The Noble Eightfold Path – Right Mindfulness

The Noble Eightfold Path – Right Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Buddhism began by encouraging its practitioners to engage in smrti (sati) or mindfulness, that is, developing a full consciousness of all about you and within you — whether seated in a special posture, or simply going about one’s life. This is the kind of meditation that Buddha himself engaged in under the bodhi tree, and is referred to in the seventh step of the eightfold path.” – C. George Boeree
The predominant iconic image of the Buddha is of him sitting in blissful meditation. This results in the popular conception that meditation is at the center of Buddhism.  But, as is evident from the first six components of the Noble Eightfold Path, at the center is how one goes about one’s life. This is evident in Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort and Right Concentration. The real center of Buddhism is contained in the seventh component of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, Right Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the basis for all of the other components on the path. Unless one is mindful, there cannot be a right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, or concentration. The Buddha used meditation as a practice to develop mindfulness, thereby allowing progress on the path and eventually attaining enlightenment. So, meditation is a means to an end and that end is mindfulness and beyond.


Mindfulness is all about presence of mind or paying attention. But, it’s a particular kind of attention. We are forever paying attention to something. Mindfulness involves paying attention to what is occurring in the present moment. Paying attention to memories, daydreams, ruminations about the past, thoughts about the future, planning, problem solving, dreaming, visualizing, etc. are not mindfulness. Rather it is paying attention to the sensations from inside the body and from the outside environment, to the momentary thoughts floating through the mind, and to momentary awareness itself. In addition, it is intentional paying attention, doing so on purpose, and witnessing what is transpiring in the present moment without judgment, without consideration of it being good or bad, right or wrong, pleasant or unpleasant, or smart or stupid, rather, simply letting things be as they are. It can be thought of as thoughtless awareness, pure awareness of now, or bare attention, without reference to the past or the future or for that matter without any processing of the information whatsoever.


Mindfulness helps to lead to serenity, insight, deep concentration, or wisdom. It makes sure that the mind does not slip away and get lost in random undirected thoughts. Its primary tasks are to observe, to note, to discern phenomena with utmost precision until their fundamental characteristics and nature are brought to awareness. In order to attain these deeper understandings, the Buddha directed his followers that they should concentrate on four types of mindfulness being mindful of the body, feelings, mental states, and mental contents.


A sad aspect of our lack of mindfulness is an unawareness of the body. With the mind occupied with thoughts, ruminations, plans, etc. it is easy to lose track of the body and its physical state. It is eye opening when introducing people to a simple body scan, how amazed they are that they’re so unaware of it. So, to be truly in the present moment an acute awareness of the state of the body needs to be developed. This involves a number of components. Mindfulness of the body includes recognizing the position of the body, whether standing, sitting, lying down, and the various parts of the body, from toes to scalp and everything in between. Mindfulness of the body also includes a recognition of its composition of matter, air, and water, that are acquired from the environment, and thereby recognizing the body’s dependence and integration with the greater world. Finally, it involves a recognition of the body’s ever changing, impermanent nature, including its growth, development, deterioration, and eventual cessation in death. Yes, mindfulness of the body includes recognition of its mortality.


There is not only a lack of awareness of the body itself but also of the sensations from the body, including those associated with emotional states and how we evaluate, judge and respond to them. Mindfulness of feelings includes bring to awareness the sensations and feelings from the body and all its parts in the present moment, including feelings of temperature, pressure, pain, tingling, etc. As this awareness emerges so can an awareness of how we are judging these feelings as pleasurable, likable, distasteful, unlikable, or neutral and how we are reacting to them of doing things to develop or hold onto pleasant feelings and to eliminate or abbreviate unpleasant feelings. These are all deeply imbedded in human nature, but often appear to occur unconsciously. Mindfulness of feelings brings them into the light of awareness.


Emotions always involve both mental and physical components. Mindfulness of feelings is generally seen as pertaining to the bodily sensations accompanying emotions. It’s quite striking as mindfulness of feelings emerges and develops the degree to which they often occur without awareness or even recognition. Anger and fear are accompanied by a physiological activation, including increases in heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tone, blood moving away from the skin and gut to the muscles, and facial expressions. Yet, these are frequently not recognized. In developing mindfulness of feelings, the feelings produced by emotions are brought to awareness and felt deeply. This produces an ability to recognize the emotional state before it elicits a reaction that might harmful or regretted later. Mindfulness of feelings, then, allows for not only recognition but also the control of emotional reactions.


The mind is constantly interpreting and judging experience. These processes are responsible for forming ideas about these experiences, sometimes called mental formations, because they are formed in the mind. In psychology it is recognized that what emotion is felt is determined not only by our physical state but also how the mind interprets the environment. For example, fear is thought to occur when a physiological reaction occurs within what the mind interprets as a fearful context, e.g. the presence of a threat. Mindfulness of mental states involves firstly recognizing the state, e.g. anger, happiness, boredom, etc. and observing the workings of the mind that produce these mental formations. By watching how the mind interprets experience the practitioner becomes more and more aware of how the mind effects how experience is perceived and interpreted and the roots and conditions of these experiences. It may underline how the interpretation of the experience is based upon prior experiences or memories or how they are interconnected to other things in the environment. As the practice continues, it becomes easier and easier to see experiences in the raw, without interpretation, devoid of judgment, disconnected from prior experiences.


Every experience contains objects that are detected by our senses. Mindfulness of mental contents involves bringing these objects into awareness in all their aspects. This involves not only seeing and perceiving the object exactly as it is at the moment but also observing its impermanence and it interconnectedness to everything else. It’s seeing the object as an absolutely unique and ever changing expression of the entire universe. Deep mindfulness of an object includes perceiving how it is dynamically changing from moment to moment. An apple has a particular immediate appearance but this is just a snapshot of the apple which has changed moment to moment, from a seed, earth, and water, to a tree, to a bud, to an unripe piece of fruit, to its current state as a one of a kind apple. It is also to see that this apple will continue to change to overripe, to rotten, to garbage on the ground, to its component elements of soil and water, to its return to the earth. In other words, mindfulness of mental contents involves seeing the object as a transitory impermanent expression. In addition, it is to see how it is connected to everything else, the sunlight, the rain, the soil, the evolution of apple trees, the farmer, the machinery, the inventors of the machinery, the metal, plastics, and gasoline in the machinery, etc. In other words, it’s to see the apple as and ever changing and interconnected to all of existence. When objects are viewed in this way, they are truly seen mindfully.


So, Right Mindfulness is the development of an accurate and precise awareness of the present moment uncolored by ideas, memories, beliefs, expectations, etc., just the experience as it is. This is essential to progress on the path as it’s impossible to develop the other seven components of the path without being able to accurately perceive exactly what is actually transpiring in the present moment. It is the essential foundation for everything else. With it we have hope of progressing toward enlightenment, without it, we’re lost in delusion. So practice resolutely to develop mindfulness and move forward on the path.


 “When right mindfulness is developed and made much of, one realizes what one should do and should not do. Whether one should speak or not speak. When one speaks, what should be spoken and not spoken. Right mindfulness is the basis for the development of the right path that culminates in knowledge, wisdom, contentment and the highest happiness.” – Mithra Wettimuny


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The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Effort

The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Effort


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“The Fourfold Right Diligence is nourished by joy and interest. If your practice does not bring you joy, you are not practicing correctly.” – Thich Nhat Hahn


In order to progress on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, effort must be exerted. One cannot simply sit back and wait for something to happen, one has to practice, one has to work at it. To some people that means working very, very, hard, perhaps meditating for hours on end, day after day. This comes from the Western work ethic that teaches that the harder you work, the more likely it is that you’ll achieve your goals. This is also the case in some Zen schools. A meditation teacher once described a Zen retreat as “Buddha boot camp,” requiring extreme endurance and perseverance. For many people this simply does not work and may lead to them abandoning practice and the path completely.


