First off, achieving nirvana is anything but easy. There’s no certain type of vegetable that you have to eat a lot of. There’s no single mantra that you need to say ten times a day. There’s certainly no article online that you can read and instantly snap into a state of nirvana. Following the path of the Buddha takes dedication, practice, and a lot of time. With that being said, this article will try to get you started in the right direction to achieving nirvana, or more likely, just improving the quality and fruitfulness of your spiritual life.
The Noble Eightfold Path is a major tenet of the Buddhist philosophy that deals with liberation from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth that inherently leads to suffering. The ultimate goal of the Eightfold path is to achieve nirvana, a state of transcendence in which suffering, desire, and any sense of self do not exist. When one achieves nirvana, they will no longer be trapped in samsara, and their cycle of rebirth will be broken. While some may consider nirvana to be a state of absolute happiness and purity, in the Buddhist context, it refers more to a nothingness, a lack of self and an absolute equanimity.
Since Buddhism started back in the 6th century B.C.E. by Siddhartha Gautama, the philosophy has been a major influence in Asia and has more recently been gaining traction in the West for its ability to help people find peace in their spiritual lives. Even if you aren’t ready to wholly subscribe to the Buddhist philosophy or you’re a devotee to another religion, there are still valuable lessons that can be learned from exploring Buddhism.
In this article, I will briefly explain the basic elements of the Eightfold Path and attempt to explain how they might look in practice in the modern day. I am by no means a Buddhist master, nor am I even a particularly devout practitioner of the Buddhist philosophy. Honestly, I suck at meditating. However, by contemplating how practice of the Eightfold Path might look in the real world of today, I think we can all gain a better understanding of ourselves and our places in this world.
Here are the 8 steps of the Eightfold Path and how they might look in everyday life:
The way I interpret this step is basically the same as when your parents tell you, “Your actions have consequences.” The first step in achieving a better spiritual life is to see the world and yourself as they really are, and to understand the connection between the two. You’ve heard it before, but you do really create your own world.
If you go around talking shit behind people’s backs, like, “Oh, Becky dresses like a grandma. Her outfit is absolutely fugly today,” and then you find out a week later that Becky has been talking shit about you, you can’t really be too surprised or upset. You created that situation with your actions. Once you realize that your actions and consequences are inextricably linked, it will be far easier to correct your actions where necessary.
This one seems pretty self-explanatory. You have to decide in your own mind that you’re going to do the right thing, and that you aren’t going to have any ill will towards any other being. That’s a lot easier said than done. Let’s say that some guy makes out with your girlfriend at a party. Maybe your first reaction would be to go slash the tires on his stupid red Mustang, or maybe tamper with his septic system so his whole house smells like poop for a week. I get it, I really do. However, if you want to move forward on the path to nirvana, these are the feelings you’re going to have to relinquish.
You have to look deep within yourself and give up any ill will that you have. This takes time, effort, and a lot of practice, but it is achievable. And I’m not just talking about other people; one who truly has the right resolve will not even swat at a mosquito.
To steal a quote from Batman Begins, “It’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.” This step is concerned with putting those right resolves into practice with what you say. It’s one thing to wish no ill will to anyone else, but if you’re constantly lying to people or slandering people or just being mean, does that good resolve really hold any value at all?
Pretty much everyone lies or has lied, and it’s a hard habit to drop; however, committing yourself to only speaking the truth is like food for your spirit. Every time you tell the truth even though you want to lie, you’re going to feel that much more satisfied.
The step runs along the same lines as the whole “right speech” thing. You can have the best intentions in the world, but if you’re a cold-blooded murderer who likes stealing candy from babies, those intentions don’t really matter, do they?
It’s not enough to simply wish no ill will to others, but to treat others with no ill will. As much as we don’t like to admit it when we get caught doing something bad, we all know the difference between right and wrong. Listen to your conscience and do what’s right whenever you can.
This step might get a little difficult for anyone who was just shopping online for a Canada Goose coat or a pair of Versace loafers. This one basically says that you shouldn’t seek anything that you don’t need strictly for survival, because all of these unnecessary material objects distract you from your spiritual self.
Now, I’m not suggesting you go sit in a cave and eat nettles for years like the Tibetan siddha Milarepa. However, I’m sure everyone reading this has fallen victim to materialism at some point. I remember when everyone at my school was getting BlackBerry phones (why did everyone want a BlackBerry back then?), I was thinking, Damn, I’d better get myself a BlackBerry phone. But it’s that sort of vanity and materialism that distracts us from the important things in life, the matters of the soul.
Here’s where things get a little more abstract. This step involves putting forth effort to suppress evil states of mind before they arise. You can think of this as a sort of maintenance. Your house is pretty clean and you like living in a clean house. So, instead of letting your house turn into an absolute pigsty and spending your entire Sunday afternoon cleaning it top to bottom, you just put in effort every day to keep it consistently clean.
The same thing goes with your mind and spirit. Even if you’ve been going down the right path, you need to consistently put in effort to make sure that you don’t take steps backwards and let bad thoughts slip into your head.
“Mindfulness” is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days. It pretty much means doing your best to never be absent-minded and to focus on whatever it is that you happen to be doing. If you’re working in a garden, try to be aware of all the smells of the flowers and the feeling of the dirt in your hands. If you’re eating a Domino’s pizza, focus on the flavor of that garlic sauce-drenched crust.
Being mindful is all about living in the present moment as much as possible and taking in the world around you through your senses. Focusing on being mindful will help you feel less stressed about the future and the past, and it will help you appreciate all the little blessings that the world has offered to you.
This step also has to do with focus and the goal is to make your mind as one-pointed as possible. If your mind is all over the place (which is where mine tends to be most of the time), it means that you’re not fully being mindful. However, to reach nirvana, you have to take it even one step further than one-pointed mindfulness.
While a gourmet eating a meal or soldier on the battlefield might be 100% focused on the task at hand, a true Buddhist master can have 100% concentration with no object whatsoever. They can concentrate on nothing for as long as they want. That is when you will know that you’re a true spiritual guru: when you can sit with your eyes closed and exist in your own mind without letting any of your worries, insecurities, or desires slip into your mind.
I hope that after this brief look into the Eightfold Path, you’ve considered some ways that you can improve your own spiritual life. We all have areas in which we can grow, and there’s no shame in wanting to better yourself.