Category Archives: meditation

Hey, hey, what’s that sound?

“The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” – Abraham Lincoln

El Jardin, San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX

What noises irritate you? I was asked this question by a recent survey about ‘noise pollution’ so it brought up a lot of thoughts about our relationship with sound. In Mexico a local once told me that when you don’t have much stuff, noise is stuff. It’s free and you can make as much of it as you want. It fills you up.

Huh! I had certainly never thought about it that way, but it was a kind of invitation to open to a different way of relating to sound.

It was challenging because, especially as a meditator, I think of silence as nourishing. In my culture, personal music is enjoyable, while other people’s choices may be perceived as an intrusion. Wealth is not a bounty of noise but an ability to build a buffer from noises made by others. The richer we are, the thicker our walls, the more panes on our windows and the more acres between us and the world around us — all that traffic and other aggravating noises. So when an American university thinks up a survey, they title it ‘noise pollution’ without even considering that not everyone has a negative bias against sounds.

How we are in relationship to the sounds all around us is an important indication of how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Are we making an enemy of it? And if so, how does that affect us?

In meditation, silence is something we cultivate within. It’s not useful to expect that the world around us should comply with our decision to be quiet. Outside life goes on. Noise goes on. When leading a guided meditation, I suggest allowing a sound to be experienced as pure sound, as if it’s a note or an instrument in a symphony: The Symphony of Now — this unique moment of never-to-be-repeated-in-just-this-way sounds. Can we simply be with the experience of sound instead of getting caught up in thinking about what is making the sound — someone slamming a car door, hammering, talking, barking, playing loud music, etc.? If so, we can be more at ease and less likely to tense up with displeasure. We don’t have to get caught up in thoughts about the source of the sound, who’s to blame, why are they making that sound, there ought to be a law, and how long will this go on.

Even if it’s a pleasant sound — bird song or gentle rain, for example — can we allow it to simply be sound? Can we be present without getting lost in trying to identify the type of bird, scolding ourselves for not being able to, or getting caught up in thinking about how the local cats are decimating the bird population?

In Mexico I brought my meditative attention to listening to all the sounds as I sat in the town square. At different times of day and evening so many sounds happen all at once: several Mariachi bands playing on different corners, teenagers with their own music for break dancing, hawkers calling out their wares, children yelling and laughing, lots of conversations, and the church bells ringing at the quarter hour. So much sound everywhere! But as I sat and allowed myself to really listen for fifteen minutes más o menos every day over the course of a few weeks I began to be able to hear the various sounds as if tuning into multiple channels at once, each one distinct and clear, and together a wondrous symphony. This exercise completely changed my relationship with sound. And in changing my relationship, I noticed a difference in my whole body — a release of tension and a rising of ease and contentment.

Since the people in the square don’t make an enemy of sound, it is reasonable to assume that it doesn’t cause stress in their bodies, and therefore, that noise in and of itself is not necessarily bad.

While I believe that to be true, there are situations when I am not able to be so blissful, especially if I am trying to sleep. I didn’t catch a wink in a midtown Manhattan hotel with 24 hour construction right across the street. I tossed and turned and got sucked into thoughts about who’s to blame for this and how could they be so rude? How could the hotel put us in this room? How could the city allow for this noise in the middle of the night? But then I would get moments of recognition that I was the one who was caught up in angry thoughts. I was the one who was making myself miserable. But hey, I’m not the enemy either. And my mindfulness training was insufficient to the task of overcoming a lifetime of discomfort with ‘noise pollution’ in certain situations.

The pattern of thoughts we experience when something’s bothering us happens not just about sound, but about anything that we make the enemy. Anything, anyone or any idea that causes tension, sets us on edge, and fills our thoughts with hatred, is a perceived enemy. Big or small, we all have them. Maybe they are pet peeves or maybe they are major threats to our well being. Or maybe they are convenient scapegoats for something else altogether. But whatever they are, they affect us. We internalize them. We suffer from how we are in relationship to them.

