Does right livelihood mean having a noble profession? Is right action determined by intention or outcome? These teachings explore walking the eightfold path. Recorded during a 2010 class in Los Angeles.
The Four Noble Truths are about finding a way to live without struggling with what we experience; why “struggle” may be the more appropriate term in English to dukkha; the Eightfold Path as a description of a way of living, but usually interpreted as a prescription for practice; confusion of descriptions of results with means of practice and problems that arise; the fallacy of rational decision making and utility theory as a basis for economics, sociology, and spiritual practice; examination of the first four elements of the Eightfold Path from the perspective of practice; right view is practiced by bringing attention to how you view things; the result will be the traditional description of the characteristics of right view; right intention is to bring attention to intention, what am I doing right now and why?; right speech is to bring attention into the act of speaking, listening to the sound of your own voice when you speak; right action is to bring attention into the experience of action, leads to a relationship with power, makes action more effective.
Please note this podcast begins shortly after the actual talk started.
…and one of the other characteristics of this period, is that there’s a love of reason, because reason seemed to offer a way of transcending the messy world of emotions. And we find that same idea that was present in the early Greeks is also present in this period of Buddhism, where the spiritual path was felt to be a path through philosophy, through logic etc., etc. This is what we get in late medieval Buddhism in India.
And Tibet inherited this, so when I was exposed to the eightfold path you had the four noble truths and then you had four different levels of understanding for each of the four noble truths which made sixteen in all. And all of these different qualifications of the eightfold path, you know, right view, these were the things that constituted right view and right intention and these were the things that constituted right intention. And right speech and right action, and just lists and lists that went on, and on, and on. This is so highly developed. And it’s absolutely impossible to practice. It’s so elaborate, there’s so many dos and don’ts you end up frozen. You can’t do anything.
And as I looked at this again and again, I came to the conclusion, and I learned this from a number of different sources, that what is presented as the eightfold path, what constitutes right view, what constitutes right intention, are descriptions of the results of when you really practice them. They’re what you evolve to or what you end up at.
And one of the problems in practice that I’ve encountered over and over again in teaching is that people try to use the results as the method of practice. Just to give you a very simple example of that, which several of you have heard me talk about before. If you say to somebody, “Relax,” what’s the first thing they do? [Laughter] They tense up. Because relaxation is the result of a certain effort. If, on the other hand, you say to somebody, “Take a deep breath; [breathes in deeply] now let it out slowly, [breathes out slowly] and do that again. And you do it once more for good luck.” How do you feel? Well, more relaxed.
And many, many of the instructions for meditation, or what are presented as instructions for meditation and instructions for practice, are actually descriptions of the results. And yet we tend to interpret them as prescriptions for action. And that just gets us into a big mess.
So what I want to do this evening is to talk about the first four parts of the eightfold path. And talk about them making this distinction between the result and what you actually do. And see if we can get clear on that, and I’m sure we’ll have time for questions after this.
So, the usual claim is that in order to practice a path you have to understand it. And then practice consists of doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things. There’s several problems with this approach. The first is, it’s childish. You know, I mean this is how we train children. And so what tends to happen is that adults who take this approach to practice end up being infantilized. And I had a very vivid experience of this when I was at a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. And we were divided up into groups for discussion and we were given a talking stick. And the first woman who talked was an elderly psychotherapist. This is a retreat for mental health professionals. And she said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I feel like a child all the time. [Laughter] And this stress of having this structure and things like that. I’m having stress headaches that I haven’t had for twenty years. I don’t understand this.” [Laughter] But it’s exactly what I’m talking about here. It’s like there is a right way to act or a wrong way to act and somewhere or other you’re gonna get punished. Or you’re not gonna fit in if you act the wrong way and so forth. It’s very childish.
It’s very much based on the reward-punishment on which earlier and simpler religions are based. It’s also ineffective, because when we try to practice that way we model our behavior on somebody else. And always an element of artificiality about that. [Comments about the sound system] And our behavior is never really natural because it hasn’t evolved out of us. We’re emulating something outside us. And it’s also untrue because understanding something and then trying to do it is only one way of learning. There are other ways of learning and developing skills. And it may not be your way. So the point here is for us to try to find our way. The way that is appropriate for us.
And I have a student who now teaches in Colorado Springs. And from some perspectives she couldn’t possibly produce any results. She makes things up on the spot. She just responds to what’s in front of her. She doesn’t plan particularly ahead. She doesn’t itemize things in nice categories or lists or anything like that. There’s nothing to understand and yet she produces absolutely great results with the people who work with her. So we need to find, each of us needs to find a way to practice that is appropriate. And I hope some of the ideas I present to you this evening will open some doors for you.
The other thing is that so much of Buddhism is presented in terms—and this is very much in keeping with this emphasis on the rational—that if we just understood why it is beneficial then we’d make the rational decision to do it that way. And this theory that we’re basically rational beings and make rational choices underlies most economics, most sociology, a good bit of political theory. And you can see what a mess that’s got us into the last couple of years. Because we aren’t rational people. We don’t make decisions rationally. Emotions rule all the way down the line. That’s even being corroborated now by neurological studies. So trying to approach practice from a rational perspective, in my opinion, is just hopeless. It doesn’t work very well.
