The Eightfold Path: Right Thought

Right Thought is the second Wisdom practice of the Eightfold Path, and is also known as Right Intention. It follows directly from Right Understanding because your thoughts and intentions arise from your perception of reality. If you see reality as it is, you’ll have no problems. But if you see reality through a haze of assumptions and unconscious judgements and concepts, it will lead to some pretty twisted thinking. So Right Thought is about looking into your thoughts and intentions to see if they align with reality – or not.

When you begin to meditate and sit for the first time to watch your thoughts, it can be quite a shock. The mind is a busy place. Much of what passes through your head is irrelevant and unnecessary, and most of your thoughts are like white noise, filling the silence so you don’t have to confront reality.

The mind never stops moving. The inside of your head is rarely in the same place as your body – you’re spread out all over the place: immersed in nostalgia or regret for the past, and fantasising or worrying about the future. The present moment is the one place you don’t want to be. Life can end up passing you by as you sleepwalk through your days, following old habits, thinking the same thoughts and having the same conversations over and over. It’s a wonder you don’t bump into the furniture or end up under a bus.

Habitual Thinker

Most of your thinking is based on habits of thought laid down at an early age. You’re conditioned by interacting with your parents, siblings and other children, but also through your schooling and exposure to TV and the internet, and so on. These habits condition your behaviour, either positively or negatively, and you’re usually entirely unconscious of their influence.

The practice of Right Thought means looking into these habits of thinking to watch them and learn how they affect you. At first it’s enough to accept them as they are. You may even find some of them dissolve over time without any effort. Sometimes seeing the futility or redundancy of a habit is enough and you’ll find you no longer wish to act or think that way anymore.

There’s no need to actively try to get rid of negative thoughts, although the temptation may be strong. Right Thinking will happen spontaneously when you’ve mastered Right Understanding and your perception is clear. Once you’ve dropped all your concepts and assumptions and overcome your conditioning, your thinking will naturally come from a more open and compassionate place.

That’s easier said than done, and it may take a while, but training in Right Thought will also help to clarify your perception and lead to Right Understanding, so the two practices support and reinforce each other in a virtuous circle.

Meditation and mindfulness are good ways to observe the mind, and by focusing on your breathing you should find that your thoughts begin to settle of their own accord. You don’t have to force the mind to be still – that’s probably impossible anyway. Just let it naturally settle by getting out of your head and into your body, or away from being spread all over the place and into present moment.

Right Thought is really about being present here and now, and not getting carried off by thoughts of the past or future, or even thoughts about what’s happening right now. But this doesn’t mean you walk around with an empty head. Right Thought simply reflects reality as it is, without judgements or ideas getting in the way.

In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests four practices that can help you to cultivate Right Thought:

Are you sure?­ – Ask yourself this question all the time. Don’t assume your thinking is accurate or that you’re perceiving things the right way.

What am I doing? – Notice what you’re doing at various points during the day, especially if you’re getting caught up in thinking. Interrupt your thoughts to ask this question.

Hello Habit! – Notice when you’ve got stuck doing or thinking the same things again and again, and acknowledge it by saying hello to the habit. This keeps the process light and stops you beating yourself up when you notice your mind has wandered off.

Bodhicitta – Cultivate the desire to be free from suffering so you can share that joy with others.

Ultimately, your intention is to be free of all habits of thought that prevent Right Understanding, or the seeing of reality as it is. If you wish to be free of suffering then you must intend that freedom. You have to want to be free, because that simple desire will motivate you to practice. This is the heart of Bodhicitta.

Open hand: Open heart


Bodhicitta is the desire or intention to awaken to your Buddha nature in order to help others to do the same. Bodhi means enlightenment or awakening, and citta means mind. So bodhicitta means enlightened or awakened mind. This is your true nature, waiting patiently for you to remember who you are and come home to yourself.

In the meantime, if your intention towards others arises from negative feelings or thoughts, or simply from unconscious habits that aren’t aligned with reality, you’ll cause a lot of suffering, not only to others but to yourself. It works the other way too: others may have harmful intentions towards you, or you may find yourself in an environment that isn’t conducive to happiness.

However, cultivating Right Thought and bodhicitta will help you set the right intention towards others regardless of the environment in which you find yourself. You can do this by practising mindfulness of your thoughts and by developing a general attitude of good will and harmlessness towards others.

As you work on Right Thought your understanding of reality will grow and deepen, allowing you to bring happiness and liberation to others. After all, if it’s true that we’re all secret Buddhas who aren’t aware of our true identity, then compassion and understanding become the only humane or ethical response to unskilful behaviour, whether in yourself or others.

Next time: Right Speech

Image: Hand in Hand


4 thoughts on “The Eightfold Path: Right Thought

    1. I don’t know what to think about reincarnation – whatever reality is, it’s nothing like the stories we tell ourselves about it – so I don’t know. But you can’t achieve enlightenment when you’re dead! You can only do the practices while you have access to a body and brain and all the conflicts and juicy problems of living. That’s why the Buddhists are always talking about how precious a human life is – and why you don’t see monks lining up to kill themselves.

      Trying to attain enlightenment through death would be an example of the extremes the Buddha warned against and why he developed his method as the Middle Way between extremes.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. No – enlightenment is nirvana.

          Nirvana is when you see through the illusion of the self. It’s sometimes described as release from samsara which means you get off the wheel of rebirth (if you believe in such things – although that could all just be a metaphor anyway), but you don’t have to physically die when you attain enlightenment or nirvana. Buddha hung around for a while before he popped off.

          Just to confuse things even more – you don’t ‘attain enlightenment or nirvana’. It’s your natural state. You’ve probably heard the phrase: “You’re already enlightened, you just have to realise it” – or something along those lines. There’s no ‘you’ who attains anything. That means there’s also no death, looked at from that perspective. But this is where it all gets a bit confusing because you end up talking about things at different levels and from different perspectives and everybody gets a headache, so I’ll shut up.

          All you need to remember is that ‘enlightenment’ is your true nature. Or your inner Buddha, if you like. The Eightfold Path is about waking up to that truth.

          Liked by 1 person


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.