How being free of stress and anxiety means letting go of the things that you think will make you happy.
Stress and anxiety are signs that you're doing something wrong.
In this article, we will cover what the Eight Worldly Concerns are and how they relate to your pursuit of happiness and your freedom from worry, stress, and anxiety.
We as sentient beings, every single one of us, have two basic desires in common that drive and motivate absolutely everything that we think, say, and do: the wish to be happy and the wish to be free from suffering.
Within Buddhism, it's taught that the greed that we feel for the things that we want, the aversion that we feel to the things that we don't want, and the confusion that we have about where stable forms of happiness are actually found are the fundamental obstacles to our attainment of true happiness, peace, and well-being. These three factors are so common to the human experience that they are referred to as The Three Poisons within Buddhism and everyone struggles with these three obstacles, and so as a result, humanity as a whole struggles to move forward.
Our pursuit of happiness and our aversion to being unhappy leads us to pursue or avoid what are referred to as The Eight Worldly Concerns; eight concerns which are ever-present in our lives that seem to always be at the foundation of our motivation to do anything. These eight concerns come in four rhyming and easy to remember, yet opposing, pairs:
These eight concerns represent the driving forces that cause us to think, speak, and act in the (often unskilful) ways that we do as we strive to constantly attain the desired states and conditions of our own happiness and to drive away the undesired states or conditions of our own unhappiness or suffering.
Very briefly, these eight concerns can be summarised as follows:
These eight driving forces are the threads that weave the entire tapestry of our lives into a single pursuit of "wanting this" and "not wanting that" in order to create the conditions that we think will maximise our happiness and sense of safety in life.
Ironically, whether or not we experience moments of peace or happiness in the course of this pursuit, it remains the never-ending desire for and aversion to these mundane concerns that are the direct cause of our day-to-day stress, worry, and underlying sense of unhappiness; because, what we do manage to attain, is only temporarily satisfactory and is ultimately never enough.
If we truly wish to be free of unhappiness and worry, we must begin the process of letting go of the very notions that feed our unrest and dissatisfaction.
So, why is learning how to let go of our mundane, worldly concerns critical to the practice of cultivating genuine happiness and freedom from stress and anxiety?
Letting go of the eight worldly concerns is critical to achieving significant progress along the Buddhist path toward genuine happiness, because the eight worldly concerns are the things that we have incorrectly been conditioned to cling to and grasp at, as if our very lives depend on them. They are the things that we fight for and against, and either longing to have, or dreading to experience. They are the things that we harm others (and ourselves) for in our vain attempts to grasp at getting, and cling to protecting, because we falsely believe that they will provide us with the long-term safety, happiness, love, or respect that we think that they can bring us. These are delusions and a misunderstanding of how happiness and peace-of-mind actually work. And, regardless of our station in life, if we are born into this human realm, it's these eight worldly concerns that feed our fear, stress, and dissatisfaction; and, that we all inevitably become conditioned to lust for or reject.
Ultimately when we unskilfully subscribe to these eight worldly concerns, indoctrinated and re-enforced by an uninstructed worldly culture, we cultivate and solidify our incorrect view that happiness is found from things and people outside of ourselves. That happiness or sadness, peace of mind or anxiety are products of external factors rather than the strength, conditioning, and state of our own mind. That happiness and peace of mind are found in things that are innately impermanent, beyond our actual control, and subject to decay. And, that by believing that it is only through these eight worldly concerns that we can be truly happy, or free from suffering. This is an incorrect understanding and view of how things actually are and it is this misunderstanding that directly leads to harmful views and unskilful actions that continue to motivate us to create negative karma, the results of which we will most certainly come to experience the fruition of; and, which lay the foundations for our long-term suffering and the continuation of taking rebirth endlessly into the various pleasurable and unpleasurable realms of existence in a ceaseless and potentially never-ending cycle of Samsara and suffering.
