When we sit down to meditate, we may sometimes (or often) find ourselves struggling and tumbling through painful memories, thoughts, feelings — guilt, shame, anger, regret — over words spoken or unspoken, over deeds done or not done.
In fact, a lot of the ‘work’ of meditation, a lot of the ‘path to liberation,’ involves increasing our capacity to be with these types of painful or difficult thoughts and emotions. We are training ourselves to allow thoughts to arise, be seen/felt/experienced with an air of compassion and acceptance, without reacting, without acting out.
In this process of allowing, we might (we hope to) gain insight into what Buddha called the three marks of our existence: the impermanence (anicca) of all conditioned phenomena (thoughts and feelings come and go); the pervasive dissatisfaction (dukkha) of this impermanence (that comes as a result of clinging to the pleasant and resisting the unpleasant); and the essence-less, self-less/non-self (anattā), interdependent nature of phenomena (thoughts and feelings are not personal, they are conditioned – by many factors, including our being human, other thoughts/beliefs, etc).
However, although we can consider the turbulence of strong feelings to be a kind of grist for our spiritual mill, we still aim over time for calmness — to reduce the turbulence of our internal experience. When the mind calms and settles (over a period of weeks, months, years), we continue to have access to seeing these three marks, and we begin to see them with increasing clarity. Think of the water on a lake, as the waves settle and the surface of the water becomes calm, it reflects with more clarity. Our mind is similar, and as it settles we are able to see its inner workings more clearly.
If we rely on only our formal practice of sitting to bring clarity and calmness, which may be only a few minutes a day, we will find it difficult to make much progress. The practice of the following ‘Precepts’ is given in Buddhism as a set of personal ethical guidelines that we can undertake both on and off the cushion.
By mindfully engaging with these, we begin to create the conditions for what is known as the ‘bliss of blamelessness.’ In short, we learn to become aware of how our thoughts, speech and behaviours affect ourselves and others, and we naturally move away from harm and toward kindness, simplicity and peace.
Buddhist Ethical Guidelines
We undertake the practice to:
- Refrain from harming living beings
- Refrain from taking that which is not freely given
- Be wise and careful with our sexuality + sensuality
- Use speech thoughtfully – check the three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
- Refrain from using intoxicants to the point of heedlessness
A few things to keep in mind:
We are in training and the point is not to do it perfectly, but to become increasingly mindful of how we are thinking, speaking and behaving.
These are guidelines for our behaviour towards both ourselves and others. They are not a rule-stick by which we judge the behaviour of others. As they say in popular culture right now, ‘you do you.’
As you practice with these guides, take note of intentions that accompany your thoughts, speech and actions. For example, you can look to see if any of the 3 roots of suffering is arising: greed (desire), hatred (aversion), or delusion (ignorance).