Updated: Apr 4, 2020
One of the Buddhist teachings I return to frequently to deepen my own understanding and practice of engaged mindfulness is what are called The Six Paramitas: Generosity, Ethics/Integrity, Patience, Perseverance, Concentration/Attentiveness, and Wisdom.
"Paramita" is a Sanskrit word that translates into "perfection"; however, chasing the toxic and impossible to attain goal of perfectionism quickly results in highly neurotic behaviors and beating ourselves up on a regular basis – so “virtue” is perhaps a more healthy way to approach these teachings. As I discuss often, choosing to be impeccable instead of trying to be perfect is a much more honorable – and do-able - aspiration. Impeccability frames the life of anyone who chooses to live and lead with intentionally conscious awareness, wherever they find themselves.
Aspirational Virtue: The Paramita of Ethics/Integrity
This paramita is the quality of courageous, virtuous and ethical behavior, morality, self-discipline, personal integrity, and honor. The essence of this paramita is to avoid harming others, and to be impeccable in our thoughts, choices, actions and behaviors.
Although we know that unethical behavior causes suffering and unhappiness, many people have a negative response to the words “morality” and “discipline” and “ethics.” They are concerned with any impositions of morality upon them, and feel that if a discussion of ethics is brought forth into the mix it would be problematic at best.
Ethics are often associated with imposed rules or impossibly high standards for how we should behave – and we all know how "the shoulds" are often received by others – usually not well.
Conversely, most everyone agrees with the ethic of reciprocity, also known as The Golden Rule, which has its roots in a wide range of world cultures and beliefs. It is what I often suggest employing as a basic guiding ethical principle, as it is universal in nature, and simply states we treat others as we would like others to treat us, and not treat others in ways that we would not like to be treated.
When we are living a life of integrity and non-harm, we feel peaceful, at ease, and in touch with our shared human-ness. We are living with impeccability and honor, which builds characteristics that most people agree are crucial for leaders in all walks of life – and that includes you as we all lead by our example in whatever field of influence we have in any given moment, situation or interaction - and there are no unimportant moments, situations or interactions if you wish to lead with intentionally conscious awareness.
Regardless of the path of self-discovery and awareness one may be following – as all roads lead to the same place – following an honorable "code of the road" helps us to avoid falling off cliffs into the abyss of darkness, getting stuck in internal quicksand, and finding ourselves caught up in the numerous roadside distractions that can keep us lost in a proverbial jungle – sometimes for our entire lives.
Ethical intelligence is the conscious embodiment and courageous application of honorable principles, practices, and processes that cultivate compassion, cooperation and collaboration between individuals and groups across all interactions and situations, and through which elevates humane and sustainable insights, interdependence and impeccability.
Deliberate, engaged mindfulness and conscious awareness skill building practices provide the conditions in which Ethical Intelligence may be discovered lacking with oneself. It can be increased through the cultivation of honest, humble and harmonious self-awareness through both formal and informal practices.
Following precepts of ethical behavior is not meant to be a burden or a restriction of our freedom. We embody them because through following ethical behavior we don't create suffering for ourselves and others. It's more about doing the right thing, not from a position of superiority – more from a position of plain common sense and dignified humanity, both which are at the heart of Ethical Intelligence.
Rather than considering ethical precepts to be guilt-inducing moral commandments, we can chose to embrace them as a way of training ourselves in conscious awareness. The precepts can serve as gentle reminders to be more aware and to make wise choices before acting.
Below is a passage from Pema Chodron's book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, about mindfulness and not causing harm, as she states it in such a concise and elegant way:
"The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently."
Pema went on to say:
"The ground of not causing harm is mindfulness, a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see. This is what basic practice shows us. But mindfulness doesn’t stop with formal meditation. It helps us relate with all the details of our lives. It helps us see and hear and smell, without closing our eyes or our ears or our noses. It’s a lifetime’s journey to relate honestly to the immediacy of our experience and to respect ourselves enough not to judge it.