The key in Buddhism is this quality we call attention. And one way of thinking about attention is that it’s the ability to direct energy. There’s energy in our system and it’s going all over the place usually. And when we sit and rest in the experience of breathing we’re actually encouraging the energy to move in certain ways. And we experience that as attention.
And attention is not a conceptual thing. It’s an emotional energy. And so forming a relationship with attention allows us to develop a very, very different relationship with our emotions. And that is key to this. So how I regard the noble eightfold path is a description of the areas of life in which we are encouraged to bring attention. And by bringing attention into those areas of life, they start to change. And they change in ways which when you read accounts say, right view, then it’ll be like that.
Let’s take a look at right view because it’s the first one. Now view here is nothing fancy it is just how we look at the world. And right view is usually described as: having faith in the three jewels, buddha, dharma and sangha; accepting karma as a working principle; accepting the four truths; and not seeing things in terms of matter or mind, or those extreme positions.
But if we try to actually do that, I mean how do we do that? It’s very very difficult. What I want to suggest is an alternative. How do you look at the world right now for instance? [Comments about the microphone] We’re sitting right now, how do you view the world? Anybody? Just right here, right now, what’s happening? How do you view the world? How do you view yourselves? Well, do any of you view yourselves as something that exists in its own right? Hands up, come on. Basically all of you are doing that, don’t give me this, you know! That’s how we ordinarily view ourselves. But if we bring attention into that, we see that it doesn’t really hold.
How many of you have experienced a situation today where you had mixed feelings about something? Ah good, bit more response there. Now, if you’re a single entity how can you have mixed feelings? You either feel this way or that. And I run into this all the time with people. Some people say to me, “Well, I feel this way about that. I feel happy about this but then I feel…no then I’m not so happy about it. And you know part of me is really…(They always say, ”Part of me.“) I’m really sad and I’m angry.” And they get all confused because they view themselves as a single entity and yet they have all of these different feelings.
And one of the things we get from the technique that’s being developed recently called focusing, is to change the vocabulary slightly to instead of saying I, say part of me. Say part of me feels this and part of me feels that. Then there’s no problem having all of those different feelings, because if we shift from looking at ourselves not as one thing but as being composed of many parts, then things become very simple. You can have all of these different feelings and even more. And now you don’t struggle with them in the same way.
Now, this business about karma, a lot of people say that it involves belief. Well, I don’t think it does. For me karma is simply a way of saying that what we say and do and think, or everything that we say and do and think, has actual consequences in our lives. What we say and do and think sets in motion processes in us that affect how we experience the world. So if I’m angry all the time, and I harbor anger, and I tell myself that I’m angry then I will inevitably come to see the world in terms of opposition. And that’s going to affect how people relate to me and how I relate to others.
And if I feel needy then I will inevitably see the world as not supplying what I need. And I’ll be motivated to take shortcuts or even to steal to get what I need. That’s going to affect how people regard me and how I experience the world. And these tend to become self-reinforcing patterns. On the other side, if I give generously, if I give things to people then people like to be around me. And so I’ll have lots of companions and we’ll all have a good time together.
If I make a point of speaking gently then I won’t be offensive to people. And again people will respond to me a certain way. And just describing how our actions—the way we think, the way we talk, the way we act shapes our experience of life. And there’s really nothing more to it than that.
This business about faith and the three jewels. Well, it’s helpful here to have a proper understanding of the three jewels, buddha, dharma and sangha. Buddha—let me not bring in too much Buddhist vocabulary right now—buddha points to the fact that we can’t say what we are. That when we look at what we are it’s completely open. [Comments about the sound system] Buddha refers to this open, ineffable, indescribable quality of experience. Dharma refers to the clarity and vividness with which experience arises. And sangha refers to the fact that experience arises without any restriction. Now that’s just how things are for us. So not to have faith in the buddha, dharma and sangha would in a sense be to contradict the fact that we experience things. Doesn’t make any sense. So what I’m trying to point out here is that in the course of our lives, check in. Bring attention to how am I looking at things right now?
For instance, when we find ourselves opposing or in conflict with somebody, ask ourselves, “How am I looking at that person?” And if it’s our partner or our child, at the moment that we’re in conflict we’re probably not looking at them as they actually are. We’re viewing them differently. We’re viewing them in terms of what’s being projected by our own emotions. In another words, we’ve fallen into, quotation marks, wrong view.
And so just by the simple act of bringing attention to how are we looking at things in each moment we’ll find that the way that we’re looking at the world begins to change. And it changes into the various qualities that I’ve described. We don’t get that way by trying to look at the world that way. We get that way by paying attention to, or bringing attention into how we are looking at the world in each moment. How we are looking at ourselves. Does this make sense to you? Okay.
Let’s move on to intention. Intention is usually described as renouncing what produces suffering or struggle in our lives. And this very much finds its origin in the way Buddhism originally developed, which was as a way of practice for people who lived in monastic communities or who lived as hermits. And they were leaving aside the complexities of life, living very simply, and just leaving all that stuff behind. Now for most of us, it isn’t so easy. That way of life has its challenges definitely, but you’re reducing input very significantly. And thus by intending to simplify one’s life then you live with less struggle.
Well that’s not how it is for us; we live in this very complex world with many, many different demands. So I think a more appropriate way for us to practice is to bring attention, bring attention to whatever intention is operating in each moment. Now when we do that, things get uncomfortable very quickly. [Laughter] Because we see that most of the time we are acting out of one reactive emotion or another. And we’re not really acting with any intention. We are just reacting.
And we live in a very interesting age where the whole economy is based on eliciting reactions in people. You know, if you go to a supermarket or if you go into drugstores these days. You go into a Walgreens, or a CVS, or any of these things, how are the aisles situated? How have they placed the aisles? Well, they’re at an angle to the door, have you noticed that? They aren’t straight up and down anymore. They’re at an angle and they’re all different angles in there. Some are placed this way, and some are placed this way, and some are placed this way. You go into these stores and you immediately get very confused and disoriented. And it is absolutely intentional! Why? When you’re confused and disoriented you’re much more prone to just react and you’ll buy things on impulse.
That’s why they set these stores up. You’ll also notice that if you go into a supermarket things are arranged so that if you need to bake a cake you’ve got to go to almost every part of the store. You can’t get all of the ingredients in one place. And the design is to get you wandering up and down the aisles where they have music to distract you, again putting you in a somnambulant state so that you will just react and buy things. And advertising is very, very much designed to elicit certain reactions. And you know whether you fit the profile or not by whether you connect with the ad or not. Because if you don’t connect with the ad it’s not intended for you.
And everything is geared to eliciting reactions so that you buy stuff. Now there is only one problem with this; you become inured over time to stimuli and so the advertising or the marketing efforts have to become steadily stronger to draw our attention. And so our reactions will become stronger over time and there’s no way that this is sustainable over the long period of time. It basically leads to the disintegration of society because the economy is actively reinforcing reactive emotions. Very interesting system that has evolved, but I don’t think it’s going to work in the long run.
Now when we start bringing our attention to our intention in each moment that we live, very interesting things are going to happen. Several years ago I had two people who came to me because they had built up sizable debt and they wanted to get out of debt using mindfulness. Okay.
Well, I’m not a debt counselor but it’s not rocket science either. The first thing you do is you start tracking expenses. Tracking everything that you buy. That’s the very first thing you do if you want to get out of debt. And one person just started to do that right away. And the other person it took them about four months of constant encouragement and reinforcement and me threatening to quit until they started tracking. In other words they just started bringing attention to the action of shopping. And as soon as they did, their shopping patterns changed. Because they started to get in touch with the intention that was operating. And they would go, “Oh, I don’t really need this right now.” And just tracking what they were spending reduced the amount they were spending to the point that they were pretty well breaking even. That wasn’t getting them out of debt but it was stopping them getting further into debt. Which is good and we’ll get to those efforts later.
Now, the next thing, the next effort was to push that intention even further, or that attention further, so that they started to look at what were their priorities in their life as evidenced by what they were buying. And when they started to look at that, again their patterns changed. And they saw that there were whole areas that they didn’t need to spend money on any more. And that moved them to the point of being able to generate a surplus and hence moving out of debt. And both of them successfully moved completely out of debt in about a year and a half, two years. Then they had a real problem, they suddenly had much more money and they didn’t know what to do with it. But that’s another story. [Laughter]
Now when we bring attention to our intention then we often discover that there are multiple things going on in any one instance. It’s not just this or just this. We want to do this for this reason and we want to do that for that reason. All of these things are going on. And trying to figure out what the right intention is in all of that is impossible.
Rather—and here we work with a principle that I call inclusive attention rather than exclusive attention. By including all of those different intentions, and just in the same way that I was talking about with respect to all of these different parts, by opening to that experience—so applying inclusive attention to all of those different intentions—a strange thing happens. They begin to sort themselves out. And something emerges and we know which direction to take.
So you can see from what I’m describing, I’m not describing a process by which we’re going to think things out analytically or rationally and figure out the right thing to do. We’re bringing different kinds of attention, different qualities of attention to intention. And in that process, shifts take place and we start acting in a different way. We start acting or intending things which are more in keeping, in balance with ourselves and our environment. They’re realistic, they aren’t over the top, they’re respectful of everything concerned. And that’s in the direction of right intention.
So I’ve covered these two, somewhat. Let’s pause here for any questions you might have before we tackle the other two. Any points you would like to discuss further. Yes?
Student: What you were saying about having conflicting emotions and a part of you feeling one way or a part of you feeling another way. What I find in my situation is that those parts of me kind of occur in a serial fashion. In a sense that I’ll feel one way about the subject and kind of feel that’s really the way I feel about it. But then later on I’ll completely change and that other part will sort of take over. And it can be difficult sometimes when you’re trying to make a decision.
