ethics

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 is the point of practice? What are we training for? The aim of practicing is 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. It’s to have a better life, and, out of compassion, to help other people to have that experience as well. These are the things we’re developing skill in.

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 fair 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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Can empathy be unhelpful?

Hand holding the stub of a burning candle in the upturned palm. Before long, the person's hand will burn.

One of the members of Wildmind’s community reminded me recently of an article, “The Surprising Downsides of Empathy,” that appeared on the BBC website two-and-a-half years ago.

The article says:

In recent years, researchers have found that misplaced empathy can be bad for you and others, leading to exhaustion and apathy, and preventing you from helping the very people you need to. Worse, people’s empathetic tendencies can even be harnessed to manipulate them into aggression and cruelty.

Empathy generally has a pretty good press. Most, people, although not all, would suggest that we need more empathy in the world. The hold-outs are often those who take a “tough love” approach and think that we are mollycoddling people (especially young people). I suspect, however, that many of those people are often just unkind individuals. I also think they misunderstand the nature of empathy, but since I want to write today about misunderstandings of empathy I’ll leave that there for now.

The BBC article quotes researcher Paul Bloom, who famously wrote a book called “Against Empathy” several years back. I previously commented in this blog on an article drawn from that book. One thing Bloom wrote in that article was:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Bloom is perfectly correct to point out the difference between empathy and compassion. The two are not the same. Empathy is a state of feeling something in response to another person’s feelings (you’re talking to someone whose child has drowned) or in response to their situation (you hear about someone whose child has drowned). Despite what the article I’m quoting states, empathy doesn’t necessarily require an act of imagination. If someone tells you their child has drowned, you will (as long as you’re not a psychopath) feel touched by their situation. You don’t, hearing that awful news, have to imagine in detail what it’s like to be in that situation.

Compassion is  the desire to help alleviate suffering. We can see the active nature of compassion in the root of the Pāli and Sansrit word karuna. This comes from the verb karoti, which means “to do.”

Empathy isn’t enough. We need compassion. But does that mean empathy is bad, or useless?

The BBC article seems to suggest that it is.

Bloom uses the example of an adult comforting a child who is terrified of a small, barking dog. The adult doesn’t need to feel the child’s fear to help. “There can be compassion for the child, a desire to make his or her distress go away, without any shared experience or empathic distress,” he writes.

So according to this, we don’t need empathy. We can just have compassion.

To Have Compassion, We Need to Have Empathy

But is that the case? Let just imagine an adult who completely lacks empathy. To them, the crying child is probably just an annoyance, and they shout at the child, terrifying it even more. This adult doesn’t understand what it’s like to be afraid. They don’t know what it’s like to be helpless and to need help. Nor do they understand that the child needs adult reassurance. They don’t recognize that a child can’t turn off its fear by force of will. To know these things requires empathy. To know those things is empathy.

This highlights that empathy actually is at work in Bloom’s example. The compassionate adult knows what the child is going through and what it needs, which is empathy. They know what it’s like to be helpless and to be in desperate need for support and reassurance. It’s because they’re empathetic that they offer compassion.

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The idea that empathy requires us to re-experience the child’s terror is a red herring.

Often in talking about situations where a “good thing” (like empathy) leads to a bad outcome (like being paralyzed because of taking on someone else’s pain) you’ll hear that the problem is that the person is “too empathetic.” I believe this is a mistaken diagnosis.

No virtue on its own is complete. Take generosity, as an example. It’s a good thing to be generous. It helps us be happier; studies have shown that giving something to another person can be more satisfying than receiving the same thing ourselves. But what if you’re so generous that you give away the resources that your family need for basic survival? Does that mean you’re “too generous”?

There’s No Such Thing as Too Much of a Virtue

I don’t actually believe in the concept of having too much of a virtue. What I do believe is that you can lack other qualities (also virtues) that are necessary to stop a good quality such as generosity from being toxic. For example, prudence and wisdom are qualities that balance generosity, telling you what the consequences of continued giving are (“Wait, I have to pay the rent next week”) and so suggesting limits.

“Empathic distress” is another of the ideas that can grow out of the idea that you can have too much of a virtue. Clearly, if you take on board so much of a person’s suffering that you paralyze yourself and are unable to help them, that’s unhelpful. You’ve taken a situation where one person is in trouble and needs help, and turned it into a situation where two people are in trouble and need help.

