Right Action

Suffering follows wrong action, just as surely as the cart follows the oxen. – The Buddha


Within the Fourth Noble Truths is found the guide to the end of suffering: the Noble Eightfold Path. The eight parts of the path to liberation are grouped into three essential elements of Buddhist practice—moral conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom. The Buddha taught the Eightfold Path in virtually all his discourses.


Right Understanding: What we generally call “understanding” is knowledge, an accumulated memory, an intellectual grasping of a subject according to certain given data. This is called “knowing accordingly” (anubodha). It is not very deep. Real deep understanding or “penetration” (pativedha) is seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label. This penetration is possible only when the mind is free from all impurities and is fully developed
Right Thought: denotes the thoughts of selfless renunciation or detachment, thoughts of love and thoughts of non-violence, which are extended to all beings. It is very interesting and important to note here that thoughts of selfless detachment, love and non-violence are grouped on the side of wisdom. This clearly shows that true wisdom is endowed with these noble qualities, and that all thoughts of selfish desire, ill-will, hatred and violence are the result of a lack of wisdom in all spheres of life whether individual, social, or political.
Right Speech: abstention (1) from telling lies, (2) from backbiting and slander and talk that may bring about hatred, enmity, disunity and disharmony among individuals or groups of people, (3) from harsh, rude, impolite, malicious and abusive language, and (4) from idle, useless and foolish babble and gossip. When one abstains from these forms of wrong and harmful speech one naturally has to speak the truth, has to use words that are friendly and benevolent, pleasant and gentle, meaningful and useful. One should not speak carelessly: speech should be at the right time and place. If one cannot say something useful, one should keep “noble silence.”
Right Action: promoting moral, honorable and peaceful conduct. It admonishes us that we should abstain from destroying life, from stealing, from dishonest dealings, from illegitimate sexual intercourse, and that we should also help others to lead a peaceful and honorable life in the right way.
Right Livelihood: one should abstain from making one’s living through a profession that brings harm to others, such as trading in arms and lethal weapons, intoxicating drinks or poisons, killing animals, cheating, etc., and should live by a profession which is honorable, blameless and innocent of harm to others.
Right Effort: is the energetic will (1) to prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind from arising, and (2) to get rid of such evil and unwholesome states that have already arisen within a man, and also (3) to produce, to cause to arise, good and wholesome states of mind not yet arisen, and (4) to develop and bring to perfection the good and wholesome states of mind already present in a man.
Right Mindfulness: to be diligently aware, mindful and attentive with regard to (1) the activities of the body, (2) sensations or feelings, (3) the activities of the mind and (4) ideas, thoughts, conceptions and things.
Right Concentration: I can repeat what I have read about this, but I fear I am not enlightened enough to begin to understand it. Apparently if you do it correctly you reach perfect equanimity.


Silence as a part of Right Speech

Imagine reading a lengthy text with no paragraph breaks. It becomes daunting and difficult, not to mention hard to go back and double check on anything. Gaps reduce the strain on our cognitive load. It is easier to process our thoughts in real time. Similarly, conversation becomes better with well timed gaps.

In my last post, I talked about running speech through the filter of whether it is kind, honest, and helpful. The same is true of silence. If you use your silence to punish (the infamous silent treatment), as a power play, or if you remain silent when you feel you need to speak, you are not being kind, helpful or honest. Nonetheless silence serves a purpose of allowing us to think and find a place of clarity.

If you are truly listening to people, you may need a moment after they finish speaking to think about what they are saying. You may also find, as I did, that at first your silence disconcerts them. Do not let this discourage you. Honour both yourself and them by giving them the gift of complete attention.

nun with cat

“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.” – Thich Nhat Hanh


Listen the first time.

You might think communicating in a kind and compassionate way means choosing our words carefully. This is part of it, but possibly even more important is listening. We have all had the experience of having people not listen or only half listen to us. It feels frustrating and devaluing. But who among us can say we haven’t done exactly that to others?

