Discriminating awareness is to discriminate between what’s correct and incorrect, what’s helpful and harmful. For this, we have the last two of the eightfold path: right view and right intention (right motivating thought).
Right view concerns what we believe to be true, based on discriminating correctly between what is correct and incorrect, or harmful and helpful. Right motivation is the constructive state of mind that this leads to.
We can have either correct or incorrect discriminating awareness:
- We could discriminate correctly and believe it to be true
- We could discriminate incorrectly and believe it to be true.
Wrong view is when we have incorrect discrimination but hold it to be true, and right view is having correct discrimination and holding that to be true.
Wrong views are for instance asserting and believing that our actions have no ethical dimension of some being destructive and some being constructive, and believing that they do not bring results in terms of what we experience. This is characterized by the mentality of “whatever” that many people have today. It doesn’t matter; nothing matters. Whatever; if I do or don’t do this, it doesn’t matter. This is incorrect. It does matter whether you smoke or not. If you smoke, it will have negative consequences in terms of your health.
Another wrong view is believing that there’s no way we can improve ourselves and overcome our shortcomings, so there’s no point even bothering. This is wrong, because things aren’t static or fixed on concrete. Some believe there’s no point in trying to be kind to or help others, and that we should just try to take advantage of everybody and get as much profit as possible, as that will bring happiness. It’s wrong, because it doesn’t lead to happiness. It brings conflict, jealousy and worries about others stealing our stuff.
There are so many different types of wrong discrimination. It can deal with suffering and its causes, for example. Consider the case of your child doing badly in school. The wrong discrimination would be to think, “It’s all because of me. It’s my fault as the parent.” This is the wrong discrimination about causality. Things don’t arise or happen because of just one cause. Things happen because of a combination of many, many causes and conditions, not just one. We may have contributed, but we’re not the sole cause of the problem. And sometimes we are not even the cause – it’s totally mistaken. I’m thinking of the example of a quite disturbed individual: he went to a football game and his team lost. He then believed the only reason his team lost was because he attended the game, so he jinxed it: “It’s my fault that the team lost.” This is ridiculous. It’s an incorrect discrimination about causality.
Correct discriminating awareness is crucial, and for this we need to learn about reality, the reality of causation, and so on. Like the weather, which is affected by so many causes and conditions, we too must not misconceive of ourselves as being like God, where we can just do one single thing and then everything will be fine with our child doing badly in school. That’s not how things work.
Discriminating awareness requires common sense and intelligence, and concentration to stay focused on our correct discrimination. For this, we need discipline. This is how it all fits together.
Intention (Motivating Thought)
Once we’ve discriminated between what is helpful and what is harmful, what is reality and what isn’t, our intention or motivating thought concerns how our discrimination affects or shapes the way we speak or act or our attitude about things. If we discriminate incorrectly, a wrong motivating thought will follow and, when correctly, a right motivating thought.
There are three main areas that intention or motivating thought affect:
A wrong motivating thought would be one based on sensual desire – a longing desire and attachment to sense objects, whether they be beautiful things, music, good food, nice clothes and so on. Our motivating thought of intending to pursue our desires would be based on incorrectly discriminating that they’re the most important thing. If we have correct discrimination, we’ll have equanimity, which is a balanced mind free from attachment to sense objects.
An example is where you incorrectly discriminate that it’s super important where we have dinner and what we eat. We think that it’ll really bring us happiness if we choose the right place and the right dish off the menu. If you correctly discriminate, you’ll see that it’s not so important, and there are many other more important things in life than what’s for dinner or what’s on TV. The mind becomes more relaxed and balanced.
The second wrong motivation or intention is malice, the wish to hurt someone or cause them harm. Like when someone makes a mistake and you get angry and think they’re really bad and need to be punished; this is wrong discrimination.
We make the wrong discrimination that people never make mistakes, which is absurd. We might get so angry that we want to hit someone, whereas if we have correct discrimination, we’ll develop benevolence. This is the wish to help others and bring them happiness, and it includes strength and forgiveness. If someone makes a mistake, you realize this is natural and don’t hold a grudge.
The third type of wrong intention is a mind that is filled with cruelty, which has various aspects:
- Hooliganism – a cruel lack of compassion where we wish others to suffer and be unhappy. For example, we discriminate followers of another football team thinking that they’re horrible and we can fight them simply because they like another team.
- Self-hatred – a cruel lack of self-love where we sabotage our own happiness because we think we’re a bad person and don’t deserve to be happy. We often do this by getting into unhealthy relationships, keeping up bad habits, overeating and so forth.
- Perverse pleasure – where we cruelly rejoice when we see or hear other people suffering. You think that someone is bad and that they deserve the suffering they’re experiencing, like when a politician we don't like loses an election. Here, we incorrectly discriminate that some people are bad and deserve to be punished and to have things go badly, whereas others, particularly ourselves, should have everything go well.
The right intention based on correct discrimination would be a nonviolent, non-cruel attitude. You have a state of mind where you don’t wish to cause harm to others who are suffering, not to irritate or annoy them. We don’t become pleased when things go badly for them. There is also a sense of compassion here, where we wish for others to be free of suffering and its causes, because we see that everyone suffers, nobody wants to suffer, and nobody deserves to suffer. If people make mistakes, we see that it’s because of their confusion, not that they are intrinsically bad. With right discrimination and right intention, we are naturally led to right speech and right action.
Fitting the Eight Factors Together
The eight factors of the path all fit together:
- Right view and intention provide the proper foundation for practice, and lead to us naturally engaging in right speech, right action and right livelihood. We discriminate what is correct in terms of the effects of our behavior on others, and have the wish to help others, not harm them.
- On this basis, we make an effort at improving ourselves, to develop good qualities, and not be distracted by weird ideas about our body and feelings and so forth. We use concentration to stay focused on what’s beneficial, and then our intention grows stronger. In this way, it’s all interconnected.
Although we could present the three trainings and the eightfold path as a sequence, the ultimate aim is to be able to put them all into practice as an integrated whole.
From when we wake up in the morning to the moment we sleep at night, our senses are thirsty for entertainment. Our eyes seek beautiful forms, our ears want soothing sounds, and our mouths want delicious tastes. While there is nothing particularly wrong with wanting pleasurable experiences, if this is the extent of our lives, we will never be satisfied, and we will never be able to develop even an ounce of concentration.
The three trainings in ethics, concentration and awareness allow us to live each moment in the best way possible. Instead of just searching for pleasure for oneself, the eightfold path provides a template that allows us to benefit not only ourselves, but others too. When we examine and come to understand why right views are correct and wrong views are not, and why right actions are helpful and wrong actions are harmful (and so on), and behave in accordance with this, our lives will automatically improve for the better. We will be leading what we can call “a full Buddhist life.”