The Eightfold Noble Path
Householder Series by Jack Kornfield
So one has decided that spiritual practice is worthwhile for some
reason. That doesn't mean that we have to go off in a monastery, but
our household life, our driving, our interpersonal relations, they are our
practice, and they require some working with. The next level or the
next step in this is Right Attitude or Right Thought. One sees the value
in inner life and sees that frankly our happiness is based on our heart
considerably more than it is on external circumstances. When there are
difficulties around, if the heart is open or clear or understanding, we can
be happy. We can be in the midst of beautiful circumstances and be
miserable, be lonely or depressed, and know that our happiness which we
seek is really a function of our heart, our interior life.
The Dhammapada begins with:
Mind is the forerunner of all things." If you act based on
kindness and wisdom in the mind, happiness will follow you
like the wheel of a chariot follows the ox which draws it.
And if you act based on unkindness or you act from an
unwise state of mind, then unhappiness follows just as the
wheel of the cart follows the ox which draws it.
There are three aspects to Right Attitude. The first is openness or
receptivity. In undertaking our practice, try not to make it a certain
way: "I want it to always be peaceful, I want it to be calm, I want not
to be angry" or "I want my body not to hurt" or "my knees" or "I don't
want to be restless" or "I don't want to be afraid" or "I want to come to
a lot of light or joy." Good luck! You get that sometimes. But if you
just look for that, what will happen in your daily practice? A really
simple thing happens if you're looking for that. What happens? You're
disappointed. And then what do you do? You stop sitting. If you hold
in mind how your personality should be or how your body should behave
or how your mind should be, does it listen to you very much? Tell the
truth! You sit here and say, "Thoughts, don't come." Does it help
much? A little bit with some training, but just a little. It's like the
radio. The advertisements come, and you can't say, "I want radio
without advertisements." It doesn't work.
You might have begun some investigation or awareness of what your
personality is like. Most people when they start to look at their
personality, after a little while say "yuk" because personalities have that
kind of quality to them. You say "God, maybe if I practice hard, my
thoughts will quiet down and I can kind of change my personality." I
have news for you! Your personality is kind of like your body; you come
in and you get issued one for this ride. And you can get wiser or kinder,
but you kind of have it, and you'll be a wise character of the same
personality that you are as an unwise one, but you'll be pretty much the
same. Or you'll be a loving person, whatever you are now, however you
Openness means not getting caught on, "I want it to be quiet or
peaceful, the body or the mind to be this way," but more a quality of
discovery, of experimenting, of seeing what you are. "I'm going to sit
and listen to my heart and see what I really care about or where I'm
afraid or what I hold back on. I'm going to look at my mind and see
what the patterns are, what the desires are, and see what makes me
happy and what makes unhappiness, and how that works in the world."
There are enormously rich and deep things to discover in our practice.
It requires this attitude of, "I'm going to look and learn," rather than, "I'm
going to make it a certain way."
There's a beautiful poem I'll read from the German poet Rilke. He says:
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors and keeps on walking
because of a church that stands somewhere
in the East. And his children say blessings
on him as if he were dead.
And another man who remains inside his
own house, stays there inside the dishes
and in the glasses, so that his children
have to go far out into the world
toward that same church which he forgot.
Such a wonderful poem. There's something in us, in our nature, which
compels us to discover. I remember a very powerful moment with the
old guru who I studied with, Nisargadatta Maharaj, who taught the way
of Nisarga Yoga. "Nisarga" means natural. The basic translation of his
name was "Mr. Natural". He was this 80-year old cigarette-smoking
man. He had a little cigarette stand. He was kind of a combination like
Krishnamurti and Fritz Perls. He would put you on the hot seat when
you came in and ask you about your spiritual life.
One day we were in a room about this big. People were coming in and
asking questions. Somebody came in and asked a question and was a
little bit dissatisfied and left. And another person raised their hand and
said, "Maharaj, what will happen to that person who came and asked
that question and left? Is it all over for them in this life? They didn't
stay here. You are a great guru, and they weren't interested, and they
went home." And he twinkled at that moment, he really lit up, and he
said, "It's too late. Even the fact that they put their foot in this room,
even if they hadn't asked the question, means that somewhere in there
there's a seed of really knowing who we are and what this life is about.
Not what you were taught in elementary school or what's on TV or the
newspapers, but a deep seed of knowing our true nature, that wants to
discover; it's like coming home. The fact that he just walked in the
room means that that seed has started to sprout. And no matter if he
tries to forget it and goes back and gets lost, sooner or later that will
manifest in awakening."
