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Cultivating Ethical Living, without guilt tripping yourself (or others!)

second paramita, ethical living, virtue

In this second instalment of our series on the Six Perfections we explore the topic of “shila”; our ethical living in everyday life.

Imagine this:

You open a friendly, handwritten note, inviting you to change your life and let go of bad habits that don’t serve your highest purpose. It’s written on recycled paper and is signed by no one other than yourself.

This is what often happens when people start a yoga teacher training course. We write these notes to ourselves at the start of the training and review them at the end. New beginnings like this inspire us to take an honest look into our lives, to let go of negative patterns that keep us stuck, and to cultivate an ethical way of life.

This is a noble aspiration. It’s an essential part of the spiritual path, and for honoring the lofty motivation we touched on in the previous post – the Bodhisattva ideal. We’ll come back to this motivation when considering each of the Six Perfections.

These six guiding stars are part of the training for would-be Bodhisattvas, or those who have decided to dedicate their lives to working for the welfare of all beings.

Our ethical conduct in daily life is where the rubber hits in the road, in this regard. It’s where abstract ideas get tested in the grit of reality. How we behave towards others, and the ethical quality of our choices, reveal the extent to which we are concerned with the wellbeing of others and this planet.

The virtuous life

The idea of virtuous character might seem old fashioned. Indeed, it’s been around for a very long time, at least as far back as Socrates and the ancient Greeks. They believed having a virtuous character was essential for human flourishing. Courage, magnanimity, truthfulness, friendliness, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and other excellent traits of character, provide the basis for the good life.

Without these, or with their opposites – dishonesty, cruelty, cowardice, as examples – one cannot live a happy life. A liar or a thief, for example, can never truly be happy. A dishonest person is always worried on some level he or she will be caught out. A thief sees everyone else as a thief. Acting according to vice triggers a downward spiral, whereas positive character traits cause a virtuous cycle. Virtue begets virtue.

Three wise monkeys

The pictorial maxim of the three wise monkeys is an amusing example of how to practice shila or ethical living in everyday life. As best we can, we avoid performing harmful or unskilful deeds with our body, speech and mind. By cultivating mindfulness, we are better able to observe our urges to speak and act, and the content of our thoughts.

This allows us to see whether what we’re doing is going to help or harm others. The deeper meaning of shila is always choosing action that helps others. A wise monkey seeks to perform skilful or beneficial deeds with body, mind and speech.

Body: Pushing in line while waiting at a supermarket is an example of an unskilful bodily deed. The person behind you will probably be triggered into having negative thoughts about you and humanity. They might even say something in anger. Instead of triggering this chain of reactivity, we can smile, breathe and use waiting in in line as an opportunity to practice mindfulness. We might enjoy it so much that we let someone go ahead of us!

Speech: Sometimes we can think we’re saying something skilful to help others, when in reality all we’re doing is analysing them or projecting onto them. Talking about others behind their back, maybe analysing them with a friend, is an example of unskilful speech. It comes from a place of superiority and engenders mistrust and divisiveness. Rather than analysing, instead talk about a person’s good qualities. Appreciate them.

Mind: Ruminating on all the things we find annoying about someone is a quick way to make ourselves feel terrible. And it can trigger harmful speech. This often happens in close relationships where, as the saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt” – we zoom in on all the things we don’t like about a partner or family member. Rather than ruminating in this way, turn your mind to having gratitude for the people in your life who offer you love, friendship and support. Even write down all the people and things in your life you are grateful for.


Cultivating virtue and an ethical life is not a license to guilt trip. Imagine if that handwritten note we discussed earlier said something like, “clean up your act bozo”. How would that feel? Not so good, right?

The risk with trying to live virtuously and ethically is it can feel quite overwhelming. We can set up ridiculously high standards for ourselves and others. We can beat up on ourselves and the people around us for not living up to measure. Inner narratives of self criticism, guilt or shame can come up, for example:

“I like to drink a glass of wine now and then. Does that mean I’m not ready for a deeper yoga practice? Should I abstain from alcohol completely? But I like it!”

“I smoke and I’m not managing to stop, regardless of how hard I’d like to. I’m a bad yogi…”

“I work in a competitive environment that doesn’t feel 100 percent ethical all the time. I feel bad about it, but I make my living from it. Should I just quit? I don’t have the courage to make that move yet…”

Buddhist teaching doesn’t consider guilt or shame beneficial emotional qualities. They are not something we should cultivate on our spiritual path.

Indeed, guilt and shame are not virtues, but the opposite. They result in a downward spiral, draining our energy, sabotaging our efforts, and making positive change seem more distant.

Instead of letting them sway us we can contemplate what virtues, what positive character traits, can help us on the path. Kindness, compassion, patience, courage, gentleness, and wisdom, as examples, will ensure we have a healthy relationship with ourselves and others.

Is there a smarter way to make a positive change?

Yes, there is! By being mindful.

Cultivating gentle, non judgmental presence allows you to recognize how you’re actually feeling when old habits are kick in. For example:

“How does it feel to have that taste of tobacco in my mouth? Do I really like it? Do I want to carry on like this?”

“Hmm … sometimes I say yes when I actually mean no … it seems easier at the moment, it creates less disturbance. But is that really true? How do I actually feel doing it?”

Once you recognize where you are, the next step is to accept it.

“Yes, I’m really doing this to myself/to people around me.”

It requires humility to accept where you actually are (instead of wishing to be somewhere else all the time!). However, once you recognize and accept your situation, you take responsibility for it. You take your life into your own hands.

Over time, you organically let go of the unwholesome habits, not out of guilt, but out of loving kindness toward yourself. With patience and energy – also indispensable virtues (paramitas) on the spiritual path, you’re well equipped to succeed!

Off your high horse

We’ve all met one. The self-righteous person who bangs on about how bad we are for not adopting their view on an issue. The upshot is: don’t be one.

We all have bad habits. We can all improve our ethical conduct. Cultivating a virtuous cycle is a lifelong journey for each of us.

Mindfulness, kindly non judgemental awareness, helps us relate to other people’s bad habits from a different perspective, as well.

Instead of measuring them by conventional standards of good and bad, we understand that people are the way they are due to causes and conditions. There’s no need to lecture someone on what’s right and what’s wrong.

Indeed, this can be counterproductive – it all too easily becomes harmful speech. This can trigger a reaction of more harmful speech, negative thoughts, personal distance, and in the worst case, physical violence. Remember our aim is to always help others. One of the best ways to do this is by our own quiet, humble example.

As a yoga teacher, you’re offering tools to help others take their lives into their own hands, and to make positive choices toward building a wholesome life for themselves.

A true transformation, whether on the mat or in life, starts with the recognition and acceptance of who you are right now. That’s the only place you can start from.

Click here to read about generosity, the first instalment in our series on the Six Paramitas.