“Right Effort” sometimes called right diligence is the sixth component of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.” The idea of “Right Effort” is that the effort exerted in practice and in life needs to be “Right.” It needs to be finely tuned, neither too lax, nor too effortful. The Buddha taught that practice should be like a well-tuned string instrument. If the strings are too loose, they won’t play a sound. If they are too tight, they will break. Practice should be nourishing, not draining. So, “Right Effort” actually points precisely to the Buddha’s “Middle Way.”


The notion of “Right Effort” is not just for meditation practice but for how we conduct our lives. It calls for us to develop and encourage good qualities, ones that will lead forward on the path, and reduce or discourage bad qualities, ones that interfere or block progress. There are many good qualities to be cultivated but the ones that the Buddha particularly targeted were mindfulness, investigation of phenomena, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.


This suggests that we should work to develop mindfulness, paying attention, on purpose, without judgment, to what is occurring in the present moment. After all, how are we going to progress on a spiritual path if our minds are lost in thought, memories of the past or projections of the future? Only by being attentive to what is happening right now, do we have any hope of seeing things as the truly are. Mindfulness can be developed by engaging in contemplative practices such as meditation, yoga, contemplative prayer, mindful movement practices, etc. So, “Right Effort” mandates that we practice to cultivate our mindfulness, but do so with energy and striving, but not too much or too little. We need to practice on the “Middle Way.”

Investigation of phenomena needs to also be cultivated. Whereas mindfulness is observing what is, investigation is probing into the nature of what is. Investigation involves exerting concentration and energy to search out the characteristics, conditions, and consequences of the phenomena we observe with mindfulness. So, we look carefully as to what exactly composes a feeling, what leads up to the feeling arising, and what is produced by the feeling. So as anger arises, we look with mindfulness as to how exactly it feels in the body and mind, we look at what produced the anger, and we look at what consequence it might have for our actions and thoughts. If we can truly see these aspects of anger, we can better recognize it when it begins to arise, control it, and manage its consequences to lead away from harm and toward greater wisdom and happiness.


Fundamental to the entire process is energy. It must be cultivated and distributed carefully as there is only a limited amount available. We must first develop the energy to initiate mindfulness and investigation. It is impossible in real life to be constantly in the present moment and probing its nature. But, we must have the energy to return to these healthy processes whenever we have the opportunity to come back. Once mindfully engaged it is important to cultivate the energy to persevere and remain mindful as long as possible. Finally, we have to learn how to hold some energy in reserve so that when we reach a significant juncture in our practice we can focus our energy to break through and make a leap forward.


All of this energy can be built and cultivated by making our efforts joyful. Joy will replenish and charge our batteries for use when we need it. So, practice with joy, allow yourself to experience the beauty and awe available in every moment, and refrain from pushing too hard and losing the joy and happiness of practice. If we are careful and follow this joy, it will build and build and reach crescendos of bliss. This fuels our progress on the path. But, it is impossible to remain in a state of continuous bliss. Eventually the practice leads to tranquility, a peacefulness that comes from knowing the joyfulness of existence and practice. This tranquility now can allow the practice to proceed with knowing serenity. This peacefulness is the foundation for ceasing seeking and quieting the mind. Maintaining this stillness requires concentration. Once stabilized equanimity develops, an inward poise, free from the extremes of inertia and excitement. A state is reached like when driving a car with the cruise control on, neither having to press the gas peddle harder nor letting up on the peddle, just rolling along enjoying the scenery, without effort or striving, just observing things as they are. Just moving along the “Middle Way.”


It is wonderful to be cultivating positive qualities but at the same time it is necessary to prevent bad qualities from hindering progression on the path. There are also many bad qualities to be discouraged or removed but the ones that the Buddha particularly targeted were sensual desire, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and doubt. As part of pursuing “Right Effort” on the path effort should be exerted to prevent these bad qualities from arising and if they do to refrain from pursuing or reinforcing them so that they can diminish or extinguish on their own.


Sensual desires is actually a broad category that includes cravings for all those objects or states that are pleasing, sights, sounds, emotions, feelings, tastes etc. The actual experiences are fine and need not be avoided. It’s the pursuit of them and the attempt to hold onto them that produces hindrance. “Right Effort” involves not seeking them out, but if they arise letting them come and go without striving to hold onto them. Just letting them pass by like a sunrise or a sunset, looking, seeing, appreciating, and letting go. Trying to hold on only produces unsatisfactoriness and frustration.


At times negative feeling arise toward objects or people. These can be a hindrance also if they are focused on, held onto, or pursued. Feelings such as hatred, anger, resentment, repulsion, jealousy, etc. arise at times in the normal course of life and in our practice. This is normal and need not be actively pushed aside. This will only tend to strengthen them. They should simply be let go, allowed to dissipate on their own, noticing, taking note, sensing the feelings and releasing them. Situations and people who tend to evoke these feeling should be avoided as much as possible. It is easier to handle them if they never arise. So, if someone should cause you harm and anger and resentment begin to arise, let them. Just observe them with mindfulness. Feel the feelings and the mental anguish. Don’t avoid it, but don’t pursue or react to it. This can be difficult, but the more it is practiced the easier and easier it becomes. This is how to exert “Right Effort” toward these ill feelings.


Dullness and drowsiness are often indicators of too little rest and sleep or too much exertion.  “Right Effort” involves staying on the “Middle Way” and getting sufficient rest and sleep and not overdoing anything. These states of dullness and drowsiness are actually very good indicators and guides to return to the “Middle Way.” So, when tired, rest, when sleepy, sleep, and when dull, relax and recharge. Similarly, restlessness and worry are indicators of straying from attention to the present moment and wanting things to be different than they are, ruminating about the past, or fantasizing about the future. These states can also be useful as signposts and guides leading back to the present moment. “Right Effort” is to use these states to assist in maintaining energy, staying with mindfulness, and concentrating. The more they are used in this way the easier it gets to sense straying from the path and the sooner the return can happen.


The path can be difficult and progress is haphazard, improving one day, falling back another. It can sometimes be difficult to tell that progress is actually being made. This can lead to doubt that the “Eightfold Path” is the right way toward spiritual development. When doubt arises don’t fret. This is normal. It signals that questions should be asked of others, particularly those who have navigated the path. This can help to elucidate that the up and down course of practice is normal and if energy is invested in persistence, progress will be made. Doubt also signals that studying the teachings, reading, and contemplation may be needed to strengthen resolve and provide direction. This is truly “Right Effort.”


Obviously, there’s a lot to “Right Effort.” But the keys are joyful practice and the “Middle Way.” Look carefully at discursions from the path of unhealthy desires, bad feelings toward others, sleepiness or restlessness, worry, or doubt. There’s no need to feel bad about them. They are part of being human and everyone from time to time experiences them. Rather than regretting them, let them be pointers to returning to the path. Slowly, improvement will occur and falling off the path will happen less and less often, the good qualities will be present more and more often for longer and longer periods, and forward movement will occur on the path toward awakening and enlightenment.


“Enlightenment is not your birthright.
Those who succeed do so only through proper effort.”
– Ramana Maharshi


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The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood

The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D/


“Given that almost everyone’s life includes an economic dimension, work and career need to be integrated into life as a Buddhist. Most of us spend the majority of their waking lives at work, so it’s important to assess how our work affects our mind and heart. How can work become meaningful? How can it be a support not a hindrance to spiritual practice — a place to deepen our awareness and kindness?” – Sangharakshita


Most people need work to earn a living to support themselves and a family. For most, this is not a choice, it is a necessity for survival. But, what we do to make that living can be a choice and the nature of the occupation chosen can have a major impact on the psychological and spiritual development of the individual. The Buddha’s notion of “Right Livelihood” emphasizes the nature and importance of this choice.