We can't not do it once we start. Trungpa Rinpoche in speaking with
his students at a big public talk one night said, "Frankly, I recommend
that you don't start the spiritual path because it's painful and it's
difficult; it's really hard. So my recommendation to all of you is not to
do it. You can leave now." Then he said, "But I have a second
recommendation, and that is: If you start, you better finish. If you
begin, then really do it."
It's something in us. I think it's the part that loves truth, or maybe it's
the part that loves connection with another being. Even if we're
terrified of intimacy - some of you may know that one - or we're terrified
of getting close and then losing things, or we're afraid of dying, or it's
hard to look at parts of ourself, there's something in our heart that really
wants union, that wants to connect with people, with life, with the world
around us in a deep way.
And openness then, the first part of Right Attitude, is this process of
discovery, of seeing what's here and opening to it, not trying to change
it but seeing clearly with mindfulness, without judging our fear,
loneliness, aggression, joy, happiness, love, sorrow; our body, how we
use it, how we exercise with it; what we eat, when we're full, when we
overeat. The beginning is just this quality of discovery, because it's
fantastic then. That makes spiritual practice alive; it's not some rote
imitation. Then we can begin to learn, and we learn about the forces of
desire, of fear, of wanting, of love, that makes the whole world go round,
and really runs our lives. Whether we're conscious or we're on
automatic pilot, they still operate. We start to discover who we are and
how it works.
This leads to the second part of Right Attitude, which is renunciation.
There is a saying in India, "When a pickpocket meets a saint, he only
sees the saint's pockets." What we want determines what we see.
If you walk down the street and you're hungry, what do you see?
Restaurants. "There's a Greek restaurant. I could have feta cheese or
a nice salad. Oh, there's a nice natural food restaurant. No, I think I'll
have a burger. That's a good place for burgers." You don't see shoe
stores. Or if you come to the sitting and you look around, there's break
time, time for tea, you see what you're interested in. If you like to talk
to women, you'll see the women. If you're interested in sex, you see
people who are attractive to you or your competition for those people.
If you're interested in astrology you kind of check out and see whether
there are lots of water signs or fire signs that come sit. If you're
interested in young people or old people, that's what you scope out. If
you're a barber, you come in here and see who needs a haircut.
What you're interested in determines and limits what you see. What
renunciation means is putting what we want aside for a little bit. At
Achaan Chah's, where I studied in the forest monastery for awhile, we
did a lot of work with a practice of the monks' rules as discipline, and
there are hundreds of them. At first they seemed like a real pain in the
ass. As I learned to work with them, work with the discipline of not
eating after noon, or sitting in a certain kind of posture when you were
with senior monks -- there's a whole lot of ritual around it -- it required a
lot of surrender. And as I did it I said, "I want to do it my way. This is
2,000 years old and it's dumb, and it's modern times," and all kinds of
resistance came up. Of course, I didn't have much choice. I was a
monk and I was supposed to do it. I mean, if I had stopped, I suppose I
could have left or something. "Alright, I'll do this trip." But I had all the
resistance, and all the things of not wanting to follow rules or not
wanting to go against my habit. We're spoiled in this country. You can
drink whatever kind of beer you want, eat whatever kind of food, travel
where you like, and we have a capacity to change our lives in ways that
most people in the world don't come close to.
So here it was, renunciation. What came from it was a discovery that
there's a strength of heart that comes when we don't just follow our
habit; and it brings a sense of well-being or purity or something, because
we begin to train ourselves. We don't have to follow all of our habits
and all of our desires.
Achaan Chah was great because he would psych you out when you
came there to begin practice, and if you were someone who loved to
meditate and loved it peaceful and quiet, he would assign you to the
monastery in the middle of Bangkok, in the traffic. And if you loved to
socialize and talk and be with people, he would send you off to where
everyone was in separate caves, and you had to deal with your
loneliness or your aloneness. The style of practice which really is
relevant to our lives, is to look into that which we're afraid of, which we
run away from, or which keeps us moving all the time.
It requires a little fire. Practice has fire. If it doesn't have fire, it's not
interesting. Yeah, you sit and you hold hands at dinner and you do a
little "Om" and it's kind of peaceful, and you eat. It's not very
interesting. If there's fire, it transforms your body, it transforms your
heart, it makes you feel your loneliness and your desire, and you look at
places where you hold tension in your body, and what it means to be
unhappy or to be happy, to look at your suffering, to look at your
expectations -- that's juicy, that's interesting, and that's where
The second step is renunciation. It means beginning to work with
areas of our life where we've been unconscious and which we can
identify.. I mean, I could go around the room and just ask you, and you
could all name off the things that could use a little work, not that they're
bad or anything, but because you can empower yourself through it.
Let's take a moment now and think of an area to work on this next
week, maybe a very small one. It might be a simple a thing such as
biting your nails. Think of one thing for yourself that you really want to
look at and discover more about, that you're caught in -- it's a habit, it's
a compulsion, or a fear, or whatever. Do you have one? I'm sure you
must be able to think of one. Okay, fine. Here I want to give an
assignment which you're welcome to do. If you're the kind that resists
assignments, please don't do it. The assignment of working with
openness is to just look at it for one week. Make the resolve in your
mind, whether it's nail biting, or being afraid of this, or compulsive about
that, whatever it happens to be that you choose, that for one week
you're going to be a botanist, and you're going to study it, when it
comes out, is it a night creature or a day creature, what it's mating
habits are, and what it eats, and how long it's there. So you're really
going to study it. First you'll see the superficial nature of how often it
comes. Count it for a day, whatever it is. It might be a mental state
or an activity. See how often it comes. Then start to look deeper.
See what's there when it comes. When you bite your nails, when you
pay attention to your heart and your mind, you see, "Oh, I start biting
them when I'm afraid. Alright now, what happens? I'm afraid. What's
there with the fear? Oh, I get lonely. Maybe that's what it is." So
you see it's loneliness, and then fear, and then chomping away, or
whatever it is that you're examining.
So let yourself take a week and go from the activity itself, really seeing
how often it comes, and what it's like, and also look at the heart and the
mind under it, and see if you can discover the mental states that come,
and see how they come and go. Let it be a practice of a deeper insight
than that. You see the content, you see the sources of it in your
feelings, and then you also see how the action and the mind states come
like clouds for a little bit and then they pass away.
That's your assignment, to study it for one week. Then the second
week's assignment, which I'll give you tonight in case you don't come
next week, is to stop it for just one week, whatever that particular thing
is, either the outer activity or the inner one if it's there. Try to stop it
and watch what happens when you stop it, not that it's bad or you're
going to get rid of it completely, but then make your observation and
your experiment to see what mental states and what experiences come
when you don't do that. Does this give you some sense of what I mean
by "fire" or being willing to work with yourself? It's discovery; it's not
that bad. You may do it for the rest of your life, but you can begin to
sense this capacity of inner strength, of directing your attention,
concentrating your mind, and seeing with more clarity. We start with
little things and we see how we're bound. It's really the question of
bondage and liberation, from biting your nails to the deepest inner
things. We can start to see what it is that creates bondage, and that
to discover this resource we have to be freer inside.
We become, as Ram Dass put it, connoisseurs of our neurosis. It's not
that the neurosis goes away necessarily, but you have, "Wow, look at
that example. Isn't that fantastic! I really did it that time." And
there's a sense of humor that you can bring to it. When you observe,
after awhile either there comes despair or humor, depending on which
you want to pick. After awhile you get tired of despair, and you see,
"My God, there it goes again."
The first thing in Right Attitude is openness; that it's not a thing of "I'm
going to perfect myself and make a perfect personality and a perfect
body and a perfect mind." I don't know anybody like that. But it's a
quality of really discovering and opening. And the second is a
willingness to work, not to just follow our habits, but to put ourselves
into it a little bit, to put some effort out, renunciation. And the third is
the quality of non-harming, or loving thoughts, and how to evoke that,
how can we bring this quality of loving thoughts, how can we evoke that
quality in our spiritual life, which means becoming more conscious of
what we do in what we do.
One way is to see the events that come to us as gifts, especially the
difficult ones; not necessarily as good gifts, but gifts. Don Juan calls
One way to really discover this quality of love is to see that we've got a
big playpen. I'm getting into baby metaphors these days. You have to
understand it's my new conditioning. We have a big playpen and a lot
of toys, some of which are hot and they burn, some of which are cold,
some are pleasant, and some aren't. Our life is limited; we're born,
we're going to die. Nothing will stop that. No matter how fast we run,
or how much we jog, we're going to die anyway. Because it's limited, it
makes it interesting to experiment with. Let's learn in this time that
we're here; let's really look at it.
It's hard, because it's easy to love kittens and puppies, babies when
they're not crying, and pleasant experiences. That actually doesn't
have much to do with love. That's kind of an ease of mind or
sentimentality or something. I think, really, love manifests when things
get difficult. That's when you really know it. That's when the fire
melts whatever barriers we have in our heart. Our hearts want to be
melted. The pain isn't so bad. It's much better to have that all happen
than have it all still, solid and barricaded.
What love requires in practice, this quality, is "constancy" --
St. Francis de Sales says:
A cup of knowledge, a barrel of love and an ocean of
In a way this quality of love and patience are so related. Our practice
will go through cycles. Sometimes you sit at home and it will really
nourish you, and you'll feel rested afterwards; other times you'll sit down
after a busy day and the body will be tight and the mind will be spinning,
and you'll be hating this person, and worried about that, and you don't
want to feel it, and you don't want to look at it. Feel it, look at it; work
to nourish that quality of constancy, of what's called, "a long-enduring
mind." It's not a short game. You know, we're used to instant food,
drive-through, tell the lady through the speaker, "Yes, I'd like a Big Mac,
fries and a coke," or whatever it is. You drive around and you get it and
you can eat it while you're driving; you don't even have to stop.
Instant gratification. This is not an instant gratification thing. It is the
longest thing you'll ever do because it's your whole life. It's really to
discover how to transform your life from being on automatic pilot to being
conscious, to discovery, to play. And it's wonderful. So it means that
you don't complete it, you actually learn how to play the game and make
your life into that.
It has many cycles. There will be many times when it's hard to sit,
maybe more than when it's easy. And even in the good moments they'll
come. You know what happens when something is really sweet and
good, a wonderful taste, a great sexual experience, a good concert, a
piece of music, or some wonderful sitting? What happens? There's this
little voice that comes in the middle. What does it say? "It won't
last. Can I get it to stay? How much longer?" There's that worry
even in the middle. We can't kind of enjoy it because there's that thing
inside that tries to grasp it.
Wisdom is also this development of patience or love or constancy, that
you go through so many cycles.
I'll read you a poem from Gary Snyder called "The Avocado".
The Dharma is like an avocado.
Some parts of it so ripe
you can't believe it it's so good,
and other parts hard and green
without much flavor,
pleasing those who like their eggs
And the skin is thin,
the great big skin around the middle
is your own original true nature,
pure and smooth.
Almost nobody splits it open
or ever tries to see if it will grow.
Hard and slippery it looks like you should plant it,
But then it shoots through the fingers and gets away.
We grasp it sometimes, or we touch it, we touch something really deep,
and it's beautiful and it's tremendously important. Then what
happens? Bleep. Slippery seed. That's fine. You pick up the
avocado seed again, or you plant it, or maybe make a garden of avocado
seeds, avocado trees.
As I speak I'm trying to translate the talks and concepts that I've used
so often in intensive retreats to try and find ways to really make them
applicable in our situation of jobs and families and driving, and all the rest
of it. I did a radio show today on KCBS which will be on in a couple of
weeks. And at the end of it I taught a driving meditation, knowing that
people listen to the radio when driving. "Don't close you eyes. Hold
the steering wheel. Now relax. That's right." It was great fun. But
that's the quality of beginning to make what we do our practice, through
this openness or discovery rather than some ideal that's spiritual;
through some willingness to renounce or a little fire, and finally through a
tremendous amount of patience or constancy.
Here's another exercise I want to give you. Pick one day next week,
and maybe next time we'll have a little pairing at the end and see who
did it and just share with one another in a pair what you discovered.
Pick one day next week and see how many moments of impatience you
can count. Even if you get to 500, don't judge them, don't try and
make them go away, but in one day of your life see how many times you
can count impatience, 50, 200, 500. We'll have a contest. The person
who comes with the most moments of impatience they saw in a day will
get a prize.
Patience can even be used to understand impatience, because if you
look at it, you start to see what's there when you feel impatience. We
discover love by looking in places where it's not. Actually, we discover
deeper or truer love. Don't look at what's romantic. Forget that part.
Look at where it's hard, and you can really learn about love.
Do the exercise. I'll give you a little bit of a hint. You get impatient
when the kind of experience is happening that's unpleasant, when it's
painful, when there's some experience of body or mind that hurts a little
bit. For the heart to open you have to be willing to feel pain, joy,
pleasure, hot, cold, the whole thing. When you open the door, what do
you get coming in? You get what's there. And if you open the heart,
you get the experience of what our humanity is, what's rich. You can't
open the heart for pleasure and not feel the pain. The world is dual; it's
up/down, light/dark, hot/cold, and when we open, we discover a kind of
capacity for joy and for understanding which allows for the fact that life
has pleasure and pain. It's got them both. If you don't want pain, go
to another planet, because this one has light and dark, sweet and sour,
hot and cold, and pleasure and pain. That's the game.
If you want your heart to open, study your impatience. It's a fantastic
place to look. Count it through a day, and just see what the things are
that evoke it as you look. Don't try and change it. There are
wonderful things you can learn from it.
This is from the Sufis again:
Overcome any bitterness that may have come
because you were not up to the magnitude
of the pain that was entrusted to you.
Like the mother of the world
who carries the pain of the world
in her heart, each one of us is
part of her heart and therefore
each is endowed with a certain measure
of cosmic pain.
You are sharing in the totality
of that pain and are called upon
to meet it in joy instead of
It's not a judgment but rather realizing we have this capacity, we have a
beautiful capacity to suffer, and we have a beautiful capacity to love,
and we have a beautiful capacity to open to the richness of our
experience which has all that in it -- what's joyful, what's unpleasant --
so that the attitude of practice is like a flower blossoming. You started,
so it's happening anyway, but you can help it. You can give it a little
plant food or you can water it. By sitting every day you water it, and
the plant food and the nourishment comes from the sangha, from coming
together, from listening to the Dharma and discussing it, and getting
those extra kinds of nutriments that help you when you work in your
If we do that, then we can find the dharma that's true. We can work
with it in traffic on Highway l0l, in our kitchen, with our children, in our
office, and in the times of our inner solitude, and then things really do
become rich and wonderful.
I hope I wasn't too preachy tonight. I speak in a way to remind myself
of these things that just make it a lot better to live. It's not that you
should do it, but these are just laws of what makes life richer or happier
in some way.
I want to close by telling one more story. The story, which to me is a
wonderful illustration of openness, is of a physician, Larry Brilliant, who
was involved in a campaign to put an end to smallpox in the world. He
was working in the villages in Nepal and India. Almost everyone had
been inoculated. There were a few small areas where it still existed.
They had to go in because if they didn't, then it would spread, and the
whole thing would start all over again around the world. There's
blindness that comes from smallpox and in some cases terrible
disfiguration and brain damage. So it was really a very important thing.
They went to this village and the villagers refused to be inoculated.
They said that smallpox came from God, and God brought both disease
and life, and that that had to be honored as it came. Here's this guy,
Larry Brilliant, who's a very devoted spiritual person, and here are these
people saying it's from God, and he has to make some choice. He and
the people with him say, "God or not, we don't want another l00,000
children in the world next year to be blinded by smallpox." So they went
into the village at night with their jeeps. They first went to the house
of the chief, and the doors were barricaded. They broke the doors
down, and they went in with nurses and doctors, and they wrestled the
chief and his wife to the floor -- she was apparently tougher than the
chief -- and they gave them their shots. They were screaming and
saying, "No, no," and whatever, and for him it was terribly traumatic
because his values had been that you respect the religion of all people,
and so forth. Working in spiritual practice, it's not so black and white,
it's not so easy. I'm sure you have seen that, haven't you? Making
Then what happened after that? Already that was difficult. So
they're sitting there, and after inoculating the chief and his wife and the
family, then the village was easy to inoculate. The chief goes out to his
garden -- very small garden, it's a really poor village -- and picks a
couple of squash, some of the few vegetables that are in the garden,
and brings them in and hands them to the doctors, and says, "I would
like to give these as a gift," and then starts to prepare a meal with the
very little they have, and they're astonished. They say through the
translator, "Why is he doing this?" And the chief explains. He said,
"You came to my house. It is my religious belief that smallpox is a gift
from God, among the many things in this world, and following my religious
belief in my heart, I had to resist you. It is your belief that it is the
best thing in the world that everyone be inoculated. Following your
belief, and given the fact that there were more of you than there were
of us, you inoculated us. Defeat is no shame! Now you are a guest in
my house and I would like to treat you as such."
As he tells the story it was one of the most wonderful awakenings in his
life. It was the kind of awakening to see that you are in a difficult
situation. To live is difficult, and we're always in these binds Can you
stay open, can you discover what's new? Can you allow the people
around you to do surprising things? Can you yourself do surprising
Posted with permission
Jack Kornfield's Householder Series at A Cherag's Library
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