Over the past several months, I’ve written a number of articles about how different schools of philosophy have directly helped me to achieve greater personal and financial success.
The first article focused on stoicism, which I summarized as “the separation between the way the world happens to be and my emotional response to it. In other words, I strive to separate the things I can control – my internal emotions and thoughts – from the things I cannot control – the rest of the world.” Stoicism is valuable in helping a person gain emotional control – not that they don’t feel emotion, but that they respond to it well. This can greatly help a person overcome temptations and respond well in challenging situations.
The second article focused on Epicureanism, which I summarized as “the idea of pleasure as the greatest good. One should seek a life of pleasure. However, what sets Epicureanism apart is its idea on what pleasure really is. Epicurus argued that pleasure is found by living modestly, curbing one’s desires, enjoying simple pleasures in the moment without gluttony, and reflecting on and understanding the world. Doing this leads to tranquility and freedom from fear (and, to some extent, less physical pain) and that those factors together are a huge source for personal happiness. Epicurus considered this state to be the highest and best form of happiness and pleasure.” In other words, Epicureanism centers around enjoying life’s simple pleasure without gluttony and living simply with a reflective life.
The third article focused on the teachings of Aristotle, which I summarized as follows: “Humans can maximize happiness by living virtuously. Humans can also maximize happiness by fulfilling their own potential as a human. Another route to maximizing happiness is engaging with others – family, friends and fellow citizens – in mutually beneficial activities. Pleasure in responsible fulfillment of physical needs is a guide to living well. We must take responsibility for our own happiness. Our natural ability to think gives us the ability to conceive of and work toward a better life.” In other words, Aristotle believes that happiness is found by living virtuously, pushing ourselves to our limits of physical and mental activity, and engaging with others in mutually beneficial activities, and when those things feel good, we’re living a good life.
This brings us to today’s topic, secular Buddhism, which I mentioned in an article earlier this week, which caused a reader to ask for some follow-up in greater detail. Buddhism is often seen as a religion and is sometimes practiced as such, but the core teachings of Buddhism have nothing to do with any sort of higher power. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” This is the spirit in which I delved into Buddhism – I don’t necessarily want to be a Buddhist, but I do wish to learn what Buddhism can teach me to become a better “whatever-I-already-am.”
As I mentioned in previous articles in this series, I am not an expert on secular Buddhism or any of these traditions. Rather, I have come to them with an open mind, seeking to understand them to the best of my ability and understand how to apply what I’ve learned to my life in order to live a better life.
Let’s dig in.
Secular Buddhism focuses on overcoming a few key problems of human nature, primarily overcoming the negative influence that constant desire has in our lives. We constantly desire things. We want physical objects. We want experiences. We want companionship. It really can be a never-ending list.
The core teaching of Buddhism is centered around this idea, as described by the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are quite simple and they make up a pretty profound explanation of much of life’s suffering.
The first Noble Truth is suffering (dukkha). Life is not ideal and it constantly lets us down. We feel pain. We grow old. We become sick. We don’t have all of the things we want in life. That’s the reality of life, but we compound that suffering by constantly desiring things. We desire to be pain free. We desire youth. We desire health. We desire the multitude of things we want in life. In short, we desire things that we often can’t have, and those unrequited desires make us feel bad. Unrequited desire compounds all of life’s misery, and most of us constantly dwell on unrequited desires.
The second Noble Truth is the origin of suffering (samudāya). Life deals us many painful things – illness, loss of loved ones, failure, and so on. However, the misery we feel in the face of such things comes down to negative desire – we want something different and not having it hurts. Buddhism teaches that this relentless desire and the suffering it brings has three sources: greed, ignorance, and hatred. Our desire for more, our lack of understanding, and our baseless negative feelings toward things drive many of our negative desires and negative impulses, and yet all of those things remain unquenched, continuing our suffering.
The third Noble Truth is cessation of suffering (nirodha). If negative desire is the source of so much of human suffering, how do we end it? We end it by putting out those three fires that are the source of suffering: greed, ignorance, and hatred. Greed, ignorance, and hatred are the sources of most of the pain and negative feelings in our life; eliminating those things from our life gets rid of most of our negative feelings.
The fourth Noble Truth is the path to the cessation of suffering (magga). The solution that Buddhism offers for ending this self-inflicted suffering, to break free from greed, ignorance, and hatred, is what is called the “eightfold path.” It’s a set of eight interdependent principles – not in a particular order, but equally important and reliant on each other – that, if adopted, can bring about the end of that self-inflicted suffering. The “eightfold path” is also sometimes called the “middle way,” because it is believed that the best way to live by these principles is not through severe self-deprivation or constant indulgence, but somewhere in the middle.
In summary, Buddhism teaches that our constant desire for things is the source of much human suffering, and the way of breaking through that suffering is to live modestly through a set of principles called the “eightfold path.”
So, let’s look at this path.
The Eightfold Path
As noted earlier, the “eightfold path” is a set of eight interconnected principles by which to live life in order to strongly curb negative desires, which Buddhism views as the source of life’s suffering. Let’s look at each of these principles in turn, along with how I practically apply these principles in my life. It’s worth noting that most of these applications are things that work well for me that seem to be strongly in line with the elements of the path; I am not a Buddhist monk or teacher, but just someone who has read about secular Buddhism and strives to apply what I’ve learned in my own life.
Right understanding means clearing one’s path of ignorance, confusion, misunderstanding, and delusion. This includes learning about the world around you, but also understanding yourself and how you operate. The most important element here is that actions have consequences far beyond what we can initially see, and thus the actions we take in life should be taken with care and done in a virtuous fashion. In short, we should strive to understand the world better, understand ourselves better, and appreciate that our actions have deep consequences for ourselves and for others which calls us to be more careful with our actions.
Personally, this principle comes down to the fact that when I deeply understand the effects of what I am doing, I feel better about what I am doing, no matter what it is. When I do things that I haven’t considered and thought through, I often cause unintended consequences and feel disappointed in myself and, even worse, become tempted to do things like blame others for my error. A powerful technique I use in pursuing this principle is visualizing lots of life situations in advance and considering their possible outcomes depending on how I handle it to guide me to the best choices. I think through situations that I know are coming up – both important ones and mundane ones – and consider the outcomes of those situations depending on how I act, and I try to choose the one that results in the best outcome for all involved and visualize myself doing that. This results in better long term results and stronger long term relationships for me and for those around me, as well as better consequences for the world as a whole.
Right resolve means simply that you avoid taking action and, if possible, avoid thinking in ways that come from a place of ill will. You aim not to harm others with your actions and, under that, try to avoid ill thoughts toward others. Rather, you should channel your actions and, if possible, your thoughts toward something positive.
One powerful way I have of doing this is to start working on something with strongly positive intent and try to dip into a “flow state.” By that, I mean that I’m working on a task that’s really engaging my mental or physical abilities (or both), so much so that I lose track of time and place. I’m lost in the task and when I finally “snap out of it,” I’m often stunned at how much time has passed and how much I’ve accomplished. To me, that state feels incredibly good. I try to achieve this state as often as possible – when I’m working on a task, when I’m having a conversation with someone, when I’m reading a book, whatever. I try to come into that task with the most positive intent I have and then strive to be so engaged with it that I lose track of time and place. Since the “flow state” feels so good, it becomes something I strive for all of the time. I want to kill distractions and think positively about the task at hand and focus on it so that I can slip into such a state. Being in a flow state not only feels incredibly good, but it almost always means great outcomes for what it is that I’m doing.
Right speech simply means abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter. In a more positive way, right speech means that your words should always aim to be true and beneficial. This doesn’t mean that you never criticize, but that when you do so, you do it when the time is right with truth behind your words and an intent to raise up others, not tear them down.
This can be challenging, but I find that right speech is something that builds on itself quite effectively. Consistently nudging yourself to avoid lying, to avoid speaking divisively, to avoid speaking in ways that intend to bring harm, and to avoid idle chatter slowly causes others to value your words much more than before, which means that you can bring about much more good in the world by doing so. In other words, cut down on the harmful and unimportant things you say and people will begin to view what you say as positive and important, which can only have positive outcomes for your life.
Right action means abstaining from killing, abstaining from stealing (which means taking what is not voluntarily offered to you), and abstaining from sexual misconduct. These are pretty simple moral rules common to most intellectual and religious traditions, so I don’t think they need further comment.
Right livelihood simply means having an ethical career path and using the proceeds of that career path to live a relatively simple life without excessive affluence. In other words, you should strive to have a career that doesn’t bring harm to others and ideally brings a positive influence into the lives of others. Furthermore, you shouldn’t use your earnings to live an excessively materialistic lifestyle; rather, you should aim for minimalism in your living.
How can this practically be applied to everyday life? First, try to make career and investing choices that you’re ethically happy with. If you’re doing things at work that you feel are morally wrong, try to seek out a different job or career path. Don’t let nagging feelings of doing immoral things at work hang around as they will erode at your happiness in life; it can often lead to trying to patch over the problem with things like “retail therapy,” which just drains your finances and leaves you in a bad place. Second, intentionally choose to lead a life with fewer possessions. There are a lot of ways to go about this; I’ve found a lot of value in Marie Kondo’s work, though I’m not particularly good at it and have struggled to apply it in some areas of my life. Downsizing one’s possessions often results in some level of income (through selling off items of value) which can be used to eliminate debt; continuing to own fewer things going forward is not only a good practice for curbing desire, but it also results in less spending, which can also be helpful.
Right effort means putting forth effort to make sure that your mind stays in a positive and honest state. In other words, when negative thoughts and dishonest thoughts come into your head, you eliminate them, and you work towards not generating them at all. Things like ill will towards others, thoughts of harming others, and thoughts of engaging in lazy behavior are all thoughts to be avoided and eliminated here.