Unless you’re a hermit, making a living is a social endeavor. It involves an array of people and it impacts on many others. A manager of a grocery store has to hire and coordinate the activities of many employees, has to work with upper management, suppliers, government regulators including the health department, and has to interact with customers. The manager’s activity impacts a wide array of people. This will also be true for most of us in our work. So, again the choice of occupation can have far reaching effects, not only on the individual, but on a wide network of interconnected people. Positive and/or negative effects of our occupation can thereby have many direct and indirect effects on our happiness and well-being as the effects on others feedback and affect ourselves.


“Right Livelihood” is the fifth component of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.” “Right Livelihood” is actually a subcategory of “Right Action”, but is so important that it like speech is singled out for its own step on the path. It’s particularly important because of its cascading impact on others. What we do and how we do it can make important contributions to the well-being of many or it may produce widespread harm. Having an occupation that produces good and doesn’t produce harm is as important to our own spiritual development as can be to the well-being of others.


The notion of “Right Livelihood” mandates that we should engage in an occupation that not only earns us a living but also creates greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieves suffering in ourselves and others. Conversely, we should avoid occupations that produce harm. The notion of “Right Livelihood” doesn’t discourage earning profits and accumulating wealth. It simply indicates that it must be done in the right way. It indicates that we should acquire wealth only by legal means, peacefully, without coercion or violence; we should acquire it honestly, not by trickery or deceit; and we should acquire it in ways which do not entail harm and suffering for others. This means that in performing our work we should fulfil our duties diligently and conscientiously, not wasting or misrepresenting the hours worked, or stealing, we should pay due respect and consideration to employers, employees, colleagues, and customers, and we should engage in business transactions truthfully without deceptive advertising, misrepresentations, or dishonesty.


In the choice of occupations to pursue there are some obvious jobs to aspire to. These are occupations that on their face create good and promote well-being. They include professions such as physician, social worker, peace negotiator, relief worker, therapist, etc. Of course, even these occupations can cause harm, as mistakes can and do happen, but the intent is to relieve suffering, and that’s what counts. Similarly, there are occupations that rather obviously create harm and should be avoided, such as drug dealer, arms merchant, professional criminal, etc.


Most occupations, unfortunately, are not so obviously good or harmful. Many can have harmful effects, not by immediate actions, but indirectly. For example, working as an accountant for a cigarette manufacture. Accounting is not itself harmful, but in this case would contribute to the distribution of a product that has been demonstrated to be harmful to people’s health. But, most occupations are even trickier to evaluate. Working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico produces a product, energy, that is needed for the well-being of virtually everyone. Without affordable energy, every aspect of the economy would collapse. So, working on the oil rig could be seen as promoting well-being and relieving suffering. On the other hand, there is potential for great environmental harm, including oil spills that directly pollute sensitive environments, or contributing to carbon dioxide emissions that can indirectly create great harm by contributing to global warming.


So should someone on the eightfold path accept or reject a job working on an oil rig? The answer cannot be given by anyone other than the individual themselves. It is imperative that the individual look deeply and objectively at what they’re doing and determine for themselves if they are doing more harm than good. On the eightfold path, the primary spiritual impact of “Right Livelihood” is on the individual engaging in the occupation. So, the decision has to be theirs. That is not to say that experts or friends can’t or shouldn’t be consulted, but that ultimately the individual must decide for themselves and be willing to accept the potential consequences.


Is it “Right Livelihood” to raise cattle, or chickens for consumption, to be a butcher, or sell animal products? At the surface this might seem simple as it involves the destruction of sentient beings which should be avoided. But, like everything, it’s sometimes not so simple. Firstly, killing out in self-defense is regrettable and should be avoided however possible, but if necessary is not a problem. In fact, there is a long history of lethal self-defense techniques being taught and practiced at some Buddhist monasteries. Killing and eating meat might be seen as self-defense and when other foods are not available for sustenance it’s defensible. In fact, the Buddha and his followers occasionally ate meat and taught that once killed animal products should not be wasted. But, in general, for most people in affluent situations, being involved in the raising, slaughtering, and distribution of animals would not be considered “Right Livelihood.” It may well have negative consequences on the individual and others.


In my own career, before I started on the eightfold path, I engaged in research projects using animals. At the time, it seemed to be a noble endeavor, increasing scientific knowledge for the good. But, I believe that I was harmed by this. I now look back with deep regret and guilt that I was responsible for the deaths of literally hundreds of animals. It doesn’t matter that they were lab rats. They were beings who should not have been used and harmed for my own selfish reasons to advance my scientific career. I remember those days long ago vividly and feel terrible that I could have created so much harm. It is something that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I paid and am paying the consequences on violating “Right Livelihood.”


We spend so much of our lives at work, that the choice of the wrong occupation can be a major impediment to our spiritual growth. Conversely, the choice of the right occupation can be a major asset. It can create greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieve suffering in ourselves and others. This is a major step on our spiritual path. So, engage in “Right Livelihood” and move forward toward enlightenment.


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


“A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.” – Buddha


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The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Actions

The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Actions


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D/


“Right Actions” is the fourth component of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.” It follows directly from “Right View”. When one sees everything just as it is and understands how everything is impermanent and connected to everything else, that life involves suffering, that there are causes to that suffering, and that there is a way to escape from suffering, this leads directly to “Right Intention”, the aspiration to create greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieve suffering in ourselves and others. “Right Intention” then is the driver of “Right Actions,” actually engaging in activities that produce the desired results. “Right Actions” like all the components of the path is dependent upon and affects all the other components of the path.


In order to know what actions will actually produce greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieve suffering requires discernment dependent upon “Right View.” Without that understanding of how things really are we can easily take an action that we think will be productive only to find that it was destructive. On retreat, there are often participants who are crying and appearing to be distraught or in despair. Our initial instinct is to go to the individual and to try to console them and help them through their difficulties. But, that, in fact, will do more harm than good, preventing the individual from addressing the core problems that have arisen in retreat. Consoling them actually disrupts one of the beneficial aspects of retreat which allows deep and repressed issues to come forth, be experienced, accepted, and dealt with. In this case “Right Action” is to simply make sure that they are physically all right and leave them alone to work though their issues. On the surface, it seems cruel. But with discernment it can be seen that this will in the long run produce the relief of suffering.


There are some rather obvious “Right Actions” that are parts of most religious and moral teachings. These include not killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and abusing intoxicants. These are actually “Right Non-Actions.” The “Right Actions” would be protecting life, generosity, engaging in healthy loving sexual activities, truthfulness, and sobriety. The “Right Action” of telling the truth has been discussed with “Right Speech” and need not be repeated here. The present essay will focus of the other four.


Protecting life, not killing, means more than just protecting the lives of human beings. It extends to all sentient beings. We can have honest differences as to what constitutes a sentient being from all living things, to only humans, to some point in between. But taking the life of a sentient being produces suffering and deprives it of an opportunity to experience life and happiness. It would thus violate the “Right Intention” to promote greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieve suffering. If it can’t be determined which animals are sentient and which are not, then it would seem to be the best course for producing happiness and relieving suffering to err on the side of caution and refrain from killing any animal.


We need to protect our own life. Killing in self-defense is “Right Action” provided we have done everything possible to avoid it. Part of that self-defense is obtaining proper nourishment. It would seem reasonable that to eat, but not kill a sentient being, we should become vegetarian. But, the growing and producing of vegetables inevitably involves killing other animals. The process of harvesting crops inevitably results in the death of many rodents, birds, and reptiles. It is, in fact, virtually impossible to not in some way directly or indirectly produce or contribute to the death of animals in order to maintain one’s own life. Discernment tells us that trying our best to protect life and minimize the harm we might do in the process of preserving our own life is “Right Action.” The practical impossibility of being perfect leads to the conclusion that intention and effort to preserve life is the best we can do and that is enough.


