Attention is the key to all points

I heard someone summarise Ken's podcast on The Eightfold Path in one sentence: attention is the key to all points. I'm taking this pithy summary as the title of this blog post and of the clip of the very first section of the podcast where Ken introduces an approach to practicing the Eightfold Path.

Attention is the Key (from 8FP01: Eightfold Path (class) 00:00:00.00 - 00:15:07.00)

(download into iTunes)
... And one of the other characteristics of this period is that there is 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 with medieval Buddhism in India. And Tibet inherited this so when I was exposed to the Eightfold Path it 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, right view, these were the things that constituted right view and right intention and these were the things that consituted right intention, and right speech and right action and just lists and lists went on and on. This is so highly developed and it's absolutely impossible to practice. It's so elaborate, there's so many do's and don'ts that 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 consititutes 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? 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, now let it out slowly." Do that again. You do it once more for good luck. How do you feel? 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 result. 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 are several problems with this approach. The first is, this is how we train children. 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. 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 was 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. And the stress of having this structure and things like that and having stress headaches that I haven't had for twenty years. I don't understand this." This is exactly what I'm talking about. Oh there's a right way to act and a wrong way to act and somewhere or other you're going to get punished or you're not going to 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 on.

It's also ineffective because when we try to practice that way, we model our behavior on somebody else and there's always an element of artificiality about that. [problems with sound system] And our behaviour 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 [unclear] perspectives, she [unclear] 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 that work with her, so each of us needs to find a way of practice that is appropriate and I hope that some of the ideas that I present to you this evening may open some doors for you.

The other thing is that so much of Buddhism is presented--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. This theory that we're basically rational beings and make rational choices underlies most economics, most sociology a good deal of political theory and you can see what a mess that's got us into in 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 enouraged 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 of say, right view, then it will be like that.

Let's take a look at right view because it's the first one. View here is nothing fancy, it's 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, at those extreme positions. But if we try to actually do that; 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. Could we have the mike up here Steve? [sound system comments]

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? 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--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 have mixed feelings about something? Oh good. 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'm not so happy about it. You know, I'm sad, 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 a technique that's been developed recently called [unclear] is to change the vocabulary slightly. 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 a one thing but as composed of many parts, then things become very simple. We can have all of these different feelings and even more. And now you don't struggle with them in the same way.