Billboard Blues
In the 1980’s I worked in advertising. Some of the time the work felt like play because I got to use my writing and visual design skills, and my colleagues at the agency were fun to work with. But over time, as I became more and more skilled at developing campaigns, I began to see how insidious advertising is. What skill was I developing? The ability to use psychology and an understanding of human’s innate negativity bias to activate fear and craving, and to promote our clients’ products and services as miracle cures to assuage that fear.

I remember preparing for a presentation to a well-known manufacturer of locks. Given the nature of the product, the proposed campaign had to be rooted in fear — the fear of someone breaking into your home — otherwise why would you bother buying a lock? And even though I understand that these are needed devices and that this manufacturer is very good at making them, I felt a lot of resistance to taking the company on as a client. I did not want to be a purveyor of fear. So when we didn’t get the client, there was definitely some relief mixed in with agency-shared disappointment of not getting such a prestigious client. Then I began to see how promoting even pleasant products, was actively playing on people’s fears. Not the fear of home invasion, but the fear of not being enough, not looking good enough, not being perceived as successful, etc.

By the end of my time at the ad agency, which I had to leave because I had become physically ill with an autoimmune disease, I had written for myself an eight-page treatise on the evils of advertising. I tossed it after writing it, as if it was toxic. I just needed to get it out of me as catharsis and the beginning of my healing. But it’s easy to see and reasonable to conclude that my perception of advertising as evil, as enemy, put such stress on my body, so much tension day after day, that it was at least partially responsible for my illness. Through rest, meditation, self-discovery and a good doctor, I recovered within a year. Mine is a cautionary tale about having your work align with your core values, but also about how enemy naming and the resulting internal discord can make us sick.

It’s important to notice what happens when we make an enemy of anything. Our thoughts get locked, frozen and unyielding, whether we are defending something or finding fault with it. We lose sight of our common humanity and our shared desire to live together in peace and harmony.

In our meditation practice we are encouraged to greet all that arises with friendliness, and this applies to everything that arises, not just who or what we like or agree with. It’s skillful to notice when we have shaped an enemy, and skillful to notice the form it takes, how this enemy-making tendency needs a target. We identify a person or group of people who we deem responsible for whatever it is that we are opposed to. Tension rises up and strangles us. Our bodies react as if threatened, and over time reach a breaking point, because the enemy we have created is not fleeting but has taken up residence in our ongoing thoughts.

So then is making enemies the enemy? There’s got to be an enemy!
Or does there?
Can we allow for the possibility that all life is deeply interconnected and there is no ‘other’? Can we see how lashing out against a perceived enemy ends up harming ourselves even worse?

And yet there’s so much in the world that needs our attention! Can we find a way to attend it without aggravating the situation? Can we develop the ability to notice in a deeper and wider way, the way I learned to listen in that square in Mexico? Can we see the overall complexity of life ever changing, and learn to love life instead of constantly being in battle with it? If there are grievous wrongs being done, can we come forward with wise intention and wise effort, grounded in awareness and compassion, using wise speech and wise actions, to greet it?

If not, we are entangled in the thrall of blind misery, entangled in confusing thoughts that cause us terminal tension.

Exercise

  • Close your eyes and imagine someone or something you think of as enemy, even if you might not use that word. It might be some annoyance or aggravation. It might be a person. It might be a concept. It might be people in general who do certain actions that drive you crazy.
  • Now do a little inquiry: When I bring this enemy to mind, how do I feel in my body? Is that feeling sustainable? Do I make wise choices from this feeling? Or do I spiral down into stronger negative emotions? Do I imagine doing harmful things? Do I become someone I would steer clear of on the street?
  • Notice any tension in the body and relax and release it to whatever degree you are able. If you are comfortable doing metta – lovingkindness practice, send metta to yourself and then to your perceived enemy. May I be well, etc. May you be well, etc.

When we make an enemy of someone, aren’t we just adding to the suffering that makes them behave as they do?

When we make an enemy of an idea, do we make it too scary to look at closely? It becomes locked in and casts a huge shadow in our minds.
When we make an enemy of anything, aren’t we assuming we have an all-encompassing view of all times and places, that we know exactly how things will turn out. Can we make room for the possibility that all that arises has a role to play and that we don’t know for sure if what we label enemy may be what needs to happen to stir up an awakening of consciousness.