Honoring the property of others, not stealing, means more than simply not taking what is not intentionally given. It also implies generosity. “Right Action” is giving freely of our time and resources where needed to promote happiness and relieve suffering. This could be volunteer work at an abused children’s shelter, monetary donations to the needy, or simply picking up groceries for an infirmed neighbor. We should not hoard our resources but share them generously. “Right Action” can also mean doing things to promote social justice. We obviously shouldn’t directly abuse the rights of others. Rather we should stand up and oppose the abuse of rights perpetrated by others or society. Hence “Right Action” could even include civil disobedience. Certainly, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King understood this. But they also understood that civil disobedience should occur only with care, deliberation, and discernment. “Right Action” demands our action, but, carefully considered action that isn’t motivated by anger, hatred, or revenge. In other words, we should not stand by as others rights are stolen. We should defend them, but do so in a responsible manner with “Right Intention.”


There has been immense harm caused to individuals, families, and society by sexual misconduct. It can have a devastating and permanent effects on the principals and those that surround them. It can produce lasting traumas, destroy families, and permanently scar children. It is no wonder that sexual misconduct is so important to prevent and sexual activity approached with “Right Actions.” This results in the prohibition of sexual activity by monastics. But, for the vast majority of people the middle way, between celibacy and licentiousness is called for. In other words, healthy loving sexual relations that is consensual and non-exploitive are “Right Actions.” The primary guiding principle is that the action produces greater harmony, happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieves suffering. So, engagement in sexual activity should be loving, caring, and sensitive, with the intention to produce good for all involved. That is right sexual action.


The “Right Action” of not abusing intoxicants, of sobriety, is also important as great harm can be done to the self and others by misuse of drugs and alcohol. The perils of alcoholism and the destructive power of drug addiction are well documented. But, the “Right Action” of sobriety extends to much lower levels of intoxicant use. To the extent that these substances can cloud the mind, impede judgment, and interfere with discernment, they can lead to improper or insensitive actions that can harm. So, “Right Action” calls for, if not complete prohibition, low level and judicious use of intoxicants. But, “Right Action” with intoxicants actually extends well beyond alcohol and drug to engaging in experiences that can induce harmful thinking and lead to wrong actions. This can include “ingesting” disturbing movies, books, TV shows, etc. that can induce disturbing thoughts and possibly even lead to wrong actions. “Right Action” calls for us to be careful what we consume to make sure that no matter what form it comes in, it is healthy and leads to happiness and well-being.


These are some specific and obvious “Right Actions.” Most actions are not so obvious. So “Right Action” calls for us to be vigilant and approach our behavior with discernment to insure, as best as possible, that our actions improve happiness and well-being and decrease suffering. But making the effort and spending the time and thoughtfulness involved in insuring that actions are “Right” can produce considerable benefits. It can make each of us and those around us happier, more content, and more fulfilled and less worried, anxious, and dissatisfied. Beyond its impact on everyday life, it can lead us to higher states as we pursue the eightfold path. Doing the “Right” thing sure has its advantages!


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Communications

The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Communications


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D/


“If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?” – Buddha

Communications is the key to the dominance of the human race. Because we developed language and speech we’ve been able to share knowledge and build upon prior knowledge. Speech and language are so important that a substantial amount of the human cortex is devoted to it. As important as language is we still have not mastered communications. We are often misunderstood, use language inappropriately, use it to bully, or lash out in anger. We harm and hurt others by our speech both intentionally and also innocently. Communications between humans is so powerful and important that the Buddha made it a component of his eightfold path to enlightenment.


The Noble Eightfold Path consists of “Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.” – Buddha. In previous posts “Right View” and “Right Intention” were discussed. Now we will discuss the third component “Right Speech” which is also known as “Wise Speech” or “Virtuous Speech.” Since, the word “Speech” here is used very broadly it would probably be better interpreted as “Communications.” So, for the purpose of this discussion we’ll use “Right Communications.” These include not only speech, but writing, signs and signals, emails, texts, tweets, social media posts, and even non-verbal communications provided by posture and facial expressions. To simplify the discussion, we will focus only on speech.


“Right Communications” urges us to communicate in ways that promote harmony among people, to only communicate what we know to be true, to use a tone that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to communicate mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful. It asks us to refrain from false, malicious, harsh, or cynical communications and from idle chatter or gossip. All of this sounds straightforward, but can be devilishly difficult to implement. We’ve been trained from a very early age to be critical, skeptical, cynical, and to talk about one another incessantly. To practice “Right Communications” we must work to overcome all of this conditioning.


An essential component of “Right Communications” is deep listening. It is nearly impossible to communicate “Rightly” with another without a clear understanding of the other person. It is easy to hurt or harm someone unknowingly when we lack knowledge of the other person’s history, aspirations, sensitivities, fears, etc. In order to understand them we need to be able to listen carefully, attentively, and deeply to what the other communicates to us. Most of the time most people are not carefully listening to another when they’re communicating, instead waiting their turn and mentally composing their response. Practicing “Right Communications” requires that we not do this, but instead focus on the other’s communication and process its meaning completely and to ask for clarification when it is not clear. The intent of listening should be to provide the deep understanding of another to allow for mindful, kind interactions.


“Right Communications” is truthful. Obviously this means no lying. But this can be subtler, as it demands that we really know something to be true before stating it. How much of what we say are we really 100% sure of its truth? Probably very little as much of our speech includes speculation, guesswork, reports of what we’ve heard or inferred, and idle talk. “Right Communications” demands that we be very careful and verify the truth of what we communicate. If we’re unsure of the truth of what we’re saying we should make it clear that we are unsure, that makes it truthful. That the communication is truthful does not mean, however, that it should be said. The old expression “the truth can hurt” is an important reminder. Sometimes it is better to not speak at all rather than hurt or harm another with a truth that they are not ready to hear. “Right Communications” requires discernment and deep listening to the other person to be sure when to speak the truth or remain silent.


“Right Communications” promotes friendship and harmony among people. This means refraining from slanderous speech that is aimed at producing division and dissention and instead communicate in way that unites people and creates mutual understanding. This form of communications emanates from loving kindness and compassion for others. When we communicate we do so to benefit everyone involved. This does not mean that there should be no differences in ideas or opinions between people. Differences, in fact, can be a source of creativity and learning. It means, though, that communications celebrate, accept, and value the differences allowing their expression to produce greater understanding. So, a healthy political debate can promote understanding and harmony as long as it’s engaged in with loving kindness, tolerance, and friendliness, where the debate is not competitive or designed to belittle another or heighten one’s self-esteem, but to learn from an exchange of views. Once again, this requires discernment and deep listening to know what words will heal and promote goodwill and which will divide or harm.


“Right Communications” is pleasing, kind, and gentle. It is designed to set a tone which can make the communication enjoyable and produce wholesome results. This, includes non-verbal components. A smile while communicating produces positive feelings that a frown does not. This means refraining from harsh speech, including swearing and angry speech. We must be vigilant to prevent communications when anger arises. I find this particularly difficult, as expletives explode forth when my anger is tripped. “Right Communications” is positive and encouraging and not critical or discouraging. So, it emphasizes the positive and primarily passes over the negative. “Right Communications” involves meeting angry, hostile, critical, or sarcastic communications from others with loving kindness and understanding. It means that we don’t retaliate, instead we meet it with kindness. This requires practice as it is difficult to control our emotions and deep conditioning to respond to threats with anger and aggression. But, if we are successful in “Right Communications” we will generally find that the results are far more pleasing, other people like us and like to be around us more, and we and everyone around us are happier.