Ken: Well, as with all good questions the answer to it lies right in the question. What you’re describing—the way I understand what you’ve just said is—that there’s a process that plays out in you. And you’ve seen this enough to recognize there is a consistent process. So what I recommend is don’t make a decision until the process is played out. You know, “Oh I’m going to feel about this this way, and now I’m going to feel about it at a later stage about this way,” and things like that. And in many cases there isn’t a lot you can do to speed up that process. It’s something that often has to play out. So if circumstances allow it, allow that process to play out because basically it’s all reaction. And making a decision on the basis of reaction is usually problematic. When that process is played out, then it may be possible to look at that situation and say, “Oh!”
Student: How do you know when it’s a reaction?
Ken: I think it’s sometimes very difficult to tell. But a couple of qualities; one is stickiness. You know, it isn’t quite clean, it’s like…and it’s a little sticky. This is not a rational way. I’m describing a quality to it. And another way is insistence. Insistence. It has to be this way! Whenever the internal vocabulary is, “has to, must do, always, never,” very, very good chance that there’s a reaction, a reactive pattern operating. Well it just has to be this way!
I mean, one person I was reading recently said, Belief is where we stop thinking. This is actually a pretty good indication of reaction. When you stop thinking and it just has to be that way, then you’re in reaction. Because you’ve closed down, it’s fixed. So insistence, fixedness, stickiness these are the qualities I use to recognize reactions. Does that help at all?
Student: Yeah, stickiness.
Ken: You can connect to that one, can you? Okay. [Laughter] Other questions?
Student: About the many intentions going on, I’m trying to understand your last point. I get the part about all these different intentions moving in us at the same time. The last part you talked about, I’m trying to think of the words you used but somehow the right intention can arise out of that.
Student: I’m just trying to work out…it just reminds me of sitting practice when there’s all these different feelings happening at the same time. And somehow it just starts shifting, the whole experience starts to shift, so—
Ken: Yes, but what’s very interesting here is you’re trying to understand it. Right?
Student: Well I think…I feel like it’s linking to experience but I just haven’t quite got it.
Ken: So fair enough, just do it.
Ken: I mean, what are the chances you’ll run into a situation about which you feel conflicted tomorrow?
Ken: Certain, okay 100%. All right so when that happens don’t try to figure out what the right thing to do is. Just open to everything that you’re experiencing; being pulled in this direction, in this direction, this direction, this direction. Now most people don’t want to do that because they don’t want to experience being pulled in different directions. They’re very attached to this idea of being one thing. And so they feel being pulled apart. But if you take the view that there are all these different parts then it’s much easier. And another reason people don’t want to do that is because when you do that you actually feel things more deeply. And most people don’t want to feel things deeply.
Ken: They just want to want to get along on the surface of life and that’s just fine. [Laughter]
Student: It feels like you’re using this word intention in a totally different way than it is commonly used. Because it’s funny when I hear the word intention I think of this business about goals and I know I’ve heard you talk about the problem of goal orientation and spiritual practice.
Ken: Yeah. Well I said earlier, attention can be thought of as the ability to direct energy and that has to be understood in a very open way. It’s not narrow. Or that’s one way but it’s not just that way.
Intention can be thought of as the ability to direct attention. You see? And again, partly because of the medieval heritage and our own medieval heritage when there was all this philosophy going on, most of which was a complete waste of time. Very much because we are still in the aftermath of the age of reason and the age of enlightenment in which people finally came to the conclusion, yes, reason trumps emotions. And so this ended up with things like logical positivism and things like that, which just collapsed because it doesn’t work. Reason never trumps emotion. Emotion always trumps reason. Everything that we think is the result of emotions. Not because of supposedly pure reason or rational process, which is a basic mistake that goes back right to Plato and Aristotle. And if we stop trying to be reasonable people and relate to the fact that we’re highly emotional, it’s probably going to work a lot better. [Laughter]
Ken: And Jacob Needleman who’s a professor of religion up in San Francisco—he may have retired by now. He wrote a book called, Money or Your Life. I think that was right. [correct title: Money and the Meaning of Life] And this came out in the late 80’s or something. And it’s a very interesting book. But his thesis is that money plays a dominant role in people’s lives because they don’t take it seriously enough. They think that money is the answer to everything. So they take it very, very seriously, but they don’t take it seriously enough because if you take money really seriously, you see that it isn’t the answer to everything. And now you’ll start basing your life on very, very different principles. And they won’t just be money. That’s what it means to take money really seriously.
And I’m using this as an example. Most people are pulled around by their emotions because they don’t take their emotions seriously. They don’t really experience them. And that’s just what I was encouraging this gentleman. He’s saying, “Okay there’s this process. ”Well, as long as you just let the process run, yes it’s gonna cause confusion. You know because you’ll find yourself feeling one way at one point, and a month later differently, and then another month later differently. Then you go, “Okay, I know this process, I’m just going to let it run.” That’s taking the process seriously. Like this is actually happening.
When people ask me about relationships, I say exactly the same thing. The first three months of a relationship you know, “I think this person is the answer to my dreams.” The next three months of the relationship is, “This person isn’t the answer to my dreams.” The third three months is, “I’m going to make this person the answer to my dreams.” There are those three phases. After that you’ll see whether you actually have a relationship or not. But you’ve gotta go through those three phases first. I’m being very glib about this, but basically it works that way.