To give someone your full attention is truly an act of generosity. And if we listen slowly – that is, not thinking about our response or jumping to conclusions but just listening – we have a chance to understand the other person’s perspective. Being present and listening with the objective of understanding and being helpful – this is an act of love and selflessness. It can be hard to mono task on listening in our distracted world, but it’s so important.


The Purpose of Communication

The highest purpose of communication is to help others suffer less.


You see this quote all over the internet, variously attributed to Buddhism, Sufism, and etc. As a general guide it has a certain ring of rightness to it, but it’s not going to help in all situations. The “necessary” condition is particularly problematic for me. You might want to share a story or perhaps your heart is filled with joy – or grief – and you want to share. Is that necessary? Small talk – not necessary – but sometimes helps get a better, more meaningful conversation going.

P.B. Morton has quite a lengthy criticism of this saying, including: “And, of course, sometimes you need to say things to people that aren’t exactly kind, but that might well be true, and necessary for them to hear, and might come from a place of love or compassion within you. I’m much happier with the kindness criteria if we mean ‘coming from a place of kindness within the speaker, rather than one of inward malice’ rather than ‘will be taken as kind by the target or other audience to the speech act.’ We are often called on to hurt others as part of our compassion towards them and the world and ourselves.”

One caution is not to use this as a way to shore up the dreaded “positive thinking” philosophy. Like Morton, I believe that positive thinking can be as wrong headed as negative thinking, and would much rather stick with “evidence based thinking”, or as close as our faulty cognitive mechanisms can get to it.

Nonetheless, this saying is a good check on one’s internal motivation for saying anything. It’s worth reflecting on.


What it takes to thrive, rather than merely survive, could be as simple as feeling good about life and yourself and being good at something, according to new research.

From a teenager studying for their exams to an employee succeeding at work, thriving can be seen at all ages and across all cultures.

Until now and despite plenty of theories, there has been no agreement on what makes a person thrive or on how people can try and ensure they do.

Dr Daniel Brown, a sport and exercise scientist at the University of Portsmouth, has pulled together all the research on what makes people thrive, from studies of babies and teenagers, to studies of artists, sportspeople, employees and the elderly, and has come up with the first definitive catch-all.

He said: “Thriving is a word most people would be glad to hear themselves described as, but which science hasn’t really managed to consistently classify and describe until now.

“It appears to come down to an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something, and succeeding at mastering something.

“In the simplest terms, what underpins it is feeling good about life and yourself and being good at something.”

The study outlines the ‘shopping list’ underlying Dr Brown’s simple definition. To thrive doesn’t need all the components, but suggests a combination of some from each of the two following lists may help –

A: Is:

  • optimistic,
  • spiritual or religious,
  • motivated,
  • proactive,
  • someone who enjoys learning,
  • flexible,
  • adaptable,
  • socially competent,
  • believes in self/has self-esteem.

B: Has:

  • opportunity,
  • employer/family/other support,
  • challenges and difficulties are at manageable level,
  • environment is calm,
  • is given a high degree of autonomy,
  • is trusted as competent.

Research has established that though thriving is similar to resilience, prospering or growth, it stands alone.

Thriving has been examined at various stages of human life and has at times been described as vitality, learning, mental toughness, focus, or combinations of these and other qualities. It has also been examined in various contexts, including in the military, in health and in child development.

“Since the end of the 20th century, there has been a quest in science to better understand human fulfilment and thriving, there’s been a shift towards wanting to understand how humans can function as highly as possible,” said Dr Brown.

“Part of the reason for a lack of consensus is the research so far has been narrowly focused. Some have studied what makes babies thrive, others have examined what makes some employees thrive and others not, and so on. By setting out a clear definition, I hope this helps set a course for future research.”

Dr Brown’s research makes six recommendations for future research, including the need for close examination of what enables thriving, and whether thriving has any lasting or cumulative effect on individuals.