How often have you been surprised by the way things turned out? We rarely see things coming. We’re often caught off guard, even though we were so busy watching out for the enemy.

But it’s equally important to remember that our healthy desires for peace, justice, fairness and well being for all life are also part of the ongoing unfolding of life, so engage! But see if you can do it from the fullness of your heart rather than the tight knot of your fear. Perhaps together we can gently but powerfully creating a loving consciousness that is so needed right now, and always.

I leave you with an example of a very creative non-enemy-making way to shed light on something without making an enemy of it. This is not to promote this politician, but to simply share her fresh take on how to engage productively.

You are not broken and you don’t need fixing.

This YouTube video of two teenagers who have never seen a rotary phone before is fun and fascinating to watch. For those of us who grew up using rotary phones dialing is just second nature. Even if we haven’t used one in years, we know without question what to do. Kids today think of smartphones, tablets and computers in the same way, so it’s difficult for many of them to be patient with elders when they struggle to learn new technology. They don’t get what the challenge is. Now these two boys, trying to use this earlier technology, get it for sure!

Watch and enjoy!

After you’ve watched the video, here’s a question for you:

Is that rotary phone broken?

No! It works perfectly well. But there’s no operating manual for it and these young users had to figure it out on their own, naturally making lots of mistakes along the way. Sound familiar? We are not broken. We function perfectly well. But none of us came with manuals. We are all doing the best we can to figure out how to function. Hopefully we are willing to spend more than a few minutes at a stretch. Hopefully we don’t give up and decide not to bother.

If you are a parent you may remember leaving the hospital with your first child, feeling some degree panic and astonishment that the nurses allowed you to leave without your knowing how to take care of this tiny fragile bundle of vulnerable living breathing (for now!) being.

Of course there are books on child rearing and no doubt most prospective parents read them, but it just doesn’t prepare you for the real deal, does it? And advice changes from generation to generation, from ‘let them cry’ to ‘pick them up’, from benign neglect to helicopter parenting. There are also lots of relatives and people in the grocery store all too happy to give advice. But it’s all conflicting advice! And it often feels like it comes with so much judgment. Finally you just have to find your own way and do the best you can. Right?

Without that operating manual, it’s no surprise that many of us grow up befuddled with this assignment called life. We may feel unlovable, unseen and misunderstood. We may have a difficult time finding contentment, connection, meaning or even a sense of safety in our lives.

When we seek help we find advice that tells us how to fix ourselves, change ourselves, transform ourselves into some ideal version of a human being. We wonder “What’s wrong with me?” and then, to top it off, people around us may be happy to make a list!

But we are not broken and we don’t need fixing.
It’s more useful to think of ourselves as a mysterious technology we’re learning how to use. We may fumble a lot, but over time, by paying attention we get little insights and we begin to have a clearer sense of how we function. There is help available from wisdom teachings, like the Buddha’s, but he’s most famous for saying something to the effect of ‘Don’t take it from me! See for yourself.’ But he taught us how to sense in and see, and to have self-compassion. And that makes all the difference.

Practicing mindfulness we start to notice how much better we feel when we meditate regularly, and we notice a falling away of that sense of equanimity when we forget to practice for a while. We are each learning our way, writing our own little operating manual, seeing what works for us and what doesn’t, what helps and what harms us.

We learn how to greet what arises with friendliness and an understanding that this too shall pass. We notice the patterns of our thoughts, thickly woven with the stories we tell ourselves about our personal histories. Instead of getting paralyzed with fear, we gently shine the light of awareness and compassion.

We are not broken.
Just like that rotary phone, we work perfectly well. But we may be unclear how to dial up the connection we crave, that sense of being fully present in this moment, full of compassion for ourselves and others. Ring! Ring! This present moment calling! May we remember to come back to simply paying attention to whatever is arising with patience, curiosity and gratitude for this gift of life.

When things trigger painful memories

When I’m studying French on the Duolingo app, sometimes I find myself thinking about a restaurant where we recently met up with family members. Why? I was early and used the time to finish up my lesson while we waited for them, and now the restaurant and Duolingo are linked in some mental thought thread in my head.