“Right Communications” also involves purposive communications. This is where “Right Intentions” come to bare setting the directions for the communications. “Right Communications”

Involves a judicious use of language only when it will promote good. It “is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by reason, moderate and full of sense” (Bhikkhu Bodhi). This means that we should inhibit idle chatter and especially gossip. Idle chatter communicates nothing of value and uselessly occupies the mind interfering with mindfulness making it more likely that we’ll communicate something harmful. Gossip is of its nature critical of others and shallow. It demeans others and causes harm. It lacks loving kindness and compassion. Hence, practicing “Right Communications” means not gossiping and not responding to gossip communicated by others. Words are precious and powerful. We need to use them pointedly to create happiness and harmony both in ourselves and others.


“Right Communications” requires mindfulness. It requires us to review our words before we actually speak them, so that we can apply discernment and insure that they promote harmony and understanding. “Right Communications” is thoughtful communications that we’ve determined ahead of time is likely to produce good. This requires considerable practice. It is not easy. But life provides numerous occasions every day to practice “Right Communications.” Rest assured that the effort is well worth it. You and everyone around you will discover its benefits promoting happiness and harmony and development along the eightfold path toward enlightenment.


 “Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech ( and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. . . . I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord.” – Thich Nhat Hahn


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Intentions

The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Intentions


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D/


“And what is right intention? It is the release of chasing after of fleeting pleasures, the release of the intention of malice, the release of the intention of doing harm.” – Buddha


“Developing wholesome intentions begins a natural process of building a foundation of ethics, and mindfulness is the tool that helps you see what you need to work on, what you need to let go of, and to act responsibly instead of reacting harshly or foolishly.” – Dana Nourie


The Buddha’s path to enlightenment, the Noble Eightfold Path consists of “Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.” – Buddha. In a previous post

The first component of the Noble Eightfold Path, “Right View” was discussed. It is intimately tied together with “Right Intentions” as there can be no “Right Intentions” without first seeing existence clearly and with discernment. Only, then can “Right Intentions” be established. In fact, “Right View” provides the thought processes necessary to set future directions, “Right Intentions”. This an instance of how all of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path are interconnected and depend upon one another.


Intentions are the drivers of actions. They involve thoughtful directions to produce wholesome outcomes. The simplest way to look at “Right Intentions” is as the aspiration to create greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieve suffering in ourselves and others. This is where “Right View” comes in and provides the wisdom to discern which aspirations are likely to produce wholesome outcomes. We may start the day with the intent to help others in need and discern that donating an hour of our time to volunteer work at a homeless shelter would likely produce greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieve suffering. This is right intention at work, derived from “Right View” and producing “Right Actions.” It is critical that the intention is wholesome. The same action, donating time, might be motivated by a desire to appear kind and generous to others, to obtain a tax deduction, or to impress a romantic interest who also volunteers. All of these are intentions governed by desires and are not part of the path. So, the action is important but only to the extent that it is motivated by a “Right Intentions.”


The Buddha taught that there were three kinds of “Right Intentions”: the intention of renunciation, the intention of good will, and the intention of harmlessness. The intention of renunciation is to eliminate attachments to the desires which normally drive our actions. This does not mean that we don’t aspire to acquire things, satisfy needs, or experience pleasures. Rather, it mandates the release of attachment to the desire. We still like to eat a good meal, well prepared and tasty. Experiencing this is simply experiencing what is. The need to eat is a healthy part of maintaining well-being and enjoyment of the sensory pleasure of eating is a healthy experience, provided that the goal (intention) is not to acquire these experiences and pursue them in search of happiness. When we are driven by seeking sensory pleasure, we will experience momentary happiness, but inevitably it will lead to suffering as the happiness cannot be maintained. The pleasure of fine dining quickly dissipates and we feel unfulfilled until we can have another fine dining experience, which again leads to unsatisfactoriness, suffering. The intention of renunciation derives from understanding that the intention to find satisfaction by fulfilling desires is not the way to create greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, but a way to increase suffering. So, we renounce the drive to fulfill the desire and become unattached. This will free us from the endless cycle of desire and suffering.


The intention of good will is also an intention toward loving kindness. It is a deep inner good will to all living beings including the self. This is not sensual love or love given in expectation of a return or a gain. It is not limited to certain people or even certain species. It is not contingent on particular behaviors, attitudes, or likeability. It is rather a pure kindness and wish for well-being of all. It is a recognition of suffering in self and others and deep compassion for that suffering and the intention to work for its relief. The intention of good will derives from understanding that all sentient beings suffer, but that the suffering can be eliminated. It expresses a deep compassion and understanding of this suffering and it energizes actions to relieve the suffering in self in others.


The intention of harmlessness is a broad intention to not cause pain, loss, or destruction to any sentient being, humans and non-human animals included. This can be quite difficult to accomplish as our actions can have rippling consequences that somewhere down the chain of causation produce harm. We can’t always know or discern what might happen, so the intention is critical. In donating time to work at a homeless shelter we may drive our car to the shelter. The exhaust contributes carbon to the atmosphere, contributing to global warming, harming all sentient beings. During the drive a squirrel might dash in front of the car and get struck. The discernment is difficult and “Right View” is critical to the intention of harmlessness.


A little thought regarding the implications of the intention of harmlessness will lead to perhaps adopting a vegetarian diet, as eating flesh creates harm to sentient beings. But, even a vegetarian diet creates harm. In growing vegetables, many sentient beings such as rodents, reptiles, and birds are inevitably destroyed. Additionally, cooking the vegetables releases carbon into the atmosphere. So, it is important to understand that we can never be completely harmless while we’re alive. The important point is to set the intention to do the least harm possible while still maintaining our health, doing good, and making a living.


It should be clear from all of this that “Right Intention” is a critical driver for actions along the Eightfold Path. Without intentions of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness we are rudderless. The “Right Intentions” are our moral compass. As such, they are key to wholesome living and progress on the path.


So, set “Right Intentions” and move forward on the Eightfold Path.


“The largest pool of untapped resources in the world today is humans’ good intentions that don’t translate into action.” ~ Lloyd Nimetz

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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What’s wrong with the Idea of an Afterlife

What’s wrong with the Idea of an Afterlife


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” – Stephen Hawking

I am not interested in the afterlife. Religion is supposed to be about losing your ego, not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.Karen Armstrong


The idea of an afterlife has been important throughout history and is a dominant theme is most religions. It is also a recurrent theme in literature and the media. The question of whether there is an afterlife has been discussed, argued, and preached about for centuries. Yet we do not have clearly verifiable empirical evidence to confirm or deny the concept. Some rely on scriptures as their evidence, but many are skeptical of writings dating from primitive times. So, the argument rages.


The biggest problem with the idea of an afterlife is the word itself (I prefer to use the word afterexistence). The idea of an afterlife can be interpreted, I believe correctly, as referring to what if anything transpires after life is over. The problem is that it can also be interpreted as a life that occurs following death. This is where the problem begins. People think of it as a life. This should be easily seen a patently incorrect. Life ceases at death. All of the physical processes that make up a living thing are either terminated or in the process of termination at the point of death. Death clearly means life is over. So the belief that there is life after death is completely contradictory to what actually happens in death.


Much of the argument follows from this misinterpretation. Atheists see that the physical processes cease and conclude, with impeccable logic, that there is no life after death. But, theists believe, and I emphasize the word believe, that the deity will somehow preserve us, pretty much as we are (“in his own image and likeness”) and bring us to a reward for our actions during life.


Maybe the problem with answering the question of an after existence comes from a reliance on logic, reason, and concepts that have their origin and existence in the physical realm. We’re in essence using the tools from the physical processes of the brain to try to reach a conclusion about whether there’s a non-physical reality. These processes were developed to understand and control the physical world. So, they would seem unsuited to exploring whether there’s something beyond the physical. Perhaps if we rely instead upon what we’re experiencing in the present moment, not what we think about it, but experience itself, we might be in a better position to explore the questions.