And so that’s what it means to take those things seriously. What are they really? They’re simply processes that are acting out in us and not a suitable basis for making life decisions. You follow? Okay. Long answer, sorry about that.
Other questions? Joe.
Joe: So in these terms what would be a suitable basis for making life decisions? [Laughter]
Ken: Oh dear!
Joe: You’re going to take advantage of me now I think. I can see it coming. [Laughter]
Ken: Well, I mean I’m tempted to answer this easily for me but I am not sure that it’s helpful for you. And the easy answer for me, which is no help to you, is there is no basis for making life decisions, but that’s not terribly helpful to you. So that’s why I was pausing because I didn’t think that would be helpful.
Knowing your experience as completely as you are capable of in each moment.
Does this guarantee that everything is going to work out? No. But, particularly if there’s any important decision, you really make the effort to experience everything connected with it and every possible ramification as deeply as you are capable of, then whatever you decide…let me construct this better. Whatever the result is of your action you’ll know you’ve given it your best shot. And that’s about all you can really do, because we can’t know what the results or consequences of any action are going to be.
There’s a story—which is usually told to illustrate the working of impermanence—about this farmer who has one horse. And one day the horse escapes from his corral. And all the neighbors say, “Oh, that’s a tragedy.” And the farmer says, “Well, we’ll see.” And a couple of weeks later the horse comes back with another horse. It’s found a mate in the wild and it’s come back. So now the farmer has two horses and the neighbors say, “Well, that’s wonderful.” And the farmer says, “Well, we’ll see.” A week later the farmer’s son is breaking in the new horse and he’s thrown and his hip is broken, and the neighbor’s all say, “Ah, that’s too bad, that’s really bad for your son.” And the farmer says, “We’ll see.” And a month later an army moves through conscripting all able young men. Well the farmer’s young son can’t because his hip’s broken. So we just don’t know. Circumstances change. So all we can do is bring our attention to what our experience is right now as completely and as deeply as we’re capable of. And then we decide.
Now one of the ways that I do that sometimes when people come to me with a difficult decision. I will ask them to describe what the worst case scenario is for each of the avenues. What’s the worse thing that can happen if you take path A, what’s the worse thing that could happen if you take path B? They usually look at me and ask, “Why are you asking me this?” I say, “Just bear with me.” So they’ll describe what the worst case is. “Okay, which of those two worse cases can you live with?” Oh! That can be a basis for making a decision. But that’s only one way. Does this help?
Joe: Yes it does. Can I ask a follow up? So if I’m bringing attention to say, reactions, and I’m in the decision-making process, or just during the day and I recognize that a reactive emotion, a reactive pattern is happening. And even the attention that I’m bringing is not enough to release it, but at least I’m aware. If I can’t control my feelings or my thoughts I can control my behavior to a certain extent. So what you’re saying is still in effect, “I’m aware of it and I do what I can.” But it’s still there and then even—you know I was thinking of this before—even beyond that reactive pattern, even if that is released there is another one underneath. That there’s always an agenda going on it seems, at least at my stage. So that’s still all true within this suggestion.
Ken: Yeah and this is a very good point you’re bringing up. Because when we hear this word right intention or right view we immediately think, “I gotta find the right one.” Now it’s very clear that isn’t what the word means in Sanskrit or Tibetan. Can’t remember what it is in Sanskrit. It’s yang dag (pronounced yang dak) in Tibetan. And it’s right in the sense of appropriate, not in the sense of right or wrong. That’s one very important point.
But the other is the basis on which I started this evening, is that this is an evolution. And we start by bringing attention to, in this case, intention, because that’s what we’re discussing right now. Then our relationship with intention starts to change. And it becomes, if you wish, truer and truer or more and more appropriate. And as you say, yes we discover layers upon layers upon layers of other agendas underneath. But you know, we’re very impatient as westerners. We say, “Well, if there are just layers and layers underneath then there’s no point in trying. Because I want to get to the true one right away.” But that’s not how it works. Say, “Okay, so I do this and then we become aware of this. Okay, so now I can work at this level.” And then…and that feels really good for like three months, or a year, or five years and then we realize, “Oh, all that time I was functioning under a pattern. I didn’t realize. And now there’s another one.” And that’s how our practice evolves.
Now from the point of view of practice [laughter] it’s totally unsatisfactory for us. Because we’re just becoming aware of where we’re wrong all the time. But if you look at how it’s actually manifesting in our lives with each of these layers we gain another dimension of freedom. There’s another way that we aren’t screwing ourselves and other people up. And so more and more things start to work in our lives. But we keep encountering the stuff where it’s still problematic. So this is why Trungpa said, Practice, one insult after another. [Laughter]
And too often we don’t pay attention to the fact that things are very, very different when you’ve peeled through two or three layers of these agendas. The kinds of things that just drove you nuts before don’t drive you nuts. Totally different things drive you nuts. [Laughter] But we forget about the other ones. And this is what Chuang Tzu meant when he said, When the shoe fits you forget about the feet. When the belt fits you forget about the waist. When we peel through a layer and our actions become natural in that area, we don’t even think about it any more. Do you follow?
Ken: Okay good.