In vividly imagining distress to the point where you paralyze yourself, you’re no longer practicing a virtue. You’re doing what the Buddha called indulging in “grief, sorrow, and lamentation,” which is a cause of suffering. An ancient Buddhist commentary in fact says that “sorrow is failed compassion.”

Missing Virtues

So what virtues are missing, so that empathy is turning into  something toxic?

As with generosity, we need to balance empathy with wisdom. As an example example, Bloom shows that people will want a girl who has been brought to their attention to skip the queue for life-saving surgery. They empathize with the girl and want to act compassionately. But they ignore the others ahead of her in the queue, who might be in even more urgent need of surgery. It’s easy to ignore them, because they’re anonymous.

Wisdom considers that the other people in the queue are deserving of care as well.

We also need to balance empathy with ethical awareness of what’s right and wrong. In another study, people were willing to inflict pain on someone who was competing in a mathematics competition with a financially strapped student. The researchers had encouraged them to empathize with the student, but not the student’s competitor. Ethics (the Buddhist variety, anyway) tells us that even if we feel motivated to punish another person by inflicting pain on them, we shouldn’t, because violence is wrong. Ethics also embodies wisdom, because it tells us that another person’s suffering is as real to them as ours is to us; why then would be inflict unwanted pain on an other when we would dislike having that pain inflicted upon us.

Most of all, though, empathy needs to be balanced by self-compassion. When we see that another is in distress, we can be moved by that. That “feeling moved” can contain an element of discomfort. Self-compassion teaches us how we support ourselves emotionally as we experience suffering. It also helps us recognize when we’re bringing too much suffering upon ourselves — suffering that’s more than we can cope with and that isn’t necessary in order for us to be helpful.

All of the “downsides” of empathy that the article describes are of this nature. They’re not actually the downsides of empathy at all. They’re the downsides of lacking virtues such as wisdom, ethics, and self-compassion or self-care.

Certainly, empathic distress isn’t helpful. It’s even harmful. But it’s not the sum total of what empathy is. To give money to help starving people on the other side of the world you most certainly don’t need to imagine what it’s like to starve. But you do have to care. And a person lacking in empathy doesn’t care, which the person who has real, balanced empathy does: they experience compassion and are moved to help.

It is wonderful that Bloom and others are showing the harmful side of unbalanced empathy, which leads to “empathic distress.” It’s just a shame that they’re not clearly pointing out what the problem is: the under-development of balancing virtues.

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Liking yourself is not the antidote to hating yourself

You might think that the antidote to self-hatred is liking yourself. But is that desirable, or even possible? We all contain impulses such as jealously, hatred, and greed. What would it mean to like them? Are we supposed to approve of them? To give them free rein and act upon them?

The idea of liking “ourselves” seems badly put. When I look at myself I don’t see any one thing. I see a broad range of phenomena, some that promote my wellbeing and others that sometimes compromise it. There’s no one “self” there to like.

I have plenty to work with. I have skillful impulses, of course. But I also have destructive or harmful habits such as irritability, a desire to be “right,” depressive doubts about my own worth, and so on. These cause suffering for me and also for others in my life.

But hating these things is pointless. Hating these aspects of myself would just be introducing more unskillfulness and conflict into my being.  To hate ourselves is to be at war with ourselves. And in such a war, who can be the winner? Hatred, as the Buddha observed, can never conquer hatred.

That doesn’t mean that I approve of these impulses or want to express them. If I was to give those habits free rein, I’d just end up with even more suffering in my life.

I certainly don’t like these potentially destructive habits. To like something means we have pleasant feelings associated with it, and I don’t experience pleasant feelings with regard to my irritability, self-doubts, and so on.

I can accept them, though. And I can be kind toward them.

Practicing acceptance simply means that I accept that these things are a part of me. They are part of the broad range of emotional responses that I have inherited as a mammal and as a human being. I didn’t choose to have them. It makes no sense for me to judge myself harshly for having these habits. I don’t need to hate myself simply for being human.

An audience member at a discussion between two Buddhist teachers described how she came to see that it was possible for her to have compassion for herself:

I’ve been thinking a lot about loving myself, but I felt like I would have to like everything about myself to love myself. But then I had a realization … that I could just have some compassion toward myself. I don’t necessarily have to like every part of myself.

