The Buddha’s cousin, Ananda, once asked him what the benefit of living skillfully was. The Buddha answered that skillful living leads to freedom from remorse, which in turn leads to joy. Joy then allows the mind to settle into concentration, and concentration leads to the arising of insight. That’s the path we’re following in Buddhist practice. And it all starts with learning to live skillfully.
The word “skillful” (that’s kusala in Pali, for those who are interested) is a fascinating vocabulary choice on the Buddha’s part. He didn’t generally talk about “good” and “bad” actions, although that terminology was, of course, available to him. Instead, he talked about us acting skillfully or unskillfully. Since this may seem like odd language for talking about morality or ethics, as if we’re being asked to perform some kind of trick, let’s take a closer look at what he might have meant by it.
You can think about “skill” as meaning, “actions that can accomplish an aim.” A skilled writer is one who aims to persuade or create pleasure, or whatever her aim might be, and can actually do so. Merely having the intent isn’t enough, or we’d all be good writers! Writing well is a craft, and has to be learned by the intelligent application of trial and error and well as by studying the works of other writers who are themselves recognized as having skill. An unskilled writer may have the same aim as a more skilled one but isn’t able to put those aims into action.
What’s the relevance of this to spirituality? We all have the aim, deep down, of finding peace of mind, happiness, and wellbeing. But do we have the skill to create them? Here too, just as with our example of a skilled writer, accomplishing this aim is a matter of intelligently approaching life in a trial-and-error way, while also learning from the life, example, and sometimes personal guidance of those who seem to be skilled at living well.
What stops us from finding peace of mind? We do! We contain skillful tendencies (compassion, kindness, mindfulness, etc) and unskillful tendencies (such as self-centeredness, aversion to discomfort. Both sets of impulses aim to keep us secure and happy, but all too often our unskillful tendencies create suffering for ourselves. We react, and these reactions cause suffering.
Our unskillful instincts advertise themselves as helpful when most of the time they’re not. So our trial and error process consists of observing that unskillful, reactive impulses do not bring happiness and that only a creative life based on living with mindfulness and kindness can achieve that aim.
This is something that we have to work at learning because our unskillful impulses have evolved to protect us. For example, being unpleasant to someone who annoys us is an instinct that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. If you’re a lizard, and you make a threatening display to another lizard who comes too close to you, you can chase the intruder away, protecting yourself and your food supply. But when the person we’re annoyed with is a colleague or close family member, we can’t simply remove them from our lives! Our aversion binds us in a conflicted and painful relationship. And so, in many ways, our “protective” instincts end up harming us.
Our more skillful attributes are rooted in our evolutionary biology as well. As mammals, we’ve evolved to value love and connection; a newborn baby’s first need is to be held, monkeys create social binds by grooming each other. We’ve evolved to have empathy. Even mice show distress when they see one of their fellows suffering. Scientists have observed rats trying to free each other from traps. Empathy is built into the structure of mammalian brains.
Another part of our mammalian conditioning, however, is the need to establish our position in a social “pecking order.” This can result in us competing, even with friends and family. This kind of conditioning goes against our need for connection, warmth, and intimacy.
But we also have a more distinctively human part of our brains — the most recently evolved part of our brains, the neocortex. This is the seat of reason, reflection, and self-awareness. The neocortex allows us to look at our reactive instincts and our more creative and skillful instincts. It helps us to see the disadvantages of the former compared to the latter. It also allows us to change our behavior, so that we choose to let go of unskillful impulses, and instead to think, speak, and act skillfully. In choosing to live skillfully, we’re choosing to live a more authentically human, happier, and meaningful life.