Why am I telling you this? Because we all have lingering thoughts in our minds that come up in certain situations, and it’s skillful to notice what they are and if they are upsetting, which this example was not, to find a way to process them.

You are probably familiar with Marie Kondo and her books and Netflix series about tidying up. She is different from typical organizers because her emphasis is on paying attention to the thoughts that come up when you hold an object — a piece of clothing, for example. She has her readers and viewers ask themselves, ‘Does this spark joy?’

For many the concept of sparking joy is difficult to grasp. A friend of mine said that she couldn’t get it until she discovered ‘a back door’ to understanding it. She was holding an old T-shirt she never wore but couldn’t think of a logical reason to get rid of since it was in good shape and fit. Then she realized that it reminded her of a very negative experience in her distant past. Spark joy? Quite the opposite! But it revealed the strong relationship between seemingly benign objects and complex mental processes.

Neuroscientists say we have a negativity bias, so it’s not surprising that it was easier for her to notice a bad feeling arising than a good one. But either way, once we see that connection, we are more attuned to noticing thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that crop up in reaction to certain stimuli. It’s not a big leap to purposefully pay attention and note if those feelings are positive or negative.

If negative, Marie Kondo says to thank the object and put it in a pile to give away. I like this respectful relationship with objects. Would it be as skillful to take that T-shirt and project all the unhappiness it reminds her of, and banish it from her sight? It’s more skillful to see that while the T-shirt has bad memories for her, it might provide a positive experience for someone else. Giving it away as an act of generosity and good will is a more empowering and pleasurable than banishment.

Noticing the connection between objects and mental formations is powerful. We can better understand how PTSD gets triggered, too. We are prone to thinking of post traumatic stress as something only soldiers in combat suffer. Certainly, their experiences are often overwhelming compared to what most of us go through. While we may experience severe trauma, it is unlikely we will experience it again and again, unless we are being repeatedly victimized and have no means of escape.

But many of us have experienced moments of fear, physical pain or other trauma. Long after these incidents have passed, we may relive the trauma when we are where it happened, in a similar situation or exposed to sensory triggers. But we may not even be fully aware that that is what is happening. We just suddenly feel fearful, sad, depressed, tense. Maybe it’s like the sun has just gone behind a cloud and everything is a little duller.

One personal example: Twenty or so years ago we had a power outage and the garage door had to be opened manually. My husband and daughter were leaving and I was staying home for the day. After they pulled out of the garage, I manually lowered the door from inside. Somehow in the process my finger got caught between two horizontal panels that interlock. The pain was excruciating. I screamed as loud as I could. I had to get immediate help. But would anyone hear me? My husband and daughter were inside a vehicle with the motor running and heading out. Our only near neighbor was gone for the day. In that instant I imagined spending eight hours stuck in pain, standing there helpless.

Fortunately, my daughter has amazing hearing, and they were able to rescue me. My finger wasn’t permanently damaged and we installed interior handles on garage door (and now plan to look into the backup batteries they have for them!) But every time I am around that garage door, that memory, that woozie feeling, that fear, are all present with me.

What about you? Have you ever been in a situation that was physically and/or emotionally painful? If so, have you noticed that whenever you are where it happened, memories arise with associated physical sensations? And if so, are these memories of a different quality than memories of benign events or pleasurable ones? Perhaps your experience doesn’t qualify as trauma to you, but regardless of its severity, the mind works the same way, and even though your experience doesn’t require therapy, it does benefit from noticing.

I have noticed that shining a light on that garage door experience of mine has somewhat neutralized my reactivity to being around the door. Simply noticing and registering how these mental connections happen can be of great benefit.

I am no expert in trauma, but as an insight meditation teacher trained to observe patterns of mental processes, here’s what I’ve noticed:

Trauma is an overwhelming experience that is challenging to release because it is a compressed period of intense senses and emotions. Therefore, we need to give ourselves more quiet time to process it all. We don’t necessarily have to sit still. We can walk, row, hike, do physical chores, etc. — but the mind has to have time to disengage from busy life and distractions.