It’s possible for us to relate with kindness and compassion to every part of ourselves, including those destructive tendencies I’ve described. I can recognize that they are born from suffering. Our unskillful habits are simply ways of trying to deal with painful feelings that have arisen. Irritability tries to keep at bay some source of distress. Jealousy wants us to have for ourselves a benefit that someone else has access to. Doubt tries to analyze what’s not going right in our lives. Every single unskillful impulse any of us has represents an attempt to find peace and happiness. The problem with them is not that they are “bad,” but that they don’t work.

One of the most radical things the Buddha said was that if letting go of unskillful habits caused pain rather than brought us peace, he wouldn’t have taught us to do it. He didn’t seem to see them as inherently bad. He’d have encouraged us to keep on going with our greed, hatred, and delusion if they actually made us happy. But they don’t.

Our task is to find better strategies. This is what developing “skillfulness” involves—finding ways of being that actually bring about peace and harmony. To lack skill means aiming to create happiness but instead bringing about suffering and conflict.

When we react to our unskillful tendencies by hating them we’re treating them as if they were enemies. They aren’t. They’re just confused friends. They’re trying to benefit us, but most of the time failing. Once we start to empathize with what these confused friends are trying to do for us, we can find more skillful ways to accomplish the same aims. Mindfulness and self-compassion are the most powerful tools we have for doing that.

Our irritability and hatred maybe trying (and failing) to keep some source of distress out of our experience. We’re trying to push the distress out of our lives. Mindful self-compassion helps us see that it’s not the unpleasant feeling that’s our real problem, but our resistance to it. It allows us to be present with painful feelings until they pass, naturally, and can open up the way for us to have fondness and appreciation for whatever it was we were irritated by.

Jealousy may want us to grasp for ourselves some benefit that another has access to (this is of course painful), but self-compassion can help soothe the pain of grasping and also help us feel a sense of abundance; there is so much kindness we can show to ourselves! And this can allow us to feel glad for the other person.

Self-doubt may be a clumsy way of trying to discover if there’s something wrong in the way we are. Mindful self-compassion can help reassure the uncertain part of us, seeing that there’s nothing going on that we can’t work with, reminding us to trust in our practice, and helping us to see our inherent goodness.

In all cases empathizing with our unskillful tendencies helps us to be happier.

Practicing self-compassion is like learning to be a kind and wise parent to ourselves. If our children act badly in some way, they do not need either our hatred. That wouldn’t be helpful for them. Neither, however, should we blindly approve of everything they do. That wouldn’t help them either. When our children act badly they need our kindness, our empathy, and wise guidance.

And this, too, is how we need to learn to relate to ourselves if we want to flourish and be happy in the long-term.

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Three reasons to be for yourself (book extract)

Available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk.

Compassion for yourself is fundamental, since if you don’t care how you feel and want to do something about it, it’s hard to make an effort to become happier and more resilient.

My new book Resilient focuses on growing 12 essential inner-strengths for lasting well-being in a changing world, and Compassion is one of them.

In the excerpt below, you’ll learn the importance of growing compassion for yourself.

When we treat others with respect and caring, the best in them usually comes out.

Much the same would happen if we could treat ourselves the same way.

Yet most of us are a better friend to others than we are to ourselves. We care about their pain, see positive qualities in them, and treat them fairly and kindly. But what kind of friend are you to yourself? Many people are tough on themselves, critical, second-guessing and self-doubting, tearing down rather than building up.

Imagine treating yourself like you would a friend. You’d be encouraging, warm, and sympathetic, and you’d help yourself heal and grow. Think about what a typical day would be like if you were on your own side. What would it feel like to appreciate your good intentions and good heart, and be less self-critical?

Why It’s Good to Be Good to Yourself
It helps to understand the reasons why it’s both fair and important to be on your own side. Otherwise, beliefs like these can take over: “It’s selfish to think about what you want.” “You don’t deserve love.” “Deep down you’re bad.” “You’ll fail if you dream bigger dreams.”

First, there’s the general principle that we should treat people with decency and compassion. Well, “people” includes the person who wears your nametag. The Golden Rule is a two-way street: we should do unto ourselves as we do unto others.

