Universal Needs and the Noble Eightfold Path
Following is a discussion as to how Universal Human Needs may fit in the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.
The Wisdom Group of the Eightfold Path
Right View: Right View or Right Understanding is the first of the two Wisdom or discernment factors. Thich Nhat Hanh says that Right View “is most of all, a deep understanding of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths—our suffering, the making of our suffering, the fact that our suffering can be transformed, and the path of transformation. The Buddha said that Right View is to have faith and confidence that there are people who have been able to transform their suffering.”
Right View is also about the understanding of Kamma: that our actions have consequences. This is at the core of needs consciousness and NVC.
Right view is about understanding things as they really are. Again, awareness of our Universal Human Needs, especially in the moment they arise, only increase our understanding of reality.
Bhikkhu Bodhi writes that, “Right View is the forerunner of the entire path, the guide for all other factors. It enables us to understand our starting point, our destination, and the successive landmarks to pass as practice advances.” All this is assisted by mindfulness of needs, as needs are the impulse for direction, many of the landmarks that we pass as well as the source of challenges to practice as other needs besides practice arise.
Right Thought or Intention: The Buddha taught that Right Intention is threefold: Intention of renunciation; intention of good will and intention of harmlessness. The Buddha believed that our thoughts influence our actions and our actions influence our thoughts. Having thoughts or intentions of ill will lead to suffering. Thoughts of renunciation, goodwill and non-harming lead to the cessation of suffering.
In needs consciousness, our view is all needs are wholesome, as life expressing itself. It is the strategies we may choose to meet the needs that may be unwholesome. Another way to look at this is our intention is to meet our needs in a non-harming way, nonviolent way.
The area open to debate is around the first aspect of Right Thought: Renunciation of desires and cravings. This is because needs can influence or even be confused with desires and cravings. But they are not. Needs properly defined are manifestations of life. Desires and cravings in the Buddhist sense are what come as a result of needs. They are strategies to meet needs. When we desire money and power, we are not meeting needs for money and power. They are strategies to meet needs for something else.
In Buddhist terms needs could be referred to as mental phenomena. We then apply our wholesome values to those mental phenomena when we decide what action to take as a result of the needs. This is Right Intention.
Now outright renunciation of desires as the Buddha taught is not the path of NVC or mindfulness of needs. But the result is the same. In Buddhism, we “abandon” unwholesome thoughts and replace them with wholesome thoughts. In NVC and Mindfulness of Needs, we connect to the needs and honor them for the information they provide and the life force they are. If we cannot meet them in a wholesome non-harming way we mourn them, essentially abandoning them but in a healing way which includes grieving.
In more modern terms, Right Intention is influenced by needs. It is informed by needs. When we connect to our Universal Human Needs before acting on them, we have an opportunity to act in a wholesome, non-harming, life enhancing way filled with goodwill.
The Moral or Ethical Group
Right Speech: Right Speech is the first factor in the Ethical Conduct division. In this factor, the Buddha advised against false speech, slanderous speech, harsh speech and idle chatter. All strategies to meet needs, but not wholesome. Not skillful. But not engaging in these kinds of speech, no doubt many needs will be met such as integrity, care, harmony and respect. A Needs conscious practice like NVC is all about making our speech non-harming, non-violent, and in fact, to use Marshall Rosenberg’s term, “to make life more wonderful!”
Right Action: Three components of Right Action are abstaining from taking life, abstaining from taking what is not given, and abstaining from sexual misconduct.
These forms of action in NVC terms are still strategies to meet needs, but since they are so unwholesome they are most likely to be harmful to someone and probably not meet the needs intended. In Mindfulness of Needs we would look at why we might take a life (even of an animal including an insect), take what is not given or act out sexually. We will try to find the necessity before the action. This pause before proceeding may allow us to choose a different strategy.
Right Livelihood: Thich Nhat Hahn writes that Right Livelihood is finding, “a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion.” In needs consciousness we may take this further, looking at the many needs that can be met by our livelihood, such as for purpose, meaning, financial sustainability and integrity. Purpose is especially one to burrow deeply into, for when we are aligned with a purpose, all else seems to fall in line, including our needs for love and compassion. Keep in mind also that almost all unwholesome strategies to meet needs usually come up short, or create other unmet needs. Only wholesome acts meet needs without the consequence of creating other unmet needs.