Meditation enables us to cultivate a compassionate field of awareness where we can safely be present with even the most difficult emotional content. After periods of meditation, we are better able to see thoughts as threads passing through our current experience. We can see these mental formations as passing products of ongoing processes. They are not who we are. They do not define us. And they are not permanent if we are paying attention.

The more aware I am of my emotional reactivity to the garage door, the less it causes an emotional reaction. I am not trying to get rid of my feelings or change anything. Awareness is powerful. Add in some metta (lovingkindness) for ourselves and for the trigger location and for anyone else involved, and there will be even deeper healing.

In the case of severe trauma, there will likely be some self-protective fear that sabotages awareness, and makes us unwilling to go there — in Buddhism this is called the Dragon at the Gate. If you find yourself paralyzed at the gate of deep investigation that will free you to be fully alive in every moment, then consider finding a skilled therapist to act as a guide.

Noticing the pattern of our thoughts is one of the great benefits of meditation, and especially going on a silent meditation retreat. Befriending the dragon at the gate of awareness, we gain insight and the freedom to be fully alive in this moment.

GYR-8! The Gyroscope and the Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds


Last spring we looked at the Eight Worldly Winds: pleasure & pain, gain & loss, praise & censure, status & disgrace. Each of us is always in some relationship with these ‘winds’. If we are not experiencing them, perhaps we are chasing after them or running away from them.

You can notice this for yourself.  Consider each pairing in regard to your current state.

EXERCISE

Sense into your body to notice any pain you might be feeling, and then notice if there is any place that feels pleasant. Is there any pleasure your craving, maybe looking forward to a meal or an outing? Is there any pain you’re perhaps concerned might recur?

Looking at loss, perhaps you have lost a loved one. Looking at gain, perhaps there’s a new member of the family to love. Perhaps you have lost an ability, like your hearing or sight or physical stamina. Perhaps you have gained a new one, maybe from studying and practicing a new language or musical instrument. Perhaps the stock market has taken you on a ride, your bank account is dwindling or you have lost all your worldly goods in a disaster. Or perhaps you have received a financial windfall.

Looking at praise & censure, think about something nice someone said about you that made you feel good, something unkind that made you feel badly. Think about who you may be trying to please. Think about who you fear judging you. Take note of your own inner censor and how harshly it judges you.

Looking at status and disgrace, consider your ‘standing’ or reputation in your community — within your family, your group of friends, your profession, or the world, if you have ‘made a name for yourself.’ At this moment are you held in high regard? Do you actively build your reputation, polishing up your life on social media, perhaps? Or have you fallen into disgrace? Has your reputation taken a hit? Do you have a negative reputation that haunts you?  Is there a sense of people talking about you behind your back? And in either case how does it make you feel? Before saying or doing anything, do you take into consideration how it will affect your reputation?

If you did this exercise, it probably provided a lot to think about. If you don’t have time now to do it, bookmark this page for when you have more time.

Our relationship with these Eight Worldly Winds best illustrate how we cause ourselves suffering through craving and aversion. We tend to crave pleasure, praise, fame and gain. We tend to have an aversion to pain, blame, disgrace and loss. We’re programmed that way! And to a certain extent these instincts keep us from doing harmful things. But not doing something harmful because we are afraid of being blamed or getting a bad reputation is not as skillful or wise as not doing something because we care about all life. And it takes a lot more mental activity to keep gauging the external effects every time we do or say something than it does to cultivate compassion for ourselves and all beings.

The Eight Worldly Winds are the vicissitudes of earthly life. We can’t make them go away, but we can develop a skillful way to be present with them. Consider the gyroscope that I proposed in the last post as a simile for how we can maintain a balanced ethical way of being in the world. It is also a good way to think about how we can balance ourselves as these Eight Worldly Winds blow through.
The inner circle of the gyroscope, when spinning, keeps the gyroscope balanced regardless of what is happening in our lives. And how do we keep that inner circle spinning? Through the regular practice of meditation and quiet time for self-reflection.

READ MORE about the gyroscope simile

READ MORE about the Eight Worldly Winds

Happy Valentine’s Day!

