Cultivating Skillful Means

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Driving the donkey uphill

If you are taking this course, you probably agree that we should not indulge negative thoughts and emotions. So why do you — why do most of us — avoid the challenge of transforming our habits? Do you tell yourself that it's just too difficult?

It is said in Tibet:

Negative impulses arise as spontaneously as rain and gather momentum just like water following the course of gravity.

And yet it is essential that we not be deterred by the enormity of suffering in the world.

The misery of millions is not a cause for pity. Rather it is a cause for developing compassion. Ethics for the New Millennium

For the Dalai Lama choosing not to act in a situation that clearly calls for action is in itself a negative action. Do you agree?

We have seen how afflictive emotions can contribute to our indifference. Our inaction may be due to strong negative emotions such as anger or malice or envy, or simply be the result of laziness. Either way, our lack of restraint and our inability to cultivate the antidotes to the emotions that drive us  leave us unable to respond to the needs of others with compassion.

Do you or have you ever believed that religion has the ability to effect transformation instantly? Are you waiting for the secret or magic formula by which you can become transformed into a compassionate, ethical human being?

No magic

We must recognize that there is no such magic.

It comes little by little, just as a building is constructed brick by brick. As the Tibetan expression has it, an ocean is formed drop by drop. Ethics for the New Millennium

Unlike our bodies, which soon get sick, old, and worn out, afflictive emotions never age!

Reflect on the realization that dealing with negative emotions is a lifelong effort. Can you envision that concern for others can become second nature? Can you accept that there are no shortcuts?

As we mentioned at the beginning of this module, to successfully cultivate the positive qualities which act as antidotes, you need to generate enthusiasm.

The stronger your enthusiasm, the greater your ability to withstand the difficulties that you encounter in the process. Enthusiasm results from learning about and reflecting upon the beneficial effects of qualities such as tolerance and patience, and the destructive and negative effects of emotions such as anger and hatred.

This self-education, these realizations, help to create a positive connection and attitude towards the positive feelings — humility, generosity, tolerance and patience — and vigilance in regard to afflictive states we tend to be oblivious of.

Once we develop a cautious attitude towards these emotions, that reluctant attitude itself can act as a preventative measure against anger or hatred. Ethics for the New Millennium

Making this a practice

The Dalai Lama cautions us to appreciate the difficulty of this process:

You will confront many problems and you should have the ability to withstand these hardships. Ethics for the New Millennium

Someone who gains victory over hatred and anger through such an arduous process is a true hero.

Sustained practice and familiarization are required in order for us to be able to spontaneously engender skillful emotions.

The more we develop concern for others' well-being, the easier it becomes to act in others' interests. As we become habituated to the effort required, so the struggle to sustain it lessens. Ethics for the New Millennium

The Dalai Lama cautions us not to have unrealistic visions of ourselves magically transformed into compassionate beings, now that we have seen the light. We've spent our entire lives becoming the way we are. If our expectations of how we will transform our habits and dispositions are not realistic, we will quickly become discouraged.

To make a concerted effort to follow a conscious discipline, one that you apply throughout your life, to reduce the force of your anger and enhance its opposite, altruism — this is the way to discipline the mind.

The way to examine how thoughts and emotions arise in us is through introspection. It is quite natural for many different thoughts and emotions to arise.  . . .that various thoughts and emotions do arise in us, and when we leave them unexamined and untamed this leads to untold problems, crises, suffering and misery. This is why we need to adopt the conscious discipline

Daily practice

Far more effective than short bursts of heroic effort followed by periods of laxity is to work steadily like a stream flowing toward our goal of transformation. Ethics for the New Millennium

Rather than expecting some heroic effort to affect a magical transformation, the Dalai Lama counsels a daily routine with which we can engage this lifelong task of transformation.

Making a habit of concern for others' well-being, and spending a few minutes on waking in the morning reflecting on the value of conducting our lives in an ethically disciplined manner, is a good way to start the day. The same is true of taking some time at the end of each day to review how successful in this we have been. Such a discipline is very helpful in developing our determination not to behave self-indulgently. Ethics for the New Millennium

Do you find these suggestions too undramatic, too tame? If so, take a moment to remember what brings you the greatest joy and satisfaction in life.

It is worth reminding ourselves that what brings us the greatest joy and satisfaction in life are those actions we undertake out of concern for others. A generous heart and wholesome actions lead to greater peace; their negative counterparts bring undesirable consequences. Happiness arises from virtuous causes. If we truly desire to be happy, there is no other way to proceed but by way of virtue: it is the method by which happiness is achieved. And, we might add, that the basis of virtue, its ground, is ethical discipline. Ethics for the New Millennium