The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Thinking

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You don’t have to be a farmer to know that if you plant a tomato seed, you’re not going to get a potato. The seeds you plant, given the right conditions, will lead to the crop you harvest. Buddhist teachers often use this metaphor of planting seeds to describe how our actions lead to consequences. But before we can plant the seeds, we must first set an intention or make a decision to do so. This action first arises in the form of a thought. Our thoughts lead to actions; our actions then lead to consequences.

This dynamic is the essence of Right Thinking, also called Right Intention. As described in the last post on Right View, this practice is the second aspect comprising the “wisdom” group in the Eightfold Path. With Right View, we acknowledge that some thoughts lead to suffering while others lead to wellbeing. Right Thinking encourages us to set a regular intention to cultivate wholesome thoughts, and to forsake unwholesome thoughts.

How to practice Right Thinking

As we’ve seen in previous parts of the Eightfold Path, we don’t practice any part in isolation. Each aspect of this path feeds the other parts. Right View and Right Thinking both contribute to cultivating wisdom. The practices of ethical conduct  — Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood — guide the way we engage with the world. We need to exert Right Effort to make progress, Right Mindfulness to know what’s happening in our minds at any time, and Right Concentration to discipline our minds.

These three fruits of the path — conduct, view, and mental discipline — lead us to free our minds from suffering. We can do this through regular, formal meditation practice. And we can do it as we interact with the world.

Working with our minds through meditation, we can start to examine the quality (and often intensity) of our thinking. As Thich Nhat Hanh describes in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, thinking has two parts: the “initial thought” and “developing thought.” Thoughts arise and either fade away quickly or we proceed to build upon those thoughts in an ongoing chain of thinking.

We go from remembering what someone said at work today, to judging and mentally cursing that person, to plotting out how to serve up a cold dish of revenge. Or we catch a glimpse of some shiny object (or food, drink, car, gadget, person) we desire, which opens a deluge of thoughts about acquiring that object.

Thich Nhat Hanh recommends four practices to work with Right Thinking:

  • “Are you sure?”: As we entertain any given thought, we can ask ourselves this question. Doing so can help us to add some space between the initial thought and the developing thoughts that follow. We often follow our thoughts without questioning whether they are accurate or worthy of our time and effort.
  • “What am I doing?”: It’s easy to go through the day without  really connecting to what’s happening in the present moment. We get carried away by thoughts about the past or future, lost in hopes, fears, and endless mental stories. Asking this question  plants the seeds of mindfulness, helping us to truly experience reality.
  • “Hello, habit energy”: We might notice that we have the same kinds of thoughts running through our heads day after day. Just as we may have physical habits like nail biting or clenching our shoulders when we’re stressed, we all tend to have habitual thoughts. When we notice a compulsive or repetitive thought, we can repeat this simple phrase to recognize the habit and decrease its hold on our mind.
  • Bodhichitta: Rather than give any more energy to our thoughts of desire, anger, jealousy, self pity, resentment, or other non-helpful thoughts, we can generate love, compassion, and concern for others. This is the practice of cultivating bodhichitta, a deep desire to work for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Right Thinking and the SDGs

In the post on Right View, we looked at some questions for pausing and reflecting on causes of suffering in the field of sustainable development. We see with Right Thinking that thoughts precede actions, and that we have the capacity to cultivate helpful thoughts. This practice is helpful to us as individuals and could also help to improve the quality of project planning.

We could also apply Thich Nhat Hanh’s questions above in the planning phases of any sustainable development project:

  • Are we sure that the information guiding our strategy is accurate? What evidence do we have? Is it from a reliable source? Baking this kind of questioning and commitment to evidence can enhance our decision-making.
  • Are we present with what we are doing right now? With the fast pace and often chaotic nature of development programs, it’s easy to get pulled in many directions. As individuals, our minds are often jumping around between past and present, hope and fear. As a group, we’re contending with a collection of distracted or distractable minds. Incorporating intentional acts of mindfulness could help mitigate mental distractions and anchor us to what’s happening right now.
  • Are we pursuing a course of action because it makes good strategic sense, or are we doing it out of habit? It’s not uncommon for teams to engage in a given strategy because “that’s how we’ve always done things.” Recognizing when we might be falling prey to habit can help maintain an openness to new ways of thinking or working.
  • Are we truly working for the benefit of others? Is the wellbeing of a group of people or nature at the heart of our mission and daily activities? The realities of funding sources, organizational politics, or even personal ambitions can stand in the way of mission-driven work.

The Eightfold Path offers a powerful set of practices for training our minds and improving our well-being. In the next posts in this series on Buddhism and sustainable development, we’ll take a deeper look at some of the Buddha’s teachings on morality, meditation, and wisdom.