In Mexico it is the day of love and friendship. In elementary school we give valentines to everyone. It’s only when hormones kick in that it becomes a special greeting to a heartthrob.

If you have a heartthrob, may you enjoy a sweet celebration of romantic love. If you don’t have a heartthrob, let this day not be one of lack, but one of love in a much broader sense! A day of loving your neighbor as yourself, a day of smiles for all you meet, a day of remembering that we are all tender souls who need kindness.

Feliz dia del amor y amistad a todos.

How to develop a moral compass…or a gyroscope

In the last post, I wrote about codes of ethics that guide us with a reliable set of rules to keep us out of trouble. As helpful as this code is, it takes an on-the-spot thought process that isn’t always convenient: First, we feel an impulse to do or say something; then we just do or say it, OR we pause and consider the ethical implications using our code of ethics. (This is where it helps to have a brief memorable code!) Then we either go ahead and do or say what we wanted, feeling assured it’s the right thing; or we back away, aware it was an ill-conceived impulse that would cause harm if indulged.

As beneficial as this process may be, in reality we are unlikely to pause to consider the ethical implications in every situation, given emotions, hormones, split-second demands, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and such. But the code of ethics is still there. Maybe we’ve stuffed it down so we won’t have to think about it, or maybe it’s grown larger, scolding us with its giant wagging finger. On some level we are aware of how we erred by ignoring our code of ethics. Now we feel badly, or at least some part of us does, and that starts an inner battle that makes us less and less happy. Guilt, regret, worry. You know the drill. If we’re lucky, it’s as simple as that, and we can seek to make things right through apology, restitution, etc. But often instead of seeing things clearly, we try to cover our tracks and justify our actions in all sorts of complex ways that further entangle us in shame, self-hatred, vilification of others, etc.

Oh my! What a help a reliable inner moral compass would be! It would save us the hassle of figuring all this out and referring to a list we left in the pocket of our pants when they went through the laundry, so now the ink is so blurry we can barely read it anyway. With an inner moral compass, we’d just know. Right? But is this something some people or born with and others are not? Do we all have the capability to develop such an inner sense?

The Buddhist code of ethics, the Five Precepts, enumerated in the previous post, is easy to remember, but that’s no guarantee, is it? Relying on any list as our sole guidance is going to produce random results. So Buddhism doesn’t just lay down the law. It provides a means of developing an inner moral compass.

The daily practice of mindful meditation and the practice of metta (universal loving-kindness), while not a panacea, strengthens our ability to develop an inner moral compass. If you have a regular practice, perhaps you have noticed that yourself. Just being more aware of physical sensation can help us notice the body’s strong hints that we’re entering questionable territory, or the way our thoughts begin to waver and weave stories, and the way our emotions get overwrought.

Even more profound a shift may be a growing sense of interconnectedness that naturally interferes with tendencies to gossip, lie, cheat, steal, etc. How clearly we can sense that any harm we do is to the whole fabric of life. Why would we despoil the web of our being?

But is what we develop through meditation really like a compass? There is another device that seems to me to be a better simile and that is the gyroscope.

A compass points to the magnetic north (which apparently is shifting!), but a gyroscope stays centered and upright in any situation. A compass is a tool to help us get somewhere else, while a gyroscope helps us to be here and now, able to handle any set of circumstances.

A gyroscope — used in aircraft to help keep them upright — on its own is just a set of metal circles with an axis. It’s only when the center circle (in this image, the solid gold one) is set to spinning that the gyroscope is suddenly able to right itself in even the most precarious circumstances.

It takes some action to set the gyroscope spinning, either a string that we wind and pull or some other mechanical means. In this simile, that ‘setting into motion’ is our regular practice of meditation. Of course the activity of meditation is calming and quieting, but something is being set into motion as well: awareness, compassion, clarity, concentration, kindness, a sense of interconnection and peace.

When we maintain a daily practice of meditation, we are better able to stay balanced regardless of external circumstances, just like the gyroscope.

