The Fourth Noble Truth
“If we live according to the Noble Eightfold Path, we cultivate well-being and our life will be filled with joy, ease, and wonder.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Budhha’s Teaching
The Buddha devoted his teachings to the causes and cure for suffering.
The First Noble Truth is that life contains suffering. This is important because it means we don’t live our lives waiting for everything to be perfect; we understand it never will be perfect (whatever perfect means for you).
The Second Noble Truth is that we can understand the causes of our suffering. This implies that we can understand what causes happiness.
And since we can understand the causes of suffering and happiness, the Third Noble Truth assures us that we can end our suffering and encourage happiness.
The Fourth Noble Truth tells us how: the Eightfold Path, which consists of Right View, Right Thinking, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Diligence, Right Concentration, and Right Livelihood.
Before defining each, note that “right” doesn’t mean right versus wrong in a fixed, doctrinal manner. Buddhism rests in practice and experience. There is not a set of rules that you can follow consistently that will end your suffering but rather a practice that you can bring into your everyday experience to prevent you from creating suffering.
Right View does this through teaching us to recognize that everything we believe or know is a matter of perception and that we often misperceive. For example, going back to wanting that perfect life, we often get trapped by ideas of what will make us happy, striving for whatever that may be—only to find upon getting that condition for happiness that it wasn’t so great after all. As a Ph.D. student who had to take doctoral exams, for nine months, I studied knowing that happiness lay on the other side of passing those exams. Truthfully, it was anticlimactic to pass, and what lay on the other side was writing a dissertation.
Right Thinking connects to Right View because if we are failing to perceive things correctly, we certainly aren’t going to think about them correctly. The real problem we mostly have is overthinking. (Guilty!) Via multitasking especially, we are rarely present in the moment. Much of our thinking comes from habit energy. We respond to the past rather than the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh advises always asking, “Are you sure?” I wrote that down on a piece of paper and taped it to my bedroom door as a reminder.
That brings us to Right Mindfulness, in which we are open and present to whatever comes up in the moment. Since we tend to want to feel good and avoid uncomfortable sensations, we aren’t naturally good at this. But with mindfulness, we learn to be with our unpleasant emotions. If you feel anger, embrace it mindfully acknowledging its presence. Doing so means that the anger isn’t unconsciously controlling you but that you are aware of the anger, which allows it to subside.
Right Speech means being consistently honest, but, perhaps more importantly, Right Speech includes deep listening. So often when we have a conversation, our attention is on the next thing we want to say rather than giving our full attention to the person speaking. If it’s an intense conversation, we may feel defensive or consider how to justify ourselves. Allowing someone to truly feel heard, though, immediately reduces that person’s suffering. Nothing else needs to occur, no change in circumstances. When someone feels truly heard, she feels understood and suffers less. And it would be cool if we could do that for each other out of the wish to alleviate suffering so that fewer people had to pay $130 per hour to get a professional to listen.
Right Action means being nonviolent to others as well as to ourselves. We show a reverence for life and live in ways that promote social justice. An example is consuming mindfully. We can purchase from thrift stores or buy new clothing made from recycled goods.
Right Diligence refers to effort brought to the practice. Again, you can’t memorize a bunch of precepts or rules and find happiness. If you want to perform great in your piano recital, you practice. If you want to cultivate a life of less suffering, you bring energy and effort to the practice. But, like playing the piano, the effort feels good, not aversive. The effort itself is rewarding.
With Right Concentration, we fully focus on an object of attention. In meditation, for example, we bring our concentration to a specific object, often our breath. Mindfulness allows us to see when our attention goes elsewhere so that we can return our concentration to the breath (or whatever the object of concentration may be).
Lastly, Right Livelihood consists of choosing work that doesn’t compromise the ideals of love and compassion. That does not mean we all must quit our jobs and become monastics, but we want to engage in work that is in accordance with our values.
Obviously, the path to happiness deserves more than a short blog post, so please consider this an introduction. I’ll be coming back to these ideas later. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you’d like to see developed.
Wishing you happiness!
Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde