When I first started getting into meditation I viewed it as simply being an activity to help me deal with anxiety. I was very much looking at it as an exercise that would be divorced from any kind of religion or spiritual practice. I quickly found, however, that my anxiety was actually eased as much, if not more, by some of the Buddhist ideas that I came across in my meditation research, and started to turn my study more and more toward Buddhist writing. As I did, I began to realize that the practice of meditation can certainly provide some benefit as a stand alone mental exercise, but that much more profound impact lies in a broader system of practices.
There is a debate going on in the mindfulness community right now about whether mindfulness practices can be separated from the full body of Buddhist teaching and still do any good. I’m not going to get too deeply into that here, although I think it is an interesting topic for discussion another day. I will simply say that my own personal experience lead me to seek to adopt more elements of Buddhist practice, and that I have found that my experience has become more rich as a result.
The thing that I have alway found appealing about the words of the Buddha, is that his instructions were always given as a prescription for liberation, and not as a list of prohibitions and commands that you must follow unquestioningly. There’s a real “give this a try and you’ll see that it works” approach in Buddhism. There’s nothing to feel guilty about if you don’t follow every instruction, you just have to know that taking on the Dharma piecemeal means that you might not be getting the most out of your practice.
A few months ago I saw a series of videos on the 10% Happier app by JoAnna Hardy that dealt with the Five Precepts. I had already begun dabbling with selected portions of the precepts, but the way that JoAnna talked about them was really helpful to me. I actually ended up contacting her about being my teacher following this and have been meeting with her via video conference regularly since then.
As well as emphasizing the non-judgmental nature of the precepts, JoAnna talked about considering the precepts in the fullness of their implications. It’s easy to say that won’t kill a human, but what about killing bugs or animals? Going a step further, do you eat beings that have been killed by someone else? There is a lot to unpack there, and ultimately, we all have to make our own decisions on these topics. I have personally thus far chosen to be primarily vegetarian, but I do occasionally eat fish and humanely raised local meat. Does this mean I am in violation of the first precept, and if so, why does that matter?
My motivation in choosing to undertake a more thorough investigation and application of the precepts is based on the idea that each of these guidelines is given by the Buddha because they help us to avoid hindrances to our practice. Precept number five, which is to abstain from intoxicants, is one that I have watched the affects of in my life. It’s easy to see that it’s hard to be mindful while you are under the influence of a couple of drinks, but I’ve even seen that my morning meditation is affected by my drinking, as I often don’t sleep well after drinking and wake up groggy and listless from the previous evenings consumption. Lying or speaking ill of people tends to cause feelings of guilt or ill will, and can prove to be a distraction from mindfulness. Anything that causes harm to others (or to ourselves) feels bad and is a hindrance to us. This is why the precepts matter to me.
My goal with this project is to be a little more stringent in my interpretation of the precepts than I have been, and to make a commitment to abide by them for a full month. I want to spend some time observing the impact and feeling out where I stand on each one, and how I will apply them in my life moving forward. I am going to try to go into the project without any expectations or pre-judgments.
My next few posts will be examining each of the precepts individually and explaining how I intend to apply them in the coming month.
I welcome any thoughts on the topic of the Five Precepts and my understanding of them. As I’ve said before, I am not an expert, and I always welcome the wisdom of those with more understanding and experience.