Second, the more influence we have over someone, the more responsibility we have to treat them well. For example, surgeons have great power over their patients, so they have a great duty to be careful when they operate on them. Who’s the one person you can affect the most? It’s yourself, both you in this moment and your future self: the person you will be in the next minute, week, or year. If you think of yourself as someone to whom you have a duty of care and kindness, what might change in how you talk to yourself, and in how you go about your day?

Third, being good to yourself is good for others. When people increase their own well-being, they usually become more patient, cooperative, and caring in their relationships.

Think about how it would benefit others if you felt less stressed, worried, or irritated, and more peaceful, contented, and loving.

You can take practical steps to help yourself really believe that it’s good to treat yourself with respect and compassion. You could write down simple statements – such as “I am on my own side” or “I’m taking a stand for myself” or “I matter, too” – and read them aloud to yourself or put them somewhere you’ll see each day. You could imagine telling someone why you are going to take better care of your own needs. Or imagine a friend, a mentor, or even your fairy godmother telling you to be on your own side – and let them talk you into it!

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Embrace your full potential by living skillfully

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

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.

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To be a better person, stop trying to be a good person

Recently I’ve been realizing more and more that it’s unhelpful to want to see yourself as a good person.

That might seem odd, since you might think that of course we’d want to see ourselves as good people, so let me explain the problem I see.

If you think of yourself as a good person, what happens when someone points out that you’ve done something that’s kinda crappy — such as being dishonest about something or having been inconsiderate? It’s important for you to see yourself as a good person, and so you defend yourself. Maybe you even attack or undermine the other person. You want to preserve your view of yourself, because thinking of yourself as “good” is important to you.

This is something I’ve observed in myself. My partner would point out that I’d said something that was, in some minor way, untrue, and I’d deny it. I’d twist what I’d said to try to make it seem true, or say I’d meant something else. In not wanting to let go of my belief in myself as a good person, I slipped further away from being a good person.

A friend was having problems with her boss overruling her expertise on important matters and refusing to give the reasoning behind her decision, other than saying “It’s what I’ve decided.” This was, as you might imagine, undermining. And when she challenged her boss on this all she got was evasion or blame. The boss wanted to convince her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact I think she wanted to convince herself that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Again, in trying to maintain her status as a good person, she behaved like a person who wasn’t good.

Lots of people think of themselves as good, even as they do awful things. They minimize the harm they cause: It wasn’t such a big deal. They deny they’ve even caused harm, even when they’ve committed extreme acts, such as theft, or even sexual abuse or violence against loved ones. The other person deserved it, wanted it. I can’t help thinking that the belief that they are a good person actual enables them to do these things: “I’m a good person, so the things I do can’t be that bad.”

The alternative is not to think you’re a bad person. That’s just as unhelpful.

The alternative is not to think of yourself as any kind of person at all! This is in fact something that the Buddha taught. He said that there was no view of ourselves we can have that isn’t a source of suffering. And by “view” he meant a fixed belief. When a fixed belief about ourselves is challenged, we feel defensive. The reason we were clinging in the first place was to provide a sense of stability and security: I know what I am. I’m a good person.

Not thinking of yourself as good or bad doesn’t leave us in a moral vacuum, unable to decide how to act. In fact it liberates us.

We can see ourselves in two ways:

First, we’re a mixture of good and bad tendencies and qualities (although Buddhism tends to talk in terms of “skillful” and “unskillful” tendencies and qualities). There is no one quality, good or bad, that defines who we are. We’re a mixture, and the composition of that mixture changes, moment by moment. We’re mysterious. We’re indefinable.

Second, we can, if we so choose, have sense of moral direction. If we have a clear idea of the kind of person we want to be, and the kinds of personal qualities we want to embody, and if we commit to that, then that becomes our focus. We see ourselves as works in progress, working to let go of tendencies that harm ourselves and others, and to strengthen and develop qualities that bring benefits instead. The important thing isn’t arriving at the goal; it’s that we have a goal and are working toward it.

Instead of trying to be a good person, aim to do good. Don’t focus your attention on what you are, but on what you do.

This may not seem like much of a shift, but it is. We’re not thinking of ourselves in fixed terms. Rather than seeing ourselves as being static we’re seeing ourselves as dynamic, ever-changing, and responsible for our own ethical destinies.

I’ve found it liberating to be challenged to look at myself more closely and to realize that I’d been slipping into wanting to see myself as good. That’s not helpful. In truth I’m not good. I’m not bad. I’m evolving. And that’s a liberating thing to remember.

