The Eightfold Path as Practice: The Hard Work of Stopping
“Just as a man walking fast might consider: ‘Why am I walking fast? What if I walk slowly?’ and he would walk slowly; then he might consider: ‘Why am I walking slowly? What if I stand?’ and he would stand; then he might consider: ‘Why am I standing? What if I sit?’ and he would sit; then he might consider: ‘Why am I sitting? What if I lie down?’ and he would lie down.” (MN 20)
Recently, I returned from one of my rare outings to the grocery store. I think it was my fourth such trip since the lockdown in March. Each time I go it gets easier. The first trip was several weeks into the pandemic. Afterwards, I sat in my car in the parking lot and cried. I cried from grief; all that we have lost washed over me in those moments––including the easy, familiar friendliness that had always been part of my Co-op experience. And I cried with a kind of awe in the ordinary courage of those many employees, whom I have known as friends for years. They were all there running the store as usual, and, at the same time, in such a matter-of-fact way, they were putting their lives on the line. They still are.
That first time, when I arrived home, I placed the boxes filled with a lot of groceries on the kitchen floor. Then I took off all my clothes and put them in the washing machine. I took a shower and re-dressed. Only then did I put the food away––more food than I had ever bought before at one time in my life! I bought a lot of food this time too as I hadn’t shopped in three weeks, but the total experience seemed less scary and easier. I even chatted a bit with the staff while in the store. Even so, I was slightly aware of a subtle, visceral, almost unnoticed, underlying level of heightened anxiety.
Of course, shopping trips and COVID-19 aren’t the only aspects of our current collective experience that are causing a greater level of arousal in our nervous systems than usual. The baseline of what is called “resting tension” for all of us is soaring. The medical and economic suffering within our prosperous nation, along with the lack of consensus among our leaders, is terribly unsettling. It is increasingly exposing the terrible, entrenched racism which was built into our economic and political system at its outset, and which has been gaining traction in recent years. The looming questions and fears grow as we step from our safe homes and routines into the public sphere––even if just into the mundane world of grocery shopping.
Once home from this recent trip to the Co-op, I got the food put away easily enough, and then I started right in on another task. I had hoped to make a series of household-related phone calls before getting onto a scheduled Zoom meeting. The first call was to the fuel company. They had seemingly messed up an oil pre-buy contract, which I thought I had accomplished the week before. For many years, all the people I have talked with in this customer service department have been wonderfully informed, patient, and kind; but this time, the woman didn’t seem to have any of these qualities. She seemed ill-prepared, and, as I spoke with her, I noticed my body contracting and my voice getting sharp. I had the inner feeling of rushing and impatience. I gradually became aware that I was somehow fueling a rising, inappropriate anger with as-yet unspoken thoughts about how she must be new to the job, how I should ask for someone more in the know, how she was abusing my precious time, etc. This high level of reactivity was unusual for me. I sensed that some of this emotional tension had probably spiked up from the Co-op trip and had me a bit on edge.
“Life is so difficult, how can we be anything other than kind?” said Sylvia Boorstein in her book Pay Attention For Goodness Sake. Yes, of course, we know this in our hearts. The question is sometimes: how can we do this? How can we maintain our commitment to not creating more suffering in this world even in the midst of our own anxieties, fears, wants, and needs? How do we not meet violence with violence? No matter how small our mean acts seem in the fulness of current events, how do we be kind always?
In this regard, I am very grateful for mindfulness, this self-monitoring awareness which becomes more and more familiar in our lives as we practice meditation. Mindfulness is the “ingenious method” of turning such a moment of reactivity as mine into something that can be seen and worked with in a way that opens a space for both myself and the other person. As mindfulness arises, it immediately decreases heedless inattentiveness and decreases the speed of the momentum that is our life.
Such monitoring is a central aspect of the mindfulness of the Eightfold Path. As nonjudgmental awareness, it fosters an objective assessment. It is aided by the first path factor, wise understanding, which can distinguish the wholesome from the unwholesome, the kind from the unkind, the liberating from the constricting. Wisdom also evokes and activates another factor: wise intention with its commitment to not making things worse through ill-will, harming, or addiction to preferential treatment. These three factors together were definitely appearing in my ordinary life encounter with the customer service agent, but they were not quite enough to stop my unskillful thought-process––even though I was beginning to notice my own participation in the continued arising of my strong aversion. At that point, I might have held on to my still present judgements and self-righteousness. Maybe I would have made a subtly unkind remark––and then felt remorse afterwards. It is very hard to stop midstream and even harder if we are operating with strong underlying anxiety.
The momentum of our moment-to-moment life is very, very powerful even when it is going awry and we know it is. A misguided direction can be triggered by a thought, a feeling, a memory, or a bad idea. A cluster of causes and conditions can come together to foster and perpetuate cruelty, and once the ball gets rolling, it is hard to stop it. This is undoubtedly a factor in the story of the white woman in Central Park calling the police to give a false report on an innocent African American man, who was simply bird-watching. She called him a “threat to her life”––even though, through her own admission, she knew that what she was doing was dangerously wrong. Subsequently, she felt strong remorse for her actions and apologized.
The dangerous waters that that woman––walking her dog off-leash in Central Park––was entering have risen up before our eyes in recent times. We have seen untold numbers of police, driven by a momentum fueled and perpetuated by their military-like training and our culture’s long-embodied racism, shoot untold numbers of black men and women––and give them no aid or apology in the aftermath. Whether the assault is small or large, it is hard to stop a chain of cruel behaviors once they are underway.
