Developing Ethics Fit for Happier Humans
Happier = more real, authentic. positive content
Recap from week 2
Last week we looked at the Buddhist Wheel of Life, and saw that it is a deep set vicious circle, the way that our past rules how we act in the present, and how this in turn creates our future. However with awareness we can break into this cycle , see our habitual reaction and response arising, and respond more creatively. In doing so we can move to becoming the agent in our own lives. Without awareness and motivation we will just keep re-enacting old scripts, deepening our old patterns and ruts, ruled by our old conditioning and habits.
We saw that there is a point on the cycle of the Wheel of Life where we can break free from the past and set up new creative responses. We called this point The Gap, or the Point of freedom. With repeated effort these creative responses accumulate and gradually train our habitual responses in a positive happier trajectory, a positive spiral path emerges.
We saw that we can be in the gap by not responding in our usual way to our feelings of pleasure and discomfort that arise whenever the world pushes our buttons. As we practice we start to discern the likely outcome of our response behavior and chose a response with a happier outcome, rather than a response that feels more immediately comfortable or pleasant. So for happiness we don’t always just go for the thing that seems pleasant in the moment, and we don’t always just push away the thing that seems uncomfortable or unpleasant.
If we just go with feelings, without regard to consequences, we have no say in our life, no freedom. We are lived rather than living. We are like a machine. We just go round in the same old reactive circles, doing the same old things, until our ruts have become so deep there is no way out of them. So if we want to have any freedom, we need to develop attention to see how we are responding and chose the path to happiness not the path to immediate habitual comfort and unconsidered sense of security and pleasure.
Homework/ Reporting back. One aspect to change. How did we get on?
This week’s theme is: If we’re not going to guide our actions by what feels good, what should we use instead?
Developing well wishing and kindly awareness of others – The Metta Bhavana-
Link to the Body Scan and The Metta Bhavana notes
Developing Ethics Fit for Happier Humans
We saw last week that the Buddhist idea of consequence -karma- tells us that how we act in the present creates the person we will be in the future, and that this in turn determines how we will experience the world.
Now if we are going to change the momentum of our habits we will need to reflect on what is important and meaningful to us to give our conscious and unconscious mind a sense of direction.
One starting point in this could be to consider who and what in the world is significant and meaningful to us, me, and are examples of the direction you would like to develop in.
This week we are going to attend to considering what a system of ethics that we invent might look like. We are looking for a system of guidelines to practice that expresses our intuitions, our sense of what is admirable and would lead us with application towards how we would like to be and away from the same old same old responses. So we are looking for principles that we can apply that will help us become as we wish to be in the future, so that our immediate response is as we really wish and not something we regret after the event.
We are going to explore ethical role models and try and distill their positive ethical traits we would like to develop and emulate
Exercise – Reinventing Ethical Principles and Precepts
We are going to reflect, muse, individually and let our attention dwell as in step 1. Then we will discuss our thinking in groups . Next we will think about what ethical principles arise from our thinking as in step 2. And, again we will offer these principles to our group and look to create a synthesis of a code of ethics.
Step 1: Think of someone you admire for their spiritual qualities, for the way they live their life. This could be a real person, a fictional figure, a religious figure, a mythic figure.
Step 2 In a group of say 5 for 10 minutes share our icons and discuss their qualities and suitability for emulating.
Step 3: Think of some guidelines that that person might give you to enable you to act more as they do, to act on their principles, and become more like them. What are some of this person’s most important principles that seem to guide their life, and what would this mean about the way they would or wouldn’t behave?
(For example, if you think of Greta Thunberg, one of her most important principles was not harming the planet. So among her guidelines might have been, not misusing the material,energy and life of the planet, taking responsibility for our purchases and recycling. If you thought of Nelson Mandela, one of his principles seems to have been to forgive wrongs committed in the past. So one of his guidelines might be to never act for revenge. And so on.
Try if you can to make the guidelines you come up with reasonably tangible. ‘Never drink until you fall over’ is a more useful guideline than ‘always be as aware as possible.’ The former actually does provide an easily followed guide for action, while the latter does not. However, if you find this easier, you could think in terms of the principles the person you chose lives by.
If you want, if it’s helpful, you COULD think of this exercise as follows: If you looked exactly like the person you thought, what 3 guidelines might they give you that would help you to stand in for them for a while without anyone noticing the difference. Maybe they have got to go away for the weekend and you have to pretend to be them. What would they tell you? If you thought of Gandhi, he might say, don’t kick the cat, get drunk, go clothes shopping, or pig out on an enormous takeaway. They’ll know its not me! If you thought of your auntie Emma, and one thing about her is that she always tells the truth, you might need to restrain your tendency to embroider your stories while you are standing in for her, or everyone will know!
