One of the most attractive things about Buddhism is that it considers ethics to be based on the intentions behind our actions. This perspective is radical in its simplicity, clarity, and practicality.
When our actions are based on greed, hatred, or delusion, they’re said to be “unskillful” (akusala), which is the term Buddhism prefers over the more judgmental terms “bad” or “evil” — although those terms are used too, albeit mostly in the context of poetry. By contrast, when our intentions are based on mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, they’re said to be skillful (kusala).
For many people accustomed to systems of morality based on commandments, rewards and punishments, the Buddhist ethical perspective is liberating and refreshing.
But sometimes the idea that Buddhist ethics is about intention is seen in too narrow a way. The problem is that a deluded mind is trying to become aware of itself! We’re not always aware of our intentions, or may choose to fool ourselves about what our motivations really are. We develop ethical blind spots and adopt evasive strategies to justify our actions and to avoid change. Delusion keeps us tied to our current way of being and stops us from making spiritual progress.
One tool that the Buddha encouraged as a way of breaking out of ethical confusion is paying attention to the consequences of our actions:
Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.
If we notice that we’re harming others, or that we’re causing pain to ourselves — for example through inducing guilt — then we need to look more closely at our motivations, being open to the possibility that we’re not clear enough about our intentions. We need to look for and admit to hidden ethical agendas. I wrote about this recently in terms of the way some men harass women on the street, without being willing to look at the fact that their attentions are unwanted and cause suffering.
Another example is the way most people who eat meat say that they like animals. They don’t think of themselves as cruel. Most of them are shocked by actual cruelty and want animal abusers to go to jail. And at the same time, they pay people to abuse animals on their behalf. They don’t think of themselves as doing this, but when they buy meat they’re financially rewarding people who raise animals in stressful and unnatural conditions, transport them, terrified, long distances in trucks, herd them into a slaughterhouse, shoot them in the head, hoist them into the air by their back legs, cut their throats, and then disembowel and dismember them in preparation for being shrink-wrapped and sold.
Although there’s no overt ill intent when you pick up a steak at the supermarket, you’re paying for this whole process to happen — a process that causes affliction to others. And we don’t want to think about all this. We’re shocked by animal cruelty, so for example we don’t want to see videos of animals in slaughterhouses because we’d rather avoid being shocked. That way we can avoid the discomfort that comes from change.
If we’re going to take the Buddha’s teachings seriously as a guide for living, then we need to examine the harmful consequences of our actions, and then look for the hidden intentions and assumptions that drive those actions.
Implicit in buying meat are attitudes like, “You are more useful to me dead than alive,” and “I kind of like you, but I’m hungry, and so I don’t mind you being killed.”
The attitudes are rarely if ever experienced as overtly as that (and I’ve expressed them rather baldly here) but something like that is going on. I know. I used to eat meat.
Meat-eating is just an example. I’ve picked it because so many people who want to follow the Buddhist path fall into the trap of thinking that if their actions are not directly harming others, then there’s no ethical issue at stake. And I picked it because I really hope we can reduce the amount of suffering in our world.
The problem with discussing an issue like this, though, is that it’s emotive, and so the larger point — we should examine the consequences of our actions in order to clarify our hidden intentions — can get lost in our emotional reactions.
Setting aside any such reactions for the moment, the principle of examining the consequences of our actions extends into almost every aspect of our lives. One example is our interaction with the environment. I know that taking my car to work unnecessarily contributes to climate disruption. And I know that climate change causes suffering to people on the other side of the planet. And yet I still take the lazy route. This suggests that I care less about people if they live far away or if I don’t personally know them, and that I value my comfort over others’ wellbeing. My “forgetting” to do my share of the housework suggests that I have a sense of entitlement, and that I think other people’s job is to clean up after me.
The applications are endless; Buddhism is calling upon us to be radically compassionate, radically mindful of our actions.
The principle that reflecting on the consequences of our actions illuminates our unacknowledged motivations is rarely recognized, but it’s one of the most powerful teachings that the Buddha offered us.
