Skillful Living

Having true mettā1 for ourselves means that we do the actions that are good for us, even when they’re hard and especially when they get in the way of our immediate pleasures. We do these things because we understand that when we take the unwholesome route, we suffer down the line—we are bringing our self-preservation instincts in line with our rationality.

True mettā for ourselves, then, includes:

We actually start with this because it’s nearly impossible for meditation to bear any fruits if we don’t have our life together, but we in the West normally have it all the way around. It’s pretty much the rule that we all start with breath meditation and only then do we gradually get interested in the other teachings of the Buddha—that certainly was my case, until I course-corrected.

Having our lives together, of course, doesn’t mean that we are living our dream lives, nor does it mean that we have perfect health, or even that we have achieved any of the measures of success by society’s standards. But it does mean that we have gotten our intentions in order and our actions aligned; it means that we have learned to rejoice and celebrate when we engage in the causes for our true happiness and we live our whole lives with the same discipline and focus.

I’ve met people who take advantage—whether consciously or unconsciously—of this upside-down path to do what we call spiritual bypassing, where we avoid taking responsibility for our present problems or our unwholesome behavior, and we take meditation as a cure-all that excuses anything else that happens. But that’s never going to work. In fact, it leads to dangerous beliefs that we are enlightened (or close), when we are actually still spreading rumors, telling lies, using intoxicants, or cheering on hatred and harm; and this just digs us in deeper into the ditch we’ve created with our unskillful actions and it most definitely impedes progress. We just need to ask ourselves, “Am I truly any closer to freedom from suffering or am I suffering more?”

If we closely examine this whole thing of spiritual bypassing along with the Path, we can see that when we practice earnestly, spiritual bypassing is actually not supported by the Path. In fact, it’s pretty much against it. The Buddha left us a gradual training, where we progress from the coarse to the refined,2 and there are very good reasons for that. When we practice the coarse parts first, we:

  1. begin to develop our Wisdom to see for ourselves what’s good for us and what’s not, and why;
  2. learn the skills that we’re going to need for the rest of the Path;
  3. set the stage for renunciation to become possible;
  4. create the conditions for our mind to settle down in meditation, which is very important for the practice to allow us to see.

Practicing the Path from the beginning, then, allows us to gradually understand why we call sīla3 “skillful.” It lets us see how our actions shape our experience in the present and the future, and allows us to reconnect with the fact that the Dhamma4 is a manual for life. “The Dhamma is to be lived,” my teacher says. It, essentially, teaches us the art of living, to walk on our own legs, which no amount of breath meditation on the cushion can replace. We need both parts: the cushion and our legs.

Living skillfully requires that we have the courage and the very basic ability to be honest with ourselves about where we stand. We practice the Path not because we’re already perfect, but because we recognize that as human beings we all engage in unwholesome behavior, if we let the mind run wild. But we also don’t beat ourselves up for our past mistakes. With a lot of self-compassion we recognize that we have acted unskillfully, we analyze the situation to learn where we went wrong, we try to imagine what the skillful response would be, and we transform our guilt and remorse into resolve to not let it happen again. Because that’s what karuṇā5 really means in the Pali Canon: to wish that someone who is suffering would stop suffering. And, indeed, we cause a lot of our own suffering with our unwholesome actions. So self-compassion means that we wish for ourselves to stop stabbing ourselves with the second arrow, and that starts with the very small decisions we make every day—being alive is the practice.

And in the cases where we can’t get our lives together on our own, that’s what the saṅgha is here for. We should be able to turn to our noble friends for support and wisdom. Generosity is, after all, the very first step of the gradual training.

So let’s all have some true mettā for ourselves. May we all break our bad habits and patterns, may we all heal from our mistakes and our circumstances, and may we all practice earnestly.

  1. Loving-kindness, goodwill. 

  2. Although it never gets easier. 

  3. Virtue, discipline. 

  4. This one is difficult to translate because there is an entire historical context behind it, but in this particular case, it refers to the teachings of the Buddha. 

  5. Translated as “compassion.”