Skillful Means

Every day we face ten thousand decisions about how to manage and direct our lives. Most of these past by mostly unnoticed. The few that do not, however, tend to generate an astonishing amount of angst and confusion. The “education” we endured as children, which effectively removed most of our natural good sense, has left us unprepared for circumstances in life that do not permit of a formulaic response. What do we do when we don’t know what to do? That’s a question few people can answer skillfully. In general people either choose impulsively, without clear motives or a broad understanding of where they are headed, or they become paralyzed. Neither of these, obviously, will produce good results. Why are we unable to act more effectively? The reason, I would say, is that we believe in the existence of a “right” choice, and we imagine it is in our power to discover it. Does this seem so to you? What if, instead, there is no “right” anything, and there is no real way to force clarity?

Consider for a moment that there is no reality in “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, or any other dualistic pairing. I tend to say this over and over, I’ve noticed, but I suppose that’s hardly a surprise. Understanding the non-dual nature of “reality”, whatever that may be, is foundational to the teachings of the Buddha, at least so far as I comprehend them, and is one of the primary organizing principles behind the way I see the world. Dualistic thinking is, however, one of our main sources of disorientation and the prime motivator for much, perhaps all of the suffering in the world.

Nothing we do, think, or say is “right”. Neither is it possible to do, think, or say anything “wrong”. The purpose of these concepts is to divide up the world into chunks we can control, or at least pretend that we control; to shunt the center of our awareness from our natural participation in the moment, and into the entanglement of conditioned mind; and to set up standards and expectations that we may fail at. There are, however, consequences that follow upon everything we do. There is no good/right way or bad/wrong way to navigate through the circumstances of our lives and the ramifications of our choices, but there is an adept way. In Buddhism this is sometimes referred to as “skillful means”. With practice and experience we may learn the skillful means by which we may create a deep and fulfilling life for ourselves, and a compassionate relationship with those around us.

There is always a skillful way to interact with the circumstances of our lives. People tend to assume that life consists of a series of imperfect choices, that we must always settle for something less than we desire, but this is not my experience at all. It is true that life never mirrors conditioned mind in the way that it prefers, but this is only because the nature of conditioning is dissatisfaction. If we are identified with conditioned mind then life is bleak and filled with only bad options, but a sort of perfection exists outside of conditioned mind that is as beautiful as it is practical and expedient. There is always an option available that works perfectly. Conditioned mind cannot see the perfection in it, and thus we are confused, but it is always there.

For example, I’ve been struggling lately with the supposed fact that I don’t have enough time in my life. This is such a common artifice that I’m embarrassed to admit my involvement with it, but there you go. It has seemed that I don’t have enough time to accomplish what I believe I need to, and that’s a big problem. I woke in a conversation about that this morning. It failed to dissipate during meditation, but while I practiced yoga on the back porch, accompanied by spring birdsong and the sound of the river rushing by, I disidentified. That is, I stepped out of the story in which there is not enough time and became aware of the time that there is, with the endless moment that we all live in, and suddenly I connected with a vast space. Residing in that space I realized (once again) that all the potential accomplishments that had seemed so essential and necessary are made up and have no urgency apart from what I bring to them in my mind. I can just do what is in front of me to do in each moment, step by step, and let go of any and all outcomes. Ahhhhh…. It’s so relaxing and peaceful to be out of that story. That’s always the solution, in a way: to let it all go and just be. Then a couple hours later one of my coaching clients canceled their appointment, which provided the time for me to write this blog. Isn’t that wonderful? Life is full of magic and possibility if we just get out of the way.

And that’s the key: to get out of the way. Life unfolds perfectly, always and without exception. To expertly navigate through the opportunities and challenges that Life presents, the primary requirement is to avoid interfering. This is incredibly difficult to do, as we are conditioned from an early age to force Life to yield to our will, and that habit runs deep. It dominates our entire world view, in fact, to the extent that typically we cannot see past our desires to the loving-kindness that inhabits every aspect of this world we live in. To get out of the way we must let go of our preferences, and allow ourselves to be guided by the intelligence that animates all we perceive. We must give up what we believe we want in order to have what we truly need. This is the skillful means. The means are found in the moment, outside of the assumptions of conditioned mind. The fundamental method used to create a deep and fulfilling life is just this, to get out of your head. There is always a perfect way; always the soft, sweet voice of Life to guide us if we will follow. Our work, I would say, is to purify ourselves, to destroy our relationship with conditioned mind, that we may hear it.

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