The first arrow: Think of a time someone said something hurtful to you, and let’s try to break down what happened. A comment was made, and you probably experienced actual physical pain, most likely in the solar plexus or heart. (When the hurt is particularly strong, we sometimes say it feels like we’ve been punched in the gut, don’t we?)
What went on was that some fast-acting part of your brain believed you were being criticized or marginalized, and so identified the comment as a threat to your wellbeing. That part of your brain then attempted to alert the rest of the mind to this threat by sending signals to pain receptors in the body. This all happens in a fraction of a second, and automatically. You don’t “decide” to feel hurt.
This kind of hurt is an example of what, in a well-known teaching, the Buddha called “the first arrow.” We can try not to get shot by arrows, but emotional pain like we’ve been discussing, along with purely physical pain — as when we’re sick or injured — is unavoidable. Even the Buddha experienced physical and emotional discomfort.
The second arrow: The existence of a first arrow of course implies a second! The Buddha explained the “second arrow” as the way that the mind reacts to physical or emotional discomfort in ways that create even more pain. We do this by things like indulging in self-pity, thinking about how unfair it is that we got hurt, blaming ourselves, being critical of the other person, or rehashing the hurtful event over and over again, thinking about how we could have handled things differently. The mind compulsively returns to the painful event we’ve experienced, and every time we do so we cause ourselves yet more pain, because in remembering the hurt, we re-experience it. So as the Buddha said, this is like someone being hit by an arrow, and then reacting in a way that causes a second arrow to be unleashed. You probably did something like this after hearing the hurtful comment.
So there are these two arrows — two forms of pain.
The third arrow: But wait, there’s more! In the teaching of the two arrows, the Buddha talked about a third kind of pain: pain that’s deferred because of clinging to pleasure. This is less often talked about, perhaps because he didn’t offer a colorful image to illustrate it. I call this third form of pain the “third arrow,” and I’m going to supply the missing simile.
The Buddha gave a detailed explanation of how the third arrow works. He pointed out that when someone experiences the first arrow of unavoidable pain, he or she can feel resistance to the pain, and then “seek delight in sensual pleasure.” This is because, not having learned to work with the mind, the person “does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure.” When we act this way we create a pattern of avoidance and denial that leads to yet further pain in the future.
This third arrow is an important teaching regarding addictive behaviors. Who among us is not afflicted with compulsiveness? Drinking alcohol, eating “comfort food,” watching TV, endlessly reading posts on social media sites, browsing the web, checking our phones for new messages — these are all ways of getting hits of dopamine, a neurotransmitter central to the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. And each of these activities is an escape from a painful feeling that in all likelihood we barely acknowledged.
The “third arrow” of deferred suffering is like when a person has been hit by an arrow and sees yet another one coming, but chooses to ignore it. Pretending nothing’s wrong, he or she indulges in activities like eating, drinking, shopping, watching TV, and checking Facebook. It’s not that any of these things is necessarily very pleasurable in itself, by the way. The “pleasure” we feel is often more like the comfortable numbness of compulsive activity.
Of course we can ignore our pain for a while, but we can’t distract ourselves indefinitely. Eventually that airborne dart — the “third arrow” that we’ve been ignoring — finds its target.
Avoiding the third arrow
If we understand, as the Buddha put it, the “origin and passing away” of a painful feeling (the first arrow), then we can relate to it differently. We know it’s not permanent. We know that it will pass. We can simply experience it without aversion. And in the open space of mindfulness that we’ve created, a painful feeling arises and then passes away.
A recent study showed that painful feelings like shame, fear, and humiliation pass in mere minutes. The less we react with the second arrow of mental self-torment, the quicker painful feelings dissipate. Even if they last longer (the same study showed that sadness can be remarkably persistent), if we don’t respond with the third arrow of denial and distraction, we won’t simply be deferring the pain to some future time.
Putting this into practice
I can pretty much guarantee that within the next half hour you’re going to encounter some kind of dissatisfaction (boredom, hurt, confusion, frustration, etc.) and them immediately be tempted to pursue the next dopamine hit by indulging in some kind of escape activity.
