Going Through the Motions

My focus this week remains on wholesome intention, this time inspired by reading about how the Buddha challenged the mainstream beliefs of his time by stating that what dictated the outcome of an action wasn’t the action itself, but the intention that was behind it. The opposite of the Buddha’s view can manifest in practice when we perform elements of it in a mechanistic way without much emphasis on why we are doing it, or having the right mind state or motivation for doing it. This is something we can all find ourselves doing at times and it doesn’t just make practices ineffective, it can actually make them create more suffering instead of getting rid of it. But what kind of problems can using a technique or a practice mechanistically cause us, and how can we tell if we are getting it right or we are just going through the motions?

What brought me to investigate this theme was during my meditation one day I was contemplating the arising and ceasing of sensory phenomena, and it occurred to me that I was just passively sitting watching and not trying to relate what I could see to the teachings in any way. I realised that watching arising and ceasing didn’t have, when I used it mechanistically like this, any inherent quality of being wholesome or unwholesome, nor would it lead to liberation unless I could harness it for wholesome ends. I realised that I couldn’t just sit and ‘go through the motions’, I needed to take this observation of arising and ceasing and use it to support the cultivation of insight, otherwise it was an ineffective use of my efforts.

I had been reading the book What the Buddha Thought by Richard Gombrich, and it was an example in this book that sparked my own reflection into places where I was treating practices mechanically. The particular example was the Buddha’s adoption of the word karma. This word in Sanskrit meant ‘action’, but it also had a specific Brahminic meaning, which was ‘ritual’. [1]

In Brahmin thought, karma – in the way that we generally understand it as being the results of our previous actions – was largely fixed at birth and there was nothing that you as an individual could do about it. The only way to get rid of your bad karma was to have the Brahmin priests perform rituals on your behalf. The Brahmins believed that the efficacy of the ritual lay in how well it had been performed, requiring even exactly the correct  pronunciation and intonation of the Sanskrit chants. In their world view, if the ritual was performed exactly to specifications, then its outcome was assured; in this sense the operation of the universe was quite literally mechanical to them – action in, results out.

But the Buddha  took the word karma, or kamma as it is in Pāli, and changed to mean something synonymous with intention, changing the principle of it to mean your karma is the results of your intentions, not the result of your actions. This upended the Brahminic approach in two important ways; firstly it meant that you could change your karma yourself without the need for Brahmin priests to perform rituals for you because obviously you were capable of changing your own intentions; and secondly, by making karma the outcome of your ethical behaviour this stripped out the sense that mere mechanistic action could change your lot – only skilful intention could do this.

That going through the motions is never enough is something we can take out of the Buddha’s idea about karma, and we find him pointing to this key principle throughout the teachings; such as in the Dana Sutta where the he spells out that the results of giving a gift lie not in its monetary value but in the intention of the donor for giving it. [2]  This perhaps seems obvious to us nowadays, since the idea of intention being the primary factor in the outcome of our actions is much more common to us than it was to the Brahmins of the Buddha’s time, but we can still find ourselves taking mechanistic approaches to practices – albeit usually inadvertently.

The on-going arguments about whether secularised mindfulness practices and therapies like MBSR can still work without including an explicit recommendation of the development of ethical elements like the five precepts or the Brahmaviharas is perhaps a subject we could interpret through the lens of what the outcome could be of treating mindfulness as a practice that produces results by its mechanical action.

For those who feel that the inclusion of ethical teachings such as the five precepts and the Brahmaviharas is vital in any kind of mindfulness training programme, there is something more significant in these practices than simple ‘morality’. These additional practices play a supporting role in the cultivation of other practices like mindfulness, and for them it isn’t as simple as just ‘take the mindfulness part and leave all the other stuff behind’, yet still hope to get the same results.

But with the removal of ancillary practices like ethical behaviour, much the responsibility for transformation is put onto the act of being mindful, on being able to observe our thoughts and feelings, and perhaps this runs the risk of reducing the practice of mindfulness to just the mechanical activity of paying attention. Certainly there is the risk that some practitioners could unwittingly enact this way.

Whether these types of secular therapeutic practices produce the same results as keeping mindfulness within the wider context of a more traditional approach I don’t know, but not including ethics, or sīla as the practice is in Pāli, in these kinds of practices has been suggested by some  to have inadvertently been responsible for contributing to some significant side issues:

 ““…this omission [of sīla] may result in concepts such as non-judgmental awareness fostering a range of negative stances from self indulgence to passivity” and that, “This is where (in the absence of proper teacher training) a poor grasp of concepts such as bare awareness, non-judgmental awareness, non-duality, and so on are likely to misguide the participants into bypassing their experience rather than connecting with it”” [3]

This is something I wrote about in my previous posts about the Brahmaviharas [4], that developing these wholesome mind states makes it less likely that you will bypass your experience and less likely to grasp or push away what is happening. Developing equanimity makes you less likely to bypass, mettā and karuna lessen self-loathing, and muditā reduces desire and indulgence.

But adding ethical practice back in isn’t necessarily a straightforward fix either, it too can be undone by taking a mechanistic approach to it. Mechanistically following the five precepts like a list of commandments without fully understanding what they are for and how you are meant to engage with them won’t lead to much improvement in your mind states, in fact it could do quite the opposite.

The English monk Ajahn Kalyano told a story about a group of monks in Thailand who were travelling somewhere together, so loaded all their things into a truck. When the truck was fully loaded, the only place left to put their alms bowls was in the roof rack on top of the truck. One monk was furious about this because monastics are told to treat their bowls with the same level of care they would take with the head of the Buddha, and to him putting the Buddha’s head in a roof rack was inappropriate. But the other monks just laughed, because they felt he had misunderstood the point of that rule – it was for training, for learning to be mindful and to take care of your possessions -it wasn’t an absolute statement of truth. In other words, it wasn’t to just be applied mechanistically.

The five precepts also are not absolute statements of truth, they too are training rules, and they only produce good effects when we use them with wholesome intentions. Clearly it is always beneficial for us – and for everyone else – to not kill living beings, but if we refrain from killing with a mind state of resentment, or with egotistical fervour that we are living the only good and true way and everyone else who doesn’t is beneath us, then clearly we still create a lot of extra unwholesome baggage for ourselves out of doing something that is unequivocally a good and worthy action. In this case the action is highly beneficial, but our intentions can still make it a source of suffering for us.

So including the precepts or not including them isn’t a straightforward case that having them will definitely lead to better outcomes than not, it all still needs to come from the right mind state and the right intentions. Any mechanistic application of any element of the practice, without the right state of mind behind it and the right understanding to support it, runs the risk of causing more problems than it fixes.

But I’m just as guilty as the next person of falling into mechanistic ways of treating the practice. I think I’m probably not alone in have spent some time in my practice assuming that if I was ‘better at meditation’ then I would suffer less. In Western cultures I think we are very used to ‘doing’, taking action, and constantly aiming to improve, and I think this seeps into our approach to meditation when we first start. We treat meditation in the same way we treat our dead lift, or a 5km run – as something we make gains in by repetitive training.

What I didn’t appreciate though, for a couple of years at least, was that the mechanics of meditation, while important to support insight, did not by themselves actualise insight. Just seeing something didn’t result in instant insight – it had to be understood. I had to recognise what I had seen and which part of the teachings it demonstrated, otherwise it would be lost on me, no new way of seeing the world would come from it.

Seeing alone doesn’t create insight, only wisdom does, and as I have shown in my articles about the Brahmaviharas, again the right mind state has a crucial role, in this case to allow wisdom the time and space to work. [4] When the Brahmaviharas are developed we will be able to bring a mind state of equanimity to our meditation and that allows us to sit with whatever is there without resisting it or becoming desirous of it. That means we can observe clearly without the taint of our desire or aversion interfering. We also won’t get distracted from the task by trains of thought about what we are observing, such as how we can get rid of it, or how we can get more of it. So the wholesome mind states and intentions that come from the Brahmaviharas can make a big difference to the outcome of what could otherwise be treated as mechanistic techniques, like meditation for instance.

