At a practical level, when we take refuge, we are simply remembering what is important. We do our best to keep in mind that our words and actions matter, try to minimize harm and maximize kindness. Our efforts are rarely completely successful, but if we keep the intention alive, gradually it comes to feel more natural. A teacher I heard recently described this process as running our self through a filtering (or purification) process over and over again, becoming slightly more refined each time.
Meditation or other mindfulness practices are a helpful support to our wholesome intentions.
Often, we can’t tell if our efforts are bearing fruit until a significant amount of time has passed and we start to notice changes. We might find that someone who has annoyed us for years suddenly looks like a person deserving of compassion. Or we manage to think about politics without getting upset. Or we miss a transportation connection and rather than blowing a fuse, we relax and enjoy the suddenly available time. Any real spiritual growth will eventually manifest in a way that we and others can perceive.
The first precept about not killing or harming sentient beings is one “filter” we can use. By noticing and restraining our actions and words, eventually a change of heart comes about. The internal impulse to strike out becomes less automatic and starts to feel unpleasant. A friend and I recently recognised that “snarky” comments are attempts to snuff out someone from our world. The impulse in the mind comes from an evolutionarily necessary protective mechanism. The difference is that it’s only our hyper-alert sense of self that is threatened, not our lives.
Difficult, ungentle people are everywhere. When will we stop expecting that to change? Do we really enjoy feeling besieged? Can we accept the situation as it is and respond with compassion and kindness rather than indignation and resentment? At least sometimes?
How we think of and work with the training to refrain from killing or harming other beings evolves over time. We start by seeing and acknowledging when our “kill that threat!” instinct is in play. While I still feel annoyance when drivers are careless or aggressive on the road, I am no longer surprised by it and see my task as getting out of the way, to try to establish a zone of safety. What triggers our killer instinct may surprise us; it is rarely rational. What pushes your anger button?