Please note that when Nirvana is mentioned in this article, we’re not talking about the 90s grunge band. Yes, they were great, but we’re getting into a Buddhist headspace here.
Imagine a wheel that has eight spokes on it, all held together by a central hub. Each of those spokes is a helpful tool that helps one move forward toward enlightenment, with every spoke having its own special purpose.
This is how the Noble Eightfold Path is usually depicted: as a helpful tool full of positive guidelines about appropriate, beneficial behaviors.
Unlike other religions that batter devotees with a giant “DON’T” list, Buddhism offers this gentle guide that can help people find their own way as they muddle through the gray fog of earthly existence.
Nirvana Vs Samsara
Before we dive into the path itself, let’s acquaint ourselves with some terminology.
In Buddhism, the ultimate spiritual goal to strive for is ending the difficult, painful cycle of rebirth, which is known as Samsara.
Samsara is defined as a triple fire of delusion, greed, and hatred. Until a soul has broken free from these poisons, they are bound to this material plane and have to be reborn over and over again until they reach enlightenment.
They are chained by hatred, ignorance, wants, and cruelties, and are thus blinded to the reality of universal oneness.
If a soul is able to free themselves from this grasping, greedy ignorance, they have the opportunity to reach Nirvana: a state of being in which the soul is unbound by anything.
One way in which this has been depicted is as a glowing flame suspended in nothingness/all. It’s not at the end of a match or a candle or anything: it is just the light, on its own.
The Four Noble Truths
Now, before we launch into the eightfold path – which is a guideline that can help people free themselves from Samsara – we need to take a look at the four noble truths.
A lot of people mistakenly believe that Buddhism is depressing or negative, because it places so much focus on suffering.
This preconception is quickly dispelled once people actually delve a bit deeper into the philosophy, but most of us in the West are so inundated with the “happiness all the time!” idea that it can be uncomfortable and challenging to sit with things like hurt, sorrow, fear, and betrayal, and face them honestly and with compassion.
The Buddha determined that there are Four Noble Truths that form the basis of our reality. In a nutshell, they are as follows:
First Noble Truth: Suffering Exists
When most of us think of the word “suffering,” we liken it to having a seriously horrible issue, like a broken femur or being stuck in a war zone.
The Buddhist concept of suffering is quite different, and relates to the so-called “negative” things that we generally feel on a daily basis.
Anxiety, stress, inner turmoil: all those emotions that can inspire an overall sense of discontent.
At the most basic level, it can be described as a lack of fulfillment. The absence of inner peace.
Second Noble Truth: There Are Causes (Paths) To Your Suffering
#2 here is all about determining what it is that’s making you suffer.
In the same way that a healer needs to seek out the root cause of an illness in order to treat it effectively, you need to sort out what it is that’s causing you to suffer, so you can extricate it at the source.
Since everyone’s suffering is different, being able to identify what it is that’s making you suffer as an individual is monumental. It will allow you to make the changes needed so you can move towards peace.
Third Noble Truth: Well-being Exists
This is the opposite, or rather complement, to the first noble truth. Just as it’s important to acknowledge and accept that suffering is a real thing, it’s vital to also acknowledge and accept that happiness is real as well. Knowing that it’s real gives you a solid goal to strive for.
Fourth Noble Truth: Identify Your Path To Well-being
Again, this mirrors an earlier path. Just like the first acknowledges that suffering exists, this one embodies the fact that there is an exit route from your particular flavor of suffering.
Your goal here is to seek out the roots of all the things that cause you pain and hardship, so you can excise them from their source.
If one particular aspect of your suffering is caused by a certain type of behavior, then changing that behavior will end that type of suffering.
Think of it like this: you feel pain in your hand. Why? Because there’s a burning coal in it. Why is there a burning coal in your hand? You’ve gotten used to carrying it. What happens if you let go of it? Well, the burning will stop, and the pain will heal.
Ultimately, by acknowledging and embracing these four truths, the seeker has a pretty solid road map toward inner peace and joy.
Even the most uncomfortable circumstances can be seen as learning opportunities. The key is to determine your own personal road to well-being, since your experience in this lifetime is utterly unique to you.
What works for one person won’t work for another, because life experiences are so very different.
What all paths have in common, however, is the ability to be enlightened by the eightfold guidelines that the Buddha laid out 2,500 years ago.
