Fuelling the engine

It seems synchronous that my own thoughts, my conversations with practicing friends, and snippets that I have read recently have all pointed to the essential part that doing good has in contemplative practice. Morality in spirituality seems to be a controversial subject in this pluralistic modern world, but frankly I think that’s only the case superficially, so let’s muse on it.

I would first like to give a huge caveat. I am by no means stainless as a practitioner; I have done things that make me cringe to look back on and that hurt others significantly, and I continue to have pretty crap habits. I hesitate to write about ethics for this reason as it seems hypocritical, but I do stand by what I say, even if I am not always wholesome enough to practice what I preach. I can only say that if everyone waits to discuss morality until they feel morally perfect, then we might never hear a word being said about it from a truly personal viewpoint. I find it hard to identify with contemplative writers who describe laughably minor infractions as examples in their writing. I suspect that either they have always avoided situations in which serious difficulties could arise by following ethical codes scrupulously until they became habit, or they are simply not bringing their nastier infractions to light. I find teachers such as Noah Levine much more relatable, with their discussion of struggles with addiction, aggression, painful realisation and backsliding; if this sounds negative, these teachers tend to talk about how such experiences have been turning points, necessary lessons, and humbling reminders of imperfection, and I would echo these points. It is not my experience that being horrendously imperfect makes progress impossible, or I would not have a thing to write about.

This area of spirituality has been described as sila, morality, the first and last training, good works, and by other terms in contemplative practice. I like the term ‘virtue’ for this area as a whole, as it points to the unconditional: to try and embody good qualities, or virtues, is famously described as ‘the imitation of Christ’. The Buddha became seen as the exemplar of the paramis, or behavioural and attitudinal perfections leading to his self-enlightenment without the benefit of a teacher. Choosing to follow what your intuition knows is most right, despite it having mixed or unknown consequences, requires guts. Virtue-based morality also has the benefit of accommodating relativism. Understanding that I am not perfect, I am happy to approach various virtues that I espouse as being ideals to be as closely hewn to as possible; but also, understanding that others will describe different kinds of actions as moral or immoral, the best I can say without authoritarianism is that it seems that sticking to what I truly feel to be my ethics is the way forward. Secular meditators often deliberately leave out discussion of ethics so as not to have any possibility of learners feeling judged or alienated, but I feel this could be misinformation and paternalism at worst. Many teachers I feel are rather advanced argue that faith without works really is dead; that you can’t expect to meditate on the seeing-through of greed, hatred and delusion when you’ve got a heart full of all three.

I do believe that intuition, Satipañña, Buddha Nature, the One Who Knows, the Indwelling Christ (or whatever you might want to call it) is at root compassionate. After all, who ever performed an action that was not for some kind of benefit to themselves or others in their view? This could be conscious or unconscious, and I find the language of Transactional Analysis useful to describe the kinds of secondary gain seeking, identity reinforcement and simple discounting of information at play here to create seemingly irrational and evil actions. Where there isn’t a self, there can’t be true selfishness. I find this area paradoxical as contemplative practice can be strangely amoral sometimes, especially from certain viewpoints; for instance, in Theravada Buddhism, it sometimes comes across that awakening is the only true goal and that the suffering of the world is basically an illusion, and so sila practice’s real purpose is simply to stabilise the mind and develop factors of enlightenment in some mechanistic fashion. I would say that the pragmatic world is just as valid as the transcendent ‘side of emptiness’. Good in this world is an end in itself- and so the unconditional appears even in samsara. A similar argument is that ‘whatever happens’ is God’s will, as Mother Teresa said, and so even the grimmest situation is part of a benevolent plan. This is again my belief, but it is also my belief that suffering doesn’t need any help. Creating better situations is at least easeful while still being part of the divine plan by that perspective!

One of the paramis itself is ‘morality’, or the following of ethical conduct. This implies that rather than morality being the cultivation of virtues, there are certain actions that are prima facie moral and immoral, and following a list of them creates merit. I’m suspicious of this and prefer Buddhist notions of skilful and unskilful actions and intent that, according to the laws of cause and effect, promote or reduce suffering. I’ve found the five Buddhist precepts mirrored in most other contemplative traditions I’ve found as specific misdeeds to be avoided, but I prefer to translate them again as virtues: to avoid injuring others, careless speech, taking what isn’t offered, indulging in intoxicants, and sexual misconduct. These are the five areas that people often seem to get into trouble with, so writing specific examples to avoid for those without more reflexivity seems like clear teaching.

To go back to the nuts and bolts of contemplative practice, though: virtue and insight, pragmatic and unconditional, are intertwined. Insight into what causes suffering and what doesn’t is complicated and difficult to accept, or integrate. I find suffering occurs just in the breaking of habits that cause suffering, being so embedded in the self-concept and the biology of craving and aversion. To use a healthcare analogy, chronic pain such as spinal discomfort is often psychologically accepted over the prospect of acute pain, such as having to have surgery to relieve it. However, practices such as vipassana which increase sensitivity to sensations and the recognition of cause and effect also remove some of that weird unconsciousness around the chronic suffering of life. I call it (a bit pretentiously, I know) the gilded cage; behaviours that create short term pleasure but cause backlashes, comedowns and sap resources begin to lose their ability to mask suffering as recognition of it increases. The gilded cage shrinks and that suffering becomes worse (insert ‘suffocating’ metaphor, blah de blah). All that can be done is either to gild the cage some more and pretend that it is truly what’s desired, or accept that the glitz is pretty but ultimately superficial and in fact damaging. In which case, stepping out of it and leaving behind a gilded life.

I spoke to a friend last night, far more savvy about this stuff than I, who described ‘running out of merit’. Merit is the classic conception of gaining brownie points for doing good works, which somehow contribute to awakening in some direct proportion. Many teachers rightly downplay this concept as it is easy misunderstood, leading a subtle change of intention from being unconditionally selfless to trying to get enough of this Monopoly money to awaken. The old Zen story tells us how much merit comes from building temples that end up as monuments to our own egos. But my friend’s discussion of merit was not to complain that he’d run out of contemplative casino chips; more to point out that he could do better in following the laws of karma that Peace Pilgrim describes as ‘applying as rigidly as the law of gravity’. He mentioned insights opening up during periods of his life in which he had been living a certain way without knowing how; in my view, some of that still small voice pointing him in the right direction, even unconsciously, before it was subverted by the self. Merit, in this case, was fuel for the engine of insight; not directly quantifiable, but evident to him nonetheless. We found ourselves pondering whether as we upgrade our engines by developing greater insight, the greater the need for fuel; otherwise, as powerful as they might be built, they idle.

Practice suggestions

  • If you are in a tradition, try and refresh your virtue practice: go to confession, avoid alcohol, do charity.
  • Are you good at one area of virtue practice but not others, such as being unkind to yourself?
  • Pick one small area of virtue and do it unconditionally – no ifs, no buts. Notice the battle.