But this isn’t in any way to suggest that becoming skilful in meditation isn’t important, everything has its role to play. A couple of years ago as I was learning to take more control over my meditation experience, I realised that my concentration was really bad – my mind wouldn’t stay still for more than a few seconds. So I decided to put a bit of work into making the mind more stable, and I actually did this using simple mechanical techniques like watching the hands of a clock as I was meditating, or watching an incense stick burn down.

This improved my concentration a lot, and even though I can’t put my mind on the breath and leave it there for an hour like some people who are very good at concentration can, I saw the benefits of it really quickly because I started to have more insight into what I was experiencing – and ironically, the more insights you have, the easier it is to concentrate.

But this isn’t the only issue I treated mechanistically. I also used to labour under the illusion that the only reason I hadn’t reached a major stage in the enlightenment process was because I didn’t understand how it all worked, but as soon as I did, that would be it –  bam, enlightenment or something close to it. Once I knew how it worked, I would stop making mistakes, and my suffering would be over, or so I thought.

What undid this idea for me was the realisation that I did actually understand the teachings, but this knowledge alone didn’t stop my unskilful behaviour, I was still making the same old mistakes. What I then realised, admittedly with some dismay, was that the process of change didn’t come from just having the knowledge, it came by making the right choice in every moment.

This opened up for me just how gargantuan the task of enlightenment actually was, requiring the constant application of mindfulness and skilful behaviour. The answer to enlightenment wasn’t mechanistic in any way, nor did it come from the simple acquisition of knowledge, it was dependent on the right intention and skilful actions, over and over and over again.

This point takes me back to those arguments around secular mindfulness practices and the need or otherwise for including ethical training in them. Those who feel that ethics are a necessity wonder how it could be possible for practitioners following those kinds of programmes to fully comprehend their motivations for their actions, especially when dealing with complex decision-making, without practices like the five precepts to make reference to.[3]  One solution offered was the development of  a robust curriculum  in training to support this, but this is an area where I see that the Brahmaviharas are particularly useful to support understanding intention and motivation.

In a basic sense, the Brahmaviharas seem to work by eventually automating your responses – wholesome mind states get so thoroughly embedded in your mind that they become your default setting. When that happens you don’t need razor sharp mindfulness and self-awareness to understand what your intentions are in any moment before you act, they will just be wholesome by default and thus you will always respond appropriately. 

Doing it without trying to develop these spontaneous wholesome responses is, I think, doing it the hard way because it relies entirely on you being fully aware of your actions and motivations at all times, there is no safety net if you don’t get it right. Not only that, having the strength to make the right decision – and resist cravings and aversions – over and over and over again is incredibly hard work. Just think about how hard it is to stick to your diet after a hard day at work, or how easy it is to cut corners when you are tired or stressed – it takes so much mental energy to keep consciously making those kinds of choices, especially if it means going against what you impulsively want to do.

But the practice of the Brahmaviharas is susceptible to becoming mechanistic too, such as when we sit in our mettā meditation and just read through the list – may you be well, and you, and you – without really summoning up a deep feeling of benevolence while we do it, so we always have to make sure we are not just going through the motions when we are working on them.

Talking about the stages of enlightenment is a subject I don’t usually touch on because it often seems to be a source of a lot of speculation in some people’s minds, but in this case I feel it is a useful point to make reference to. One of the three fetters that is eradicated at the first stage of enlightenment, when you become a stream-enterer or sotāpanna as it is in Pāli, is called adherence to rites and rituals. It can also be translated as attachment to precepts and principles [5].

What this doesn’t mean is that you stop following the precepts, or stop bowing and chanting at the temple anymore because it doesn’t apply to you, though. It means that you understand these elements of the practice have no inherent magical power, that just performing these actions on their own won’t lead to wisdom or the end of suffering. But that doesn’t mean these practices have no value, that you won’t learn something by using them, or that it doesn’t help you or anyone else if you follow them, because clearly we can see in the suttas that although the Buddha and many of his disciples had reached enlightenment and obviously had overcome this particular fetter, they still acted with impeccable ethics and did so out of concern for the well-being of others.

