When you look at the factors in the noble eightfold path, it’s interesting to note the order in which they come. The first two factors have to do with discernment, seeing that the big issue in life is suffering and stress, and particularly the kind of suffering that comes from our own thoughts. That right there tells you a lot: that this is a path where you have to look at your actions, look at your thoughts—although it may be wrong to make a distinction between your thoughts and your actions, as thoughts are a type of action, and our actions come from our thoughts.
This area of thinking and speaking and doing with the body is where the real issues of life lie, the things that we’re responsible for. And fortunately, the fact that we’re responsible for them means we can change them. If we were automatons or if we were driven by fate, we couldn’t do anything about our actions. We’d just be sitting watching these processes happening without any control over them. So it’s important to take a stand on this issue, that we do have choices. And we can change the way we act. Which means that suffering can be brought to an end. There is a path we can follow.
The next factor, which builds on that, is a factor in which you try to gain control over your intentions, the things that you resolve on. There are three things the Buddha advises: one, resolving on renunciation; two, resolving on non-ill will, in other words, goodwill for yourself and others; and three, resolving on harmlessness, in other words, developing thoughts of compassion. Because our actions come from thoughts, we have to get our thoughts in order before we can work on the rest of the path.
Think about your intentions. Do you search for your happiness in sensual fantasies or do you realize that there’s a better happiness that comes from letting go of those things, not being attached to them? Do you search for your happiness in trying to get revenge on other people, wishing them ill, being careless about how you treat them? You’ve got to change those ways of thinking, because you realize that they’re like boomerangs. They come back at you and knock you on the head.
So the first thing, when understanding that this is a path to put an end to suffering, is that you have to work on your intentions.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the talk, “Eight Folds, One Path,” July 3, 2009, (also in pdf).