mindfulness in daily life

The puzzle of “skillful” and “unskillful” as ethical terms

Man practicing piano in a darkened room, with the piano illuminated by a desk lamp.

One of the things that struck me as odd when I first encountered the Buddha’s teachings was the terms he used when he discussed living ethically or morally: “skillful” (kusala) and “unskillful” (akusala).

Maybe these terms are new to you. Or maybe they’re so familiar that you’ve stopped thinking about them. Either way, they are an unusual way to talk about morality.

The most common terms for describing ethical actions are good and bad, right and wrong, and good and evil. These are the terms most of us grew up hearing.

It’s not that the Buddha never used that kind language. Particularly when he was composing poetry, or when he was speaking to uneducated people, he’d use the word puñña, which means merit or “good,” and pāpa, which means bad or evil.

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But when he was talking technically, to serious Dharma practitioners — monks, nuns, and those householders who were dedicated disciples — he used these words “skillful” and “unskillful.”

No one can know for sure why Buddha chose those terms, but what might he have had in mind?

What is Skill?

So let’s think about what skill is. What does it mean to do something in a skilled way?

My understanding is that if you have skill you’re able to achieve something challenging that you set out to do. That’s the definition of being skilled.

So a skilled carpenter has the idea they’re going to make, say, a beautiful coffee table. And lo and behold, a beautiful coffee table appears. They have the skill to be able to create it. A skilled potter, wants to make a particular kind of pot. And because they’ve done a lot of practice, because they know what they’re doing, they’re able to make that kind of pot. They have the skill to accomplish what they set out to do. A person who lacks skill cannot do that. So that’s what it means to be skilled, or unskilled.

Skillful and Unskillful As Ethical Terms

Now, the Buddha used these terms, skilled and unskilled, in an ethical sense.

What does it mean to have skill in an ethical sense? Well, ethics is a part of practice. The Buddha talked about “the threefold training” which comprised ethics, meditation, and wisdom. These are three things we train in. Training itself is about developing skill, so there’s a consistent theme here.

What are we training for when we do spiritual practice? What is the point of practice? The point of practice is to have better lives, and to help other people to have that experience as well. It’s to liberate ourselves from suffering. It’s to become happier, more content, more fulfilled, and to have more of a sense of meaning in our lives.

Ethics Is Not About Being Good

It might sound deeply contradictory to say that ethics is not about being good, but I think that’s a faith claim to make about ethics in Buddhism. The Buddha didn’t tell us to abandon greed, hatred, and delusion because they are evil, but because they cause suffering. He said that if they didn’t cause suffering, then he wouldn’t tell us to abandon them:

If giving up the unskillful led to harm and suffering, I would not say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ But giving up the unskillful leads to welfare and happiness, so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ (AN 2.19)

Skillful and Unskillful Qualities and Actions

Just as a carpenter shows skill when they intend to create a beautiful piece of furniture and are successful, so we’re ethically skillful when we have the aim of living in ways that free us from suffering and that help others be free from suffering, and are successful in accomplishing that aim.

We’re unskillful when we aim to be free from suffering but end up creating pain and confusion.

The thoughts, words, and actions that free us from suffering are skillful. Those that do the opposite are unskillful.

When the Buddha talked about ethics he pointed out that there were two trends in the mind. (See MN 19) The mind can act based on selfish craving, hatred, or a lack of understanding. And those things will lead to suffering. He called these “unskillful.”

The other trend is that the mind acts with mindfulness and exhibits qualities such as patience, courage, kindness, empathy, compassion, appreciation, and so on. These are things that free us from suffering and bring peace and happiness. He called these ethical qualities “skillful.”

So we’re acting skillfully when we’re exercising skillful qualities — that is, qualities that help us move closer to the goal of freeing ourselves from suffering. We’re acting unskillfully when we’re in the grip of unskillful states of mind that create suffering.

So this is what I think the Buddha perhaps had in mind when he was using these terms — skillful and unskillful — which seem, at first glance quite unusual.

Why This Matters

It’s an interesting shift of perspective to think about ethics in terms of skill. It’s quite different from how we might have been raised to see things. We may have been raised to see things in terms of good and bad.
We get caught up in the idea of people themselves being good and bad. But it’s only actions that can be skillful or unskillful. You can’t talk about an unskillful person because no person is entirely skillful or unskillful.

Lots of people think of themselves as being good or bad. They want to present themselves to themselves as being good, which I’ve described elsewhere as a disastrous move. And of course lots of people become convinced that they are bad, or unworthy, and usually they’re sadly mistaken. You may be one of those people, or you probably know some of them. And your impression of them is probably that they are lovely people with many fine qualities. They’re probably kind and thoughtful, and you probably benefit from being with them.

