Always wide awake
Are the disciples of Gotama
Whose minds constantly, day and night,
Delight in harmlessness.
Dhammapada, v. 300, translated by Gil Fronsdal
There are six of these “Always wide awake” verses together (v. 296-301). (Gotama is the family name of the Buddha). All of the six verses have to do with maintaining an alert attitude with wholesome intentions. I chose this verse because it highlights the first precept for laypeople.
Here’s a relevant quote from a talk given by Ajahn Chah:
Morality is restraint and discipline of body and speech. On the formal level this is divided into classes of precepts for laypeople and for monks and nuns. However, to speak in general terms, there is one basic characteristic – that is intention. When we are mindful or self-recollected, we have right intention. Practicing mindfulness (sati) and self-recollection (sampajanna) will generate good morality.
So, all my emphasis on the ethical teachings of the Buddha are directed at helping all of us develop mindfulness – of our actions and words in particular, but it’s all part of the same training. I’m not trying to trick you. An alertness to our actions and words (and their effects on ourselves and others) is a type of meditation we can do whenever we’re not asleep. And if you don’t want to call it meditation, it doesn’t matter; it’s simply a better way to live.
Ajahn Chah continues with an analogy regarding right intention:
It is only natural that when we put on dirty clothes and our bodies are dirty, our minds too will feel uncomfortable and depressed. However, if we keep our bodies clean and wear clean, neat clothes, it makes our mind light and cheerful. So too, when morality is not kept, our bodily actions and speech are dirty, and this is a cause for making the mind unhappy, distressed and heavy.
So by practicing restraint and discipline, we gradually make our words and actions harmless, and we feel lighter as a result. We consciously and repeatedly make choices that reflect our intention to refrain from causing harm to anyone. Not only do we not kill or hit people, we don’t shout at them, call them names or otherwise cause pain. We notice that when we fail to restrain our negative intentions, the harm spreads widely, affecting us and any others in the area.
We can both keep our negative, harming impulses in check, AND we can cultivate caring and healing words and actions. The more we practice this path, the more clearly we will see harmful and helpful activity in the world, and the more we will be able to choose the helpful way of being.