empathy?

It is spoken beneficially.
Is it Useful, Constructive, Informative, Necessary, Life-Affirming?

It is spoken with a mind of good-will.
Is it offered with the Clear Intention to Not Cause Harm, to Inspire, to Comfort, to Support?

[16 December 2015]


in the dharma circle

So what does this look like in action? Following our meditation practice, Sangha exercises the capacity for skillful communication through a discussion on a selected topic of contemplation.

Our skillful speech has the opportunity to become refined by three factors: silence, bowing (gassho), and breath.  

We speak from discerning through silence — using the sacred pause to garner clarity of thought/feeling and to measure those formations alongside the (3, 4, or 5) criteria named above.

We bow when we wish to speak. Sangha bows in return.
It is an embodiment of our commitment, as speakers, to speak skillfully and, as listeners, to listen deeply in order to cultivate our skillful understanding of what will be shared. 

We bow again at the completion of our sharing. Sangha bows in return.
It is an embodiment of our commitment to give space for understanding to unfold and for discerning whether to contribute a subsequent insight, question, or experience.

We pause and breathe, for at least 3 full cycles, to center and ground ourselves before contributing to the dharma circle.

The pausing, bowing, and breathing not only bridge the sacred energy of mindfulness to the practical aspect of turn-taking. But these practices also disrupt common communication patterns and de-condition our habits of interrupting, cross-talking, or sparking side conversations.

Whichever of the 3 Sieves, 4 Gates, or 5 Factors resonates most with you, use these criteria to gauge the quality of your awareness and ensuing impulses to respond when holding conversations. It can be jarring for practitioners who intentionally cultivate deep listening and skillful speech to recognize how wide the gap is between how we experience and participate in communication inside and outside of the dharma circle.

the eightfold path: on skillful understanding + skillful thinking

3jewels-holysuffering

Sangha is studying how we “live into community” and the purpose of gathering as spiritual friends to build our capacity for skillfulness and resilience. To that end, we’re contemplating the Eightfold Path as a set of embodied practices that help us develop wisdom, ethical action, and various faculties that support our meditation.

The Eightfold Path is the fourth of the 4 Noble Truths:

There is Suffering.
There are Causes of Suffering (craving/attachment).
There is an End of Suffering.
The Noble Path is the End of Suffering.

Taking these meaty topics one by one and spending two sessions covering each (and allowing for overlaps as they are inextricably linked), we are inching our way from Skillful Understanding toward Skillful Thinking.

Skillful Understanding blooms from cultivating a receptive “big picture, fine detail” mind that sees clearly into the nature or roots of things as they arise. For example, having a skillful understanding of the 4 Noble Truths — being able to look deeply into each of these statements, turn them over, test them against experience, and create skillful actions based on this understanding.

Skillful Thinking is informed by Skillful Understanding. It is the active mind that generates wise responses to what arises, i.e. seeing the roots and conditions that create my anger in the moment and discerning how to tend to my anger.

How then do we develop these two wisdom aspects of the Eightfold Path? By asking, in our meditations, contemplations, and dharma discussions with friends:

What Is This? Is This True? Am I Sure? Is There More?

_____________

a note about semantic preference

I have a particular fondness for the use of the word skillful here as a qualifier to describe each practice of the eightfold path; whereas, readers of the Buddhist Canon will most commonly see them framed by the term “right” from the Pali word sammā.

I recall first encountering the application of the word skillful to the eightfold path back in the Spring of 2005 in Buddhism for Mothers (which was an inspiring source of guidance for me, as a fairly new auntie who was closely engaged in the care of my first-born niece…and in extending patience to her very young parents). I was enthralled by the word and immediately used it in place of “right” because of its expansive quality.

It moves us beyond the dichotomous “either/or” world view of the ultimate two — right and wrong. And into the vast field of potential where we train toward our mastery of these spiritual capacities. Where there is room for beginning — clumsy, uncertain, doubtful, resistant; for gradually becoming proficient; and for continuously growing in our competency.

I recently discussed this over coffee with a dharma friend who is a Buddhist teacher, who prefers to use wise instead. Albeit more liberating even that, I admitted to her, feels finite. And worrisome to those (particularly younger practitioners) who wonder if being wise is strictly relegated to the loathsome domain of adulting…that wisdom precludes all lapses in skillfulness. So it can become an aspiration to get to. Someday.

As one who has been a spiritual seeker all my life, I am living into my aspiration to be a wise elder right now. It has not merely been a matter of adulting or aging or waiting for my hair to become gray enough for others to perceive me as wise. Wisdom has blossomed from years of deep inquiry and of meeting, owning, and transforming my unskillfulness, again and again, until skillful, compassionate actions become an effortless response to the world around me. 

 

other liberating actions of  the eightfold path

on skillful understanding + skillful thinking
on skillful effort, skillful mindfulness + skillful concentration