Apotheosis, episode 47: Right view, right decision. Hand-drawn illustration with silhouette of a person meditating on the edge of a cliff, which overlooks a landscape. There is a path winding into the distance.

Episode 47: Right view, right decision

Ryan D Thompson Buddhism, Decision-making, Perspectives, Skills

Key ideas

We make hundreds of decisions each day. To make the right decision depends on the possible outcomes. One helpful approach is to ask ourselves, “Will this action create more suffering or less?”

  • Some of the decisions we make every day are easy enough: what to eat, what free-time activities to pursue, or when to make a dentist appointment. Other decisions have a bigger impact and require more thought.
  • A Buddhist teaching called the Eightfold Path offers a practical approach to improving the outcomes of our decisions. Consisting of eight non-sequential steps, this path encourages us to make choices that reduce suffering.
  • The step called “right view” encourages us to consider that many of our actions – and thoughts – create needless suffering. In contrast, other actions promote well-being for ourselves and others. We would be wise to choose the latter. 
  • Each of the eight steps work closely together, cultivating mental discipline to think more clearly. This clarity gives us a more accurate perception of our situation. Which in turn strengthens our capacity to make beneficial decisions.


You are faced with a thousand decisions every day. Some of them are easy enough: what to eat, how to spend your free time, or who to follow up with about a languishing project. But some of those decisions require a bit more thought. There might be more significant consequences, or the impacts might be longer-term. The outcomes of the decision might affect more people or trigger a series of unexpected and unwanted second-order effects.

For example, imagine one morning you open your inbox and find a dismaying email from one of your team members. In the email, he asserts that one of your managers is undermining and otherwise creating problems for the team, including her direct reports. She’s a star performer, consistently delivering high-quality results. But, as the email describes, her behavior is slowly but persistently degrading team morale. How do you respond?

Or picture this scenario: You’ve discovered that a local partner with whom you’ve had a strong working relationship for several years employs some dubious practices in their business. They operate in a developing country with some, let’s say, looser laws and enforcement of existing laws. There are rumors about exploitation and possibly even child labor. Several of your projects rely on the services provided by this partner. How do you address this situation?

In the hypothetical, these kinds of scenarios might seem easy to solve. In the first case, you might say, call the manager into your office to discuss the allegations, possibly give her a warning, and monitor the situation. In the second example, you could imagine a similar response: call them up, demand change in their practices, and contract a third party to assess the situation periodically.

In reality, though, these decisions are often far trickier to make. Despite our confident assessment of the hypothetical, most of us would have a much harder time with these situations than we’d like to believe. There might be a lot more nuance or unknown factors. And there could be some unintended negative impacts if we don’t handle the situations appropriately.

While our mind craves simplicity, the fact is that decision-making is hard, especially when the stakes are high.

Recognizing that difficulty, this episode is part of a series that explores various perspectives and approaches that can inform our capacity to make effective decisions. This episode will focus on Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, an ancient but still relevant guide to living in a way that increases well-being – for ourselves and others.

Around 2,500 years ago, the Buddha formulated the Four Noble Truths, the foundation of the religion and philosophy that now spans the globe. He recognized that humans (and other sentient beings) were stuck in a cycle of suffering and discontent. But this wasn’t his central insight – countless other sages of the day sought an end to this cycle of suffering. The Buddha asserted that suffering has an origin in our minds. And then, by diagnosing the root of the problem, it follows that there can be a cure. The remedy he prescribed begins with a set of practices and mindsets called the Eightfold Path. This path aims to dispel the delusions that drive our suffering – and help us to live in a way that produces genuine, lasting happiness.

Understanding the eight steps of this path can help us improve our capacity to make good decisions. Buddhism loves a good list, so even within the Eightfold Path, we find three groups: wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline.

Within the wisdom group are the first two steps: right view and right intention. As a side note, these steps don’t need to be sequential. They can be practiced in any order, often simultaneously. That said, the first step often presented in this path is called right view. Having the “right view” doesn’t mean believing in a specific teaching or concept, with other beliefs being wrong. Instead, this step encourages us to consider that many of our actions – and thoughts – create needless suffering. In contrast, other actions promote well-being for ourselves and others. We would be wise to choose the latter. 

The other step in the wisdom group is right intention. This step involves recognizing that we carry in our minds the seeds for many different actions and thoughts. The seeds that we choose to cultivate will lead to corresponding results. If we grow seeds of fear, anger, or hatred, the result will likely increase suffering for ourselves or others. In contrast, if we plant and take care of seeds of kindness, concern for others, and contribution, the harvest will likely be well-being.

With this view and intention, we move into the second group: ethical conduct. When we have cultivated awareness of the consequences of our actions, we can then put that wisdom into action. 