There is an important reframing of the question characterized by the quote “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. What this quote captures is a notion to turn existence as we see it inside out. Rather than see the physical world as true and wonder whether there’s something more, whether the spiritual is real or imagined, we can see the spiritual world as true and wonder whether there’s something more, whether the physical is real or imagined. If you take the later interpretation it radically changes how we view an after existence.

What prompts the strong human tendency to believe in an afterlife is the sense we have from our experience that there is something more. That sense comes from a clear experience we have that there is a presence, an awareness, an essence, a spirit that is aware of all that is going on but is not part of it. We can see the impermanence of all things physical. They rise up and they fall away. But this presence, this awareness is unchanging. It has been the same since birth to the present moment. What it is experiencing has changed and is impermanent, but what’s experiencing it has not.


If something is always the same even as the physical makeup of our bodies change from birth, to maturity, to old age, then it’s a simple extrapolation that that something should continue when the ultimate physical change, death, occurs. The presence, the awareness, the essence, the spirit persists. What that would be like is hard to imagine, an existence without input from the senses, without thought or memory, without concepts or language, without motivations or choices, without a self or personality. But, this is exactly the conclusion that this logic leads to.


Could there be a rebirth or what some people call a reincarnation. Why not? If the spirit, the awareness, the presence, can create a physical existence once, why not do it again? For that matter, why not thousands of times? We don’t have an answer to these questions. We can only judge its logical possibility if you assume that “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”


All of this leads back to the problem with the idea of an afterlife; that there’s continuing physical existence after death. This seems, to put it mildly, unlikely. But, if we simply look at our experience, our awareness, we can come to a completely different way of looking at life and death. We can see that the one core real thing that escapes impermanence, the awareness, the presence, the essence, the spirit, the essence, that is always the same and never changing will not stop or change due to death, but will continue into an after existence.


I don’t believe in any particular definition of the afterlife, but I do believe we’re spiritual creatures and more than our biology and that energy cannot be destroyed, but can change. I don’t know what the afterlife is going to be, but I’m not afraid of it.” –Alan Ball

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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What’s Behind the Curtain

What’s Behind the Curtain


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


The ego’s survival relies on the defeat of [spiritual] truth because it is dependent allegiance to falsity and illusion. For one thing, spiritual truth challenges the ego’s presumption that it is sovereign. “ – David R. Hawkins


In the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” Dorothy is cowed by the wizard in the hall of the Great and Powerful Oz. But her dog, Toto, is not in the least bit intimidated and pulls back a curtain revealing a little man. Suddenly, the voice of the wizard says “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” But, the secret was out. Everything was controlled by the little man. He created an awe-inspiring illusion of a non-existent all powerful wizard. Everything that was believed was all an actively created illusion by the frightened little con artist. Once the illusion was revealed, then the essence of the Dorothy’s life problem could be directly addressed and rapidly solved, returning her home. But, first the illusion had to be unmasked.


This is a wonderful scene that can be viewed as a metaphor for our existence. There is something behind the curtain that is creating illusions that we believe and organize our lives around. Behind the curtain is the mind. It creates the illusion that there is a wizard; a thing called an “I”, a self that is in control. But, when we look behind the curtain we can see what’s actually there and see the illusion that the mind has created. The illusion is that there really isn’t a thing that was first named by Sigmund Freud, called the ego. The illusion of self is created by the mind by portraying an overriding integrated executive in charge of everything. We then identify with it totally, pledging allegiance and defending it without question. It is so effective that the first reaction people have when its existence is questioned is one of disbelief and incredulity. The concept of no-self is one of the most difficult to accept and understand.


When we look deeply and try to find the thing called self or ego, we are puzzled by the fact that we can’t find it. Meditate deeply, looking inside, and try to find a self. What’s revealed is that it can’t be found because it isn’t there. If there were a thing that was truly the self, then it wouldn’t come and go. It would always be there. But, when we’re not thinking about the self, it disappears. Here one second, gone the next. The key here is that the self only exists when we’re thinking. This suggests that it is a creation of the mind’s thought processes, a fiction and not a thing unto itself.


Reflecting about this thing we call the self and looking at it closely, it can be seen that it is not a singular entity, but a concept composed of multiple cognitive and memory processes. When one is asked to describe their self, they almost universally will recite a list of characteristics, gender, height, weight, eye and hair color, occupation, educational attainment, religious affiliation, ethnicity, place of birth, place in the family, etc. But, it is quickly clear that these are just labels and measures of the body and its history and not really a self. Upon further reflection, it becomes clear that the self is simply a creation of the mind, the thinking part of the being, a concept created from a composite of memories.


Years ago, I decided to try to understand the mind by looking in the dictionary at its definition. I found the mind defined as “that which thinks, feels, wills, perceives, the subject or seat of consciousness.” Upon reflection, I realized that this was simply pointing to set of processes that are carried out by the brain. After a while I had the insight to see that the key to the definition was the first two words, “that which.” It’s not what it does, but who or what carries them out. The next realization was that this didn’t solve the problem of where and what is the “that which.” The definition simply attempts to clarify the concept by renaming it as an entity called “that which.” It never really defined it, it just dodged the issue by calling it something else.


As it turns out the mind does not exist as a singular entity. It is a concept that ties together a number of mental processes, and memories as suggested by the definition. These mental processes are what assemble the memories, creating the illusion of self. Behind the curtain is not a little man after all, but rather simply a concept, called the mind, and it is that assemblage of memories and processes that creates the illusions that we use to guide our lives.


But, why does this all occur. Why do we need to create a self out nothing? First off, it’s adaptive. It helps organize our experiences into an organized whole, providing structure to them. Our minds are limited and require structure to properly process experiences. This also provides for the seeing of others also as selves, providing structure to the social community. This would have been very adaptive in the dangerous and difficult times of early human development. Seeing a unified self, motivates us to defend it. Seeing a group of selves to which we belong motivates us to defend the group and make our and the groups survival more likely.


These defensive functions of the ego, the self, are readily on display in deep meditation. It frequently occurs that as the mind quiets in deep meditation and the meditator begins to glimpse an insight, the self jumps in and changes the subject, eliciting discursive thought and mind wandering. Just when the meditator begins to touch upon the fringe of truth, the self pulls away. This is often accompanied by a little brief emotional fright. All of this suggests that the self is so important that it will be defended even from within the individual. The structure does what it has to do to defend itself and maintain the illusion.


This all raises a very important question, what is experiencing all of this? What is “that which?” What is seeing the illusion created by the mind? What is the “Dorothy” that experiences the illusion and at the appropriate time sees what’s behind the curtain. Many spiritual teachers have suggested that it is something called awareness. They have suggested that it is the essence of our being. It’s been called by many names, soul, Buddha nature, spirit, Atman, etc. But, is simply the unchanging ground of all experiences. All of this simply labels the phenomenon but does not explain it. At least it doesn’t explain it in ways the limited mind can understand. But it can be experienced. In fact, it is experienced all the time everywhere and always has been. It’s the self that has kept us from noticing it. It is the self that keeps the curtain drawn. It’s the self that is the frightened little many behind the curtain struggling to defend itself.


It is the function of meditation to set the stage to allow the curtain to be pulled back. By quieting the mind, meditation quiets the defenses. They are still there and most of the time rise up to prevent any real insight. But, every once in a great while the truth pops through. This can produce a breakthrough where the curtain is pulled back and the truth of existence is revealed. Meditation tricks the mind into letting its guard down.


What are the consequences of drawing back the curtain. For Dorothy, it allowed her to see that she always had the power to go home, to be fulfilled, to be happy, to be liberated. The same goes for when awareness pulls back the curtain on the self and sees that it really doesn’t exist, that everything was just an illusion. When that is fully penetrated, it allows us to see that we always had what we seek, we always were at home, we are already fulfilled, we are already happy, and that we always were liberated. We just had to pull back the curtain on the illusion of self to see the truth.