So let’s turn to the next two. And by the way, the eightfold path is presented in this order and I haven’t really figured out exactly why this order. There’s usually some deep meaning in that but it’s not practiced in this order at all. They all interlink with each other in all kinds of ways so it’s actually a little difficult to discuss them as separate entities. But already in this we’ve been tipping into effort and things like that. So I’m going to talk about speech now. Speech is a really easy one to talk about because with speech what I’m trying to say is probably clearer than with any of the other aspects of the eightfold path.
Now right speech is described as truthful, gentle or kind— kind would be better—harmonious. It’s not quite the right word, but I’ll explain more in a minute, and relevant or timely. The opposites are lying, speaking harshly, speaking divisively, and gossiping. So, now you’re in a situation. What’s it like to try to speak truthfully, gently, harmoniously and to say something that’s relevant, timely every time you open your mouth? What’s that like?
Student: Artificial, under control.
Ken: Yeah, it’s a big effort in control. Most of us just wouldn’t open our mouths. But anything that comes out would be very, very contrived and artificial. This is what I mean. This is why I think this approach of trying to practice the eightfold path by employing the descriptions is just so self-defeating and frustrating. Because the descriptions are the descriptions of the results; not how you do it.
Now, how do you practice right speech? Well, it’s the same principle that I’ve talked about up to this point. You bring attention into the action of speech. And how do you do that? As you speak, listen to the sound of your own voice as if you were listening to another person. Let me say that again. As you speak or when you are speaking, listen to the sound of your own voice as if you were listening to another person. Now this is exactly analogous to the people who had spending habits, of tracking every expense. They brought attention to their spending. Here you’re bringing attention to your speaking.
Now the first thing you will find—or one of the things, I don’t know if it would be the first thing you notice-is you never know what you’re going to say until you say it. We don’t actually know what words are going to come out of our mouth until they come out of our mouth. How many of you have gone into a meeting or sat down to have a conversation with someone and you knew exactly what you wanted to say and when you opened your mouth something else came out? Yeah, we don’t actually know what’s going to come out of our mouth, until it comes out of our mouth. So it’s really important to be listening to the sound of your own voice as if you are listening to somebody else. Because then you have a chance of hearing what you’re actually saying. Now how many of you have been in situations where you weren’t aware of what you were saying?
There is a great one with the last British PM when he was on a live mic and after talking to this woman he said, “She’s bigoted.” He wasn’t listening to himself. and it caused him endless amounts of grief in the rest of the election campaign in Britain.
So, when you do this you will also hear when there’s an edge in your voice. So you’ll hear the anger or the edge immediately. You’ll also hear when there’s fear in your voice; when there’s excitement or joy in your voice. You’ll hear this immediately. You’ll also hear when your mother is speaking through you. [Laughter] Or when you’re father is speaking through you. And you go, “That was strange. Who said that? That wasn’t me!” [Laughter] But it happens like that. Now as you do this, because you hear this immediately, then you immediately start to adjust. You either stop talking, or “Okay, let’s try that one again,” or modulate the tone or whatever.
There’s a tendency I have when I’m teaching a guided meditation, I slip into a way of talking which is really great for guided meditations, makes everybody peaceful and calm, etc. But that’s actually the problem, it makes them go to sleep. Call it spell talk and lots of people do this. Now I’ve trained myself so that by listening to the sound of my own voice most of the time I catch myself when I go into spell talk. But I don’t catch myself all the time and then I depend on somebody else to say, “Ah you’re doing it again.” But that’s been very important, because if I’m giving a guided meditation and I’m using spell talk, I’m working counter to what I’m trying to teach people. I’m trying to teach people to be awake while I’m putting them to sleep. Not a good idea. [Laughter]
And if you listen to various teachers you’ll find that some of them talk completely in spell talk. There’s one teacher, I won’t mention names, I thought—and this was when I first started teaching—I thought, “He’s a very good teacher. I’ll play tapes, (this was before CDs) so that I can learn how to teach,” while I was driving. And when I almost had two accidents, I thought this was not a good idea. [Laughter] Because in all his tapes, he just puts people into this very feel good thing where they’re completely asleep.
So another thing is maybe you put people on edge all the time when you talk, okay. You start listening to the sound of your voice as if you are listening to another person. You’ll begin to hear it. It may take a little while, but you’ll start to hear it.
So this is all about bringing that quality of attention to speaking. And what evolves are these four qualities. You know, every now and then circumstances lead us to say something that isn’t true. How do you feel about that when that happens? What’s that like for you? How many of you had to do that in the last week or ten days or something like that? What’s it like? Joe?
Joe: What’s it like—
Ken: Do you feel good?
Joe: Oh, no.
Ken: Why not? It makes life easier doesn’t it?
Joe: Well no it doesn’t as a matter of fact.
Ken: Well, why do you do it then?
Joe: It always seems to be to avoid something. To avoid a confrontation, that seems like it would be worse.
Ken: Yes that’s right but you don’t feel very good about it.
Ken: Now as you bring attention to your speech over and over again, what’s likely to happen here?
Joe: You’re going to get more uncomfortable for one thing.
