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Eightfold Path to Public Service Enlightenment: Mind

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Welcome back for the final part, part 3 of this series where we continue the journey down the Eightfold Path to Public Service Enlightenment. I will be building on concepts from the last two parts so if you have not already read them, please do so.

The mind is fascinating and in this post we will take a look at how Buddha approached the mind and things we can do to remain balanced and eliminate suffering. In part 1 and part 2 we covered the first 5 elements in the wisdom and morality segments. This showed us how and why we should behave in a manner that eliminates both suffering in ourselves and others. In this final part we will discuss in more detail how to take what we have learned so far and make it stick. We will also learn to focus on what really matters and not get caught up in the minutia we experience in everyday life. This is my favorite part of the series and I think you will really enjoy this topic and how it can apply to public service. Let’s get started!

Mind Overview

In the teachings of Buddha we focus on controlling the mind and building are ability to concentrate on things that matter and eliminate suffering. The goal is to snap us out of autopilot and begin to truly experience life and understand why we do things. In the mind segment we focus on building experience to solidify all of the other elements. In this segment we will cover Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. These elements are action based and where techniques such as meditation come in to play. By practicing these three elements we will become more aware of ourselves, our surroundings and our purpose. It is through these experiences that we achieve enlightenment and maintain a balanced and fulfilled life.

Right Effort

Right Effort is a process of first discovering and letting go of what is not good about ourselves. After that we aim to prevent and maintain good nature through continued and concentrated effort. We must evaluate our thoughts, words and actions and rid the ones that cause suffering in ourselves and others. This is not a passive exercise. It is something we must do every day by constantly evaluating the things we think, do and say through the filter of Right View and Right Intention and consciously make an effort to change them to be in alignment with what we know as good.

The key to Right Effort is being aware and making a conscious decision to adhere to all of the elements in the Eightfold Path. By continuously practicing Right Effort we retrain the mind to act in a way that is wholesome and therefore prevents suffering. This process can be broken down into four steps:

  • The effort to prevent unwholesome qualities, such as anger, greed and ignorance.
  • The effort to extinguish unwholesome qualities that have already arisen.
  • The effort to build wholesome qualities, such as generosity, love, kindness and wisdom.
  • The effort to strengthen the wholesome qualities that we already have.

Right Mindfulness

To practice Right Mindfulness we must be aware and fully present as much as possible. To be mindful is to be fully present and not be caught up in daydreams, anticipation, indulgences or worrying. This also means that we must release habits that separate ourselves from the world around us. This means we should eliminate any biases or filters so that we can see things as they are and not be judgmental.

It is amazing how much of our life is controlled by autopilot and how much of life we miss out on because we are lost in our heads. Right Mindfulness aims to eliminate the separation between our mind and body by being more aware of what we do and why we do it.

I know we have all driven to work and not even remembered most if not all of the drive. If we can do a complex task like that without being aware, imagine how much other stuff we are missing because we are not fully present. By practicing Right Mindfulness we bring our mind back down to earth and begin to experience joys and pleasures we have been missing out on. We also build our awareness of things around us and become more equipped to act in ways that eliminate suffering.

Right Concentration

Right Concentration is the practice of concentrating on a single task or object. It is most closely linked to meditation and build our abilities to fully experience the one thing we are concentrating on. Right Concentration can be used alongside of many of the other elements to help further develop the skills. It is arguably the most crucial element to reaching enlightenment and should be a part of your daily routine.

To start out practicing Right Concentration you should pick out a single object or focus on something like your body or breath. Once you have selected what you are going to focus on you must dedicate all of your mental faculties on that object. For example, if you are focusing on your breath through a meditation exercise, you should follow the breath through your body. Notice how it feels, how your body reacts and how it travels through your body. By practicing these exercises you will learn how to control the mind and your thoughts so that you can be fully engaged.

Right Effort in Public Service

We all have habits that lead to some level of suffering in ourselves or others. As public servants we have the responsibility to reduce as much suffering as possible in others and a duty to ourselves to do the same. Practicing Right Effort is key to accomplishing this. Here are a couple things you can do to start moving in the right direction:

  • Start by first looking at yourself and identifying the things that you do that cause suffering. Write them down and examine why you do them and why they are bad. Next time you catch yourself doing one of these things, consciously make a decision not to do it and evaluate what triggered it so that you can prevent it in the future.
  • Take a look at the things that you do that are good and wholesome. Evaluate why they are good and why you do them and then find ways to do them more often. Make a conscious effort to understand the difference between the bad things and the good things, and how they make you feel. This can help build your attraction to what is good and keep you from reverting back to “wrong” behaviors.

