When I was a teenager, I saw at a birthday party this guy named John who stole my girlfriend from me. Even while she and I were going together, he started hanging out with her. He knew we were together, and still he moved in and stole her. She went with him and I was crushed.
I heard that John would be at this party, and I was nervous. I didn’t know if I wanted to face him. When he came in, he acted as if nothing happened. He walked up to me, smiling, and said hello. He acted like he was happy to see me and that he actually cared. He took no interest in, or responsibility for, the pain that he caused me.
I felt like throwing my drink in his face. I thought about doing it in that moment. But I didn’t. Something stopped me. I thought better of it. On one hand, I wish I had thrown the drink in his face. On the other hand, I’m glad that I didn’t.
I knew, even as a young person, that striking back at John would not be appropriate or helpful. It would not have brought back my girlfriend. It probably would not have changed John. It probably would not even have made me feel better. And it would have ruined someone else’s birthday party.
When talking about establishing mindfulness in our practice, Buddha instructed that we observe our bodies, our feelings, our minds, and the objects of our minds, with clear understanding.
As part of clear understanding, when we face a situation in the moment, before we take action, we are mindful of four questions. We ask ourselves why we are taking this action. Is it in my best interest and in the best interest of others? Does it lead to growth of my Zen practice? For me with John, I might have thrown the drink out of bitterness and revenge, but I would answer no to all the questions of mindfulness.
We ask ourselves if what we are doing is appropriate for the circumstance. Is it appropriate for the time and place, and does it fit into my personal capacity as a mindful and loving person? Does it apply skillful means? As I said, with John, I knew that it would not have been appropriate. It might have felt good for a second, but it would not have been particularly skillful. Even when I left that party, I knew, with just a little misgiving, that I had done the right thing by restraining myself. As it was, of course, I went on to other relationships that opened my heart and developed my wisdom as a loving person.
We ask ourselves if the action we take is appropriate for our Zen practice. In essence, we can decide whether what we do in the moment is wise and compassionate. Throwing my drink in John’s face would have been neither.
We ask ourselves if what we do separates ourselves from the reality of our innate and intimate connection to the whole of existence. Is it mindful of the fact that everything is impermanent and always changing? Does it help stop suffering? I can see that my awareness in that moment at the birthday party of the need to let go of my anger and hatred toward John best served myself and everyone else, including John and my ex-girlfriend.
With clear understanding, I know that if I had it to do over again, I would put my drink down and walk away from John. I would wish him well and move on with life.