The Concentration or Contemplative Group
Right Effort: Also called Right Diligence, Right Effort is assisted by Right View and Right Intention because it requires that the energy that propels the effort be wholesome. In Buddhist terms, we need to apply the necessary wholesome energy to have Right Concentration, which is the final aspect of the Eightfold Path, which then eventually leads to Wisdom, which Bhikkhu Bodhu writes, “is the primary tool of deliverance…” So Right Effort provides the energy and Right Mindfulness provides the stability to form Right Concentration, which leads to Right Wisdom and freedom from suffering.
In the Buddha’s teaching of Right Effort he advised that there we four great endeavors: To arouse and maintain wholesome states and to abandon and prevent unwholesome states.
Adding Needs awareness to Right Effort helps us with Four Endeavors. For instance, if we notice that unwholesome thoughts are starting to arise, we can prevent the unwholesome states from arising by connecting to what we are needing in that moment. If we are unable to get that need met we can mourn that loss.
By staying connected to our needs, we can maintain and perfect wholesome states. During challenging times we can ask ourselves, “What am I needing in this moment that I am not getting?” Just the act of self connecting in this way can be wholesome, especially if we can ask kindly.
Right Mindfulness: This aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path offers tremendous connection to Mindfulness of Needs, starting with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, namely mindfulness of the body, feelings, mental formations and phenomena.
Most likely needs and values in Buddhist terms are a mental phenomena found right before feelings, thoughts and volition. There is not a clear distinction in Buddhism such as there is in NVC when it comes to needs, although a good argument can be made that it is the energy behind volition, or the will to do something. But not having this aspect of volition specifically carved out is one reason needs and emotion consciousness can help take our Buddhist practice to a deeper and more effective place.
Found within Mindfulness of the Body is the core practice of Vipassana in the west, namely meditating on the breath. Buddhists believe mindfulness of the breath can be a gateway to full enlightenment, it is so powerful. In Mindfulness of Feelings and Needs, we use the breath as our anchor, the place where we keep coming back to, as well as a powerful tool for connection, calming and internal cleansing.
Needs most likely originate in the body, and then through a complex system of neurotransmitters, are communicated to the brain, where we are able to identify what we’re needed. As part of the transmission, needs manifest themselves as feelings, sensations and urges. When needs are unmet, the feelings often feel like craving, and can be unpleasant. In the second foundation of mindfulness, mindfulness of feeling tone or vedana, we pay attention to the pleasantness, unpleasantness or neutrality of an object. So with this foundation we have a signpost to when needs are unmet. That is, when the vedana is unpleasant, most likely there are needs that are unsatisfied. The opposite is true when needs are met. When needs are met the feeling tone is usually pleasant, sometimes so overwhelming tears of joy and relief may come.
Neutral feeling tones, the third vedana actually could be telling us at least two different things. They might be an indication that all is well, but not so well that we are feeling a pleasant feeling tone such as connection, joy or love. In Buddhist terms, neutral feeling tone could also mean a mind filled with delusion or ignorance, the first of the three poisons and root cause of suffering.
The second two foundations of mindfulness, of mental formations and phenomena or dhammas, probably cover where needs and values would land in Buddhist thought. They do come and go, moment-by-moment just like phenomena and they lead to other mental factors just like elements of the mind. I believe needs consciousness adds to our knowing of the present moment, and transcend the Buddhist definition of mental formations so most likely are mental phenomena, which covers everything else.
The four Foundations of Mindfulness are gateways to contemplation, to understanding the nature of experience. By including need consciousness we can add even more connection and insight to our practice and our lives.
Right concentration is the eighth factor of the Eightfold path and supports all the others. The practice of Right Concentration, “is to cultivate a mind that is one-pointed,” able to focus on a single object. It is also a wholesome concentration in part because it leads to insight. Right Concentration both supports needs consciousness and is supported by needs consciousness.
Focusing on and connecting with our needs with an empathetic quality (wholesome) is not easy. It takes practice to develop the mental muscles as well as the language to do it effectively. The practice of mindfulness of needs thus enhances the cultivation of a mind that is one pointed.
The Buddha divided Right or Wholesome Concentration into two methods: Selective concentration and active concentration. With selective concentration we choose one object and stay with it. With active concentration we are open to whatever arises. Both methods are useful in mindfulness of needs and can alternate during a meditation or even during our normal day.
Mostly our practice is supported by active concentration, where we are awake to arising feeling and sensations, and then we can use inquiry to discover the need beneath the feelings. One pointed concentration helps us connect to and identify our feelings and needs, as well as improve our ability to be empathetic with ourselves and others. It is a development of a muscle that can enhance all aspects of our lives.