It is very understandable when we try to justify our actions. We are just trying to protect a particular self image, often as “good”, and to find acceptance from ourselves and others and fit in.
There is fortunately a very simple alternative, and that is to find a fullness of stories around what we initially may wish to justify. And to deliberately include both “good” and “bad” stories in a conventional sense.
I don’t have much experience working formally with precepts, but also recognize their value.
As ethical guidelines they have an obvious practical function at a social level, and they also help keep us out of trouble at an individual level, reducing suffering for ourselves and others and – if we are into spiritual practice – freeing some time, energy and attention for practice.
I did a brief exploration of the shadow of the Buddhist precepts a few days ago, and it turned out that this was one of the topics of Arny Mindell’s class earlier today.
We each have our personal ethics, whether we are aware of it or not. And as he hinted at, it is meant for ourselves. If we don’t pick it up, it is still around, but we assume it is for others. It is the classic it happens, it can’t be for me, so it must be for everyone else.
Then he talked about the denier of the ethics, both our inner denier and those in groups who take on the role of the denier. This is the voice that asks why, how, when? The voice that criticize and question the ethical guidelines.
How do we relate to this denier? Do we squash it? Disown it? Listen to it? Find the validity of what it has to say? Find a perspective that hold the truth in the initial ethics and the view of the denier? Refine our ethics?
The voice of the denier is essential. It helps us see our ethics, question it, refine it, explore the larger landscape, and much more. It also helps us not get trapped in the shadow of the ethics, disowning in ourselves whatever doesn’t fit with our personal ethics, whether we are conscious of this ethic or not.
One way of exploring this is by noticing our personal ethics as it shows up in daily life, explore the views that criticize it, and then find ourselves as that which holds both. (Process Work has exercises that makes this come alive, and also helps us find our deeper ethics, the ones just emerging, the ones not quite conscious yet.)
Another way is to explore the reversals of our ethics, as I did with the Buddhist precepts. What is the grain of truth in them? In what ways are they sometimes better? What is the gold in these reversals?
Another look at karma, and how it is and isn’t, and is personal and universal, belonging to the part and the whole.
As with any maps, models and stories, the story of karma is a practical tool only, a tool that helps our human self to orient and navigate in the world. A tool that can be more or less useful depending on what we want to use it for. There is no value or truth in it beyond that.
And we can say that karma is and isn’t.
It is, because there is, obviously, cause and effect in the conventional sense.
It isn’t, because there is only what is here now, the five sense fields and what appears in each one. Anything else comes from the inside of a story. Past, future, time, continuity, space, extent, causality, all that is only found on the inside of a story.
It is individual, because we can find, in a conventional sense, causality within the boundaries of this human self. We see how thoughts and decisions are followed by actions in the world, and so on. It is also individual as a practical ethical tool, inviting and helping the human self to live in a more ethical way and follow the golden rule more easily.
It is universal and of the whole, because everything has infinite causes and effects, reaching back to the beginning of the universe and out to its furthest reaches. What we see locally, including what appears as local causes and effects, are just the local effects of movements within the whole.
So karma, cause and effect, exists in a conventional and practical sense. If we look a little closer, we cannot find it in our immediate experience. It can only be found on the inside of a story.
It is individual, again in a practical and conventional sense. And it belongs to the whole of the world of form, in that everything happening locally has infinite causes and effects, and is a manifestation of the movements of the whole.
And we can find all of this here and now, in our own immediate experience. How is it true for me, here and now? What do I find when I look for myself?
Alex, the parrot studied by Irene Pepperberg, is dead. I don’t know why this story – among all the other news in the world – brings up sadness, but it is probably because I have an especially soft spot for the lives of animals, and how they have been and still are treated by humans. The other species we share this planet with are one of the remaining groups to be included into the circle of us.
Alex, and many other animals studied these days, show us that many other species are not only very similar to us emotionally (why wouldn’t they be, when we share ancestors, when we share biology related to emotions, and when we display similar signs of emotions in similar situations?) but also cognitively.
In science, we justify experiments on animals (as substitute for humans) scientifically because they biologically are so similar to us, and yet justify it ethically because they are different from us. In science or society at large, very few point to that discrepancy, probably because it is convenient to not look at it too closely.
And including other species into the circle of us does not mean that we all need to become vegetarians or that we release all animals from captivity. It only means moving in the direction of treating them with more respect, remembering that they too have emotions and some cognitive abilities, and that they too want to avoid suffering. They are not so different from us in that way.
The golden rule applies here too. How would I have wanted to be treated if the roles were reversed, if I was that cow out on pasture, or that rabbit in the science lab, or those elephants losing their territory to humans?
How specifically will this look in real life? How will it influence how we treat animals in a range of different settings?That is something that will look different in different circumstances, and something that will evolve and change as we do.
Some gifts of precepts, and of guidelines for ethical behavior in general…
Staying out of trouble, which means reduced suffering for who we take ourselves to be. (This also bring more respect and appreciation for our tradition, whichever it may be, in society, which makes it easier to practice and also may invite others to explore if it is for them.)
Reduced suffering for others.
Bringing attention to habitual body-mind patterns, and their effects. There is a continuing monitoring of the relationship between how we function in the world and the guidelines, which allows us to see more clearly our habitual patterns.