So give it some thought, and if you can come up with say 3 guidelines, some rules of action, that your chosen person might give you. Write them LARGE on SEPARATE bits of paper.
Step 4 In Small Groups (15mins) Share your choice of person, and discuss your ideas for guidelines. You may be able to help each other with these. Try to come up with THREE BRIEF guidelines EACH and remember them as we come back together.
Step 5 Having (hopefully) grouped people’s guidelines under kindness, generosity/non-exploitation, simplicity/non-craving, honesty and integrity, and awareness we can proceed to a formulation of Buddhist ethics.
The Buddhist path is traditionally seen as having three aspects, ethics, meditation, and wisdom. In the West we tend to be drawn to meditation, and oft think of Buddhist thinking as a philosophy. I feel we are becoming more interested in Buddhist ethics.
To progress we need to work on all three, and ethics is the most fundamental because it sets up the emotional backdrop. If we live and act in a way that encourages positive mental states we set up the right conditions for happiness and meditation to flourish, and we will find genuine wisdom will well up from within us. Without that ethical based clarity, true meaning will not arise in meditation, no matter how cleverly we can conceptualize and talk about for example non-dualism or emptiness.
So ethics is essential to practicing Buddhism. But we need to be clear what this means. Buddhist ethics is about creating the conditions in our lives ( and those around us) where true happiness develops and where our mind softens and the light of our attention explores and lightens the dark corners of our mind. It’s altruistic, empathic trans-personal quality contrasts with contractual command based ethical rules followed without attention through conforming , through fear of being different, to societal norms or religious hierarchies.
The guiding principle in Buddhist ethics is that it is a training to open the heart and create conditions that increase our own and others well being.
Within that context :.
- It is about freeing ourselves from our conditioning, habits and ruts and reactive cycles.
- It is about freeing ourselves from wants and cravings that lock our energy and stop creativity and growth.
- Its about freeing ourselves from the ‘should’ of life, trying to be something we’re not.
- Buddhist ethics is about envisioning how we want to be, rather than blindly running in the usual tracks of received conventional ethics.
- People tend to think of ethics as being something that restricts our freedom. But Buddhist ethics is liberation, its about replacing the ‘not doing something negative’ with creatively doing something positive instead. . It is about liberating ourselves from the past, from our conditioning, so that we can create the future informed by a more caring heart.
- Another way of looking at ethics is that it is about setting up the conditions for positive states of mind all the time, not just in meditation.
- We become more like an enlightened person by behaving more like an enlightened person. There is something in a sincere ‘fake it until you make it’ until you become quite naturally someone who is free from the usual bonds of the conditioned mind and can see more deeply and heartfelt directly the interconnectedness of living things.
Principles of Buddhist Ethics
- Kindness, not cruelty
- Generosity, not being mean
- Contentment, not craving
- Being genuine, not false
- Awareness, not escapism
These are the general principles behind Buddhist ethics, and we’ll say more about them next week.
For now the important point to take away is that we know all these principles intuitively, we know how we ought to live to be happy, we know how we ought to live to be true to ourselves at our highest, which amounts to the same thing. That is why we always come up with these five principles when we do this exercise. Its also why, iIf someone told us the opposite, we would think they were mad – the way to be happy is to be cruel, to be grasping and grabby, to indulge your cravings and addictions, to be dishonest, to try to escape from awareness of reality.
We sort of know this stuff, but we don’t make it very conscious or systematic. And because it isn’t conscious or systematic we don’t really commit to it as overriding our short term feelings, and we don’t apply it at all consistently or constantly. So it helps to set it out as a conscious framework, and it is vital to make a firm decision to apply it in our lives, rather than leaving our ethical sense as a sort of vague feeling.
Let’s reflect in this Image
– our life can become like a rather arid garden. We could see meditation as a spring of clear bright water that brings some very welcome positive states. Ethical principles are channels that carry the water to the various other parts of the garden, allow our positive states to have a wider effect on our whole life, making all the different parts of our garden fertile and fruitful, making it all burst into bloom. And it can feel a bit like that when we consciously start practicing one of the ethical principles, we can feel as though a part of our life has burst into flower.
Homework. Take one of the precepts and mull it over during the week. Why did you choose this one? Has it had any effect just mulling it over?
Next week we will look closely , kind of deconstruct, the five precepts. Also we will introduce the Metta Bhavana meditation – The development of warm friendliness.