This is an area of Buddhism where I find a lot of overlap with stoicism and the skills it teaches. The key, I think, is to work on not acting on thoughts as soon as they pop into your head. Rather, decide first whether those thoughts are positive or negative ones and toss aside the negative ones. It takes effort and practice to do this, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the fewer negative thoughts pop up. I think of it as being like a garden. An ideal garden is one that is free of weeds so that the desirable plants grow. Little weeds pop up all the time – letting negative thoughts flourish in your head and acting on them means that the little weeds are growing and choking out the flowers and vegetables that you want. Stopping before you act and reflecting on them and discarding the bad thoughts is like weeding the garden. Soon, the garden will be full of vegetables and flowers and the weeds won’t have much room to grow at all.
So, what can you do? When you notice yourself having a negative thought – you’re thinking bad thoughts about something or someone or you’re engaging in an idle desire – stop and consciously knock that thought out of your mind. Again, this is a practice shared with stoicism, and it’s a practice that has been extremely helpful for me. I use it often, when I’m tempted to buy something or I have a mean thought in my head. I shut that thought down, then I intentionally think of more positive things.
Right mindfulness simply means to always be mindful of what you’re doing and never do anything absently or without consideration. It’s often those moments where we take action without any consideration that we get into financial trouble – we buy something without thinking about it at the store, or we get swayed by a salesperson, or we engage in binge shopping as a form of “retail therapy.” (It can get us into trouble in a lot of other areas of life, too).
In a strictly financial sense, one way I implement this principle in my own life is to use the ten second rule. Whenever I’m about to buy anything that isn’t strictly written on a shopping list (which means that I already pre-considered the purchase), I hold onto it for ten seconds and consider whether I really need to buy this right now. Does it need to be bought today? Can I get it cheaper elsewhere, or borrow it for free? Will I really get lasting value out of this? Usually, those questions convince me to put the item down, but if I still feel a nagging need, I’ll jot the item down in a pocket notebook. That allows me to take note of it later but it also gives me that sense of having “taken action” that makes it much easier to just move on from the item. Quite often, if I look back at that potential purchase after a month or so, I have no interest in it, which meant that it was a good idea to skip that purchase.
Right concentration simply means that your thoughts are concentrated on a single thing rather than scattering and wandering about. If you pay attention to your stream of thinking, you’ll notice how it wanders all the time to all manner of thoughts: the future, some minor thing you’re worried about, some interesting idea, the television show you watched last night, what Karen in accounting is up to, and so on. That wandering of thought is always draining our attention and making it harder to stay on the topic at hand.
The traditional Buddhist practice to improve right concentration is also one that I’ve found very valuable: meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation. This is a simple practice where you sit in a comfortable place and focus on just your breathing for a while, and if you notice your thoughts wandering, you draw them gently back to your breathing. This is basically “exercising” your mental muscle that keeps your thoughts from wandering and quells the wandering monologue in your head, at least a little. I find that it helps quite a lot with concentration, but only after you’ve been doing it for a while as a daily practice. Furthermore, being able to concentrate better makes it so much easier to stay on task when I’m doing something, whether it’s shopping at the store and staying on my grocery list or working on an article. If my concentration “muscle” is strong, staying on task is so much easier, and that keeps me from wasting money and makes me more effective at everything I do.
For me, the principles of the Eightfold Path have helped me greatly in terms of clearing my mind and making me feel as though my thoughts and actions were much more in line with each other. I feel as though the practices, as a whole, do a great job of cutting down that feeling of not having your daily activities and thoughts match your values and goals and dreams for your life. Everything feels much more in alignment if you practice those principles.
How does that matter in a practical sense? Let’s say, for example, that you really want to improve your financial state, yet you find yourself often spending money on fleeting things that don’t really bring you any lasting joy. You’ve got a lot of bills that are mostly there for entertainment’s sake – cable, internet, cell phone, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and so on – and you can’t really imagine life without them, but you’re not really sure whether they’re bringing you enough joy and value to be worth it. You want to earn more at work, but you find yourself goofing off at work quite often and not really doing your best at your tasks.
This is where the practices of Buddhism can really help. They’re really powerful in terms of cutting out silly momentary desires and helping you get on task and stay on task, particularly when those tasks line up with what you value in the big picture of life.
Furthermore, the idea that unquenched desire is a source of suffering has been a profound idea in my life for the last several years, one I have turned over many times and really struggled with in various ways. The questions it has brought about in my life and the things I have thought about as a result have had a profoundly positive impact on me, my relationships, my finances, and my life as a whole.
To be clear, I am not advocating for Buddhism in a religious sense, as I made clear at the very start of this article. Rather, I believe that most of the core principles of Buddhism fit nicely in all kinds of spiritual paths. Whether you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an agnostic, an atheist, whatever spiritual path you might follow, there are elements of secular Buddhism that can help you become a better practitioner of that path and simply being a better and more capable person in the world.
If you’d like to know more, I’d recommend checking out No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners by Noah Rashida as a starting point, and follow that with Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright. If you’re a part of a different tradition of faith – especially Christian – and you’re wondering how that fits together (a question I was struggling with at first, as I discovered secular Buddhism as part of my own investigation of different major world religions to understand what they were all about), I highly recommend The Book of Joy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.