It is a sign of true nobility in ancient Indian tradition to have the courage to do the right thing because you believe it to be the right thing to do. In ancient times, “the right thing to do” was perhaps more clearly defined than it is in our modern period ,when the right to make an individual decision can leave us with a blinding number of choices. How do we know what is the right thing to do? We follow our internal compass, our internal GPS – our “vibe-o-meter”: Skillful or unskillful: it’s a moving target, but we do have an internal guidance system to chart our course along the way.
Buddhist ethics, in many ways, has as a very clear bottom line: do no harm. How do we know what will do no harm?
In this non-dualistic thinking, it is often understood that there is no such thing as good or bad, right or wrong. It is only a question of skillful or unskillful action. Skillful action will help us to accomplish what we wish to accomplish: unskillful action will not.
In a Buddhist context, what we wish to accomplish is understood to be enlightenment. Will it support our process of spiritual maturation and waking up or not? Yet, the same argument can be applied to other contexts, to other choices and directions that we take in the course of our lives. Will it move us in the direction we say we want to go or not? How do we know?
One of my students at the University recently asked me: should she do this or should she do that? She asked me, “How do we know what is the right thing to do?’. I replied, “It is skillful action, if it takes you in the direction you want to go. It is unskillful action if it takes you away from the direction you say you want to go.
There are some challenges in the context of such advice. First, where we say we want to go, and where we actually want to go, and where we need to go must match. This is not as easy as it may appear. Where I say I want to go perhaps matches a concept I have of myself. That concept I have of myself may not reflect the reality of my situation or, in particular, the reality of my situation at this present time.
Such is the way of New Year's resolutions. Often, we decide what it is that we think we want. Based on what we think we want, we decide to make a strong change, but somehow it is too separate from what or where we actually are. It becomes something that we are not, in fact, able to do.
So gym memberships are purchased in January, and the gym may be busy for about four to six weeks. Then, oddly, by the middle of February, people are still paying gym membership fees, but the gym is very quiet, and there is no waiting time to use the machines.
How do we move forward? How do we make change? How do we know what is the right thing to do in relation to where we actually are now. Is there such a thing as a right choice and a wrong choice?
Basic Buddhist ethics, as we know, has, as its bottom line: do no harm. This is often understood in relation to what is called “the five precepts”, the first five monastic vows and the five vows that will often be held by non-monastic Buddhist practitioners. These outline, essentially, how to do no harm. Do not take life. Do not take what is not offered. Do not cause harm by means of one's sexuality. Do not cause harm by means of one’s speech. Do not use alcohol or drugs that will cloud the mind and inhibit one's ability to do numbers one through four. These form the five precepts.
Within this, however, there are many grey zones, and there is much room to move. How do we know what is skillful or unskillful?
I offer that skillful or unskillful is a moving target. What is appropriate in one context is often not appropriate in a different context. A lifestyle behavior, for example, that may be right for me at one time may not be right for me at a different time. It's not a matter of black or white. It's a matter of a space in-between.
Do I have the insight and awareness to determine what is skillful now in the context I'm in now? Do we have sufficient flexibility of mind to allow ourselves to change and adapt as we ourselves grow and our contexts change?
I was once so interested in the vegan raw food movement that I lived for a year without a stove in my house. It was a wonderful experience. I was vibrantly healthy, but, when I moved to rural Maritime Canada, it was a lifestyle that did not make sense in this new context. It did make sense in the big city context that I was living in before, where there was a similarly life-styled community. So I shifted and changed, although I will occasionally, and often in the spring, do a raw food month or two. To cook or not to cook: it's a moving target.
Most often, I would say, I have a lifestyle which is vegan, and often it is also gluten free, but this is also very context dependent. If I am feeling tired or run down, if I am exercising intensely at the gym, I may find that I need more protein. I may find that it's good to have eggs. for example; I don’t tend to prepare fish for myself, but I am delighted to receive it as a guest in someone’s home. If I'm in a period of very intensive work, and I need to reduce the time I spend in the kitchen, probably I will eat more simply ,and it may not be that tasty lovely vegan gluten free food that is in my fridge today.
So, am I vegan? Probably not. I think of it as “flexitarian”. I am borrowing the expression from Yarrow Willard and the very wonderful herbalists at Harmonic Arts Botanical Dispensary on the opposite coast of Canada, on Vancouver Island.