Ken: One thing and you’re probably going to decide, well actually saying what is not true is worse than facing what’s inside or facing the conflict. So maybe I’ll just face the conflict and say what’s actually the case.
Ken: But you’re going to do it in a very different way. You know, you aren’t going to do it angrily because you know that’s going to make things worse. And so this is what I mean about if you practice right speech this way, listening to the sound of your voice, then your speech evolves into, well, saying what is true, doing it gently, and not try to create further conflict with it. That’s what we should do, we shouldn’t say divisiveness here, instead we should say conflict. That would be much better. Why didn’t anyone think of that before? [Laughter] And doing it timely. You had a comment on this.
Student: Sometimes when you say a little white lie you’re not really even aware that you said it. So I think when I catch myself doing that it’s after I’ve said it. It’s almost embarrassing.
Ken: And now the cover-up starts. [Laughter] Yeah. So if you were paying attention to the sound of your own voice as you were speaking, would you be more likely to catch that little white lie before?
Student: Probably, yeah.
Ken: Yeah, because I know what you’re talking about. I’m listening to the sound of my voice and saying “This isn’t true and I just gotta stop right now [laughter], regroup and figure out how to say it because I can hear I’m now trying to deceive this person.” And It can happen really fast. Peri you had something?
Peri: Yeah, I guess what’s happening for me lately is when I make a little white lie there’s a sense of missed opportunity. And you know, a sense of sort of disappointment and yeah, missed opportunity. Like there was a possibility for more intimacy or with them or for me to know myself better or for me to come out or whatever it was. It feels unfortunate.
Ken: That’s exactly right because just as Joe is saying, we say something that is untrue so we don’t have to pay attention to something in our experience. That’s why we lie is to avoid something in our experience. What you’re referring to there, that’s the missed opportunity. Okay? Marie, did you have something?
Marie: I notice that when I do that I’m feeling much more compelled to really look at why. Why I felt I had to do that. Look at the reasons, what was going on that made me do that in that moment. The conflicting…conflicting aspects of—
Ken: If I can make a suggestion, here don’t actually ask why because that keeps you thinking. Ask yourself instead, “What was I experiencing right there?” That’s gonna move you out of the thinking and it will be much more fun.
Marie: Yeah, it usually relates to some discomfort.
Ken: Exactly and rather than the why, just open to the discomfort. The why will be there. But it’ll be much more fruitful to ask what’s there than why. I’m just trying to help here.
Marie: Really that’s why we are here.
Ken: Yeah. Steve. Could you pass the mic back here?
Steve: I’ve had sort of a different experience when it comes to truthfulness and everyone’s talking about this sort of negative thing about telling a white lie or not telling the truth. My experience, I am asking what you think of what I am saying here is—that what’s been more important to me is to listen to what I’m saying and think about the consequences as opposed to saying it. Because I find if we think about it there are many instances, I think, when the truth is a hurtful thing, or it’s not a helpful thing, or it creates—and there are times when I found that by being more mindful, I can stop myself from what might be telling the truth but causing harm.
Ken: You’re quite right, Steve. Right speech doesn’t mean telling the truth all the time. It means telling…I have to be careful how I construct this. A lot of people interpret it means we have to tell the truth about everything. No, sometimes you just keep quiet. Because as you say, the truth it is going to be harmful. And you don’t say anything.
And that’s very important.
Steve: Because I think you can get into trouble into thinking doing this practice thinking, “Well now I’m truthful. I’m always going to tell the truth.”
Ken: Yeah, but that is exactly the kind of problem that I think you get into if you try to practice the results. If you bring attention to the act of speaking, then you may be saying something that’s completely truthful, you may be saying it gently, but you realize this isn’t the right thing to be saying right now. It’s not timely and so you just stop. And you go, “Oh, okay.” You just stop right there. And I think that is exactly right. But if you try to adhere to those characteristics then it’s a very conceptual, contrived process. What I’m trying to say is that if you bring attention to that, then the speech is going to self-adjust. Where your speaking will self-adjust and you won’t get caught on being truthful at the cost of exactly the kinds of things that you’re talking about. Good.
Student: I guess lately I felt that there is always some possibility to be truthful in the moment, if I stick to my experience.
Student: If I simply say, “You know, as I hear you say that I’m feeling all tingly in my chest and I’m having a hard time catching my breath,” and you know whatever’s there. And it’s true, it’s what is happening and it can reflect some anxiety or something else without them having to have any feelings about that whatsoever.
Ken: Yes that’s another approach and it’s a very, very, useful one. I’m glad you mentioned it. In difficult situations if you talk about your experience then you don’t add to the conflict because nobody can argue with your experience. They might not like that you’re having that experience but they can’t argue with it. And you’re not attacking them. You are not saying, “You did this to me.” You’re just saying, “This is what I am experiencing.” Yeah. Okay, Art did you have something? Yeah, okay.
