In last week’s blog I was exploring how our hopes and wishes make no difference if the right conditions aren’t in place, with conditions changing so much at the moment it was no surprise that I quickly found myself with a change of conditions that gave me an opportunity to examine the many different aspects of practice that might help me to shape my response to the shift in circumstances. The most recent round of lockdown measures left me with a small predicament to puzzle over, namely what to do about my half mile run. At the moment we’re allowed to go out to exercise once a day which I use to go for a walk. Ordinarily what I do when I come home from my walk is to immediately change into my running kit and go straight back out again, but despite only needing to spend a few minutes in the house before I go out again, this isn’t allowed any more. Technically, I could argue it is still the same exercise session, but technically it is also illegal. Now I’m as good as the next person at coming up with plausible sounding reasons why such a small bending of the rules is reasonable and shouldn’t be seen as a transgression, being a Buddhist doesn’t make you automatically incapable of telling yourself what you want to hear after all, but my cogitations about what I should do about my run gave me a pretext to examine the situation through the lens of different parts of the practice.
While following Buddhist practices doesn’t make you immune to telling yourself what you want to hear it can change how you treat that voice that says that your plan is reasonable, and how you respond to the realisation that what you want isn’t what you should do. I did, for a few minutes, think to myself ‘seriously, it’s just a little run, going in the house to change my shoes and jacket isn’t the same as really going out to exercise twice’, but I quickly dispensed with that line of thinking. I’m not sure what my mind classed as ‘really going out twice’, but it seemed pretty certain that my going out twice wasn’t it. But going out twice, regardless of whether I ‘really’ have or not, isn’t just technically illegal, it actually is illegal, and much as it would be a small transgression, it would still be one. My mind’s line of ‘reasonable’ excuses reminded of a story Ajahn Thiradhammo told in his book “Working With the Five Hindrances”, where he was honest enough to recount an occasion when he also fell foul of that part of our mind that takes our impulsive desires and generates a ‘perfectly reasonable’ scenario that allows us to follow them:
“One time during our three-month winter retreat at Dhammapala Monastery in Switzerland, we had a fresh overnight snowfall and the day dawned bright and sunny. It was one of those picture-postcard scenes in the Swiss Alps. I felt I needed to photograph it before the snow melted. The best shot of the snow-covered monastery and surrounding hills was from across the fields, and the easiest way to get there was to follow the groomed ski track. However, it is seriously frowned upon to walk on a track that is meant only for skiers. I knew this, but thought that I would only be using it for ten minutes and no one would be bothered. So I set off along the ski track, and just as I was preparing to take a photograph, a skier came along and aggressively berated me for walking on the ski track. I was somewhat ashamed for being caught out, but also keen to get the photograph, so I tried to explain my situation. However, he had no sympathy for me and continued his verbal attack. I eventually retreated and returned to my room, anger quietly simmering.”P109 Working With The Five Hindrances, by Ajahn Thiradhammo
It is so easy for any of us to find reasons why what we want to do is perfectly reasonable, and for us to feel put out, rather than appropriately corrected, when someone adjudicates against us. It is also very easy for us to demand the right to be treated with ‘common sense’, especially when this goes in our favour. This reminded me of a conversation I witnessed when I used to work in the postal service. To check whether a post box is still used enough they count how many letters is posted over a certain period of time. One day at a gathering of managers, one complained that one of the post boxes on his patch had failed this check because it had 99 letters in it, the threshold was 100. This manager was complaining bitterly at the lack of common sense because to him it was so clear that 99 was almost 100 and therefore the rule shouldn’t be applied, but another manager piped up simply that ‘they need to draw the line somewhere’.
I don’t really have an opinion about the post box with the 99 letters in it, but it does bring up a useful point for me – if there are rules in place then there has to be a threshold that marks when they have been broken. Where the line has been drawn is largely impersonal, but it is interesting to notice how often we take it personally when we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line. When rules change from one day to the next it can be easy to get drawn into debates about why something was allowed yesterday but not today as an excuse to not follow the new rule, but that is just the nature of rules – the line will be drawn somewhere, and where the line was yesterday has no relevance on where the line is today.
This might make it sound like I came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter whether I followed the rules or not because it was largely just arbitrary, either you’re on the right side of the line or you’re not, but that wasn’t the point that I took from it. The thing that I saw from thinking about it in this way was that none of this is personal, it is just conditions, it doesn’t matter if the rules are fair, or sensible, or whether they should have a little bit of slack in them that says ‘you can go out to exercise once per day, but you are allowed five minutes to change into some other gear and continue your exercise session’. The worldly winds mean that every time someone wins, someone else has to lose, and sometimes it is your turn to lose, that’s just how it is. The rules have changed and this time I lose out, that’s just how it is.
