Ethics as a Source of Self-Respect

We begin by laying the ethical foundations that will support our exploration of the path. Far from a burden, living ethically is a gift that we can give to ourselves and others.

Ethics as a Source of Self-Respect

Sharon talks about the potential for ethical conduct to free us. Here are the key points in her talk.

0:20 – Liberating ethics

Mostly, of course, when we think of ethics, or we use the word, it can seem kind of repressive or something that's going to bar our freedom, or make us unable to express ourselves fully. But within the Buddhist context, ethics are considered a way of being a whole lot happier, of living with integrity. Living ethically means we're not so fragmented: we're not so divided against ourselves, we're not so afraid of others. And sometimes that sense of morality is described as the gift of fearlessness. It's the gift of fearlessness to ourselves because we're not so paranoid and freaked out, and it's the gift of fearlessness to others because we don't appear in the world as a threat, as somebody who's going to hurt others. 

There's a beautiful statement from the Buddha in which he says, "If you truly loved yourself, you'd never harm another." So let's think about that for a moment. If you truly loved yourself, you'd never harm another. What does that mean? For one thing, if we harm another we are actually harming ourselves. There's not a way to lie to somebody or steal something where we are not diminishing ourselves and limiting ourselves and entering a place of disconnection. So whether we realize it in the moment or not, harming another really is hurting ourselves. Were we to truly love ourselves, the impulse to act in those unwholesome ways would not be so strong.

Our potential as human beings is not just a life of mediocrity or tremendous compromise, of getting by somehow. It's potentially a beautiful life where the power of love and compassion and connection and wisdom are navigating us through the turmoil of every day. We have a North Star, we have a sense of priority. We have something that gives our lives meaning, whatever adversity we may face. And in really boring times, times when it seems like nothing much is happening, this can be happening. We can be living through and expressing our deepest values. If you truly loved yourself, you'd never harm another. 

6:20 – We learn and move on

So what if you've already sent the email? Or you've already said that regrettable thing? It bears some toll, we actually experience it. Something within us is affected by it even if we're oblivious in the moment. And that's one of the powerful, although challenging, things about introspection, about looking within, about practicing meditation: having a sense of, "oh, I thought that was a casual lie or I thought that was a harmless thing, but look at that, it actually still has repercussions in my being all this time later." And so, even apart from compassion for others and wanting to offer that gift of fearlessness and being a beacon of connection and care in this world, it's fundamentally out of compassion for ourselves that we begin to make some choices. And that of course is not to say that we will be perfect but we can learn from our mistakes, and learn how to move on. 

7:40 – A moral inventory

In the process of meditation, just naturally, you will likely find yourself recollecting times when you broke the harmony, where you said something or did something that has left some kind of ripple in your own being. This is considered a kind of moral inventory that just happens, and it's good because it gives us insight into habits we may have or ways we want to make some changes in our lives. Once these things have started to come up it's important to understand the distinction that's sometimes made in the Buddha's teaching between remorse and guilt. 

Remorse is that quality where we feel what we've done or said, we feel the separation that gave rise to it—that was also born from it in some kind of amplified way—we sense the lack of love we had for ourselves, in having just acted in those ways, and we feel the pain of it. That is genuine and important pain. Feeling the pain of it, acknowledging it fully, we also have the energy to move on, to let go of that identification that says, "I am just that person who did that stupid thing, that's all that I am." We learn how to let go of that, and we have the energy and the inspiration to move on in a different way. 

Guilt, in contrast, is considered a kind of lacerating self-hatred where we're stuck. We just go over and over and over and over it again: the incident, the thing we said, how we responded, the ways we were a little bit deceptive or exaggerating, something like that. We're stuck, "That's all that I am, that's all that I will ever be," and it doesn't give us energy. If anything it exhausts us, it demoralizes us. We don't have the inspiration and the sheer energy to move on, determined to act in a different way. So the guilt, in contrast to the remorse, is considered unskillful. The remorse is skillful, the guilt is unskillful. 

12:25 – Skillful or unskillful?

If we're using the Buddhist psychology as a lens through which to look at the forces that arise in our minds, and the actions that come from those forces, we don't think so much in terms of good and bad, or good and evil. It's much more about skillful or unskillful. That which is skillful—whether it's just arising in our minds, or we buy into a motive, or we align with it in some way, or we are putting it into action through speech or conduct, or by refraining from doing something—if those forces and those actions lead to a sense of wholeness, of peace, of power, of real strength in our minds; if they lead to wisdom, if they lead to love and connection: then they are considered skillful. 

In contrast, if the things that arise in our mind are greed, hatred, or delusion, and if the actions that are born from those forces lead to division, fear, isolation, a sense of withdrawal from connection, hesitation, a sense of unworthiness—those things are considered unskillful. So moving to the realm of "skillful and unskillful" actually helps take some of the sting and judgment out of our observation of what we see. We don't want to further the kind of suffering that is a potential in life. There's enough suffering from change, from loss, from life just going by. We don't need the extra suffering of having coalesced and hardened the very things that keep us feeling separate, and feeling so alone and limited – really having a sense of contraction. We want to enhance the qualities, the habits, the actions that bring us a sense of expansion, openness, connection, and real love. That's our potential without condemnation and repression. 

We can see that the sense of remorse, even though it's painful, is a skillful thing because it shows us that actions really do have consequences: that they don't just disappear into the ether somewhere, that we need to pay attention. And the guilt can be seen as unskillful, something that is really going to harm us or has harmed us if we didn't see it right away, and certainly can harm relationship and connection and the way we manifest in the world. 

21:45 – Our lives are of one piece

So out of the greatest compassion for ourselves we realize that self-respect—that sense of wholeness in our being—is a worthy and wonderful thing to be able to cultivate, and in the classical expression of the Buddhist path it's considered the root to being able to concentrate in the easiest possible way. Because our lives are actually like a seamless garment. They're all of one piece. It's very difficult, for example, to tell lies all day long at work and then sit down to meditate and seek the truth. We're really not that divided. The ways we act, the ways we speak: they make a difference. 

So the more we try to bring a sense of integrity and connection and compassion into our everyday activities, the more that influences our meditation, which then can grow in the easiest way possible rather than in the most difficult way possible. We ultimately see more and more clearly the way things actually are, and the forces—like greed or hatred or delusion—that would naturally have led us to broken activities and ways that might harm ourselves and others, those things diminish. So every aspect of the path that we cultivate will keep reinforcing all of the other aspects.

Complete and Continue