Like the Roman god Janus, every person faces simultaneously in two opposite directions. With one face of our consciousness we gaze in upon ourselves and become aware of ourselves as individuals motivated by a deep urge to avoid suffering and to secure our own well-being and happiness. With the other face we gaze out upon the world and discover that our lives are thoroughly relational, that we exist as nodes in a vast net of relationships with other beings whose fate is tied up with our own. Because of the relational structure of our existence, we are engaged in a perpetual two-way interaction with the world: the influence of the world presses in upon ourselves, shaping and altering our own attitudes and dispositions, while our own attitudes and dispositions flow out into the world, a force that affects the lives of others for better or for worse.
– Bhikkhu Bodhi, from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_23.html
Our discussion of the ethical training factors of the Buddha’s Eight-fold path begins with acknowledging that we are social animals. We affect others and they affect us, whether we agree to this arrangement or not. It is impossible to insulate ourselves from the influence of other beings, and it’s likewise impossible to shield others from the effects of our words and actions. We can make choices about who we pay more or less attention to and, to some degree, who we spend time with. But as humans, we are embedded in humanity. Given that we will be attracted to some humans and repelled by others, how can we skilfully navigate the many choices that we make every day? What guardrails can we apply to the flow of our words, actions and work?
According to the Buddha, the human world is protected by the “twin guardians”, two forces in the mind that watch over and guide moral behavior. The first guardian of the world is hiri, a word that connotes conscience, moral intuition, and self-respect. It refers to that within the human psyche which knows the difference between right and wrong, between what is noble and ignoble, between what is worthy of respect and what is not. Each of us has within us an innate moral compass, and it is the view of the Buddhist tradition that religion is not the source of this but rather a form by which it is given expression. The second guardian of the world is ottappa, which comprises such notions as social conscience, a cultural or collective sense of morality, and respect for the opinions and the rights of others.
Anything that we do that is wholesome will be done with the support and guidance of these two inner guardians. Conversely, everything we do that is unwholesome can only be done when these moral guides are disregarded.
– Andrew Olendzki in “Removing the Thorn”, p 53 in Unlimiting Mind
We can take a moment now to appreciate the importance of wholesome friends. We are responsible for our own actions, and our own conscience and self-respect act as the primary guardians. At the same time, there are people whom we are reluctant to disappoint, and they perform an additional, invaluable feedback function. If we have a sense of what a respected person in our life would or wouldn’t approve, that knowledge protects us.