I’m not a big fan of lingo. I don’t care for buzzwords. Yet spiritual traditions are full of proprietary lingo. Come out of a Christian tradition, like I have, and you’ll have a small dictionary full of them. Even more disliked is a word I already understand in one context that has a completely different meaning in a particular religious context, so that one must immerse oneself in the dogma to get it.
On the other hand, I do love an apt word. A word or phrase that takes a fuzzy concept and brings clarity is like the fresh smell of the first rain of spring.
So as I’ve steadily moved deeper into my understanding of Buddhism and its concepts, and as I’ve pursued my practice, a particular word has come up that, at first, raised my alarm bells. I’ve seen several authors regularly use the word “skillful.”
Some people might not be so struck by this word, but I’ll refer again to my background. As a Christian, my whole perception of spirituality was focused on faith, devotion, worship, sin, and dependency. It was a doctrine of inadequacy. Christians are taught that our personal efforts are empty unless they are powered by the Holy Spirit. Works in our own power, for our own purposes, are empty. They are like dirty rags. The emphasis isn’t on our own skill and ability. It’s on trust in god and Jesus. The quality is not in our effort, its in god’s faithfulness.
So when I encountered the word skillful, I first suspected a redefinition. Keep in mind I was just trying to get my arms around the basics of meditation and mindfulness. What am I saying? I’m still just trying, but I am a few more steps along the journey. But I was still laboring under a mindset of inadequacy. I thought that humility meant that I was not going to respond correctly to difficult moments by default. I still had the idea that I had to admit my inability and get out of the way. But I’m learning that practicing the dharma is not the same. I suppose if it was I never would have changed my tune in the first place.
The truth is that we each have the Buddha nature within us. We have within us everything we need to find happiness and peace, to love, to end suffering, to live mindfully, and to be compassion to everyone around us.
To live skillfully.
As we get up off the cushion and interact with an impermanent world full of suffering people, we have choices at every turn. Every intersection with another human being gives us the responsibility to respond. Every situation, every conflict, every opportunity, every moment opens the door for us to either respond in a manner that increases our suffering or that of others, or decreases it. It is a moment to give or to take. Each moment has its own challenge, but it’s down to our response. To act skillfully is to be awake to the impact of our response on ourselves any other party involved. To act skillfully is to thoughtfully consider our attachments, to gently let go, and to respond to the situation as it is, not through the filters of our past. To act skillfully is to do our best to choose the most compassionate response, the one that acts out lovingkindness, with as much awareness as we can muster.
It is not a measure of perfection. It is a measure of mindfulness, a measure of maturity, a measure of our willingness to return to the breath and choose love over ego.
May we all learn to live skillfully during our brief journey on the river.