Last point for this evening is right action. Now under right action what we usually find are what are called the ten virtuous and the ten non-virtuous acts, which are: not to kill, not to steal, not to have inappropriate sexual relationships, not to lie. A lot of the next ones are speech and they’re the same ones, Not to lie, not to speak harshly, not to create conflict, and not to gossip. And then the three mental ones, which are not to harbor malevolence, jealousy or envy, or wrong views. And these are regarded as summarizing right action. And again those are very good principles, my teacher taught them ad nauseam. [Laughter] Any time anybody new showed up at the monastery, we knew we were going to get a talk about the ten non-virtuous acts and the ten virtuous acts. Anybody new he’d just start at the beginning—that’s what he taught.
But again I find the principle of bringing attention to the action in exactly the same way that we talked about it with respect to speech. “Okay, what am I doing here? What am I experiencing in doing this?” And often when we do that we may have a completely inexplicable gut feeling it just doesn’t feel right. And that’s part of our experience.
I do a certain amount of business consulting, and one of the things that I do in that is help people strategize conversations they’re going to have with somebody. And there are often a lot of different things that they have to balance. Sometimes they will have more information than they want to let the other person know they have. They’re trying to get a certain result, they’re trying to avoid something over here, so there’s a lot of things to keep in mind in these conversations. And so we will spend sometimes an hour or more strategizing that conversation.
And in the course of that, particularly with this one person I worked with—and I have worked with her for many, many years doing this—we’ll come up with an idea well maybe the conversation can go this way and then one of us will just go, “That doesn’t feel right.” And we’re paying a lot of attention to those gut feelings. And after that “It doesn’t feel right,” usually we can attach a reason, “No, that’s not going to work because of this and this.” But the feeling comes first and the reason comes later. And this is why I say emotion trumps reason. When we really pay attention to what we’re feeling and experiencing emotionally and physically, then there are a lot of things that we do automatically that we just wouldn’t do. So bring attention to action.
Now I have to say this. Bringing attention to action, which in today’s parlance means acting mindfully, ugh, you can tell I’m a little fed up with this word mindfulness, doesn’t mean doing everything in slow motion. I mean I have these notes here. Doing everything…the way most people practice acting mindfully is equivalent to reading like this, N O T, not. L Y I N G, lying. S A Y I N G, saying. W H A T, what. Now, is this how we read?
Ken: Do any of you read this way? Did any of you read this way?
Students: Never. [Laughter] Probably when I was four years old.
Ken: Maybe, you know, when you are really at the beginning of learning how to read. That’s maybe how you learn how to read or practice, very early stage and that’s how most—what most people think acting mindfully means. Now acting mindfully means your attention is in the action. And if you’re moving quickly your attention is in the action as you move quickly. And if you’re moving slowly your attention is in the action as you move slowly. And if you’re moving jerkily, or you’re moving smoothly, or whatever, your attention is in the action. You’re right there in it sensing everything that’s going on. Now, when you actually do that, there is much less jerkiness going on. But it’s the case of practice most people when they start moving or acting quickly their attention is gone. They don’t have the ability in attention to actually stay present in the action. And that’s when the reactivity starts.
And I have a whole workshop on that about power. Because power can be described as the ability to be present in action. Because then you always know what you’re doing. And people—probably the best area to see that in action are with highly trained athletes, or martial artists, or dancers, or things like that. They know exactly where they are all the time. Why? Well if they’re martial artists their life depends upon it. So they know exactly where they are no matter how quickly or how slowly they’re doing. That’s how you train in that. That’s one way of training anyway. So being able to stay in action in speech in whatever we’re doing with that quality of attention. That is how we practice right action.
And in the same way I’ve been describing, you can just do it when you’re walking. I have a very simple way of practicing attention in walking. I call it the log rolling method. Now I’m from Canada. Not that many people roll logs any more but they used to. Now you had these big trees and they would be given rafts and people would stand, and these guys who put them in rafts would they would stand on them in spikes, and this developed into a sport which is still practiced, like in the Calgary Stampede, where they put these logs in and two people stand up and you spin it to make the other person fall in the water. But there you are rolling the log and you have spikes on your shoes and it makes it easier.
Now when you’re doing this, you’re walking like this and the log rolls underneath you. So when you practice, when you’re walking imagine that you’re rolling the earth under your feet. You’re not going anywhere. You’re just rolling the earth under your feet, as you walk. Now, when you do this you can walk completely naturally, you don’t have to walk in slow motion as in the ministry of silly walks. You can walk completely naturally and your attention will be completely in the action of walking. Why? Because if you imagine that you’re rolling the earth under your feet, your attention is going to go to the bottom of your feet, the sensations there. And because we’re so habituated to attention up here too, we’ll be in both places at the same time and thus with everything in between. So now we are fully in our body as we’re walking. And the sensations is that I’m not going anywhere. I’m rolling the earth beneath the feet. It’s as if the whole—everything is coming to us. So our attention now includes everything that’s coming to us. So in just this way you bring complete attention into the act of walking and experiencing everything that arises when you are walking. That’s how you practice right action when it comes to walking.
Well, you can work out the other ones for yourself. You can try that and let me know next week. So here we are, 9:30 already. Let’s just sit for a moment and we’ll conclude.
Goodness comes from this practice now done.
Let me not hold it just in me.
Let it spread to all that is known
And awaken good throughout the world.
Thank you and see you next week.