We’re all a mixture of skillful and unskillful qualities. No one is all one or all the other. And spiritual training — or at least a lot of spiritual training — is about, on the one hand, exercising and strengthening the skillful, and on the other hand recognizing and letting go of the unskillful.

Life Is Practice

And this is for me the most important implication of the Buddha’s language of ethics as a skill. Skills are to be practiced and refined. Life — our ordinary everyday actions, and even our thoughts — is where we train. Our mistakes — the times we make ourselves or others suffer — is how we learn.

We can include in our lives constant reflections: did my actions lead to suffering? How could I do this differently in the future? Is what I’m doing or saying now leading to suffering? How can I change what I’m doing? Is this thing I intend to do or say or think likely, based on my past experience, to create unnecessary suffering? How might I act differently? (See MN 61)

Our lives are lessons to be learned. As long as we keep learning from our ethical mistakes, those mistakes are useful ones, because they bring us closer to our goal of living with peace, joy, and meaning.

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Mindfulness, step by step

Almost anything we do can offer us an opportunity to practice mindfulness. The most mundane activities, such as unloading the dishwasher, driving, or grocery shopping, can become part of our spiritual practice.

Walking as a Practice

Walking is one ordinary activity that we can transform into a vehicle for being more mindful. One of the benefits of mindful walking is that the body is easier to sense when it’s in movement. In sitting meditation a lot of people initially find it difficult to be aware of physical sensations. When we’re walking, the sensations are far more obvious. This means that walking can be a powerful anchor for our attention.

The Irish poet John O’Donahue wrote:

It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here.

Walking is something we take for granted, and we may assume that although we can walk to interesting places, the act of walking itself is inherently uninteresting. Yet the simple act of walking can be a rich and fulfilling experience. In relating to ordinary activities with mindfulness, we may find that they’re not so mundane after all. We begin to see everyday existence as a miracle. Ordinary movements can become a dance, everyday sounds become music, the uninteresting can become fascinating.

Mindful Walking Versus Walking Meditation

In many traditions there is a walking meditation practice in which we pace back and forth at an incredibly slow pace. In this form of meditation it might take several minutes to cover a distance that we would normally traverse in a few seconds. What I’m suggesting here is something different: focusing mindfully on the physical sensations that arise as we’re walking to the mailbox, or to the bus stop, or train station, or taking a stroll in the park, or in fact any other time we’re walking in daily life.

The practice

You can pause for a moment before you start walking, and simply experience what it’s like to stand, noticing the weight of the body pressing into the earth.

The Eyes

Let the eyes be soft and be attentive to the whole of your visual field.

In order to maintain your mindfulness as you walk, I’d suggest not letting your gaze wander any more than is necessary for safety. So avoid things like looking in shop windows or letting your gaze track people’s movements. Just let your eyes look straight ahead, and perhaps slightly downward.

The Pace

Your walk itself should be natural, although perhaps just a little slower than usual. When you walk at the same pace as you usually do, your mind will do the same things it usually does. In other words you’ll get distracted. Slowing your walk a fraction helps you to be less habitual.

The Anchor

The core of mindful walking practice is observing the sensations in the body. A good place to start is with the alternating pattern of the feet making and breaking contact with the earth. This is simple, concrete, and easy to notice. Those rhythmic sensations can be your anchor—they’re what you turn your attention back toward whenever you realize you’ve become distracted.

Walking Into Mindfulness

From there, you can start to become aware of the rest of the body. Start with the lower legs, where you can notice the tightening and release of the muscles. Notice also sensations such as the touch of your clothing against your skin and the vibration of the feet touching the ground rippling up through your flesh, bones, and joints.

You can notice sensations and movements in the thighs, the hips, and the pelvis. You can notice the spine, the belly, the chest. Notice all the movements of the breathing, and how it naturally fits in with the rhythm of the walking. You can notice the shoulders moving, the arms swinging, the way the head moves, and so on.

You’ll find that with the eyes soft and your field of attention open and receptive it’s possible to notice how each sensation of the walking is coordinated with all the others. The whole of our walking, from our breathing to the sensation of air flowing over the hands as they swing at the end of our arms, form one process—an elegant and fascinating dance, as we walk into mindfulness, step by step.

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What living as a Buddhist means for me

Photo by Cristian Escobar on UnsplashA while back I heard from a woman who seemed concerned that my life as a Buddhist must be very dull — just meditating and “being good” all the time, I guess. I think she thought I’d be a very boring person to hang out with, and maybe she was expressing her own fears about getting drawn in to Buddhist practice.

Tonight I just came back from a comedy improv show, where I was blown away by the humor and good humor of the performers. I had a blast: not perhaps what this woman had in mind.