Adherence to rites and rituals seems to be a fetter that was specifically intended to tackle the kind of ideas around ritual that the Brahmin tradition had, and while it might be easy to dismiss it as an anachronism because it was maybe meant to be aimed at the Buddha’s new recruits who followed Brahmin practices, I think I have shown there are still plenty of ways around today that we can  treat elements of the practice as something that will produce results simply by the mechanistic performance of them, albeit it  for us it seems to be more often an inadvertent mistake, misunderstanding, or oversight than it is driven by ideology in the way the Brahmins were.

So we can find in many places in the practice evidence that supports the Buddha’s ethos that mechanistic action had no redemptive quality on its own – only intention, and specifically the right intention, can activate any benefits that these actions will bring. Likewise we can find instances where coming at what should be wholesome practices with unwholesome intention also bears no fruit, so again we can understand why right intention is indeed all important in this practice.

But how we can tell if we aren’t applying the right approach to a practice or a meditation technique?  I think the Gotami sutta is one way to find an answer this question. Mahapajapati Gotami -the Buddha’s stepmother, and also a bhikkhuni – was going on retreat and asked the Buddha to teach her the Dhamma in brief so that she could contemplate it while in seclusion. His reply to her is one of the most famous passages in the suttas:

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’”  [6]

In short, we can tell if what we are doing is being done in the right way because it causes us less problems, not more. What this sutta suggests is that if any practice we do, no matter how worthy it is, causes us to cling more tightly to our views, to believe our mind more, to have less good will, or to suffer more, then we are quite simply not doing it the right way.

This is seems to echo a point made in AN 10.94:

“When undertaking certain observances, unskillful qualities grow while skillful qualities decline. I say that you shouldn’t undertake those observances. When undertaking certain observances, unskillful qualities decline while skillful qualities grow. I say that you should undertake those observances”. [7]

If we find that our practice is either causing more suffering, or not reducing suffering, then the first place to look for the issue will be in whether we are bringing the right mind state and the right understanding to it. Treating an element of the practice mechanistically, as something that produces results just by doing it, or as something that is just ‘fact’ and must be enacted in that way, or as something that we are ‘supposed to do’, are common ways that we can make our practices ineffective – no matter how much effort we put into them.

But while wholesome mind states like the Brahmaviharas don’t necessarily impact directly on those kinds of mistakes, they do still protect against those mistakes being harmful to both ourselves and to others; and the stability that wholesome mind states create in meditation make it much more likely that we will eventually recognise that some of our practices are ineffective, or that they consistently create unwanted side effects like fatigue, more clinging, more stress, or more opinions.

So once again we find the wholesome mind states sitting at the heart of the practice, reinforcing for me the point I ended last week’s post on – that the Brahmaviharas are anything but a secondary practice. It’s easy to fall into just going through the motions and acting out our practice in a mechanical way, especially if we are tired or busy. But understanding our intentions for doing a practice and observing the impact a practice has on our mind state is the surest way to know if we are doing it the right way or not, and that gives us a much better chance of doing things that take us closer to freedom, not further away – and not wasting our efforts by just going through the motions.

Image by Birgit Böllinger from Pixabay


1.      Richard Gombrich. What the Buddha Thought: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.; 2018.

2.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. AN 7:49 Dāna Sutta | Giving. 28/06/2018. https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/AN/AN7_49.html. Accessed 25 Aug 2021.

3.     Amaro A. A Holistic Mindfulness. Mindfulness. 2015;6:63–73. doi:10.1007/s12671-014-0382-3. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-014-0382-3

4.     Kalyana Mitta. Upekkhā: Equanimity, Insight, and Peace. https://kalyanamitta.blog/2021/08/22/upekkha-equanimity-insight-and-peace/. Accessed 25 Aug 2021.

5.     Ajahn Anan Akiñcano. Sotāpattimagga: The Path of the Sotāpanna: The Teachings of Ajahn Anan Akiñcano; 2013.

6.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Saṁkhittasutta AN8.53. 21/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/an8.53/en/thanissaro. Accessed 25 Aug 2021.

7.     Bhikkhu Sujato. Vajjiyamāhitasutta AN10.94. 21/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/an10.94/en/sujato. Accessed 27 Aug 2021.

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