This can also be interpreted as “right view,” and is basically about seeing things as they are, and understanding them on a fundamental level.
Many people see the world through a fog made of preconceived ideas, their own biases, or cultural indoctrination, rather than through true awareness and comprehension, which generally results in a whole lot of conflict with others.
This path’s fundamental purpose is to eliminate delusional thinking, confusion, and misunderstanding.
We seek to understand how suffering is created: not just our own, but also other people’s.
When we can see the causes of our own suffering, we can move past those causes toward happiness… and when we see how other people suffer, we can forgive them, and hopefully help them move toward happiness as well.
Now, keep in mind that this kind of understanding isn’t going to happen by reading a bunch of self-help books.
It’s about drawing from your own personal experience, and through genuine awareness of the world around you.
It’s very rare for us to truly understand a situation until we’ve lived it firsthand, and been very present and mindful while experiencing it.
When it comes to difficult situations – those that most often cause some type of suffering – the instant reaction that most people have is to do everything they can to lessen the reality of their circumstances.
They might go into denial, or distract themselves, or numb what they’re feeling with various substances.
It’s only by keeping one’s eyes open to the reality of what’s being experienced that real understanding can be gleaned.
That’s very difficult to do, but everything worth doing comes with a degree of difficulty, neh?
2. Right Thought (Samma sankappa)
This one is also referred to as Right Thinking, or Right Intention. It has to do with where we allow our thoughts to meander, as letting our imaginations run amok can affect many aspects of our daily lives.
How much time do you think you spend trapped in your own head?
Whether it’s anticipating terrible things happening (which causes all kinds of anxiety), replaying conflicts that happened, or planning out things you **might** say if you’re ever in a particular scenario, none of that is real in that particular moment.
With Right Thought, the goal is to maintain focus on what you’re doing right now, instead of letting brain clutter and turbulence wreak havoc on your emotional well-being.
This is especially true if you find that you can get fixated on a topic, particularly one that has troubled you.
As an example, let’s say someone posts an upsetting image on social media. Yes, it upset you, but if you keep replaying that upset in your mind for hours/days at a time, it will throw everything in your life off balance.
You can be upset in the moment, and then let it go, and think of that which is productive, and necessary, and kind.
This can be summed up very simply: “don’t be an asshole.”
To expand upon this, take a moment to think about how you have felt when other people have spoken to you unkindly.
Most of us forget the really lovely things that people tell us (or say about us) on a regular basis, but we remember the awful things with rather startling clarity.
Generally, people will remember how you made them feel, and if you made them feel unworthy, unwanted, or otherwise just terrible, those feelings can impact their entire lives.
This is where Right Speech (aka Right Communication) comes in. You’ll want to say things that not only help to liberate you from suffering, but also do wonders for other people’s well-being too.
The main efforts Buddha presented are to speak truthfully, don’t speak with a forked tongue, don’t speak cruelly, and don’t exaggerate/embellish.
So basically: don’t lie, don’t change what you say depending on the audience you have, don’t be cruel or manipulative, and don’t exaggerate, especially about your own achievements.
The goal is to be sincere, and honest, and kind, with every word you say. If you can’t embody these traits, it’s best to remain silent.
4. Right Action (Samma kammanta)
This one governs our behaviors; the actions we take on a daily basis. Ultimately, we should strive to behave compassionately, both toward others, and toward ourselves.
In Buddhism, mindfulness encompasses pretty much every aspect of our lives, and Right Action encompasses this kind of mindfulness.
Why? Because unless we’re sleeping, we’re doing something from the moment we wake until we doze back off again.
In that doing, we have the option to act mindfully and compassionately, or to just act without thinking. (How many times have you heard someone lament their circumstances or some negative outcome with the excuse “I didn’t think!”?)
It’s by being aware of how actions affect others that we can determine when and if we’re doing something that may cause harm to us, or to other people.
This could be treating someone with disrespect because you’re caught up in your own crud at the moment, edging out of paying someone what you’ve promised because you’d rather keep the money for yourself, reneging on promises… anything like that.
By doing these kinds of actions, you’re not just hurting the other person – you’re hurting yourself by accruing negative karma.
Right Action also governs choices you make on a daily basis. We think about the wide-reaching threads that spread out from every decision we make, and how everything we do affects others.
