Right Action is the second Ethical Conduct practice on the Eightfold Path and is about acting appropriately in every situation. It builds on all the other practices and can only work if you’re mindful of your true intentions. If you watch your thoughts and develop the right understanding of yourself and reality, your actions shouldn’t cause unnecessary suffering.
Right Action means being disciplined and sticking to your mindfulness practice and applying it to every part of your life. This isn’t the kind of discipline where you beat yourself up trying to improve yourself by getting fit, for example, or losing weight. It’s not about making yourself feel bad every time you fail to be mindful or slip up. It’s just about paying attention to what you’re doing and thinking through the consequences of your actions.
When you practice all the steps on the Eightfold Path, you begin to see reality as it is, and then how you act and what you do will arise spontaneously out of that perception. You’re not pretending to be somebody that you’re not, or making yourself appear better than you are. Right Action is about simplifying your life so you only do what’s necessary in order to give natural expression to life as it is in this moment.
Right Action doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything in particular and there’s no rule book to follow. Life is too unpredictable and complex for you to impose strict codes of behaviour – there will always be a situation that falls outside your list of rules. So you need to apply good judgement and develop a basic internal moral code that can guide your choices.
In Buddhism, the basic moral code is outlined in the Five Precepts. These ethical principles arise directly from your Buddha nature and the idea is that a fully enlightened person would behave this way without a second thought. Aligning yourself with these precepts is to align yourself with your true nature as a secret Buddha. If you can follow these precepts, then in every situation your actions should be appropriate and ethical. The Five Precepts are:
- Don’t kill or cause harm to other living beings – practice non-violence
- Don’t take what isn’t given – no stealing, exploitation, or taking advantage of others
- Avoid sexual misconduct – includes not breaking your commitments in relationships
- Avoid false speech – no lying, and so on
- Abstain from intoxicants – no drugs or booze or anything that clouds the mind
Many of these precepts tie in with the rest of the Eightfold Path, such as Right Speech and Right Livelihood, but by extension they’re all relevant. Above I said this wasn’t about following a rule book, but these precepts look very like rules. However, within the context of Buddhism, they’re used as guidelines to help nudge you in the right direction. They give you something to aspire towards, an intention to actualise. By applying mindfulness you’ll be able to determine whether your actions are likely to cause suffering and make things worse for others or for yourself.
In his Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thich Nhat Hanh includes many more examples of actions that should be done mindfully. Practising non-violence means having reverence for life and living in a way that is compassionate towards all beings, including yourself. This includes the idea of mindful consumption – something we could all do with cultivating.
Consuming mindfully means looking carefully at the kinds of things you take into yourself, physically, emotionally, and mentally, and making sure you avoid anything that could make you or others suffer. Watching what you eat and how you eat – eating mindfully rather than bolting your food, and savouring every mouthful – as well as getting adequate rest and exercise, are all important.
This is something I’ve been exploring since developing auto-immune problems that have given me food intolerances and allergies to various chemicals. Suddenly I had to be much more careful about what I was eating, as well as becoming aware of the sheer number of toxins in my environment. At first I felt resentful, but then realised how much I had taken my health for granted. Now I’m eating in a way that’s much more life affirming and centred in self-respect – something I should have done years ago!
Toxins can also be emotional and psychological – think of the effect of watching a lot of bad news on TV, or playing violent computer games or watching scary movies. Everybody has a different level of tolerance for these things and there’s much debate about whether these things cause violent behaviour or not. They can certainly push vulnerable individuals over the edge, but does watching a scary film help you to deal with your darkness or does it make it worse?
If you’re prone to depression, for example, you can be triggered into an episode by seeing or reading the wrong thing at the wrong moment. This has happened to me on countless occasions, so now I’m learning to be more mindful of how I engage with material online and in books. If I notice my mood has spiralled down, I can usually think back through what I’ve been reading or watching and find the culprit. Sometimes just knowing I’ve been triggered is enough to undo it and the mood vanishes. But at other times it takes a little more effort to bring me back to equanimity.
So if you truly want to be free from suffering you must act in a way that removes the causes of suffering from your path. Every action you take has consequences and it’s impossible to escape those consequences. To become free from suffering means fundamentally changing your relationship to reality and the choices you make. It means embracing your inner Buddha.
Next time: Right Livelihood