He carried out the research as part of his PhD studies at the University of Bath. His primary supervisor, Dr Rachel Arnold, an expert in the psychology of performance excellence, is a co-author of the paper.

The study is published in European Psychologist.

University of Portsmouth. “Scientist finds secret to thriving.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 September 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170908205523.htm>.

Extreme Ownership

In earlier posts I referred to The Way of the Seal, one of the many, many books written by former and present SEALs trying to sell their particular brand of self help. It appeals to my shadow side, this ramped-up ultra masculine discipline-soaked ‘get your sh*t together and quit whining’ approach. Perhaps because it is the opposite of the way I am in the world – touchy feely, conflict avoiding, save the trees etc… I am Deanna Troi, the SEALs are Lt. Warf.

I always have too many books on the go, but of course there’s always room for one more – so recently I downloaded Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win from the library. First, the fact that I’m borrowing this book and not buying it, and even borrowing it in electronic form, so that when it’s due it just disappears off my iPad – I don’t even have to remember to return it in time – well, let’s say the irony is not lost on me. This is sort of the opposite of ownership, and what’s worse, I’ve had to re-download it twice because I just haven’t gotten around to finishing it. I’m sure the authors would shake their heads, if their muscular necks have the flexibility… The book says, when it comes to performance standards, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.. OK OK! I’ll do better. But on to the book.

Their main points can be summarized as follows (and I love summaries of any self help book, because such books are always too long and too repetitive):

1. The leader is always responsible. (This is what they call “extreme ownership.” Basically, leaders must always “own” the mistakes and shortcomings of their teams. There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.)
2. Everyone on the team must believe in the mission.
3. Work with other teams to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.
4. Keep plans simple, clear, and concise.
5. Check your ego.
6. Figure out your priorities, and then act on them one at a time.
7. Clarify your mission (i.e., your plan).
8. Engage with your higher-ups; keep them in the loop–especially when they frustrate you.
9. Act decisively, even when things are chaotic.
10. And the last chapter is a summary of the seemingly contradictory qualities of a leader.

There you have it. I’m sure even a Deanna Troi like me can benefit from this wisdom, and even though I don’t think I’ll get up at 4:30 AM to work out like one of the authors does. I admire it. But if I ever challenged myself to that level of discipline I’d have to start somewhere less painful – 5:30 AM maybe.

understand duality


Positive Psychology – it’s not all smiles and attitude

One of my students wrote in an assignment about personal values and behaviours that he really values happiness, and is sure to wear a smile every day at work. This got me thinking: why is walking around like the Cheshire cat connected to happiness? Is it?

The Positive Psychology movement started with Abraham Maslow – you know, the guy who posited the hierarchy of needs – but the term didn’t really catch on until later. In 1998 Martin Seligman reintroduced it as the scientific study of positive experiences and positive individual traits, and the institutions that facilitate their development. Studies of resilience in children, for instance, could be considered positive psychology.

Two things to keep in mind: positive psychology is a science, and a new one at that. It is not pop psychology. It is also not about thinking positively, which is often as delusional as thinking negatively. Negative experiences are not unimportant in positive psychology, either – indeed they are an important part of life and growth.

Although happiness is a core concept in positive psychology, it warrants critical scrutiny. Research has shown that people in positive moods take more mental short cuts and are less attentive to details. It may even be associated with poor decision making. Research has shown that people who embrace their anger or sadness may be happier overall. People who score 10 out of 10 on the happiness scale do not achieve as much in education, salary or engagement in politics than those with only a moderate happiness score. Not that one must have the highest salary or a graduate degree, but it is an indication that great happiness may lead to a certain amount of complacency.

Positive psychology focuses on individualism in a mostly western context, and as noted above, is still in its infancy. But it seems clear from the studies done so far that unreflective positive thinking is insufficient and potentially counter intuitive to promoting the good life.

So, while I won’t discourage my student from his resolve to put a smile on every day, I am not going to be quick to follow his example. Nor would I make happiness itself a core value. I think I would choose freedom as a fundamental value first.