As you can see in the illustration, Wise Action, Wise Speech and Wise Livelihood arise like steam out of Wise Mindfulness.
This is not the traditional way these three parts of the Eightfold Path are taught. Usually these three virtue or sila practices are taught sooner than some of the others we have explored. But the teacher is always advised to consider the needs and nature of his or her students. For most of the past 2500 years, these teachings have mostly been offered to boys and young men in their training as monks, and to a lesser degree girls and young women training as nuns. They needed basic instruction in right and wrong. My students are women of a certain age. They not only know the difference between right and wrong, they have taught it to younger generations. My students are women with wisdom earned the hard way, through life experience. They consistently try to do the right thing. Even so, things don’t always turn out right, do they?
Say, for example, you put together a family gathering, try to make everyone happy, but then one of your adult children or a husband says, ‘Just relax, you’re stressing us all out.” Sound familiar? You might think ‘Why that ungrateful...After all I’ve done, this is the thanks I get?” or “You lout, if you had any clue to how much work and planning is involved to make something like this come out so you all can relax!” Oh yeah, you’re bound to get a little huffy. You’re exhausted and your feelings are hurt.
Exhaustion and hurt feelings are clues for us to recognize that something about this was not Wise Action. But what? This is where the Eightfold Path is so handy.
If we look back down the Cooking Pot Analogy to that little flame of intention, we can probably see that we were so focused on this future event, we forgot about the intention to stay present. And in doing so there were certainly times when we weren’t compassionate with ourselves or others. What were our motivations then? Were we fueled by fear that we would get the reputation as inept, slovenly or somewhat less than the hostess with the mostest? Quel horreur! Perhaps we can smile at our human foibles instead of defending or indulging them. With awareness and compassion, we can realign with Wise Intention.
When we look at the balanced campfire logs of Wise Effort, we can see that we got out of balance by striving too hard to make everything just perfect. As if perfection ever caused happiness! And, just so we’re clear, it isn’t balance to strive mindlessly for weeks and then after the event took to our bed for days. Balance is alive in every moment.
We can question if we were holding Wise View. Answer? Probably not. Probably we were mindlessly seeking that infamous Kodak moment, trying to prove something to ourselves or others, and finding fault with everything that didn't measure up, including or most especially ourselves.
Here are some simple steps to understand Wise Action:
- Recognize an unskillful action, your own or someone else’s.
- Note the intentions, motivations, urges or impulses that prompted the action. Were they Wise Intentions to be mindful and kind?
- Note the effort used. Was it Wise Effort, balanced and anchored in Wise Intention and Wise View? Or was the action tense, fear-based, striving, over-efforting; or half-hearted, sloughing off, not really making much of an effort at all?
- Note the view from which this action arose. Did you believe you needed to shore up your separate sense of self in order to prove your worth, your right to take up space on the planet? Was it to grasp and cling at something, hoping to control life and create permanence?
- Note your state of mind during this action. Did this action come from a lack of Wise Mindfulness? Would a little more focused Wise Concentration have made a difference?
We all have plenty of examples of unskillful actions to work with: our own, someone else’s, or ones we see in books and movies. We can use them to learn what is skillful, what is mindful, what is wise. With compassion and clear attention we can see where things went wrong and why.
We will look at Wise Speech and Wise Livelihood in the coming weeks, but we begin with Wise Action, a huge subject that we will divide up into smaller pieces. In class I had the students call out the many areas in which we have action, starting with our bodies. Here are the areas we came up with:
Nutrition, sleep, rest, exercise, posture, mental stimulation, meditation, stress release, grooming, health maintenance, addictions, thinking, expressing emotions, dream, amusement, song, playing a musical instrument, creating art, play, moving in space (walking, driving, running, swimming, dancing, etc..)
Creating and recognizing our various communities of family, friends, neighbors, nature/animals, groups with shared interests, spiritual communities/sangha, ancestors & descendants, compatriots, fellow humans, government/politics, volunteers, fellow drivers on a shared road, fellow travelers, residents of places we visit while traveling, the Earth, the visible and invisible life force.
Looking at communities brought up a very interesting exploration when it came to people we don’t know. So I asked, ‘If you saw someone driving poorly and you (reacting out of fear for the danger they cause to you) have some negative inner commentary going on, and then you see that the driver is someone you know and like, does the inner commentary change?
Think about this for yourself before reading on.
Several students commented that yes it would change their view. Why?
One answered, “Someone I don’t know I see only this one behavior and I assume that is how they are, whereas someone I know, I see this as only one incident. I know so many more facets to who they are, so I am more likely to be forgiving.”
How did you answer this question? Question your answer: Is this true? How do I know this is true? It makes for an interesting investigation. If you are up for a discussion, please comment below.
(Many readers of these posts do not notice the little pencil symbol below, which is an opportunity to comment. Comments are always welcome, and in this exploration discussion, to share examples of unskillful action and try out using the practice to see how things went wrong. In this particular post, here’s an opportunity to share your own inner investigation.)
Next post we will continue this investigation.