Developing our capacity for mindfulness has the potential to make a positive impact in every area of our lives.
Part of the reason for this is that when we are able to be mindfully present, we are less likely to react from our conditioning or habitual tendencies. The ability to pause and respond rather than react to circumstances in our lives is critical since it is only in the present moment that we are actually able to make choices and take action (or choose not to act) with our speech or behavior.
Having intentions for how we want to act and be in the world can be immensely helpful, both as motivation to engage in spiritual practice and as guidance for making choices. The teachings of Buddhism contain a list of ten wholesome qualities of the heart and mind, also known as the perfections or paramis. According to Buddhist teachings, each of us already has, and can learn to further develop, these qualities.
The ten perfections are: generosity, ethical integrity or virtue, renunciation, wisdom, wise effort or energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve or determination, lovingkindness, and equanimity. Several of these, such as generosity, patience, truthfulness, and lovingkindness, are familiar positive qualities (not to say that they are easy practice). While all of the perfections are profound and could be discussed at length, some seem more in need of further explanation than others.
The perfection of ethical integrity, or virtue, is broad in scope, as it consists of aligning one’s thoughts, words, and actions with one’s ethical principles. Examples of ethical principles, which overlap with some of the other paramis, include compassion, generosity, honesty, service, purity, gratitude, and justice. As a famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi states, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Renunciation can have different meanings. In the context of the paramis, author Jean Smith defines renunciation with this resolve: “May I let go of anything that harms me or other beings.” Having the intention to let go of things that harm us or others can increase our awareness of how our actions affect us and others and can foster skillful discernment in our choices. Renunciation also can refer to letting go of selfishness and self-seeking.
Wisdom relates to both seeing things clearly and to making wise choices, while wise effort includes being diligent with our spiritual practice and making an effort to uphold our spiritual ideals. Wise effort or energy also involves paying attention to how we use our energy and to how various things affect our energy level. Resolve can be thought of as dedicating our spiritual practice to the benefit of all beings.
Finally, equanimity involves staying balanced in body, mind, and heart in the face of the difficulties and changing circumstances of life. Equanimity also relates to an understanding of things that are beyond our scope of control, especially with regard to our influence on others.
Many of the positive changes I have experienced from my spiritual practice can be related to these wholesome qualities. In terms of renunciation, things I have let go of include fashion magazines (which, for me, encourage materialism and a focus on appearance), my cable subscription (which took time from other activities I value more highly), and animal products of all kinds (which harm the animals as well as take me out of ethical integrity).
In terms of wise effort/energy, I have begun placing a higher priority on getting enough sleep, since I notice a huge difference in my mood and energy level when I fail to get at least 7 hours of sleep. Also related to wise effort, I have made a shift toward prioritizing the consistency of my yoga and meditation practice over its duration, making sure to practice daily even if my practice sometimes has to be brief. A current area of focus for me is developing greater patience and equanimity.
One way to work with the paramis might be to focus on one each week, paying special attention to its role in your choices and interactions. If you decide to work with the paramis, keep in mind the intention to enhance these positive qualities, which you already possess, and try to let go of self-judgment and perfectionism. Practicing self-compassion, a key aspect of lovingkindness, enhances your ability to be compassionate to others and also provides a wonderful example to those around you.
To increase the joy you receive from nurturing these wholesome states, it helps to make a point to fully experience and appreciate them when they are present. This requires both mindfulness and intention. By having an attitude of looking for and emphasizing the good, we can actually begin to rewire our brains, which neuroscientists have shown are naturally inclined to notice and remember the negative.
If you would like to read more about the paramis, two references I would suggest are Life is Spiritual Practice: Achieving Happiness with the Ten Perfections by Jean Smith and The Ten Paramis, a web page on the Insight Meditation Center website.