So a code of ethics informs our wise intention and provides guidance, but it works best when paired with meditation practice, so that we can respond to what arises wisely instead of reacting impulsively. You might think of it as learning to dance with life instead of going into battle with it.

I would love to read your comments, your own experiences and any questions. – Stephanie

What code of ethics do you follow?

I recently saw the Japanese film Shoplifters and recommend it. I mention it here because it has an example of how we develop a code of ethics. The boy in the movie is taught that until an item is purchased it doesn’t belong to anyone, so it’s okay to take it. With this moral guidance in place, he feels fine about shoplifting for the family. But then he sees his foster father checking out cars with the clear intent to do a smash and grab. The boy says, “Hey, wait, don’t these cars belong to people?” This new facet of the family business doesn’t fit into the code of ethics he’d been taught. His world tilts on its axis as he begins to see things differently.

We each live by some code of ethics. The code our parents and culture teach us is likely more skillful than what the boy was taught. Perhaps we learned the Ten Commandments, perhaps the Golden Rule, or perhaps more along the lines of ‘What will the neighbors think?’ or ‘Don’t be a loser.’ It’s worth noticing our ethical underpinnings and how they play out in our daily decisions.

The other day I saw a driver pause at a red light, then make a left turn against the light when the traffic was clear. Did he figure that since no police were present to ticket him, he could disregard the law? These laws are, for the most part, an agreement we make as a community, so that, without having the benefit of being able to look each other in the eye or talk, we can fairly predict what another driver will do.

When someone does something that to me seems so blatantly wrong, I have to wonder if he is drugged or drunk or mentally unstable. Is there some rare circumstance that makes him think that it’s okay just in this instance? Is he rushing to someone’s aid, for example? How is he justifying his behavior to himself? Is this just the way he operates in the world, measuring risk against reward and taking chances? Does he not see the risk? Does he not care? Does he think the rules don’t apply to him?

I’ll never know, but it brings up an interesting exploration into ethical decision making. What rules do we follow, what ones do we ignore, and what if any justification do we give ourselves for doing so? If there are unjust laws, do we as citizens work to get them changed? Or do we just accept them or ignore them?

This kind of inner investigation is useful for anyone to do. If you have been doing the regular practice of meditation, you probably have a better ability to slow down and observe the pattern of thoughts as they arise, and to see the source of the particular pattern that gives or denies permission to do something. Is there a code, either obvious or implied, at the core of the choices you make or the justifications you offer up to explain it to yourself? If there is a code of ethics there, are you living by it? And if not, are you punishing yourself, judging yourself, feeling ashamed, or offering excuses to override your code? Such questioning is valuable in uncovering delusion and seeing how you may be creating inner discordance and unnecessary suffering.

Buddhism has a very clear ethical code. Among other teachings, there are the Precepts. These are vows taken at the beginning of a retreat. They are very simple and reasonable, and they help to assure the retreat runs smoothly. They are easy to remember and refer to throughout our lives: We agree to not harm any living being, to not take what isn’t freely given, to not lie or gossip, to not misuse our sexuality, and to not ingest anything that would affect clarity of mind. A very good set of ethical standards to live by all the time! The exact wording varies, but the Precepts are guiding principles of value.

Some of these Precepts may be easier to follow than others. ‘Do no harm’ precept may seem the easiest, because we have good hearts and aren’t killers; but upon further investigation this precept reveals itself to be quite challenging since we are constantly making choices of what we eat, purchase and do, and all these choices may adversely affect the lives of others or the planet. Setting the intention and making wise effort to live by a precept is in and of itself valuable. Any investigation into what it might mean can most effectively be done with loving-kindness instead of shame, fear and guilt. No one is perfect. We do not need to erase our footprint on the sands of life. But joy is more available to experience if we live in a way that causes the least possible harm to ourselves and all beings.

Following the Buddhist Precepts or any other code of ethics we consciously choose, informs the choices we make in every moment and how we are in relation to everything we do and everyone we meet. It is definitely worth discovering what code we are living by, whether it is working well for us, or if we are at odds with it and, if so how that affects our lives and the lives of those around us.

If this feels like a timely investigation for you, I hope you will share any insights or questions that come up.