Just because we choose to follow a specific religion doesn’t mean that we can’t listen and learn from the teachings of others.
When I arrived here in Brazil, I was exposed to a rich melting pot of people, cultures, and faiths that I had never even heard of in my small hometown of 800. I found Afro-based religions like Umbanda and Candomblé, Christian sects with a Spiritist flavor, Eastern religions from Shinto to Hinduism, and even a Shiite mosque right down the street from my house.
One of the most lasting impressions I had, however, was from a Buddhist temple in the heart of São Paulo. On this day I went with Rodrigo to visit his Buddhist friend and Hapkido teacher (also my first time trying martial arts, but that’s another story!).
I was immediately struck by his amazingly kind and genuine nature. After the class, he started offering me a huge collection of books on Buddhism, which he said nobody would read because they were written in English, and he was so happy that there was finally someone who would benefit from them.
He then led us out behind the gym to, lo and behold, a genuine Buddhist temple perched overlooking the urban jungle.
I had never been inside another house of worship before, so as I took off my shoes, lit my incense, and approached the altar, I found myself in a sense of awe at the beauty of it.
I realized that I had spent my whole life dedicated to one religion without knowing anything about the others. How could I expect to make a choice without seeing all the options?
I was raised in a very traditional and strict religious family, instructed that other ways of thought were wrong, blasphemous even, and that there was only one way to heaven and salvation. As I sat in silence in that temple, I learned a valuable lesson:
There is a certain beauty and truth about all religions on earth, and even if you don’t agree with the teachings there is always something you can learn.
Ever since that visit I’ve been learning about Buddhism, and I’ve written this post to share what I believe to be the most applicable part of the theology, or what I call Everyday Buddhism.
One of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism states that humans can escape the suffering of life by way of the Noble Eightfold Path. I like to think of these eight steps as self-improvement exercises, especially for everyday life.
I’ve added my interpretations, but feel free to do your own research if you want to learn more!
We all know how much of a difference a simple change of perspective can make in a tough situation, like when you’ve had a rough day and you suddenly realize you’re taking it out on your friend or partner and it’s not fair.
The first step on the Noble Eightfold Path is all about outlook, perspective. It’s about seeing the things around us as they really are. This officially includes the law of Karma, which is basically the Newton’s Third Law of morality. There are certain things that will push back in one way or another if you press them; if you pull a lion’s tail, you have to be prepared to deal with the teeth as a reaction.
This isn’t exactly a new idea. In the west I’m pretty sure we know it as, “what goes around, comes around.”
The second vital part to this step stresses the importance of recognizing the fact that everything is temporary, suffering included. Everything that has a beginning must have an end.
Often times we get too attached to our current situation and forget the dynamic nature of the world we live in, when actually it is this very impermanence that gives us the greatest advantage.
Once we accept that nothing lasts forever, we can better live in the now and stop worrying about the future. The night may be long, but eventually the sun always rises.
The word intention often has a negative connotation because of its use in contexts ending with “…but my intentions were good!”
Buddhism, however, doesn’t see intention as an excuse. Rather, intention is the way we exert our will to make a change. This means only pursuing things for the right reasons, out of good will and not malice.
When we pursue something out of positive motivation (a desire to help, build, or learn), we tend to have much better success and less consequences than when we pursue something out of negative motivation (revenge, envy or spite). This is crucial when setting goals.
Ask yourself, why do I want to achieve this? Healthy growth is dependent upon positive intention.
For those of us who like to gossip, this may be one the most difficult aspects of the Path.
Right Speech teaches not only truthfulness, but also the avoidance of divisive, abusive, and idle words. Basically, if what you have to say is not true, beneficial or timely, you should reconsider or reword.
I find this one of the most helpful steps for me personally, especially since we live in a world that is so loud. Everywhere we look there is an advertisement or a video game or a TV show or a gossip column; our modern world fills our head with so much information that we lose sight of what’s actually valuable.
Being in the company of someone who provides valuable advice or insight is unbelievably refreshing.
Many of the same Commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were also being taught in the East around the same time.
Right Action requires moral behavior, which is pretty much the same kind of behavior outlined in our modern laws. Murder, theft and sexual misconduct are all definite no-goes, but I would assume these as basics that most of us follow already.
Beyond the literal laws, it means not causing harm to oneself or others. This could range anywhere from avoiding drug addictions to responding kindly to aggression. It really comes down to what you feel in your gut; if you feel it’s wrong, don’t continue.
After all, you’re the one who will have to live with the consequences, whether physical or psychological.
The next step on the Path elaborates on the previous one, applying it to the ethics of one’s job.
The focus is earning wealth in honest ways, and not through cheating, lying or stealing. The five kinds of businesses that are expressly not to be practiced are those concerning weapons, the sale of human beings (prostitution and slavery), raising of animals for slaughter, intoxicants and poisons.
In more practical terms, we should not engage in businesses whose ethics, purpose or methods we do not agree with. When you work with something every day, it begins to affect you whether you want it or not.
If you put yourself in an environment that is not in accordance with your values, it will become destructive to you over time due to the negative atmosphere and your own moral conflicts.
In my opinion, Right Effort is one of the most ambiguous and also the most difficult steps to follow. The reason for this is that we are not perfect, and Buddhism emphasizes the importance of achieving a completely purified self.
In general, Right Effort means purging all unhelpful and impure thoughts, intentions and actions in exchange for those that are good and useful.
In practice, it’s really a matter of personal opinion; what is good and useful for me is not necessarily the same for you. It’s more a matter of self-improvement instead of self-detriment, of choosing positive and helpful attitudes that will build you up instead of negative and destructive attitudes that will tear you down and make your journey much harder than it needs to be.
In our modern era of constant distraction, constant anxiety, and constant noise, we are expected to sit back and let entertainment dull our senses. Tuned out: whether with our iPods, TV, smartphones, or laptops, it’s difficult to imagine even one day without this sensation.
Right Mindfulness points out the importance of awareness, of being conscious and deliberate with our actions and observant of the world around us.
The most important aspect of this observation is the suspension of judgment; in order to achieve this we have to learn to see and accept things as they are instead of what they should be, what we expect them to be, or what we want them to be. They simply are, existing here in the present moment, nothing more and nothing less.
This goes beyond just being aware of one’s surroundings to self-awareness, both of our physical and emotional conditions. Once we become aware of how we feel, we can begin to discover why we feel that way, the cause, thereby finding the root of our wellbeing.
The final step is meditation, in all its forms and methods. This could be as simple as stopping to take some deep breaths during a stressful time, or as complex as a 5-hour intensive meditation session.
The goal is detachment from our problems and cultivation of insight. It’s been scientifically proven that measured breathing when you’re angry can significantly calm you down and lead to greater clarity of mind.
Right Concentration is theoretically the sum of the previous 7 steps when applied correctly, but it is also the most thorough and fastest way to self-discovery. It’s about taking time to reflect on ourselves, to understand our environment, to make better decisions, or to clarify something we don’t understand.
All we need is a moment to step back, relax, and breathe. Trust me; you’d be surprised what your own mind is capable of.
Which of the 8 steps speaks most to you?