In MN 61, the Buddha instructs his young son, a monk, to reflect on his own wholesome and unwholesome actions. He recommends that this reflection be done before taking action, while taking action, and after taking action:
Also, Rahula, while you are doing an action with the body, you should reflect upon that same bodily action thus: ‘Does this action that I am doing with the body lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both? Is it an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results?’ When you reflect, if you know: ‘This action that I am doing with the body leads to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both; it is an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results,’ then you should suspend such a bodily action. But when you reflect, if you know: ‘This action that I am doing with the body does not lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both; it is a wholesome bodily action with pleasant consequences, with pleasant results,’ then you may continue in such a bodily action. (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
In later posts we’ll get into some particulars of wholesome and unwholesome actions, but this sutta suggests an a priori requirement – reflection. It can make the difference between carelessly repeating habitual patterns vs. training our bodies and minds to see ourselves and others in a new way. Rather than viewing other people as obstacles to our desires, or reminders of our inadequacies, or as insignificant, we can start to see that we’re all in the same situation. We all want to live peacefully and happily, without stress or conflict, and we all try, sometimes in misguided ways, to get what we want. What we forget is that when our motivation is to get something for ourselves by excluding or rejecting others, or ignoring our fundamental equality with them, it cannot improve our situation. Clinging, in all of its various forms, can only create suffering.
A special case of unwholesome clinging is “us vs. them” thinking. Unless we try to understand where other people are coming from, we’ll only move further apart.
On the other hand, if we broaden the scope of our intentions to include ourselves and others, we may discover ways to bring joy, or resolution, or release, to all concerned. When we let go of our greedy, me-centered framework, a whole range of possible actions may become apparent.
The key is to notice what we’re doing, ideally before we act, or while we are in the process of doing something. A dharma friend once said to me, “Listen to yourself!” That would be a good start, but we could broaden the instruction to “Observe your intentions and actions.” If we observe ourselves closely as we go about our daily business we will see when our actions are motivated by selfishness and when they are motivated by generosity and beneficial intentions.
Failing that, we can recognize the discomfort that comes afterwards if we know we’ve done something harmful, and the pleasant feeling of having done something beneficial. An after-the-fact assessment can sometimes cut through habitual thinking and provide the opportunity to re-frame a situation.
We can always return to this starting point – we can watch what we’re doing, with care.