Ethics For the New Millennium Part 6



RIVERHEAD BOOKS                    1999




Chapter 6: The Ethic of Restraint

I have suggested that developing the compassion on which happiness depends demands a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, we need to restrain those factors which inhibit compassion. On the other, we need to cultivate those which are conducive to it. As we have seen, what is conducive to compassion is love, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, humility, and so on. What inhibits compassion is the lack of inner restraint which we have identified as the source of all unethical conduct. We find that by transforming our habits and dispositions, we can begin to perfect our over-all state of heart and mind (kun long) – that from which all our actions spring.

The first thing, then – because the spiritual qualities conducive to compassion entail positive ethical conduct – is to cultivate a habit of inner discipline. Now I cannot deny that this is a major undertaking, but at least we are familiar with the principle. For example, knowing its destructive potential, we restrain both ourselves and our children from indulging in drug abuse. However, it is important to recognize that restraining our response to negative thoughts and emotions is not a matter of just suppressing them: insight into their destructive nature is crucial. Merely being told that envy, potentially a very powerful and destructive emotion, is negative cannot provide a strong defense against it. If we order our lives externally but ignore the inner dimension, inevitably we will find that doubt, anxiety, and other afflictions develop, and happiness eludes us. This is because, unlike physical discipline, true inner – or spiritual – discipline cannot be achieved by force but only through voluntary and deliberate effort based on understanding. In other words, conducting ourselves ethically consists in more than merely obeying laws and precepts.

  • By transforming our habits and dispositions we can begin to perfect our overall state of heart and mind – that from which all our actions spring. We need to cultivate a habit of inner discipline. The undisciplined mind is like a rampaging elephant because negative impulses of the mind can bring about destruction and cause lasting pain.
  • We can conceive the nature of mind in terms of the water in a lake which is stirred by a storm so that the mud from the lake’s bottom clouds it, making it appear opaque. When the storm passes, the mud settles and the water is left clear once again.
  • Our mind consists of a spectrum of events and experiences, including our sensory perception and mental and emotional states but we do not have to be controlled by emotions – some give good advice and some bad; some have the well-being of others as their principal concern while others have their own narrow interests.
  • The responsibility of the main consciousness – the leader – is to determine the good and reliable advice and to act on it. We are all familiar with the way in which the whole atmosphere is spoiled when just one member of the household is in a bad mood. Sometimes turbulence is so strong we lash out at others, externalising our inner turbulence.
  • A moment of sorrow does not become disabling grief unless we hold onto it and add negative thoughts and imaginings. Negative thoughts and emotions – hatred, anger, pride, lust, greed, envy, etc. – can be so strong that if we do nothing to counter them they can lead us to madness or even suicide.
  • They are the source of unethical conduct and the basis of anxiety, confusion and stress, which are such a feature of our lives today.
  • The undisciplined mind under the influence of anger, hatred, greed, pride, selfishness so on, is the source of all our troubles which do not fall into the category of unavoidable suffering. (sickness, old age, death, and so on).
  • Our failure to check our response to the afflictive emotions opens the door to suffering for both self and others.
  • When a person lives a very selfish life, without concern for others’ welfare they tend to be lonely and miserable, surrounded by friends of their wealth or status who disappear at times of tragedy.
  • Conversely, we find that when people are actively concerned for others, they are much respected, even venerated. When such people die, many mourn and regret their passing. Consider the case of Mahatma Gandhi.
  • We need to pay close attention and be aware of our body and its actions, of our speech and what we say, and of our hearts and minds and what we think and feel.
  • We must be on the lookout for the slightest negativity and keep asking ourselves such questions as, “Am I happier when my thoughts and emotions are negative and destructive or when they are wholesome?” “What is the nature of consciousness? Does it exist in and of itself, or does it exist in dependence on other factors?” We need to think, think, think.
  • We should be like a scientist who collects data, analyses it, and draws the appropriate conclusion. Gaining insight into our own negativity is a lifelong task, and one which is capable of almost infinite refinement. But unless we undertake it, we will be unable to see where to make the necessary changes in our lives.
  • Negative thoughts and emotions not only destroy our experience of peace, they also undermine our health. Afflictive emotions destroy one of our most precious qualities – our capacity for discriminative awareness.
  • Robbed of what enables us to judge between right and wrong, to elevate what is likely to be of lasting benefit and what of merely temporary benefit to self and others, and to discern the likely outcome of our actions, we are no better than animals.
  • Afflictive emotions deceive us because they seem to offer satisfaction but do not provide it. Decisions taken under its influence are often a source of regret.
  • The individual whose activities are directed principally by afflictive emotions, by gross attachments and aversions – greed, arrogant ambition, and so forth – may become powerful and famous but after they die their power is gone and their fame no more than an empty word. So what have they achieved?
  • Nowhere is the uselessness of afflictive emotions more obvious than in anger – we stop being compassionate, loving, generous, forgiving, tolerant and patient and deprive ourselves of the very things that happiness consists in.
  • Not only does anger destroy our critical faculties but it tends toward rage, spite, hatred and malice each of which is negative as it is a cause of harm for others.
  • It do not deny that, as in the case of fear, there is a kind of ‘raw’ anger that we experience more as a rush of energy than as a cognitively enhanced emotion. Conceivably, this form of anger could have positive consequences. It is not impossible to imagine anger at the sight of injustice which causes someone to act altruistically.
  • The anger that causes us to go to the assistance of someone who is being attacked in the street could be characterized as positive. But if this goes beyond meeting the injustice, if it becomes personal and turns into vengefulness or maliciousness, then danger arises.
  • If we are to retain our peace of mind and thereby our happiness, it follows that alongside a more rational and disinterested approach to our negative thoughts and emotions, we must cultivate a strong habit of restraint in response to them.
  • Negative thoughts and emotions are what cause us to act unethically. Furthermore, because afflictive emotion is also the source of our own internal suffering – in that it is the basis of frustration, confusion, insecurity, anxiety, and the very loss of self-respect which undermines our sense of confidence – failure to do so means that we will remain in a state of perpetual mental and emotional discomfort. Inner peace will be impossible. In place of happiness there will be insecurity. Anxiety and depression will never be far away.
  • It is totally illogical to seek happiness if we do nothing to restrain angry, spiteful, and malicious thoughts and emotions. To say that we need to curb anger and negative thoughts and emotions does not mean we should try to deny and suppress our feelings – the individual stores up anger and resentment and at some future point they cannot contain these feelings any longer.
  • What obstructs us from engaging in compassionate conduct is afflictive emotions.
  • We are not talking about attaining Buddhahood here, we are not talking about achieving union with God. We are merely recognizing that my interests and future happiness are closely connected to others’ and learning to act accordingly. 


Chapter 7: The Ethic of Virtue

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