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“We forget our faults easily when they are known only to ourselves.” Francois de la Rochefoucauld

Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

Just as we can’t see what we look like unless we encounter a mirror, often we don’t know what we’re like in terms of our behavior and attitude unless those things are reflected by other people.

There’s a considerable amount of evidence that other people have a clearer picture of what we’re like as individuals than we do ourselves. While we’re fairly good at assessing ourselves in terms of internal factors, knowing better than others what we feel and thinks, when it comes to factors like intelligence, attractiveness, creativity, and competence, others have a far clearer perception of us than we do ourselves.

But sometimes even internal factors are hard to assess. In my role as a teacher I’ve often heard from people (usually men) who say things like “After meditating for a few weeks I don’t think I’ve changed, although people who know me say I’m much easier to be with.” To me this suggests our tendency to externalize our mental states, so that rather than see ourselves as impatient we see others as being too slow; instead of seeing ourselves as untrusting we see others as untrustworthy; instead of seeing ourselves as unkind we see others as needing a good kick up the behind, and so on. And so when we change, for example by becoming a bit more relaxed, we don’t necessarily notice that fact, and we interpret this change, perhaps in terms of other people being more cooperative, and so on.

What I’ve just described is perhaps more common when we’re first starting to get to know and to work on ourselves, but even after decades of practice I’m still learning that there are things about myself I haven’t allowed myself to acknowledge. It’s only through being mirrored by others that I come to recognize some of my faults.

And those faults are the ones I find hardest to see, because I’ve spent longer learning how not to acknowledge them, and trying to hide them from others. For example, I have habits of dishonesty that I haven’t been very aware of. I can tend to rationalize and whitewash my actions, so that I do things for one (not very noble) reason and then, when called on this, claim that my motivations were much more noble than they actually were. Or I’ll say something, have it pointed out that I was incorrect, and then claim I meant something different from what I actually said. Sometimes I’ll speculate about something, and then try to convince others that I’m more certain in my knowledge than I actually am. Sometimes I’ll feel or think one thing (usually critical) but present another thing to others.

I wouldn’t be aware of those habits if it wasn’t for one friend who has a finely-tuned bullshit detector, and in fact experiences acute distress when people around her are being inauthentic. As a result, she’s particularly demanding when it comes to dishonesty. In the past I’d probably have found her scary and made sure I avoided her. Actually, I do find her a little intimidating, but I really value how she’s pressuring me to be more honest and authentic. I’m finding that I like myself better when I live that way. So on the whole I really value our connection. It’s liberating to be called on my bullshit.

Looking back, I see a pattern in my life. I have to be with someone who’s kinder than I am in order to learn to see my own unkindness. I have to be with someone clearer than I am in order to see my own unclarity. I have to be with someone more honest than me in order to become more authentic and to see the ways in which I’m dishonest.

This is work that I could never have done on my own. We all need others as mirrors so that we can learn to see ourselves more accurately. It’s a scary process to have mirrored those aspects of ourselves that we least admire, but it’s necessary and rewarding work.

Just one other thing: often I hear perfectly lovely people express the belief that they’re actually horrible and unlovable individuals. Sometimes I have my good qualities reflected back to me and am surprised. De la Rochefoucauld was a cynic, and so less inclined to see that just as we forget our faults when they’re known only to ourselves, we also forget our virtues when they are known only to others. A true mirror reflects, impartially, both the good and the bad that is within us.

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My doubts about Deepak Chopra and the monetization of meditation

John Horgan, Scientific American: A key to Deepak Chopra’s success has been his monetization of spiritual practices and promotion of their health benefits. But has he crossed an ethical line by suggesting that meditation and other mind-practices can “heal” cancer?

My first morning at “Sages & Scientists,” I walked into a cavernous ballroom as Deepak Chopra, on a stage, brilliantly illuminated, assured the audience that “consciousness is reality.”

He looked weird, almost too real. Then I realized I was seeing not Chopra himself, the spirituality and holistic-health mogul and host of the meeting, but an …

Read the original article »

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A day without complaining

Man placing finger over lips.

In Buddhist practice, we cultivate something called “mudita.” Mudita is most commonly translated as “sympathetic joy,” which can sound a bit odd since nowadays we think of sympathy as being concern about someone’s suffering. Being sympathetic about happiness might seem peculiar.

