Category Archives: morals

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

Does meditation make you docile? Or powerful?

Over the past decade in the U.S. the teaching of meditation has been tried and found valuable in the workplace, in prisons and in schools. It is recommended by doctors and taught in hospitals because, as shown on this chart, it has been proven to have many physical health benefits. Recently one of my teachers, author and Spirit Rock co-founder Jack Kornfield was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. And this week’s Time magazine cover article is ‘The Mindful Revolution’. Meditation has definitely become part of the mainstream American experience.

More and more people are taking the opportunity to turn off electronics and find some alone time to center in and savor the spacious silence. Before radio, television, computers, iPods, etc., our ancestors had easier access to natural periods of quiet solitude, fulfilling a basic human need. Now with every waking moment plugged in, that solitude has to be purposely created. So it’s not surprising that meditation has been fully embraced at this time in history.

At the beginning of this trend in the West, some religious leaders thought the practice of meditation was a foreign religion that would, by its nature, turn people away from God. Since in practice it can actually deepen one’s understanding of whatever spiritual tradition one follows, that concern has died down considerably, and the more contemplative aspects of Christianity and Judaism have been enlivened by a new understanding of their value.

But still, ‘new’ things are scary, especially for those who hear about them but don’t try them to see for themselves. So the latest concern making its way around the blogosphere is whether meditation is being offered and encouraged by corporations in order to make workers docile.

Well, good luck with that! Meditators are doing an active practice that increases awareness of the natural moral compass within each of us. They are the least likely people to mindlessly do someone’s bidding, especially if that bidding encourages them to violate that moral compass.

It is part of the meditation practice to notice, question and calm our reactivity to external experience. So is meditation sedation?

Hardly! At the same time that we are less reactive to external experience, meditation also creates awareness that empowers us. We see how in each moment we have choices. By training our minds to stay present, we develop mindFULLness, not mindLESSness.

We actually have the power when we are being mindful to change the energy in a space, to awaken others to the present moment and to a sense of loving-kindness based on common bonds and interconnection. From this sense of ‘all in this together’ and no sense of ‘us against them’, we as a community are able to accomplish things that benefit all life.

I have seen it happen first-hand in my own community. It is fairly typical to say you can’t fight city hall, but the citizens of my neighborhood had decided to try. The first meeting descended into rancor with one neighbor storming out in the middle because he didn’t feel his position was being heard. While speaking with the meeting leader afterwards, I suggested she might want to be more inclusive and less angry. So she put me in charge of the next meeting. (You’d think I would know when to be silent!)

The purpose of that next meeting was to prepare ourselves to speak to the town council about our concerns. It was important to represent all the concerns, but not repeat them, causing the mayor to feel they had heard enough, and end the session. So as neighbors arrived for this preparation meeting they were asked what their main concern was and what experience, skills and resources they had to address that concern. Then they were sent to the table that matched their primary concern. Each table then brainstormed to come up with compelling facts, create brief statements; then they chose the person at their table best equipped to represent that idea to the town council, and made sure that person had everything they needed to do a great job.

The city council was impressed by the well-coordinated, clear-spoken, friendly and civilized nature of our presentation, and they let us deliver it with a thoroughness that would not have otherwise been possible. I was delighted to see democracy in action in the way it was meant to be done.The council decided to delay the vote, do more research and meetings within the community, and eventually most of our concerns were met and compromises were made. We each have this capacity to make a difference in this way, and the responsibility as citizens to do so.

The electronics of our age may distract us from quiet time, but they also activate our awareness of our intrinsic interconnection. And, while electronics can be seriously misused, we are also, and I believe more often, able to respond with loving kindness, sometimes in a very big way. I love all the flash mob musical and dance events that seem to erupt and delight spontaneously! And remember a few months ago when when the whole city of San Francisco came together and recreated itself as Gotham to give a Make a Wish Foundation child a unique and special experience of being Batkid for a day? There were more beneficiaries than just that child. All who participated in making his dream come true felt empowered and enriched by the experience. All of San Francisco felt the awe and wonder of being part of something so purely loving. All of the world could stand witness to the power of love and collective imagination.

As more people become mindful, and have their fears of ‘other’ replaced by an understanding that we are all expressions of the same life force, whether we call it ‘God’ or energy or don’t name it at all, then we are more empowered to face the challenges of our times with a life-loving enthusiasm.

