The Unfolding of The Noble Eightfold Path
Just about everybody begins practicing The Noble Eightfold Path with some misconceptions about it and how it actually works. Until these are made conscious and understood, they act as a headwind to the practice; therefore, becoming aware of them is an important aspect of our practice.
The first misconception is that if we practice enough and get to some future rarified place, we won’t experience anything we don’t like. Nothing bad will happen, and we’ll live in continuous meditative bliss.This stems from the fact that we are sentient life forms and don’t like pain and unpleasant experiences. Fair enough. We see pictures of the Buddha smiling and think, “That should do it. Of course, we quickly (hopefully) learn that meditation and Dharma practice don’t stop pain in the body or mind, or prevent unpleasant things from happening. They will continue to happen. Letting go of that hope, we are turned back on ourselves. “If that’s not going to work, what can I do about this pain and these unpleasant experiences?” Now we’re asking the right question–one that will set us off down the path without this particular misconception.
Another misconception has to do with believing that the harder we practice, the quicker we will progress on the path. In other arenas of our lives, this may be a helpful strategy. Study harder and get better grades. Work harder and get a promotion. Do lots of therapy and improve your relationships, etc. It’s natural that we then try to apply this approach to our Dharma practice. Unfortunately, it isn’t the right approach. Effort is needed, yes. Ignorance is vast, and unwholesome mindstates are firmly entrenched. Yet, the approach is gentle, steady and saturated with kindness. It’s not linear and therefore much patience is needed.
The more we try to push, the farther off track we become. This is exemplified by the story of the student who says to the teacher, “I’m really keen on getting enlightened. If I practice really hard, how long will it take?” The teacher says, “20 years.” This does not fit with the student’s time frame, so they say, “Well, if I practice extra hard, then how long?” The teacher says, “30 years.” Now the student is really worried and says, “What if I only sleep a couple of hours a night and practice really, really hard the rest of the time?” The teacher says, “40 years.” How much effort does it take to feel your body right now? Not much. Now do it again, and again, and again. This is the correct approach in terms of effort.
Perhaps the most subtle misconception we bring to the practice is that we do the practice, and it is our ideas and will power that will create the transformation that we are after. Based on this, we feel that we have to change and become a better version of ourselves in order to progress along the path. There is a person who is walking along the path and it’s the person who is transforming.
In fact, the exact opposite is true. The person is almost irrelevant to the process. It’s the path that gets cultivated. The Buddha stated that “the Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed.” What we are doing is cultivating the conditions that are supportive of awakening and letting go of cultivating the conditions that are supportive of non-awakening or suffering. When the conditions that support awakening are known and cultivated, our lives naturally incline in that direction. There’s no one doing that. It’s just the nature of things to work that way. Just like it’s the nature of things that when flour, baking soda, sugar and eggs get put together, mixed and put in a hot oven, cookies manifest.
This is an important and necessary shift. If we think we are in charge, then when our practice isn’t working out the way we want it to or think it should, we try harder–which we know how to do very well from other arenas of our lives. This takes us further from the correct approach. That is, we try to cultivate ourselves rather than the path itself. We think, “The Buddha said desire is a hindrance, I have to be less desirous.” No, you just need to be mindful of desire and see that it’s not in your best interest. Seeing this is the condition that is conducive to desire falling away.
We begin to recognize that it’s the conditions that we are working with that are what’s most important in practice. We stop trying to change ourselves. With our attention freed from our incessant self-improvement project, we become more and more attentive to the conditions we are cultivating at any given moment. Practicing in this way, the Dharma unfolds naturally and lawfully towards awakening.