"As we become more wholehearted in this journey of gentle honesty, it comes as quite a shock to realize how much we’ve blinded ourselves to some of the ways in which we cause harm. Our style is so ingrained that we can’t hear when people try to tell us, either kindly or rudely, that maybe we’re causing some harm by the way we are or the way we relate with others. We’ve become so used to the way we do things that somehow we think that others are used to it too. It’s painful to face how we harm others, and it takes a while. It’s a journey that happens because of our commitment to gentleness and honesty, our commitment to staying awake, to being mindful. Because of mindfulness, we see our desires and our aggression, our jealousy and our ignorance. We don’t act on them; we just see them. Without mindfulness, we don’t see them.
It is vital that we remember that mindfulness means heartfulness in Eastern languages. While ethical behavior makes logical sense, it is guided by a courageous and compassionate heart.
Most unethical decisions stem from a lack of full awareness of their impact. Mindfulness promotes self-awareness, and empirical research suggests that when people are more self-aware, they act and behave in a more ethical manner in all interactions and situations.
Self-Reflection/Self-Inquiry/Affirmative Actions Exercise
Sitting up straight, bring your breathing into a calm and easy rhythm.
Bring your attention onto the heart center, to deeply get in touch with the characteristics that foster ethical behavior: including integrity, honor, honesty, compassion and courage.
Feel the rhythm of the breath as well as the physical beating of your heart. You may wish to place one of your hands on your heart for a moment or two and feel that connection.
Allow your sense of compassion, caring and love to grow, and become stronger with each breath. Connect with the courage and compassion that is within you.
In your mind's eye, observe yourself going about your daily life, in an average day with its usual interactions and situations, both personal and professional, and be open to seeing the ways you cause harm to others, even if it is unintentional and not malicious in nature. Notice the obvious ways, and especially the subtle ways – passive-aggressive behavior, slights, biases, partial truths – and especially areas where you don't always walk your talk. Check your intentions, and whether they are free from any desire to cause suffering in another in any way. Observe when you may hurt another as a reaction to feeling afraid, angry or hurt by someone else – our aggression and upset are often taken out on innocent targets – and most commonly on the ones we love.
Consider looking through the universal lens of the ethic of reciprocity – the Golden Rule - and honestly observe whether you consistently treat others as you would like others to treat you, and not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated. This guiding principle can aid you in being more aware and to make wise choices before acting.
Instead of beating ourselves into submission, we offer ourselves clear, firm, loving guidelines repeatedly, until new behaviors become established in mind, body and heart. If we stumble, we take responsibility and ownership for harmful actions, but there is no need to add judgment, guilt, or shame to our resolution to be more mindful in similar circumstances that occur in the future. The point is to learn lessons from ethical guidelines, while continuing to be compassionate with ourselves in the process.
Take a few moments to visualize or imagine yourself bringing a sense of greater awareness of the impact of how you show up in the in the world every day and the ethical values your life reflects into the world … in every moment … your thoughts, choices, actions and behaviors all have an effect … and see that each one holds equal weight and importance, and we don't ever get away with anything … even if no one notices or doesn't catch us … because deep in our own heart WE know … see the truth that you are at choice whether you Play Small or Play Big in Life … and visualize or imagine yourself taking full ownership of how you live your Life from this moment forward and the impact you have upon whomever or whatever your Life touches… see yourself bringing courage, strength, integrity, honestly and honor towards any person or situation you face throughout the day … outside or inside of you… and knowing you can always call upon your breath to help you to take a mindful, centering pause … to re-focus your attention, and to choose to thought-fully respond instead of compulsively react to anyone or any situation …
Jerome Kagan, a now retired development psychology professor from Harvard said:
"Although humans inherit a biological bias that permits them to feel anger, jealousy, selfishness and envy, and to be rude, aggressive or violent, they inherit an even stronger biological bias for kindness, compassion, cooperation, love and nurture – especially toward those in need. This inbuilt ethical sense is a biological feature of our species."
And while our ethical sense is inborn, it is also our choice as to how we reflect it, wherever we find ourselves, in every moment. Summing it all up in just three words, I return to the suggestion I gave earlier that applies to all of our relationships – including and especially the one we have with ourselves: do no harm. Listen to your deepest heart, as the ego-mind can sometimes justify behaviors it wants to deny are hurtful, but a pure heart always, always knows what's right and wrong - and will always always do the right thing - not with a puffed-up sense of self-righteousness, but with the humility of right use of self.
© 2020, Suzanne Matthiessen, innerevolution media. All rights reserved.