I imagine there are people who believe that meditation is a means of escape from the challenges of worldly life. They go off into some dream-world and find rest. But this is not the form of meditation that we do, and escape is not the purpose of Insight Meditation. Quite the opposite! We challenge ourselves to be fully present for whatever arises in this moment. Sometimes that is very difficult because we find ourselves squirming and uncomfortable in our body or mind. Sometimes it may feel impossible. In a moment of major crisis, we may feel like we are falling apart. But then, as crisis-mode passes, we have our practice of compassion to rely on as we tend our brokenness with loving kindness, and find we are able to come face to face with what is going on in this moment, again and again. We reset our intentions to be present, anchored in physical sensation, to be compassionate with ourselves when we find we are not, and to be compassionate with others when they seem to be caught up in reactivity and fear.

This is not mindlessly chewing our cud, ignoring what is going on. We are fully engaged but in a way that takes into account the understanding that life is impermanent, that we are all interconnected, and that we create suffering through clinging, grasping and pushing away.

The Moral Compass
Another way to recognize that meditation is not docile, is to look at the last three aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path that we just finished exploring. Wise Action, Speech and Livelihood, are pretty specific as to what is okay and not okay. These three constitute the moral component of the Eightfold Path, and of the Buddha’s teachings in general.

If we have a regular practice of meditation that allows us to access our intrinsic sense of connection so that we care about the well being of all, and if we include this moral component to our inner investigation of the way of things, then we find we have a moral compass, or if you prefer, a pitch-perfect tuning fork, to recognize when something is harmful. In fact, our bodies register when something feels wrong — whether we have said or done something unskillful, or whether we are able to see that our work is not wise livelihood. We can physically feel it if we are paying attention!

Docile? I don’t think so!

Any company that provides opportunity for meditation to its workers will ultimately be glad of it. Although it’s impossible to define common traits of any group, people who meditate regularly are more likely to enjoy teamwork than if these same people did not meditate. They are less likely to whine, gossip or sabotage. As mentioned earlier they have the capacity to change the energy in a meeting or in a company from rancorous to collaborative.

Regular meditators are healthier than the average person so they will be on the job. They are steadier and more balanced than they would be without meditation, so the climate of the workplace is more conducive to reaching clear and reasonable goals. I mention reasonable, because a meditator is unlikely to be driven by fear, or the belief that some future moment will create personal happiness. A meditator is more likely to be present, to question assumptions, to be an active listener, a creative problem-solver and a clear-sighted leader (though it might help if they are a Toastmaster too!) If the company is providing a useful product or service, has fair business and employment practices, then offering meditation practice to its employees is indeed a very wise move. But please, don’t expect docility!

Now let’s talk what everyone is talking about: The weather!
Mindfulness empowers us to cease suffering. We begin by noticing it in the first place. 
For example, we are in drought here in the Bay Area, and the hills that usually turn green in the winter are brown because we have had hardly any rain, and what little we did was way back in the early autumn. I have noticed that I suffer this drought. I suffer seeing the dryness. I suffer worrying what this will mean, how long the drought will last, and how our garden will survive, etc.

In the meantime, the sky is blue, fruit trees are blooming, the sun is shining and the air is delicious. There is nothing I can do to make the drought stop. I have the power to conserve water more consciously than ever, but nothing I can do will make the rain come any sooner. I heard someone on local news refer to this warm pleasant weather as ‘a guilty pleasure’.

I do feel guilty, and so many people I talk to during the day seem to feel it as well. As beautiful as the weather is, we get caught up in this sense of distress. What causes me distress is my fear of the future. When I am purely in the present moment, I am mindful of limited resources, but also enjoy the weather while it lasts.

If you live in Marin County, CA, here’s a link to the MMWD 25% voluntary reduction request.

If you live in an area that has been experiencing record cold or record heat, I send you metta (loving-kindness)! Be mindful and take extra good care of yourself.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference
The power is in doing what we can, accepting what we can’t change. Hey, that sounds like the beginning of the AA serenity prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Our practice of meditation and our exploration of the Buddha’s teachings helps us to understand the difference between what we are empowered to do and what conditions we learn to accept with grace.

The Five Precepts – Intrinsic to Right, Wise or Spacious Action

We’ve been exploring the Action aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, with the specific focus of how using the word ‘spacious’ affects our understanding.

No exploration of this aspect would be complete without discussing the Five Precepts. These are the vows we take at the beginning of a retreat, but they are also commitments we make as Buddhist practitioners.

The first is to refrain from harming or killing. At first glance this seems easy for most of us. We have no wish to shoot or maim. But of course as we sit with what this means, it unfolds to reveal the myriad ways we might be causing harm or even killing without intention to do so. We use the skillfulness and wisdom that we have developed through our practice and through life experience to help us see more clearly. We accept that sometimes our actions will be unskillful, momentarily unmindful and operating out of life long habits, or simply unable as yet to see the harm we may have caused. We use each experience as a lesson to learn from, to increase our sense of connection and understanding. We make reparations as best we can, and then we let it go.