“This ego, this false pretender, whenever it arises grabs the seat of honor at the core of our being. It purports to speak for the whole of us, even though our various parts lack integration.” – Joseph Naft


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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Positive Mindfulness

Positive Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available – more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.” –  Thich Nhat Hanh
Much of the tone of Buddhist teachings was established with the Four Noble Truths; there is suffering, there are causes of suffering, suffering can be relieved, and there is a path to the end of suffering. This focuses us on suffering, the negative side of existence. Without a doubt, these Four Noble Truths are correct and following them is a means to end suffering, become happy, and become enlightened. But, the negative tone has permeated much of the practice. The focus on the unpleasant has made the practice seem to be a chore, a necessary chore, but, nevertheless a chore. The unpleasantness prompts escape into mind wandering.


But, this tone can be completely altered without altering the truth of the teachings. The Four Noble Truths can be simply restated in the positive; there is happiness, there are causes of happiness, happiness can be increased, and there is a path to endless happiness. This simple rejiggering of the teaching makes a tremendous difference. It focuses the practice on happiness, making it a pleasant endeavor that can be enjoyed, relished, pleasurable, and looked forward to. It changes the practice from a chore to a joyful endeavor.


The science of Psychology has long established that all creatures, and especially humans, respond best to the positive. Negatives produce distaste and avoidance behaviors. On the other hand, if someone receives a positive reward for doing something they are not only more likely to do it again, but they will also feel good about it. So, changing the Four Noble Truths into the positive, can make practice not only an enjoyable experience, but more likely to occur.


This does not suggest that we should pursue happiness as is done in the modern western world. In this paradigm, happiness is pursued by consumption and accomplishment. When we buy something new, say a designer watch, it makes us happy. But, this happiness, like everything is impermanent, it fades and the watch no longer makes us happy. So, now we pursue something else, perhaps a new car. After working hard and saving, we go out a buy a brand new luxury car. This brings us happiness. But, just like the happiness from buying the watch, it fades and eventually the car no longer makes us happy. In fact, the monthly payments may make it a source of suffering.


In the modern world happiness is also pursued by accomplishment. We go through a prolonged education to acquire a degree. Upon graduation, we feel very happy, but this too fades. So we think that when we get a good job, then we’ll be happy, and indeed when we obtain it we do feel very good and happy for a while, but unfortunately, that too fades. So, we look for a promotion or a new job to make us happy, and again it does but only temporarily. This whole cycle is termed by Psychologists as the “hedonic treadmill.” We keep pursuing things because they temporarily make us happy but each happiness is impermanent and we get back on the treadmill looking for the next thing that will make us happy, on and on and on. Instead of happiness it brings disappointment and suffering.


Perhaps there’s a better way, and that is pursuing happiness in our practice. We look carefully and mindfully at what actually produces more lasting happiness. This can begin very simply. When you feel happy, even for a brief moment, simply look at it carefully and reflect on exactly how you feel, what are the sensations you experience in your body. This practice can make you more sensitive to happiness and more aware when happiness actually arises. Also, reflect on what led up to this happiness. This can help to make it clearer what the roots of happiness are to you and perhaps how to produce it in the future.


This simple practice of meditating on the state and causes of your happiness will slowly begin to expand the frequency, duration, and depth of the happiness you experience. This can begin to interrupt and push suffering away. There’s a process in psychological practice called counter conditioning. In this process, you eliminate an unwanted state or behavior, not by stopping it, but by replacing it with a positive state or behavior. This is very effective. So, as you expand happiness you are in fact counter conditioning suffering and replacing it with happiness. This suggests that there’s no need to focus on the elimination of suffering. In fact, trying to eliminate it often amplifies it or becomes itself a suffering. In contrast, focusing on happiness, eliminates it in a joyful way, overwhelming the gloom with sunshine.


During mindfulness practice it’s good to keep in mind Thich Nhat Hahn’s instruction to start by putting a smile on your face. Even if it’s a bit forced, it still somehow makes you feel happier. It’s also a reminder to look for good feelings and happiness during the practice. I like to focus while meditating on what and where something feels good on my body, maybe a subtle tingling sensation in a foot or an obvious cool breeze striking the face. I meditate on how beautiful it is to just be alive and sitting quietly. I listen closely to the symphony of sounds, some even internally in my head, and wonder at the miracle of hearing and the beauty of the sounds themselves. In hearing you own internal voice you can laugh at its inane content, bring joy rather than frustration at not being able to quiet the voice. What actually is looked at doesn’t matter so much but that the habit be built of seeing the goodness, the aliveness, the joy, and the happiness that is right there, all the time while doing something as simple and mundane as meditating.


This may seem contrary to the instruction of focused meditation to pay attention to only one thing and become single pointed. But, you’ll find that when you focus on the good, it becomes easier to concentrate and you become better at single pointedness. It is transformed from a frustrating chore to a source of joy. This not only enhances meditation but also makes it more likely that you’ll meditate in the future and look forward to it. Positive practice might also seem contrary to the instruction of open monitoring meditation let go of trying to control experience but to allow everything to just arise and fall away on its own, while just noticing. Looking for the positive may seem to be controlling. But, as it turns out, positive practice leads to better open monitoring as you learn to experience the joy and happiness in what is spontaneously occurring around you. It becomes easier to continue observing and lessens the mind wandering.


Meditation is only a platform to practice skills to apply to everyday life. Happiness can be found while doing everyday things. I like to look for good feelings and happiness no matter where I am, what I’m doing, or the conditions around me. I sometimes swim laps in a pool. This can be excruciatingly boring. But, I focus on how good my body feels in the water, the exquisite feelings of the internal sensations of energy in each part of my body, and the miracle of body in motion and the automatic unconscious movements controlling it. This changes what could be experienced as a chore to a joyous, mindful, and pleasurable experience.


You can do something similar almost anywhere, perhaps driving a car. Looking at traffic and noticing how well people work together to produce a safe environment, or accommodate someone who is driving not so safely, can produces a loving smile. When stopped at a traffic light, looking around and at the sky, looking for and finding the beauty and wonder all around can transform impatience to happiness. While driving remembering and seeing the joy experienced when you first got behind the wheel and drove as a teenager. Again, what exactly you do is unimportant. Rather the practice is to see the happiness everywhere around you all of the time.


We need to accept that this will be an ongoing process. As Thich Nhat Hahn reflected “When I was a young monk, I wondered why the Buddha kept practicing mindfulness and meditation even after he had already become a buddha. Now I find the answer is plain enough to see. Happiness is impermanent, like everything else. In order for happiness to be extended and renewed, you have to learn how to feed your happiness. Nothing can survive without food, including happiness; your happiness can die if you don’t know how to nourish it.” This makes it clear that we should continually renew and reinforce the state of happiness.


Happiness is self-reinforcing. The more you find it the more it promotes more happiness. It slowly builds upon itself, generalizing to other similar activities and circumstances producing an upward spiral of good feelings. You’ll find that slowly happiness begins to fill more and more of your day displacing more and more of the suffering. This is an automatic byproduct of positive practice which can completely change your view and experience of existence. Life become transformed from constant suffering to constant happiness. Try it. You’ll like it.


“Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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It’s Eliminating the Causes of Suffering, Stupid

It’s Eliminating the Causes of Suffering, Stupid

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

“The Buddha taught that beyond suffering lies great bliss. As we take steps towards removing the causes of suffering, we experience progressive levels of happiness. The path is a long one. But staying on it leads to a tremendous sense of liberation. There are other benefits from adhering to this philosophy – one can live in happiness, untroubled by any kind of negativity. At the end of this path, when desire and ignorance would have completely fallen away, one may experience the same transcendental joy that the Buddha did.” – Buddha Groove

In a previous essay the first Noble Truth was discussed, reflecting the patently obvious fact that there is suffering, a.k.a. unsatisfactoriness. In the next essay the second Noble Truth was discussed also stating the obvious that there are causes to the suffering. But, not so obviously we saw how, all encompassing, unsatisfactoriness is in our lives and how subtle are its causes. We saw that most of the unsatisfactoriness emanated from our inability to accept things as they are and instead, go to war against reality.