But in earlier days the word sympathy meant more like the current use of our word “empathy.” And in fact, you’ll often see mudita translated these days as “empathetic joy,” meaning that we feel happy when others are happy.

But I don’t think that’s what empathy is really about. In a very early meditation text, called the Vimuttimagga (Path to Liberation), we’re asked to cultivate mudita in the following way: “When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: ‘Sadhu! Sadhu! May he continue joyful for a long time!'”

Sadhu means something like “Hurray!” The crucial thing here is the link between having good qualities and — as a consequence — experiencing peace and joy.

See also:

Mudita is the third of a series of practices that begin with metta (kindness) and karuna (compassion). Kindness is wanting others to be happy, and behaving accordingly. Compassion is wanting beings to be happy, but recognizing that they’re often afflicted with suffering. Because we want beings to be happy, we therefore want them to be free of suffering, and (again) act accordingly. The “acting accordingly” thing is important. Kindness and compassion are not things that we simply feel, but that we do. They’re actions. They’re ways of relating to and interacting with the world.

Mudita recognizes that if we value beings’ happiness, and if we therefore want beings to be happy, then we must want them to have the causes of happiness.

So what are the causes of happiness? Lots of money, a beautiful/handsome partner, and a nice job, obviously. Just joking! Psychologists have put a lot of effort into studying what factors lead to happiness, and material wealth is pretty far down the list. Far more important are things like being involved in loving and supportive relationships, having a sense of meaning and purpose in life, doing things for other people, expressing gratitude, being mindful, forgiveness, and optimism. So, mudita is: valuing, appreciating, and encouraging what is positive in others, and leads them to experience peace and joy. Since mudita is appreciation, and since practicing it is joyful, I translate it as “joyful appreciation.”

Mudita is appreciation; complaining is its opposite. The Vimuttimagga says that the “non-fulfillment” of mudita is both “resentment” (internal complaining) and “derisive action” (complaining that we do out loud).

Today I’m suggesting that we become more mindful of complaining, in particular. If you focus on noticing the “out-loud” complaining you do, that’s a good start. It’ll help you to become more aware of the internal complaining—resentment.

It’s been interesting, over the last week or two, to pay more attention to my tendency to complain. I can be a bit snarky about things that frustrate me, like computer programs or mobile apps that often don’t function as advertised (I’m talking about you, Siri!). And we have a running joke in the office about the amount of noise made by the trash and recycling trucks that visit not just our building but several adjacent ones, too. But one thing I’ve realized is that I don’t complain as much as I assumed I did, which is good news!

Mostly this complaining is pretty good-humored, which actually makes it hard to know sometimes whether I’m complaining or not! Commenting that the recycling truck is particularly noisy today — is that a simple observation, or is it a complaint? I guess it depends on the tone of voice, motivation, etc. This may not be an easy practice!

In the past, trying not to complain would have been challenging in another way — I used to do so much of it! When I was younger, I complained all the time. I guess I thought it made me look smart. I remember when I was at university, my girlfriend’s best friend once gave me a ride back to their home town. Afterward she commented to my girlfriend that I kept up a constant stream of complaints about one thing or another for the entire 90 minute journey. When my girlfriend told me of this, I was mystified. Apparently, complaining was something I did so habitually that I wasn’t even aware I was doing it! That’s a completely different kind of difficulty from what I face today.

Over the years I’ve been practicing, I’ve worked on complaining less. This is the result of applying the Buddhist speech precepts—ethical guidelines that encourage us not to 1) be untruthful, 2) speak harshly, 3) indulge in trivial and distracting conversation (still working on that one!), or 4) sow disharmony. I’ve gotten better at training myself not to lie, not to exaggerate others’ faults, not to present a skewed and misleading picture when I’m talking about others, not to gossip maliciously, not to indulge in blame, and so forth. All of this was a big challenge when I was going through a divorce just a couple of years back! But it’s a good practice!

While appreciation makes us happier, complaining makes us unhappy. While appreciation makes us feel open and free, complaining makes us feel kind of bitter and tight inside. Look and see for yourself!