The second precept is to refrain from stealing or taking what is not freely given. Again, at first glance this seems easy for most of us. We have no urge to rob a jewelry store. But as we sit with what this means, it unfolds to reveal the myriad ways we might be taking from others without their having offered it. This is more often true with the people who are closest to us, where we may assume the right to take or even feel they have the obligation to give to us. Our expectations about what constitutes an intimate relationship get in the way of seeing clearly that we are taking what has not been freely given. This is a valuable area to observe. For some of us there may also be a gray area around theft when it comes to large corporations or faceless institutions. In a state of disconnect we cannot see how what we are doing hurts anyone. But as we look more closely we begin to see all the ramifications of our actions, and see that even ‘minor’ theft has affected us all. The fabric of trust is broken and, for example, safeguards to prevent such activity create hassles to deal with for everyone.

The third precept is to refrain from misusing our sexuality. Perhaps we have been careless, hormone driven and hard-hearted, harming others and ourselves through our actions. Sexuality can also be used to lure, promote and satisfy an agenda, and all of these uses are unskillful.

The fourth precept is to refrain from speech that is unkind or untruthful, and we will be covering this when we discuss the Speech aspect of the Eightfold Path.

The fifth precept is to refrain from intoxicants that cloud the mind and judgment, thus making it more likely that we will break the four previous vows. Intoxicants also inhibit our ability to end the very suffering we are trying to escape from by using intoxicants.

For each of these precepts, at first they may seem simple but then seem more complex and challenging, but ultimately each becomes a key to liberation. As we let go of behaviors that are harmful to ourselves and others we are freed from the guilt, shame and anguish caused by unskillful, mindless or habitual behavior.

Yes, this is clearly a list of ‘don’ts’ or ‘thou shalt nots’ but it’s also more importantly a list that helps us to clarify how we create suffering and how, at the very least, we can refrain from doing so.

Our meditation practice helps us to develop an understanding of connection, and to be responsible for how we impact others, as well as how we respond when the unskillfulness of others impacts us. Do we give others the power through their actions to cause us suffering? Do we feel the need to make sure others are taking and living up to these precepts? It is important to remember that these are vows we take for ourselves, not to enforce in others and not to become self-righteous, which is surely a cause of suffering. So those are the precepts. If you want to commit them to memory, you could make a simple list of them to have with you to ponder, and to set your intention. As people living in the busy world of infinite interactions we have many more opportunities to err and rededicate ourselves to these vows, so it helps to keep them close.

Or perhaps you are not interested in another set of ‘commandments’ and the precepts are not of interest to you right now. That’s fine too. When you are ready for them, they will definitely be available for you!

Meanwhile, we are wrapping up our Spacious Action discussion. As I’ve been experimenting with adding this word ‘spacious’ to Right or Wise Action, I have found it to be very useful. I suggested to the class that each meditator take a specific area of action to focus on for the duration of our exploration. I focused on my challenging relationship with food. I had come to a place where I recognized that the marshal law that I had to lay down in order to keep my weight down was not meeting my intention to be compassionate. So I was searching for a way to be conscious and healthy, while appreciating Bobby McFarrin’s line ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time but it’s painful.’ This addition of the word ‘spacious’ seems to be helping me. For example, I have learned I can simply make more physical space between food and me, as well as more space (time) between the impulse to eat and the actual action. I can make more space between bites, thus slowing down my habitual speed-eating. And I can also have thoughts of food take up less space in my life. Noticing a food thought, I visualize it in a bubble in the space of my mind and allow it to come into a more proportional relationship as I watch it shrink down to a much smaller. This last one seems especially helpful, as part of my resistance to past marshal plan type diets is how all-consuming they become, so that conversations stray off into discussions of diet techniques, life is measured by the bathroom scale, and I’m suddenly all goal-oriented and checking myself out in the mirror every two minutes. I’m just not interested in going through all that, and my body agrees as it has firmly resisted rewarding me with sustainable weight loss on any diet I have tried over the past few years, whereas in younger years shedding pounds was as easy as …well you get the gist.

With spaciousness we can pay kind attention to how we react or respond to any person or situation, and notice our patterns of behavior. And if we find they are unskillful, we return to our intention to be present in this moment – not dredging up the past as an excuse for present behavior – and our intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others. As much as we are able in this moment, we act out of these intentions.