As public servants we have the potential to touch a lot of lives and the impact we have on those lives is affected by how we handle those situations. Little things such as being nice, helpful or understanding can have a much larger impact than we realize. We rarely know what is causing others to think or act in a way that they do so pretending that we do or acting out of our own biases does no good. You never know what kind of ripple affect your actions can create so it is always best to do things in a way that is right and wholesome.

Right Mindfulness in Public Service

Being mindful is very difficult at first and will seem like a lot of extra work. You will not only have to do your job but also be fully present and think about how and why you are doing it. There are many benefits though. Some of the benefits I have seen are:

  • Less errors
  • Elimination of unnecessary work
  • Bettering understanding of you responsibilities
  • Increased satisfaction
  • Improvements in efficiencies
  • Overall better work

Distractions are everywhere in our work environment and it is amazing that we get anything done. It has been proven in study after study that the way we work is extremely unproductive and that multi-tasking is not good. So now you have an alternative. It sounds difficult but the easiest way to get started is to focus on just a few of your tasks. Preferably ones that have the biggest impact. Block out time, close email, set the phone on silent, turn off the radio and truly get involved and focused on the task at hand. After the task is complete, evaluate how you feel and your productivity. In most situations it is very good in both categories.

I thought this would be a great place to also throw in some tools and techniques that I use:

  • Pomodoro Timer: There are a ton of free ones on the internet so I will not give a recommendation but a Pomodoro Timer allows you to break apart your work into Pomodori (usually 20-30 minute segments). You will work on a single task or several smaller tasks during a single Pomodori and then take a 3-5 minute break and do another. It is great for task management because you can break tasks into the number of Pomodori it would take. The break time is also a great time to practice Right Concentration.
  • Nozbe: This is a great tool built off of the concepts taught in the Getting Things Done (GTD) book by David Allen. It is a task list with team functionality that allows you to work very efficiently through next action lists, batching and categorizing.
  • Grounding: This one may sound crazy to some but I believe that we need to have physical contact with the earth. Between rubber shoes and being stuck in offices all day, we do not get much time with the earth. Grounding is the process of making physical contact with the earth. A couple times a day I will go outside and make contact with the earth by laying on a “green” mat or taking off my shoes and walking around. This can also be done while talking on the phone but I prefer to combine it with Right Concentration.

 

Right Concentration in Public Service

When we practice Right Concentration it is like rebooting the mind. It allows us to clear the mind and bring it back in alignment with our body. In public service you have to deal with stressful situations all of the time. Right Concentration is a great tool to use anytime you find yourself reverting to wrong thoughts or actions, or if you just experienced an extremely stressful situation.

I know some jobs do not provide you extreme flexibility in this area but this can be as simple as taking 10 controlled and focused breaths. It is rarely one or two things that lead to long term suffering. It takes time and can affect anyone.

I experienced this one time when I burned out and getting out of bed was literally the hardest thing for me to do each day. It was because I was in a high stress job and did not know how to handle the stress and get prevent the snowball effect it was having on my mind. Right Concentration allowed me to do that and now I am more aware than ever when I am starting to enter a state that I know is not in alignment with the Eightfold Path. You can use these techniques to do the same.

Conclusion

The Noble Eightfold Path can be considered a spiritual journey but even Buddha himself said not to take his word for it. You have to experience these things yourself and come to your own conclusions. I have experienced firsthand the benefits that they can provide and by sharing these concepts, I wish the same for you. It is our choice to decide how we will execute our duties and how the experiences we face will impact us. We have seen both the good and bad in public service by how the people involved handle specific situations. Speaking for myself, I would much rather be on the good side and not be caught up in thoughts and actions that cause suffering in myself and others.

I know this was an extremely long series and I appreciate you taking the time to read through it all. If you have any questions or comments please do not hesitate to contact me directly or post in the comments section below.

Tim Howell is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Rachel Niebeling

Thanks for writing this series Tim! I’ve really enjoyed reading it! I love your comments on the importance of grounding. I often find it’s useful to do after yoga to make sure that my energy is grounded and I’m centered (or in the right mind).

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Kellye Mazzoli

Really liked this series! So glad you actually took the time to write all three parts to the series in order to help articulate on each of the different aspects of your theory. Thank you!

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