The first step of ethical living is called right action. Some of the actions we might call “right” are somewhat obvious, like not committing violence – in other words, not physically harming other beings. Other right actions involve generosity, which seeks to benefit others somehow. And some actions might harm ourselves, like abusing intoxicants, or we might say, in the modern world, consuming highly processed foods. While many Buddhists follow some specific precepts around right actions, we can consider this more of a guideline for well-being. We should seek to behave in ways that ideally reduce suffering or, at the least, don’t create suffering.

The next step is right speech, with a similar goal. Being aware of the power of our words to harm or help others, we should aspire to use helpful language and avoid harmful language. Things like lying, slander, or gossip are clearly in the “wrong speech” camp. Right speech involves speaking in a way that promotes the well-being of everyone involved. Thus, another part of right speech is deep listening – seeking to hear and truly understand another person. Sometimes, the best speech is no speech.

And then the third step in ethical conduct is right livelihood. We should ideally choose a profession that does not produce suffering. In the Buddha’s time, any job that involved killing, such as being a butcher or a weapon maker, was discouraged for practitioners of the Buddhist path. In the modern era, like everything else, our choice of profession is far more complex. Selecting a career involves a lot of factors, no doubt. However, the degree to which the work reduces or creates suffering can undoubtedly help inform decisions around what is a “right livelihood.”

The third group on the Eightfold Path is mental discipline, which involves training the mind to see more clearly and live ethically. Many of the perspectives and practices described in the Eightfold Path don’t necessarily come naturally to us. The mind is like a wild horse – extremely powerful but needs to be tamed to harness that power. The next three steps look at ways to do so. 

The first step in this group is right effort. We should exert ourselves to prevent harmful qualities from arising and cultivate positive qualities. Recognizing that our existence is precious and fragile, this moment is the right time to seek freedom from our suffering. 

The next step is right mindfulness, which links to the practice most associated with Buddhism: meditation. We should train our minds to cultivate awareness of what’s happening each moment – in our bodies, minds, and the world around us. What does it mean to be aware? It means not being lost in our thoughts, not being thrown around in our minds by emotions, regrets about the past, or fears about the future. We should aspire to reach a point where we are fully aware of every moment, every day. No easy feat, but that is a goal of many Buddhists. Cultivating awareness is the foundation of Buddhist practice – and can serve us well in improving our decision-making.

Finally, the last step is right concentration, which seems similar to mindfulness and likewise relies on meditation. But the aims of this step differ slightly. Whereas mindfulness focuses on the quality of knowing you are aware, concentration in the Buddhist sense involves developing a single-pointed focus. You train the mind to redirect your attention again and again back to an object of meditation. Repeated practice of concentration helps to stabilize our awareness. 

These steps of the Eightfold Path work closely together, with each practice supporting the others. The mental discipline practices help calm the mind and allow us to think more clearly. This mental clarity makes it easier for us to contemplate the nature of our situations and interactions with people, in turn cultivating a more accurate perception of how things are. This wisdom strengthens our capacity to make beneficial rather than harmful decisions.

The more we practice this cycle of steps, the more they reinforce each other. For example, every time we see the positive benefits of taking the right action or using right speech, it becomes easier to maintain the right intention of minimizing harm. And this strengthens our motivation to make the effort to train our minds even more.

Some of these ideas in the Eightfold Path might seem simplistic, especially in our hyper-complex world. But how many of our daily decisions could we improve with this approach? One simple question to consider asking in times of difficult decisions: 

Will this action (or thought) create more suffering or less

In my own life and all around me, I see myriad examples of consistently bad choices that could have been averted or at least reduced by this thinking. 

Returning to the scenarios I presented at the top of the episode, how could we apply these steps? 

The first observation I’d make is that we have very little information. In each case, we only have a few sentences of information to guide our decision. And yet, despite knowing very little about what transpired, we might observe that our minds rush to some form of judgment very quickly. 

Making the right decision in these cases might begin with the intention to treat everyone fairly and promote the well-being of all parties. And we will benefit from the clarity of a calm mind, which a consistent meditation practice can provide. When we have assessed the situation and calmly weighed all of the information, we can then commit to carrying out the action that is most likely to reduce suffering for those affected. This action might involve a reprimand of the employee or some other corrective measure – if they are, in fact, found to be responsible for the harm. We can speak to the team member or vendor in skillful or unskillful ways – using the right language and tone will affect how they receive our words.

These eight steps sound simple enough on paper, but they can be much harder to implement when confronted with reality. For example, it’s not always clear whether a particular action will produce suffering and for whom, and how to measure the relative amounts of suffering it will create for different people.

Which is why this path is a long-term practice. We must train our minds for years to learn to see through the clutter and distractions saturating our minds and the world we live in. 

No doubt this approach is not the only method we’ll need to make good decisions. Nonetheless, the Eightfold Path offers helpful tools to promote well-being.

That’s all for this episode. I hope you found something helpful in this exploration that helps improve your decision-making. I’ll be back soon with another episode on Buddhist practices for countering misinformation. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License