As we look carefully and deeply at this unsatisfactoriness, we find that it is much more encompassing than we initially thought, affecting every aspect of our lives and experience, day in and day out. In fact, unsatisfactoriness is the rule and not the exception. It is the biggest single impediment to being truly happy, making progress on a spiritual path, and experiencing liberation. The Buddha recognized this and held out hope in the third Noble Truth, that suffering can be eliminated, that there can be a cessation of unsatisfactoriness.

At first glance the idea of eliminating suffering would seem simple, just eliminate the cause of suffering. Since, the cause of suffering, desiring things to be different than they are, is also simple, it should be an easy task to eliminate the desiring and thereby the suffering. But, it’s not simple at all. It took arguably the greatest, most mentally disciplined, mindfulness practitioner of all time, the Buddha, six years of struggle to accomplish it. For most of us, it would seem to be an almost impossible task. To get an idea of the difficulty just realize that wanting to eliminate the desire for things to be different, is itself a desire for things to be different!

The complexity of the cessation of desires is also underscored by the fact that many desires are healthy and in fact necessary for life, e.g. hunger, thirst, breathing, etc. Obviously these desires should not be eliminated. In addition, many are for pleasant things that make life enjoyable, such as companionship, love, art, music, good food and wine, etc. It would certainly be a bland life without them. Others are unpleasant things that need to be avoided or tempered, such as pain, illness, fear, loneliness. It would seem problematic to remove these desires. In fact, the third Noble Truth does not call for the elimination of desires. Rather, it suggests that we should eliminate clinging to, grasping onto, these desires.

The difference between desires and clinging to desires is a subtle but very important distinction. There is nothing wrong with desires themselves. It is human nature to have them and if not clung to, they are normally healthy. But to be invested in the outcome of the desires is where the problem arises. It is perfectly fine to desire going to a concert, but it causes suffering when the outcome makes a difference. If the concert is cancelled or sold out or your car breaks down so you can’t get there would you be OK with it, or would you be upset? If it’s the latter then you’re attached, you’re grasping, you’re clinging. If it’s the former you’re displaying the equanimity that the Buddha taught is the way to the cessation of suffering. Similarly, if you desire to get rid of a headache and take analgesics and rest, this is fine. But, if the headache continues and you’re angry and upset to have to deal with the continuing pain, then that’s clinging, grasping, and attaching to the desire. You can only alleviate the suffering by accepting that the headache is still there. Indeed, research has shown that the headache pain lessens just as soon as you cease to fight it and let go of resistance. As Ajahn Chah said, “If you let go a little, you’ll have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you’ll have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely . . . you’ll be completely happy.”

Once again, though, this sounds simple, but in practice is devilishly difficult to do. The mind is programmed to control. It automatically tries to produce good feelings and hold onto them and eliminate bad feelings and prevent them from returning. So, even though we may wish to cease clinging to desires, our own mind works against us. We might try to force our will on the mind and battle its tendencies. But, as Adyashanti likes to say “If you go to war with your mind you’ll be at war forever.” The Buddha found this to be absolutely true as his attempts to control his mind with asceticism were a nearly mortal failure. He finally found a better way, “The Middle Way” where one works to restrain the mind, but doesn’t get upset when failure occurs, simply returns to the effort with expectations of slowly moving more and more toward equanimity. This is a patient practice in the middle between striving and giving up. It works to tame the mind, but not dominate it.

The practice begins with an intention to explore everyday experiences, looking at each and asking the question, do I feel unsatisfactoriness and when you do exploring why, what is the cause of the unsatisfactoriness. Sometimes it’s simple. You’re caught at a red light and detect unsatisfactoriness and realize that you want to get somewhere (you want things to be different) rather than appreciating the drive. With this realization, you can often spontaneously let go and stop clinging to the desire to be somewhere else and simply enjoy a relaxing interlude to the stress of driving. At times, though, it may be difficult to release the clinging. You may feel that you’re underpaid at work and thus feel unsatisfactoriness with you job rather than enjoying the moment to moment experience of the work. This feeling of unfairness may not simply diminish upon realization. This will take more work. One important lesson here, is that the key to ending suffering and becoming happy is not in a monastery or a pilgrimage, but right here in everyday life. This is where the practice is. This is where equanimity can be developed. It’s right here, right now, in the present moment, in the midst of your life.

The practice from here becomes subtle. It involves first working with everyday experiences and noticing when unsatisfactoriness arises and secondly noting the underlying cause, the desire, the wanting, the craving. Then, thirdly, noting and observing that both the unsatisfactoriness and the desire go through a phase of arising, increasing in magnitude and fourthly noting that they both go through a phase of decline, falling away. Obviously, this requires patience and mindful observing. But, it reveals that unsatisfactoriness and its cause, desire, just like everything else, are impermanent. They come and they go. Note that you have just observed the cessation of unsatisfactoriness and desire, the exact state that you want to achieve. Note also that you didn’t do anything. It all happened spontaneously, on its own.

For example, you may want to go out for dinner at a restaurant for a nice meal but realize that your budget won’t allow it. This will likely be followed by feelings of frustration, the unsatisfactoriness. Observe the feelings arising. Then, look deeply for the underlying cause, perhaps the desire to have more money, greed. Observe, also how this desire for money arises and strengthens. Then if you patiently stay with these feelings, you’ll note that they begin to decrease and fall away. The unsatisfactoriness and the greed slowly dissipate and eventually completely cease. You are left not caring that you can’t go out for the meal, that you don’t have the money. You have achieved a brief equanimity. As I’m sure, you’ll recognize, this liberation will not last long, the feelings will arise again either immediately or at a later time. You haven’t extinguished them, only experienced a brief cessation.

Once, the falling away of unsatisfactoriness and the underlying desire, is experienced. There is nothing else for you to do. Do not attempt to control this experience in any way. Do not attempt to maintain or lengthen the experience. This is a form of desiring things to be different than they are; the exact cause of unsatisfactoriness in the first place. It’s very hard not to try to control it. Remember your mind is programmed to do this. Don’t get upset if the mind jumps in and tries to do so. It’s just what minds do. Simply watch it and see how this itself creates unsatisfactoriness that arises and falls away.

This is where the subtlety comes in. The equanimity, the decrease of unsatisfactoriness, and the cessation of desire can’t be controlled. They must simply be allowed to come and go. As the practice continues the number of times this equanimity occurs and the duration of the cessation will start to increase on their own. The realization begins to dawn that you really don’t have to do anything. All you need to do is accept things as they are. This acceptance produces a pleasant state that reinforces the process, making it occur more frequently and for longer duration in the future. You come to not only understand, but directly experience that unsatisfactoriness and desire can be ended simply by patiently waiting for them to spontaneously diminish and cease. When you do a pleasant feeling will spontaneously arise. This in turn leads to an upward spiral leading slowly to enduring equanimity.

It is important to understand that attempting to actually do anything to produce, hold onto, or lengthen the state is counterproductive. Patience and persistence is required here. Trust that it will all happen on its own if you just let it. Don’t meddle. But, don’t stop observing. This is the method revealed in the Third Noble Truth. It is the way to true happiness, true liberation, true enlightenment.

The Buddha provides a path that makes it more likely that this will occur. It is the fourth Noble Truth, also called the Noble Eightfold Path which is the subject of other essays.

“After suffering, the Buddha taught, there is supreme happiness. Every step of the way to removing the causes of unhappiness brings more joy. On the path to the end of suffering, which is a path that Buddhists may spend their whole lifetimes practicing, there are levels of happiness and freedom from craving and ignorance that can be achieved.” – Buddhist Studies

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

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