Please understand that this way of understanding our lived experience is absolutely not meant as an excuse for our own small and large cruelties; nor is it meant to negate our personal responsibility to stop them. It is certainly not meant as a way to remove individual police officers’ or others’ personal responsibility for stopping the perpetuation of the mindless, systemic cruelty, which has been intentionally built into our racist, capitalist culture. A heedless momentum was only a part of the dynamics at work as Derek Chauvin tortured and murdered George Floyd. There were strong dynamics at work, but it was possible that he could have stopped at any moment; and he must take full responsibility for not doing so––just as we all must for the harms we have caused.
My considering these atrocious incidents in the light of my own approach to unkind behavior in a phone conversation with a customer service agent is meant to point out the importance of a way of understanding that gives rise to specific practices––ones that open a way for us to change. They give us a way to stop!
There is a Buddhist story about stopping. It tells of a murderer who gave chase to the unarmed Buddha as he walked through the forest. The man was running full speed. The Buddha was walking mindfully, slowly, but the murderer could not catch him. Frustrated, he yelled, “Stop!” The Buddha simply said, “I have already stopped. Now it is your turn to stop.” The narrative goes on to tells us of the transformation and redemption of the criminal.
The Dharma teachings tell us that “All beings are the owners of their actions . . . . Actions make the world go round.” It is always hard work to regain our moral agency, but we can. We can slow down. We can stop, and is time for all of us to do so.
Neuro-pharmacologist and Dharma teacher Diego Hangarten was asked his opinion on the possibility of free will. He said that current neurological studies gave no strong evidence either in favor or against the idea. But, he said, if we do have any free will, it is in our ability to say “no.”
Diego’s contention points to the essential role of the sixth path factor, wise effort. This is the energy that makes stopping happen. It stops the harming that makes things worse, and it brings to fruition the path factors relating to wise action (speech, deed, and livelihood). Dharma teacher Tony Bernard frames this invaluable aspect of the path as: “It takes practice.” It is important to regularly practice stopping––as often as we can. A good place of practice for me was in my exchange with the oil company’s customer service person. As I was noticing that I was careening towards ill-will and possible harm through negative thinking and mean words, I began to feel the brakes slowing me down. There is an organic, natural unfolding of path that begins to come into play through practice. Mindfulness awareness coupled with wisdom was calling forth the necessary effort to stop me fully, and miraculously in my case, to allow me to change direction completely. I did not just refrain from unkind speech, which is an important feat in itself, but I also felt myself open into sincere friendliness, with its refreshing absence of ill-will, harm, and self-centeredness. In the process of getting the pre-buy contract easily straightened out, my conversation with this woman allowed us both to relax into her competence. Our time together became a pleasure for her and for me, just as it had with other agents over the years. It could have been otherwise.
When I hung up the phone, I decided not to make the other calls on my list. Instead, I sat down, and I savored the pause.
Stress is a disconnection––a disconnection from the breath, a disconnection from the earth. Nothing is that important. Just lie down. –– Natalie Goldberg
Later that week, in a conversation with a dharma friend, I stumbled back upon a passage in the Vittakasanthana Sutta (MN 20 “The Removing of Distracting Thoughts”), which I have enjoyed in the past. When I read it, I thought back to my experience. The sutta gives a beautiful analogy for the gradual stopping of the forward moving energy, which I had experienced viscerally. It is found in the fourth of the five suggested methods to use if patient, kind abiding doesn’t work to release a reactive, dangerous thought sequence when it arises. I can still feel the kind, gentle, natural––as well as persistent, strong, and monitored––effort involved in the sutta’s description of stopping.
If, while he is trying to forget those thoughts and is not giving attention to them, there still arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion, then he should give attention to stilling the thought-formation of those thoughts.
Just as a man walking fast might consider: ‘Why am I walking fast? What if I walk slowly?’ and he would walk slowly; then he might consider: ‘Why am I walking slowly? What if I stand?’ and he would stand; then he might consider: ‘Why am I standing? What if I sit?’ and he would sit; then he might consider: ‘Why am I sitting? What if I lie down?’ and he would lie down. By doing so he would substitute for each grosser posture one that was subtler. So too … when a monk gives attention to stilling the thought formation of those thoughts … his mind becomes steadied internally, composed, unified, and concentrated.
This last line reminds us of the important supportive presence of the eighth path factor, appropriate and wise concentration, an element present and ripening further in each step of the path. This is a composed, inclusive concentration that brings with it the equanimous, calm, and tranquil aspects of our spiritual capacities. Steadying the heart in this way becomes a beacon showing the path, as well as a moment-to-moment directional practice for our hearts. It plays a central part in the ethical synchronicity that is the Eightfold Path.
The next time I go to the Co-op or any public space, I am going to be more careful about what I do directly after getting home. Probably, I will sit or lie down and rest––even if just for a few minutes. In the midst of our new ever-changing and often threatening reality of astounding political, economic, and social unrest, it feels increasingly important to take time to pause, and to do so often. Getting good at heedful stopping will be of benefit to all of us and to all those we share this world with.
“The most important thing I have learned in my many
years of Buddhist study is how to press the pause button.”
–– Words of a man in prison for life without parole for murder