To be a “flexitarian” is to ask: can I tune into what's happening in my body, and in my situation, and make a decision that makes sense in that context. Having basic tendencies and bottom lines to say I will do no harm to my body – and choosing to be basically healthy - can I work with my situation as intelligently as possible, with as much awareness as possible?
It's certainly sometimes has happened that I've made a conscious choice to be a little bit less healthy in my behavior because the situation demanded something else. I worked 20 hour days for a year and a half when I was Ph.D. writing; it’s a period when I mastered stovetop espresso-making. It was very hard on my adrenal glands and on my body generally. It taught me perseverance and put other work-intensive times in perspective. It taught me I can do anything I set my mind to.
So what then defines healthy or unhealthy? It is a moving target.
The same can be said, I would suggest, of many other contexts. Should I be in this relationship or not? Should I take this work assignment or not? Should I change jobs or not? Should I take this class or that class, or should I leave school altogether? Skillful or unskillful behavior, action or choices: it is a moving target. So how do you know what is the right thing to do?
I offer that, often enough, we know exactly what it is we need to do. We know in our bellies, in our fingers, in our toes. Our body’s intelligence will often tell us if it's right or not right, if it is skillful or not skillful. The challenge can be: is the mind connected enough to this instinctive way of knowing to be able to hear these directions and act accordingly?
We know what we need. Are we able to hear that clearly enough to be able to give ourselves what we need? When do we wake up early, and complete the challenge, and fulfill the activity of the day. When do we pull back and rest and rebuild our strength in order to think long term and sustainable?
I will offer a suggestion that I have found very helpful and which I often directly teach to my students. I call it listening to the “vibe-o-meter”. It is the internal compass, the internal guidance system that knows how to feel the “vibe” of a situation, a context, a direction or choice, and which will become more alive when it connects to that which is move life-giving.
What is your vibe-o-meter telling you? Let me give you an example. I have a student, and she doesn't know if she should stay single, enter into this relationship, or enter into that relationship.
Whenever possible I resist giving advice. I merely offer an environment where she can hear herself tell herself what it is that she needs to do. At most, I can be a mirror to reflect back to her what it is that she is saying in order to help her to hear her own wisdom.
However, I offer that when she talks about what it is she needs to do - what is most skillful for her - her eyes will shine brighter, her back will be straighter, her body will have more presence, her voice will be stronger, and she will generally radiate more life.
It is not specific or personal to her. It is very consistent. When we think about, or talk about, what it is that we most need, we become more alive.
That life principle inside of us knows what it is that will most foster, support it, and give it strength. It will respond like a metal detector that is tracking hidden gold. We all have an internal compass – a guidance system - of this kind. It knows when it's heading in the right direction, and it will make our voice stronger, and our eyes shine more brightly.
Follow the shininess of the eyes, the radiance of the skin, the straightness of the back, the strength of the voice. This is the “vibe-o-meter”, the vibe detector, the internal compass. It knows the internal resonance of one's own life force or life principle, and it will naturally, and organically, respond if we are thinking and moving in the direction that will most support us in the journey of our lives.
Listen to our internal GPS, our “vibe-o-meter”: our life principle responds as if to a tracking devise when we are on the right track to help us become more alive. When we follow our vibe-o-meter, this alignment of the life force in our internal and external worlds gives us energy, the energy we need that will move us forward.
Should it be this career or that career? Should I move to this city or that city? Do I take a leave for self-care, or do I move forward? Do I plan to stay? Do I plan to go? Is it this or that? Is it skillful or unskillful?
The conceptual mind often has a concept of what it thinks we need to be, an image that it thinks we need to conform to. It can create directions, or have us make decisions, based upon that perception of self that we have internally, or a reflex -an insecurity – that would have us conform to our perception of someone else's concept of who we are or what we need to be.
The body's internal compass, our internal GPS, the “vibe” detector, or “vibe-o-meter” knows exactly where it is that we need to be, because it is connecting with the much deeper knowing that comes from the life principle itself, in a way which is far beyond the limitations of the conceptual mind. When an action or choice is skillful, it will support our becoming more genuinely ourselves, our becoming more fully alive. When we think of that, engage in that, do that, the eyes shine brightly, the voice becomes stronger, the skin becomes more radiant, the back becomes straighter, and so it is that we develop that taste for life and support our own becoming.
Copyright © 2018, Adela Sandness