I wrote and told her that for me, Buddhism is a set of principles and guidelines for living your life, not a set of rules. I said that I could boil down some of the guiding principles of my life as something like:

  • Be in your body so that you don’t get lost in your head.
  • Don’t believe everything you think. Not all the stories you tell yourself are true.
  • If your stories disempower you and make you suffer they’re probably not true.
  • Take responsibility for all your thoughts, actions, and feelings.
  • Realize that you have a choice in every moment about how you respond.
  • Keep asking: “Is there’s anything I’m doing that’s suppressing my happiness and wellbeing?” And see if you can stop doing that thing.
  • Remember: Life is short. Be kind.
  • There’s always something you can appreciate in any situation.
  • Stay in touch with your heart, but check in with your rational mind because feelings can be misleading.
  • Give yourself the same compassion you give to people you love.
  • Be true to your values; it’s not your job to please people.
  • To be honest is often the best way to be kind to yourself and others.
  • Apologizing when you’ve done something unskillful is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  • Keep asking: “Is what I’m about to do conducive to my long-term benefit and welfare?”
  • Helping others is usually more conducive to happiness than focusing only on your own needs.
  • Don’t try and define yourself. You’re not definable.

Together, these principles almost amount to a statement of personal philosophy. Any such philosophical statement includes the principles by which you live — or at least aim to live — your life. I’m actually going to print this list out right now, because I need to keep reminding myself of how I aspire to live my life. It’s not about rules, or “being good.” It’s about living life in a way that brings a deeper sense of meaning, purpose, and connectedness.

What would your top three or four guidelines for life be?

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Emily Dickinson: “The brain is wider than the sky…”

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
— Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain is Wider Than the Sky” suggests that because the brain contains the perception of the sky (and more besides) it must in some sense be larger than the sky. This might seem like no more than an interesting thought — the kind of thing you momentarily appreciate as a quote on Facebook before forwarding it to your friends and moving on to the next cute cat video.

But this is the kind of thing that becomes very profound when you choose to sit with it in meditation. I started to experiment with a practice strikingly similar to Dickinson’s verse back in the 1990s when I lived in the city center of Glasgow, in Scotland. I lived on a busy shopping street in a tenement building that had a bar and a restaurant on the ground floor. Being four floors up did little to remove us from the noise. There was a constant roar from cars, buses, and delivery vehicles, the sounds of conversations and (especially at night as the bars came out) fights. Passing airplanes and the sounds of emergency vehicle sirens weren’t rare, either.

At first this noise used to interfere with my meditation, but gradually it became my meditation. I learned that it was fruitless to try to push these sounds away, and that instead it was best to notice them as sensations, just like any other sensation. The noise of traffic was really no different from the movements of my breathing; it was all just sensory data. The noise was only a problem when I tried to fight with it.

What I did was simply to attend to whatever sounds were around me. Instead of trying to push them away I allowed them to be there. They became, along with the breathing or the act of well-wishing, my object of attention in meditation.

The result of doing this was a sense of expansiveness. The sounds that reached my ears came from a vast expanse around me. In fact, including passing aircraft, my sphere of attention might be miles in diameter. It felt that my mind was expanding to fill the space around me. It no longer seemed that mind my was a thing inside my head, receiving signals that traveled to it along nerves, but that my awareness was a vast space in which the phenomena it detected arose. My mind (and therefore my brain) encompassed the sky.

This changed my whole meditation practice. For one thing, I did a lot less thinking than I usually did. My mind spontaneously became much quieter. For another thing, when thoughts did arise they were just one very small part of my field of attention. They were less likely to catch my attention, and simply rose and passed away, without my getting caught up in them.

This was probably the single most revolutionary development in my meditation practice — one that provided an approach I’m still working within.

Later in the poem Dickinson says “The brain is just the weight of God.” This very bold comparison provides another connection with meditation. The expansiveness that I’ve been talking about is very helpful in meditations to do with cultivating kindness and compassion. These forms of meditation are known in Buddhism as the “brahma viharas” — literally “the abode of God.” Our narrow sense of self begins to break down, and we realize that the wellbeing of others is just as important as our own. Developing a sense of spacious awareness in meditation makes it easier for an expansive sense of care and concern for all beings to arise.

So I’d suggest that you experiment with expansiveness in your own meditation practice. It’s not hard. After setting up your posture, first, just allow your eyes to relax behind your closed eyelids. Then become aware of the space — and any sounds it contains — in front, behind, to the sides, and above and below you. Let your mind rest into that sense of spacious awareness. And then see where it takes you.

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This simple tweak to the way you write emails might change your entire day

How many emails do you write in the average day? I just did a quick count and yesterday alone it was 64! Many of the messages I write are business emails and don’t have a salutation or valediction, plunging straight into the message. But some of them start with “Dear (whoever)” or “Hi!” and end with a sign-off.

I usually end those kinds of emails with “Metta, Bodhipaksa.” Metta is the Buddhist word for kindness. It’s often translated as “lovingkindness,” although I think the word kindness works much better, mainly because it’s familiar and experiential.

So I was responding to someone who said he couldn’t attend a gathering today because of work, and I was signing off with “Metta, Bodhipaksa” when it occurred to me that I could actually connect with warmth and kindness toward the person I was writing with.

Normally those sign-offs are just a formality. I don’t really think about what I’m saying.

So instead of doing that I just paused for a few seconds and called to mind the person I was writing to. I simply remembered that he was a feeling human being, that he had joys and sorrows just as I do, and that those feelings are as important to him as mine are to me. A sense of warmth and kindness naturally arose as I did this. I still feel different, perhaps half an hour after writing doing this exercise, which literally took just a few seconds.

Incidentally, this is how I teach people the practice of cultivating metta/kindness — the meditation practice we call “metta bhavana” (bhavana just means cultivation). You don’t need to “try to be nice” (yuck!) or try to make anything happen. Kindness just arises naturally when we empathize with the facts that others feel, and that their feelings are as important to them as ours are to us.

So there’s a new practice for me; I’m going to pause every time I write, “With metta, Bodhipaksa” and empathize with the person I’m writing to.

I can’t believe it took 36 years of meditating to come up with that one…

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Mindfulness: enhancing the experience of the arts

Jessica Haessly, Post-Crescent: Mindfulness is the art of awareness, using the five senses (six if you count intuition), to bring attention to the present moment. Whether performer or audience member, whether making art or viewing it, we can benefit from bringing mindfulness to our experience.

When we practice mindfulness, we are not concerned with past or future, nor are we making judgments on what is happening in the moment, but rather we are simply observing the moment through sight, smell, sound, taste, touch and intuition. We may not use all senses in the …

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How I brought mindfulness into my life

Elle Taylor, Popsugar: Mindfulness is certainly having a moment, but it’s not a contemporary fad — it’s an ancient practice that’s been around for millennia. In simple terms, being mindful involves being in the present. It’s about focusing your awareness on the current moment, while acknowledging your thoughts, sensations, and feelings in a calm manner. It’s about connecting your body and mind and experiencing each moment fully. There are various ways to practice mindfulness, from meditating to working on colouring books, and I’ve tried a lot of them. Here’s how I’m attempting to …

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How meditation can do wonders for your sex life

Lea Rose Emery, Bustle: When it comes to the link between sex and meditation, it may be something that you’re a little nervous to explore. Even growing up with parents who meditated regularly, I still have a tendency to find it really intimidating. But with all of the health benefits of meditation— from reducing anxiety to improving sleep — it seemed time to get serious about trying it. Plus all of these potential benefits have to translate into the bedroom, right?

So I spoke to Khajak Keledjian, founder and CEO of Inscape, a new meditation center in NYC, about the benefits meditation can have to your sex life. And a lot of it comes down to the mind-body connection. “Stress and anxiety increases cortisol and adrenalin levels,” Keledijian says. “Within a couple days of starting to meditate, adrenaline and cortisol levels drop. This means even if you’re having an insecure moment during sex — like wondering if your partner is distracted… your body will be less likely to automatically trigger the fight or flight response. This helps you to stay in the present moment by responding instead of reacting, and allows for intimacy to last longer and distractions to minimize.”

Considering that feeling panicky or anxious during sex is a problem for a lot of people, it seems like a great solution. But there area few different things actually going on that make it so beneficial. Here’s what you need to know.

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A head start with mindfulness

Craig Hassed, Times Higher Education: Don’t dismiss the meditation technique as a fad: its well documented benefits for those in demanding careers make a strong case for teaching it at university, says Craig Hassed.

Mindfulness is a hot topic these days, but its potential importance to higher education has not yet been broadly recognized.

It can be described as a form of meditation and a way of living. It is a mental discipline that involves not only sharpening present-moment attention but also cultivating the attitude with which we pay attention: one of curiosity, acceptance, openness …

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Here’s how to find a minute of mindfulness anywhere

Elisa Boxer, Fast Company: Everyone’s mind wanders.

Mindfulness is paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment. So if you’re aware that your mind is wandering, you’re halfway to a successful mindfulness practice.

The other half of mindfulness is gently returning your attention back to the here and now. But this doesn’t mean you have to yank your misbehaving mind back to reality. Instead, think of it as a compassionate return to consciousness. Picture a feather on the ground, lifted up by a gust of wind and then floating back down to rest …

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