I also looked to the practice of the five precepts for any kind of guidance, and although they don’t specify a requirement to be law abiding I have found that the practice of following the five precepts is one that encourages me to do the right thing in general, not just in reference to the precepts themselves. One of the major benefits that we gain from following the precepts is peace of mind, because if you aren’t doing anything wrong then you won’t have thoughts going through your mind about whether people saw you doing it, if you are going to get caught, what the punishment might be, what the repercussions of that might be etc. Remorse is one of the five hindrances, and will come up in your meditation disrupting any peaceful mind states. Ajahn Chah said that even when we think no one else could ever find out, someone always knows – and that person is you. Even if you didn’t get caught by anyone else, you know that you have done something that you shouldn’t have and that will keep coming up in your mind over and over again. I don’t mention these things to pontificate, but there is a genuine weight off your mind when you stop doing things that you might later regret; and once you get used to having a peaceful mind you become much less inclined to take actions that might disturb it. So the question about whether I should go out for that run anyway regardless of the new rules didn’t last long in my consideration because I value a peaceful mind over a half mile run.
A different set of conditions, the weather this time, also factored into my line of thinking. Much as I might like to be able to continue with my usual routine, in this case the conditions are against me. It is currently pretty cold in the UK, too cold to go out for a walk just dressed in running gear, but also so cold that I can’t just run in my walking gear because I am wearing a big jacket and boots. So I could say that it is the weather, not the change in the law, that creates the problem really – if it was a little bit warmer I could easily walk in my running gear and just finish up with a short run, or easily run in my walking gear. But one thing I have learnt from my recovery from abdominal surgery over the last year that could apply in this case is that sometimes we just need a bit of patience because things will change in time anyway.
I was keen to recover my strength and abilities as soon as possible after the operation, always pushing myself to not shy away from a challenge, but when I look back on it a year later I realise in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t have made a big difference if I had made my first cup of tea myself in the third week after the operation or if I had made it six weeks later. I realised that I didn’t actually need to try to get better at the speed I was pushing at, I would have gotten better anyway, it just needed time. So perhaps this is also just a case of being patient, because I will get the opportunity to go for a legal run at some point in the future. And this is another point that I can consider – if all I really need to do to get the conditions on my side is to wait – either for the weather to change in a month or two, or for the law to change in a similar time frame – then perhaps waiting is the better way to use my effort.
I also took a bit of time to think about how our intention can make the difference between something being the right thing to do or not. Taking the legal aspect out of this predicament, there is nothing intrinsically evil or deliberately harmful about going out for that run, but for me to use that as the only measure of whether it was the right thing to do or not would be to potentially play into the hands of my own foibles, and overlook another set of factors that I should consider too. If my intention is being driven by desire, ill will, or delusion, then even the most blameless of acts can be rendered unskillful. So was there any of this at play for me with the half mile run? Well, when I looked at it I found that rather than being a genuine requirement for my health and wellbeing, the main reason I would still like to be able to go for a run is because I like to challenge myself to stick to a routine, especially when it is something I am not always so keen to do. But if that is the thing I am really working on then there are no end of suitable substitute activities – such as a long and painful ashtanga yoga class – that need me to work through my resistance to before I get started. What I’m losing out on isn’t a run but an opportunity to challenge myself, and when I see it like this it makes it clear that it certainly isn’t worth breaking the law for, I have plenty of perfectly legal ways of setting myself the same kind of test.
To me the biggest factor in deciding how to respond to small transgressions of the law came down to refuge: the laws of the land and the rules of our practices sometimes agree and sometimes conflict but ultimately we have to be guided by that which we have taken refuge in. It isn’t forbidden to break the law in Buddhism because laws are often merely just conventions, which can make it appear as if it is therefore okay for Buddhists to break the law. But to use refuge as my guide asks me to dig a little deeper and understand whether my actions and my motivations for them fall within the boundaries of what the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha represent. I don’t think this is specific even to Buddhism; when we are faced with a moral, or legal quandary then I’d suggest one way to navigate it is to understand what it is that we take refuge in, and make our judgement in line with that. That to me is ultimately what taking refuge in something means, we stop looking to other places for direction and trust in the guidance our refuge will give us: it is the map that we use when we need to find our way, it is the source that we go to when we have a question, and it is the example that we follow when we need a role model.
When you commit to a practice, I think it doesn’t really matter if an action is legal or not, or if it is common sense or not, or whether it is what you want to do or not, what really matters is asking ‘am I still aligned with the values that I have made a commitment to follow?’ In the case of the half mile run, both going for the run regardless or taking extraordinary measures to be able to still go for the run legally, these actions don’t really resonate with the things I have taken refuge in. What does resonate is patience, acceptance, not taking the shifting conditions personally, not allowing my inner weasel to talk me into doing something just to avoid disappointment, and recognising the wider situation where we are all having to give up things that we want and that’s is just how it is right now. My run can wait, and my intention to work through things I feel resistance towards can be channelled into something else. But perhaps finally it is useful to reflect that even though my mind is spending all this time grumbling about not being able to go for a run right now, as soon as it is legal again I am almost certain that it will immediately start generating reasons why I shouldn’t go for a run – and this is why I don’t take refuge in my mind!
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