Of course, wanting to complain but restraining yourself feels unpleasant, like trying to hold in a fart at a dinner party. It’s a good thing to do, but it’s not a comfortable feeling! It can be a relief when you give up the effort and just let out your snarky comment. But that relief is temporary. Complaining really doesn’t makes us feel good. And the discomfort of holding in our complaints is temporary too. As we get used to complaining less, we’ll start to experience the benefits. And so will those around us!

So I suggest that you give this a go. See if you can become more aware of your complaining. The point is not to notice how often other people complain! (Strangely, this is often an early response to practicing ethics.) Nor is the point to give yourself a hard time when you catch yourself in the middle of a rant. When you do notice that you’ve been complaining, or are about to complain, just take a breath and let go. Maybe you’ll think of something skillful to say, maybe not. But each time you do this at least you’ll be taking a small but important step toward living with joy and appreciation.

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More thoughts on remembering to be happy

Three children jumping joyfully into a lake.

Recently I wrote a piece saying that I’m making a effort to remember to be happy. When I say that I need to remember to be happy, what I mean is that I need to pause, be mindful, and notice if there’s anything I’m doing that is inhibiting my well-being. Often I do this through asking the question, “Could I be happier right now?”

Often when I ask this question I find, in fact, that I’m being a bit willful and overly intense in the way I’m working. I get very focused on the thing I’m doing (writing an article, for example) and lose touch with how I’m feeling while I’m doing that task. Consequently I’m a little unhappy, or at least less happy than I could be.

When I become aware that there’s tension and unhappiness in my experience, I can relax my effort, allow myself to become more playful, allow the body to soften, and drop down to my heart, notice how I’m feeling, and be a bit kinder. Sometimes when there’s an uncomfortable feeling present I’ll just sit with it, allowing it to be there. Sometimes it shifts, and sometimes it doesn’t. Whether it does or not doesn’t matter.

The difficult thing is remembering to do this! When I’m very focused on getting stuff done, I can forget to broaden my awareness out and to become more mindful. Ideally I’d like to have the question: “Could I be happier right now?” pop into my mind at least a couple of times an hour during the course of the day. I’d prefer that this happened organically, rather than with the aid of a timer, but I don’t rule out the use of some kind of artificial aid like that.

For me, the word “happy” in the question “Could I be happier right now?” is just shorthand. I don’t literally expect to be full of joy all the time. For me the word happiness stands for a constellation of qualities, including calm, peace, an awareness of feelings, acceptance, and a sense of well-being. Actual happiness (joy, contentment, even bliss) may be a part of what arises when I allow myself to relax and be at ease, but it’s kind of like a delicious side-dish to a satisfying main course of well-being. It’s lovely to have it, but the meal is just fine without it.

Also see:

There is in fact more than one type of happiness. In the Aristotelian tradition, there was hedonic happiness and eudaemonic happiness. Hedonic happiness arises from having pleasant experiences. For example you can find hedonic happiness through having a large and beautiful house, being surrounded by lovely objects, going out to bars and restaurants, partying, socializing, doing exciting sports, shopping, etc. Eudaemonic happiness, on the other hand, arises from a life lived well. It arises from living ethically, being honest, being kind, helping others, being patient,feeling that our life has purpose and meaning, etc. We don’t pursue eudaemonic happiness directly, because that would be self-defeating. Eudaemonic happiness is not a goal, but a side-effect of pursuing the goal of living a good life.

From the point of view of hedonism, spending time helping in a soup kitchen would make you unhappy, since you’re not just working, but also coming into contact with poor and probably unhealthy people. In fact, for the eudaemonist, this activity is deeply satisfying. Again, to the eudaemonist, bearing patiently with suffering is an activity that will lead, in the long term, to a sense of wellbeing. To the hedonist, suffering is simply to be avoided.

Although you might think that happiness is happiness, however it arises, hedonic and eudaemonic happiness even have different physiological effects. A 2013 study by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that hedonists and eudaemonists who self-reported high levels of happiness had very different patterns of genetic expression. The hedonists showed high levels of expressions of genes related to inflammation (which is commonly used as a marker for general health), while the eudaemonists had much lower levels. In other words, doing good seems to be beneficial for your health in ways that merely feeling good can’t.

Buddhism is a eudaemonic tradition, and so when I talk about happiness I mean eudaemonic happiness. Perhaps my question should not be “Could I be happier right now?” but “Am I doing anything right now that is inhibiting my well-being, and can I let go of doing that?”

Bodhipaksa

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