As one of my teachers has offered: "spend a few moments contemplating how these four pairs affect your life. From morning until night, and even in our dreams, most of our time and energy are spent trying to get money and possessions, approval and praise, good reputation, and pleasurable sensory experiences, and avoiding their opposites. The attachment to the pleasant of the four worldly concerns and aversion to the four unpleasant ones are so powerful that we will act unethically to procure or protect ourselves from them. Even when we are successful in getting the pleasant four, our attachment to them creates problems as we cling to them and fear losing them. When we don't get them, our dejection leads to depression, anger, and even rage. As a result we act in ways that harm others and create suffering for ourselves."
The teachings on the eight worldly concerns serve to cultivate the realisation that the things that we are attaching to, or evading, are in fact the very source of the under-current of dissatisfaction that we experience in our lives, the very source of our suffering. Just the act of attaching to, or evading, is in fact, a form of suffering. When we understand the profundity of that lesson, we can finally come to see suffering from a different and more applicable perspective within our lives: we can come to see that so much of what we do creates and perpetuates the endless cycle of dissatisfaction that we experience and so desperately wish to avoid.
Coming to understand this teaching leads us to a deeper understanding of the nature of our day-to-day suffering and offers a clarity into the fact that dukkha is an intrinsic and inseparable quality of Samsara and that if we wish to put an end to our suffering in this life, and all future lives, then we must take this opportunity today, now, this very moment, and every moment moving forward to begin to view the world around us with a renewed, skilful clarity.
Along these lines, we are very fortunate to have come to have found the dharma and to have embraced it in this, our very precious human rebirth, So we can, and should, diligently work consistently and constantly to put effort and determination to make progress toward awakening in this lifetime before we die and before it becomes too late to plant the karmic seeds for a productive continuation along the Path toward Buddhist enlightenment. Doing so is so important, because our happiness and freedom entirely depend on it.
This is what the Buddha taught, and in the tens of thousands of the Buddha's teachings, we can see that his teachings generally all fit into one of two categories:
Observing the nature of these eight worldly concerns trains our minds to see that the sources of our pain and dissatisfaction are found within the very things that we cherish and that instead of cherishing stuff, or a reputation, or ourselves, that we should cherish compassion for one another, loving-kindness for ourselves, and altruistic harmony amongst us all, and by doing so we will come to find that peace is found in simply being peacefully and that happiness is found in simply being happy; that happiness isn't a goal, it's a habit.
That may sound trite, especially as we find ourselves inundated by the burdens and responsibilities of our modern world, but this view and these practices are not mutually exclusive from this world and when we truly come to understand that "happiness" is not a personality trait nor a result of the manifold external (and the ever-changing and uncontrollable) conditions that we find ourselves in, but rather a skill that can be learned, suddenly it transforms from being trite, into being right. It's this fundamental misunderstanding that leads us to the next point:
The opportunity cost of the eight worldly concerns functions to interfere with your spiritual practice and leads you away from the views and practices that actually enable you to cultivate and experience happiness and spiritual progress in your life.
"The eight worldly concerns distract us from spiritual practice, consuming our time and energy with plans, anxiety, and worry. They get us involved in destructive actions: fighting with others, taking their possessions, using sexuality unwisely and unkindly, lying, creating disharmony, speaking harshly, gossiping, coveting, thinking malicious thoughts, and pursuing wrong views. There is no space in minds for virtuous mental states, such as genuine love and compassion, generosity, ethical conduct, fortitude, joyous effort, meditative stability, or wisdom."
The eight worldly concerns are addictively compelling distractions that lead us astray from the spiritual path by providing us with a never-ending source of unskilful opportunities to cultivate, what in Buddhism is referred to as Wrong Views. Thoughts, speech, or actions that are motivated by ideas of a self-cherishing and a self-grasping mind are defined as the breeding ground of Wrong Views. As long as wrong views are cultivated, even minuscule progress toward stable states of peacefulness and happiness will be slow, at best, and entirely unattainable, at worst.
