The Eight-Fold Way: Paying Attention

Buddhists like to count things: the four noble truths, the eight-fold way, the ten precepts, and many, many more. It all sounds very precise when you first encounter it and, boy, would you be wrong about that. One way or another, however, all of these countless ideas, concepts, admonitions, suggestions—whatever you want to call them—point you toward enlightenment.

What is enlightenment, you ask? Please check back later after I am enlightened. Meanwhile I want to talk for the next few posts about The Eight-Fold Way, which is considered the path to…you know. There are many different translations of the eight terms in the “way.” The ones I happened to learn are:

True awareness

True understanding

True speech

True action

True vocation

True effort

True mindfulness

True composure

In turn, there are nearly as many subtleties in the different elucidations of exactly what these mean as there are translations, but in the course of three decades of meditating on them every morning I’ve come to associate a question with each one. Those questions are what I’m going to discuss, very briefly, in this and the next four posts.

Please understand that these are not questions with one answer each. They all have many answers, sometimes a different one every time you ask. All you need do is notice what comes to mind this time. You needn’t, necessarily, do anything about it. Just notice.

I’ll talk about only the first one today.

True Awareness – What am I paying attention to?

One of the things you finally learn (and it takes a long time) in martial arts training is not to focus on any one part of your opponent’s body. Not his hands, not her feet, not his eyes, not her shoulders. You have literally milliseconds to respond to a punch or a kick and if your attention is directed to any one spot you can’t react quickly enough to a move coming from any other spot. You have to unfocus in such a way that you instantly see any move coming from any direction. It’s not zoning out; it’s seeing everything—and it ain’t easy to learn.

Isn’t it the same in life outside the training hall? If you’re obsessing about your job, your spouse, your child, your prostate, whatever, how much else in your life are you missing? It’s not just a question of what might blindside you next, but also of what might have aided or encouraged you if you’d only seen it.

So I ask myself: What am I paying attention to? I try not to judge, just notice. Sometimes it’s obvious: my novel or the dental appointment later this morning. Sometimes it’s not: the threat to my ego in a Facebook political forum or the woman I regret having betrayed years ago. Whatever crosses my mind when I inquire what I am paying attention to, I just note it and let it go. Ideally, anyway.

It can be instructive, if nothing else.

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