See if you can be alert instead. See if you can stay with the discomfort. Tell yourself it’s OK to have this painful feeling. Recognize that it’s impermanent and that it’ll dissipate as we observe it mindfully. Stay with it long enough for it to dissolve. And when it does, the “third arrow” of deferred suffering will dissolve too, mid-flight.
Hopefully I’ll soon be trying out a demo model of the Muse headband, which according to the makers is like a heart rate monitor for your mind. In other words it gives you real-time feedback by detecting your brain signals during meditation, the same way you might use a gadget to monitor your heart rate during physical exercise.
Apparently this can help us to train the brain to be more focused, attentive, and calm. I’ll let you know how I get on. (In the meantime we’ve joined Muse’s affiliate program so you’ll see ads promoting it in our sidebars.)
At the recent Buddhist Geeks conference, where I gave a presentation, there were several other examples of tech related to meditation. Mikey Siegel talked about his BioFluent Technologies project, whose HeartSync audiovisual experience promotes a sense of empathy and closeness among individuals. Mikey talked about how neurofeedback might be used to bring people closer to awakening.
Neema Moraveji is the cofounder of Spire, “the first wearable to track and influence both activity and state of mind.” Spire monitors and analyzes your breathing patterns in real time to show when you are focused, tense, or stressed. It also tracks activities like walking. I think the benefits of something like this are obvious. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to take Spire for a test drive on the conference.
Jacob Redmond demonstrated the Emotiv Epoc headset, which was hooked up to a fun computer game in which you were meant to push a ball back into the screen. I tried this and completely bombed. Unfortunately the person who demoed the game to me didn’t tell me what I was supposed to do to make the ball move. I tried a variety of meditative approaches, only to find out afterward that you’re supposed to focus for the whole time on one thing. So what I’d been doing (switching techniques in order to find one that worked) was 100% the wrong thing to be doing!
I’ve been intrigued for some time by the possibilities that real-time brain monitoring offers to meditators. I think that often when people are meditating they’re headed in “the right direction” for a while but then get distracted. An external monitor can act like a mindfulness bell that’s basically saying “Hey, this thing you’re doing is good. Stick with it.”
The other day I wrote about how karma isn’t the mystical and external “cosmic force” that many people think it to be — a force that impersonally metes out rewards and punishments. In a crude form this amounts to thinking things like this: if you do good things the sun will shine on your picnic, and if you do bad things it’ll rain.
Instead, karma (according to the Buddha) is to do with the ethical status of our intentions and how those naturally lead to our becoming more mired in suffering or freed from it.
Karma is psychology: do this, and you’ll feel that. Karma is about how your mind changes and becomes happier when you’re less selfish and more generous, less angry and more loving.
The word karma is basically another term for Buddhist ethics.
But the idea that karma is intention can be misused. I’ve seen lots of people, bull-in-a-china-shop-style, hurt others and then say that they didn’t do anything unskillful because they didn’t have any intention to cause harm. Heck, I’ve done it myself. But that attitude represents a narrow take on karma (and ethics), and it doesn’t take into account the subtlety of the Buddha’s teaching. Bulls should either not visit china shops, or be very careful if they do.
Let’s look at a an example of how we might play the “I can’t have done anything unskillful because I didn’t have bad intentions” game. This one probably doesn’t apply to you directly, but it’s an illustration of the principle at work.
In this video Shoshana Roberts was filmed walking silently down the street by a friend with a hidden camera. Roberts was catcalled over 100 times in ten hours. That’s just the verbal interactions, not the whistles or stares. She was followed by one man who stalked her for five minutes, often staring intensely at her from the side and demanding to know what she thought of him. Some turned critical or aggressive when they didn’t get a flirtatious response in return: “Someone’s acknowledging you for being beautiful — you should say thank you more.”
Now, I’m pretty sure most, if not all, of the men who catcalled Roberts thought they had good intentions. They probably felt they were complimenting her. But the experience of having your appearance — to be crude, your ass — commented on (“I just saw a thousand dollars!”) over and over again can be distressing. Needless to say, being followed by a stranger can be very threatening.