Cultivating Wrong View is literally practicing the opposite of the Noble Eightfold Path... and if we are doing something that is literally the opposite of what the Buddha taught, then how can we ever expect to make genuine progress along this Path and develop genuine conditions for our peace-of-mind and freedom from daily stress, worry, and unhappiness?
All too often, with the eight worldly concerns in-mind, we even "temporarily" (or "just a little bit") act in ways which undermine our ethical standards in our pursuit of getting the things that we want and avoiding the things that we don't want. And when we outwardly behave in ways that do not accurately reflect who we are and how we feel on the inside, the result is a sucker-punch to our ability to feel stable states of inner-peace and contentment, and sometimes even worse and more destructive that, we feel a distinct sense of guilt, remorse, or shame; a most unfortunate, yet predictable outcome of our temporary ethical sacrifices.
When I work with my students, I am frequently reminded how harmful and destructive our worldly distractions and our moral flexibility can be: not only are they a direct cause of the harm that we create to ourselves and others, but they turn us away from the ideas, activities, and possibilities that make true happiness possible. It's only we when put our practice in the forefront of our daily lives can we really begin to realise the benefits of the effort that we put into our spiritual practice and come to realise the true value that genuine dedication to cultivating skilful means and ways has in our pursuit to be free of our daily dissatisfaction, stress, and anxiety.
Why? Because chasing the eight worldly concerns is like drinking from a steady tap of stress, anxiety, and restlessness; constantly nurturing unsatisfied mental states of wanting this and not wanting that. It is only through understanding and letting go of these harmful concerns that we can finally end the source of that stress at its root.
Though it is worth mentioning that this is not an "all or nothing" proposition and that we can, and should, still have desires, and goals, and intentions, but we must act in accordance with Right Views and the Noble Eightfold Path in our pursuit to achieving them.
At the end of the day, it's not the having of these concerns that is the problem, but rather it's our relationship to our motivations and the results that we seek that must change and align to our values and spiritual practice if we are to be happy members of society and successful Buddhist practitioners at the same time.
(While how we can go about doing this is well-beyond the scope of a blog post, you are welcome to contact me if that is of interest to you—this is exactly the kind of stuff that I teach.)
In summary, contrary to the standards found within general society or the messaging that is found and re-enforced by the media that we consume, genuine happiness and peace-of-mind come not through the acquisition and protection of wealth, possession, praise, fame, or gain but rather through the cultivation and practice of a patient, soft, and compassionate heart. The wise will understand this, the unwise will dismiss it.
If you want to make genuine progress along the Buddhist path toward spiritual Awakening or Full Enlightenment, or even if you just want to cultivate the foundation for your own personal sense of peace, well-being, and happiness, then you have to be able to discern whether your actions are beneficial and conducive to that intention.
And, how can you tell if what you are thinking, saying, or doing is skilful, mindful, and conducive to cultivating the foundations for the true conditions for happiness and peace of mind? By knowing how to easily tell the difference between what are worldly actions and what are Dharma actions; and the difference between worldly actions and Dharma actions is simply the presence or absence of the Eight Worldly Concerns.
Anagārika Michael Turner
Pre-monastic Buddhist Teacher
Advanced Applied-Dharma Trainer
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Michael Turner is a pre-monastic ariya-puggala and a full-time Buddhist anagārika; and he is also a deeply accomplished streamentry mentor and applied-dharma teacher. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of the Buddha's teachings in our everyday lives to overcome our human problems that stand in the way of making measurable progress toward Buddhist enlightenment and he is particularly adept at explaining them in ways that can be easily understood and practiced by Western Buddhists. He has been meditating and cultivating the views and techniques that generate indestructible resilience, inner-strength, and direct experience for almost 30 years and has helped countless numbers of students and peers enhance and course-correct their practice to make veritable progress along the path toward Nibbāna.
do good. be kind. help others. be peaceful.™