Example: do you know if the clothes you bought were made ethically? Or in sweatshops? Is the chocolate you ate fair-trade? If not, children in developing countries, whom you will never meet, suffered so you could eat it.
Living ethically and consciously can be difficult, but also liberating when you discover that the actions you’re taking are sowing seeds of gentleness and compassion, far further than realize.
5. Right Livelihood (Samma ajiva)
The most basic definition of this is: don’t choose a career that causes harm to other living beings.
If you have a really great job, but the company you work for is involved with cruelty to animals, or in arms/weapons trading, or any other action that is unethical, you are also causing harm by association. You’re one of the gears that makes the machine work.
Right livelihood means that the time and effort you put into the world should be honorable, ethical, and causes no harm to others.
In this era of economic and political upheaval, some people find it easier to turn a blind eye to the wide-reaching ramifications of various actions, because there’s so much hurt and fear going on that worrying about how someone on the opposite side of the world is affected by their job is just one more burden.
The thing is, knowing that another person is not being harmed by one’s day-to-day work actually alleviates a lot of personal suffering.
There’s no daily ethical dilemma, no deep-soul knowing that the work you’re doing is causing direct (or indirect) harm to another living being.
Instead, if the work you’re doing affects others for the better – like if you’re working for a nonprofit organization that helps people, animals, or the environment – there’s a soul-deep joy that springs from knowing that you are helping.
Which would you prefer?
6. Right Effort (Samma vayama)
There’s a meme going around in which a child’s grandparent is telling them that there are two wolves at battle in their hearts: one represents greed, hatred, cruelty, and ignorance, and the other one embodies compassion, love, joy, and peace. The child asks which wolf will win the battle, and the response is: “the one you feed.”
Living with Right Effort can be seen as choosing the kinder, more loving wolf to feed.
Another perspective is to see the positive traits as seeds that are cultivated with plenty of light and tenderness.
This is also an opportunity for you to be patient and compassionate toward yourself.
Negative feelings will undoubtedly come up, but it’s how you deal with them that matters. Giving them power and strength often allows them to grow, and berating yourself for even having them at all doesn’t do anyone any good.
Be aware of your thoughts, and put effort toward healing those that are negative, and pouring light and strength into those that can inspire the most good for everyone.
7. Right Mindfulness (Samma sati)
We talk about mindfulness a lot, but this particular part of the path can sometimes also be referred to as awareness.
Whereas mindfulness is often referred to as being utterly present in the moment, what we mean here is to open your heart and mind to being aware of what is going on and how it affects you on every level.
This can grant you extraordinary insights and lessons, which in turn can help you live in peace and happiness, while transcending suffering.
You’re not just being mindful to escape the stress of an upcoming exam or tax audit: it’s far more wide-reaching and all-encompassing than that.
When you’re living in Right Mindfulness, you’re tapping into your authentic Buddha nature. You’re being mindful in body, mind, and soul.
Mindfulness in body allows you to notice both painful and pleasurable sensations, and filter those out from the life experience as a whole.
Mindfulness of the mind allows you to recognize that you’ll have a bunch of thoughts over the course of the day, but you have the power to let go of anger, jealousy, and resentment, while holding to equanimity, compassion, and joy.
8. Right Concentration (Samma samadhi)
This one’s a bit difficult to encompass, but can be summed up as a sort of “holistic concentration.”
It’s a combination of expanded and contracted concentration, but simultaneously so, and creates a state of amazing stillness.
Like the eye of a storm. You’re in the storm, and can respond to how that storm affects you, but you have neither desire nor aversion toward it; you observe it, but without bias.
It is quieting the inner and outer, seeing all that is, while also not focusing on anything specific.
Truly, this last one could take several articles to explain clearly, but ultimately it’s a sort of blissed-out sensation where you are experiencing everything and nothing at once, aware of the entire universe while not being affected by any part of it.
It’s important that you don’t think of the eightfold path as an eight-step, “how-to” guide. It’s not like a set of IKEA assembly instructions, but is instead much like that wheel we mentioned: the one that’s usually used to depict it.
All the steps are interrelated, influence each other, and that wheel turns all the time.
The turning refers to how these lessons come up time and time again over the course of a person’s life, and each path reflects and works alongside the others.
Like spokes on a wagon wheel, these paths are inextricable from one another. You need all of them to get to where you’re going, and those spokes are going to keep coming around as you move along, hopefully toward enlightenment, and Nirvana itself.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.