Mimicking how Big Mind/Heart, awake to itself, is typically expressed through a human self, which makes it easier for BM/BH to notice itself. Precepts and ethics generally invites for a deepening worldcentric view, which provides more fluidity of views, a wider embrace of the heart, and reduced identification with emotional reactivity, all of which makes it easier for BM/BH (and BB – Big Belly) to notice itself. Following an awakening of BM/BH to itself, they reduce the degree of reorganization needed for the human self, since much of it has already occurred.
Continually exploring new levels and layers of the precepts, understanding them in new ways, including ways directly relating to other practices. For instance, the precept of not killing can be taken in a conventional way (very beneficial for all of the other reasons), and also as not aiming to “kill” whatever phenomena is arising here now. It is an invitation to allow any phenomena its life, and to release identification with resistance to what is arising.
How do you take small or large steps in your life to avoid unnecessarily leaving casualties in your wake?
For me, it means to look at the inner (attitude, heart) and the outer, the local and global, and then find and use approaches that appear good at all levels. The inner is my attitude and heart. The outer is my life, those close to me, my local community and ecosystem, the global social and ecological systems, and (not the least) future generations of any species. The local is the immediate results, and the global are the far reaching and long term results.
Dealing with such as complex situation, essentially embracing all of my own life and the life of the Earth as a whole, it is obviously a work in progress, subject to change with new information and new situations.
Often, it is not so hard as it may seem, and I also don’t expect anything close to perfection. Approximation is OK, along with moving in the direction of better informed and more deeply compassionate choices.
For my own inner life, I find many different ways of working with an open heart, including recognizing and integrating projections. The more I see how we are all in the same boat, the more my heart naturally opens – to myself and others. And the more I realize how profoundly interconnected all of our lives are, on many different levels, the more I am motivated to act in ways that benefit us all, including other species, ecosystems and future generations. A healthy social and ecological system, on local and global levels, is essential for my own health and well-being. My own self-interest and the interest of the larger whole are not so different.
In terms of a general guideline for choices, I have found the Ecological Footprint to be the most useful tool. What size land and sea area is needed to support my current lifestyle? The smaller my own EF, the more resources are (in theory) available for other humans, other species, and future generations. In the western industrialized world, our EF is typically four or five times larger than our fair Earth share, which is what is available to each of us if resources were divided equally among all humans, and some is left to other species.
Globally, we are currently using more resources than can be replenished by the ecosystems. In economical terms, we are living off the principal and not just the interest. This situation of overshoot seems fine for a while. After all, there are more money in the bank and we can support our lifestyle with it just fine (at least those fortunate enough to have access to the account.) But the less principal, the less interest, and the quicker the money are depleted. It is a long crash. For a while, it does not impact our life at all, or very little. But then, suddenly, it is all too obvious. And too late. As Al Gore said, we are like someone with homemade wings jumping off a cliff. For a while we are in the air and it seems that we are flying… until we hit the ground.
Back to what we can do in our own lives: there are several EF calculators out there, showing which areas of my life has the most impact on my EF. For most of us, it is air travel, and then the other usual suspects such as car use, food, and so on.
In EF terms, my guideline of finding solutions that appear good at all levels, becomes the question how can I increase my quality of life while minimizing my ecological footprint?
Some of the answers for me is to…
Try to reduce air travel as much as possible, by taking fewer trips, use train or bus whenever possible, and vacationing locally (lots of opportunities for that here in the Northwest.)
Reduce car use, by walking and biking (which gives fresh air and exercise) and use public transportation (which gives me a sense of belonging in a more real way to the community, and also an opportunity to explore projections sometimes.)
Buy used clothing (I can find high-quality and interesting clothes for far less money, the pesticides are already washed out of the fabric, and I don’t give my money to corporations that use sweatshop labor – which almost all clothing manufacturers do these days.)
Have a small house (takes up less space, less use of materials, easier to heat, less space to fill with things.) In town (so I can walk, bike, and use public transportation locally.) And share with housemates (which is often enjoyable, and also helps our personal economy.)
Eat locally produced food (supports the local economy, gives me a connection with the farmers, reduces energy needed to transport food, and provides me with me seasonal, fresh and vital food) and organic when possible (although local is more important.)
Eat mostly low on the food chain (it takes far more land and resources to produce meat than grains, fruits and vegetables.)
Try to minimize money given to large corporations, and especially those using sweatshop labor (buying used, fair trade, or make my own – such as furniture.)
All in all, these things gives me more of a real connection to my local community and ecosystems (by walking, biking, using public transportation, buying local, vacationing locally), it is good for my health (exercise, fresh seasonal food), and also gives me a sense of solidarity with people around the world, other species, and future generations. There is a sense of us all being in the same boat, on the same side – the side of supporting life.
Readings Erik’s post, I am also struck by how the guidelines for ethical living must change with changing times. In traditional Buddhist communities, their impact was only immediate and local. It made sense to focus on one’s immediate relations with humans and other species, because that is all there was (unless you cut down all the trees or did something else that would impact future generations.)
But today, our situation is very different. Our local and daily actions have a very real and significant impact around the world and for future generations. We can be nice to the local critters all we want, even buy fish and release them in the thousands, but it pales in comparison to the impact a large ecological footprint has on our global social and ecological systems.
Today, the global impact of our actions has to be taken into consideration.