I recently finished two books on the subject of precepts: Thich Nhat Hanh’s For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Mindfulness Trainings (revised 1998 edition, Parallax Press, now out of print/revised into The Mindfulness Survival Kit) and Robert Aitken’s The Mind of Clover: Essays in Buddhist Ethics. I’ve been thinking about precepts a lot over the last several weeks and wanted to start my blogging on the subject with a discussion of why I think precepts in general are so valuable. I’ll be using the term “commitment” to encompass the world of precepts, vows, mindfulness trainings, and other less formally transmitted injunctions to moral conduct.
Some people feel that commitments are confining; I find them to be freeing. Commitments focus the mind so that it’s not scattered to distraction. To quote Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche from The Path of Individual Liberation: The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, Volume One, “Discipline may seem complicated, but it is actually very simple – it is what binds your life together. Without discipline, life is made up of successive indulgences and confusions based on aggression, passion, and ignorance.” Interestingly, that statement rings true in modern psychological studies relating to a phenomenon called decision fatigue.
The basic principal underlying decision fatigue is that we can only make so many carefully considered decisions in a day before the quality of our decision-making deteriorates, leading us either to become reckless (buying candy in the grocery store check-out aisle because we’re worn down by all the choices we had to make to fill our carts) or to maintain the status quo (yelling “no!” at our child’s request after a long day, even if this particular request is objectively reasonable). Even more alarming is that not only does our decision-making suffer from excessive use, so does our willpower. Each successive act of self-control depletes our willpower, making each further act of self-control that much more difficult.
It’s definitely worth reading the long explanation in this fascinating New York Times’ article, which discusses the underlying psychological research. Studies showed that the “more willpower people expended, the more likely they became to yield to the next temptation that came along. When faced with a new desire that produced some I-want-to-but-I-really-shouldn’t sort of inner conflict, they gave in more readily if they had already fended off earlier temptations, particularly if the new temptation came soon after a previously reported one.” Basically, whether you’re trying to stop yourself from having a second helping of dessert, making a splurge purchase, or engaging in an extramarital affair, the more self-control you’ve already exerted that day in making disciplined choices, the less you’re going to have left over for the choice at hand.
The converse is equally true: the fewer self-denying choices you’ve had to make previously, the more reasoned and disciplined you’re going to be when faced with another decision. This is great news because it means there are concrete things you can do to increase the chances that you will make wiser decisions, as the New York Times’ article explains:
…studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.
I’ve read that some people (including President Obama and the late Albert Einstein) consciously arrange their lives to reduce the number of unimportant decisions they have to make, so as to ensure better decision-making for when it really counts. Examples of this include filling their closets with clothing of the same two matching colors and always eating the same breakfast. This is where commitments come in. In my opinion, commitments serve the exact same function. By committing to refrain from a particular course of action, you reduce the number of difficult choices you have to make each day.
I remember back when I was a vegetarian-who-still-ate-seafood, which in my case was really a vegetarian-who-lacked-willpower. I aspired to be fully vegetarian, but I still liked the taste of seafood so much that I wasn’t willing to fully commit. Back then, deciding what to eat when we went out to a restaurant was a big struggle because I had so many more choices. I felt like I “should” pick from the vegetarian side of the menu but I also knew that I could “cheat” and choose seafood. I became a case study in decision fatigue, which I hadn’t heard of at the time. I imagine that the amount of self-control I’d exercised in any given day often determined the outcome of my tortured internal menu debates: the more I felt I’d deprived myself in earlier choices, the more likely I was at dinner to choose the seafood over the veggies.
At a certain point, I decided I was really going to be vegetarian. I made the commitment to voluntarily limit my own choices and, paradoxically, I felt incredibly freed. When I’d pick up the dinner menu, my eyes might drift over to the seafood but then my commitment would come to mind and I’d say to myself, “No, I don’t eat that anymore” and that was that. No additional decision-making was necessary.
Thich Nhat Hanh frequently uses a metaphor that our essential being is water, while our immediate manifestation is wave. As a wave, we may be prettier or poorer than someone else, more or less successful, older or younger, et cetera. As water, we all inter-are, our fundamental being not separate from, nor more or less than, anything else. To expand on that metaphor, I feel that the commitments I’ve made form the container that shapes my wave to be more virtuous and beneficial to myself and others.
I see two key requirements for commitments to really work. First, the commitment must be fully internalized, to the point where it operates instinctively. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is said that when you receive a teaching, you should not be like a full cup (the teaching will spill over), an overturned cup (the teaching will not be able to go in), or a dirty cup (the teaching will become polluted). You must be like a clean, empty cup to fully gain the benefit of the teaching. I think it is the same with making commitments. It’s not enough to participate in a transmission. Your heart has to be like a freshly plowed field, ready to receive what is sewn. Only then will the commitment really sink in, which it needs to do if it is going to act to reduce decision-making.
The second requirement is that the commitment must be regularly renewed. My husband once stunned me by suggesting that marriage vows should expire at the end of some period, perhaps five years, and require renewal for the marriage to continue in effect. Once I calmed down enough to understand that he wasn’t saying he wanted out of our marriage, I realized he had a good point. A commitment that is not regularly renewed is not a living commitment; it risks becoming become stale and merely assumed, rather than truly embraced. I think this is why Thay requires that the Mindfulness Trainings be regularly recited in community for their transmission to continue. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to renew all commitments in a formal ceremony. Merely choosing to continue to apply them in a wholehearted way can act like renewal. For instance, waking up each morning I can greet my husband like the person who just happens to be there again, or I can greet him like my beloved. There is a difference.
Sometimes it seems very difficult to restrain myself and overly ambitious to take on new commitments. However, rationally I know that I have already internalized far more commitments than I even realize. For instance, in addition to being a person who does not eat meat, I could call myself a person who does not run red lights, toss garbage on the ground, or throw rocks at street lights. None of those are precisely covered by formal commitments I’ve taken but they definitely belong on the list of actions I abstain from. From that viewpoint, most of my commitments have been subconsciously acquired through repeated decisions that I’ve made in connection with my values, habits, culture, and upbringing. It’s certainly not impossible for me to choose consciously to internalize more.
Since I am heir to my actions of body, speech, and mind, I highly value commitments for the way in which they help me to make good choices by removing other choices from my realm of possibility. Or, looked at from another angle, commitments allow me to make one well-considered and disciplined choice that eliminates the necessity for me to make a thousand other smaller choices. That frees me from decision fatigue, allowing me to make better choices in other aspects of my life.
One last point: I’ve heard commitments derided on the basis that they are impossible to perfectly fulfill. That does not diminish their value to me. Commitments are inspiration and guidance, not street maps. As my mindfulness practice center’s senior teacher pointed out this week in the notice for our weekly Dharma discussion, it is impossible given the conditions of human life to completely avoid killing, for instance. However, as Thay wrote in Being Peace, “The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not. If we are, then can we reduce the suffering to a minimum? If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.”
The poem I’m quoting this week is actually the preface to a various famous book of poetry: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I hadn’t read the preface in years – perhaps never in full – and I was astonished by this lovely description of how everything we do, say, and think has precise consequence.