I’d imagine (or hope) that there aren’t many people reading this blog who do anything as crude as cat-call strangers, but I’m sure in your own life you do things that cause distress to others. We become aware of these most often in regard to the people we live with. We might forget to tidy up after ourselves or not express appreciation. We don’t mean to do these things of course — but that’s the very point: if we’re interested in living ethically then we need to become more conscious of our deeper motivations. Becoming aware of how our actions affect others is how we discover unskillful motivations that we haven’t yet brought into consciousness
We need to be aware of not just what we think are our intentions, but to dig deeper. This is something the Buddha himself stressed:
Having done a verbal action, you should reflect on it: ‘This verbal action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful verbal action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful verbal action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.
Because the thing is, it’s not always easy to know our own intentions. It’s easy for us to fool ourselves. But if you know that many women don’t like being given random “compliments” on the street, then when you continue to do so it’s no longer about them, it’s about you. Your intention is revealed as not being about complimenting another person in order to do them a favor, but about expressing your (unwanted) attraction. It becomes about control: I want your smile, so I catcall; if you don’t give me what I want I’ll get nasty. It becomes about you imposing your will on another person — which is why the women involved in that video have received death and rape threats for having made it.
We can’t avoid causing harm or hurting people. The Buddha pointed out that sometimes we have say things that will cause distress. But he set a high bar for this: we have to consider, before we say such a thing: are our words true, are they expressed kindly, are they intended to help the other person, are they crafted in such a way that they’ll lead to harmony, and are they expressed at the right time (a requirement that implies a good knowledge of the other person’s state of receptivity)?
People were upset with the Buddha all the time! But it’s a noble effort to work on reducing the amount of pain we cause.
There’s a kind of brutal honesty required in looking for our real intentions. We really need to acknowledge the harm we’re doing, and if it doesn’t seem at first that we have any intention to harm, we need to look deeper. When we’re habitually causing distress or harm to others, then there’s some attitude there that needs to be brought to light.
Some weeks ago I read this book with my kids (a six-year-old boy and an almost-eight-year-old girl) several times now, and they enjoyed both the story and the images. But the book became especially relevant recently when my son developed the habit of kicking and punching his sister. That’s a phase a lot of kids go through, but it’s especially worrisome because he’s taking karate classes, and at some point he’s going to be able to do some serious harm.
So last night, when my son was getting mad, we picked up the book again, and read through it. he wanted to read the book out loud himself, and he was able to do so with only a little help. Daddy was proud!
After he’d finished with the reading we talked about some of the things we can do to calm down our anger when it pays a visit.
- We can breathe slowly and deeply.
- We can use our imaginations to picture ourselves floating and relaxing on the sea.
- We can relax the body.
- We can listen to the sound of our breathing.
Salom reminds the child that “As you pay attention, the Ogre will change form,” and in fact we see the red, swollen ogre deflating like a balloon and his contorted face dissolving into a smile as he becomes “friendly, gentle, and warm.”
“Next time it comes a-knocking, you’ll know just what to do. Invite the Anger Ogre to relax and breathe with you.
By the time we’d finished reading the book, my son was calm again. Success!
I’d highly recommend “When the Anger Ogre Visits.” The content is generally very practical, and the illustrations (by Ivette Salom) are colorful and entertaining. The one piece of advice for relating to the Anger Ogre that I think could have been clearer is this:
“If the Anger Ogre is still swollen, tense, and hot,
Offer it some honey of the sweetest kind you’ve got.”
This is a nice image, but we’re left guessing what it actually means. My own guess would be that the child thinks of something positive (perhaps a calm scene or a friendly face) but I’m sure other people will interpret this differently, that some will take the metaphor literally, and that yet others will be confused about what’s being suggested. The rest of the book, though, is crystal clear.
“When the Anger Ogre Visits” was pitched perfectly for my two kids. I’d imagine it would work with children from about three to eight or nine years old.