When we commit acts that are unskillful according to the Buddha’s teachings, sometimes we don’t notice that we have done anything wrong. Sometimes we do notice, and then we may feel terrible, but also confused about how to proceed. What can we do to bring our actions into alignment with our good intentions? We can say out loud to whoever was affected that we have done such and such and wish we hadn’t because it wasn’t in accord with our best intention; we can apologize, ask forgiveness (if appropriate) and in this way create a marker in our memory so that in future, we’ll be less likely to repeat the specific unskillful action.
When not in the midst of acting unskilfully or trying to patch things up, there are (at least) two general principles we can keep in mind to support the development of speech and actions that are increasingly wholesome.
(1) Don’t rush, contemplate
My first idea is to speak and act with deliberation, that is, not in a rush. If we are carried along by our own high-speed energetic momentum, we are likely to act before thinking. But we can resolve not to rush, and this subtle change in our behavior can have far-reaching consequences. If we consider that our actions and words produce results (see Right View), then we need to take time to think about what we intend to do before we do it.
Consider what it means to rush. Generally we are doing one thing and thinking about something else. We’re trying to cram more into the available time than will fit, which creates stress and makes us accident-prone. The tasks we are doing may be incomplete or poorly executed; we drop things, tear things, and communicate in ways that are not well thought out. One remedy to rushing is to do only one thing at a time, deliberately and at an appropriate speed (what’s appropriate will vary according to our individual natures). When talking with someone on the phone, we give that person our full attention until the call is over. When speaking with someone in person, we don’t check our electronic devices. Another remedy to rushing is to let the tasks that can be deferred drop off of our worry-list. If we do one thing at a time and give that thing our full attention, it’s remarkable how much anxiety or distress we can avoid.
(2) Don’t take ourselves too seriously
Sometimes we forget that the universe is unfolding all around us. We may feel that what we’re focused on is the only thing happening, that nothing else matters, and so put an extra layer of pressure on ourselves. A moment’s reflection will reveal that other people are working with the same misconception. It does matter what we do, because it’s the only part of the world that we can influence. At the same time, we are working within the constraints of a mass of moving energy over which we have no control. Sayadaw U Tejaniya calls this “nature”, and it refers to pretty much everything that’s arising and passing away. Once we take off our king-of-the-universe crown, we can relax and just do what we’re doing without feeling that the world will collapse if we make a mistake or don’t finish on time.
P.S. This is not to say that we don’t need to keep our word, we do — and we make a priority of doing what we’ve promised (while being careful not to over-promise).
The factors of the eight-fold path are:
1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration