Cultivating Skillful Means

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Cultivating skillful qualities

In the quest for the inner peace that nourishes compassion and ethical action, inner restraint — recognizing and checking our negative thoughts and behaviors, the cause and conditions of our suffering — is essential. It is inner restraint that helps us avoid harmful actions.

While restraint can helps us avert negative behavior, in does not lead to inner peace.

In order to transform ourselves — our habits and dispositions — so that our actions are compassionate . . . we need to cultivate and reinforce our positive qualities. What are these positive qualities? Our basic human, or spiritual, qualities. Ethics for the New Millennium


For every negative state there is a state that counteracts it. These states are positive qualities — the Dalai Lama calls them "virtues" — that allow us to nurture genuine happiness and inner peace. These positive states act as antidotes to our afflictive states of mind. For example, contentment counteracts greed and perseverance counteracts inertia. As you enhance the capacity of these transformational factors, you are better able to lessen the power of the mental and emotional afflictions.

If we wish to lessen the power of negative emotions . . .we must enhance the mental forces that counter them: what we might call their antidotes. How do we undertake this? First we identify our particular virtue's opposing factors. The opposing factor of humility would be pride or vanity. The opposing factor of generosity would be stinginess. After identifying these factors, we must endeavor to weaken and undermine them. While we are focused on these opposing factors, we must also be fanning the flames of the virtuous quality we hope to internalize. When we feel most stingy, we must make an extra effort to be generous. When we feel impatient or judgmental, we must do our utmost to be patient.

When we recognize how our thoughts have particular effects upon our psychological states, we can prepare ourselves for them. We will then know that when one state of mind arises, we must counter it in a particular way; and if another occurs, we must act appropriately.

In this lesson you explore a few of these qualities:

  • patience — the antidote to anger
  • humility — the antidote to pride
  • generosity — the antidote to greed
  • sympathetic joy — the antidote to envy
  • clear seeing — the antidote to anxiety

Do you ever proactively contain negative emotions with their antidotes? If yes, do you do so routinely? If not, why? What hinders you?

Again the Dalai Lama acknowledges the effort required to make such a mental shift. He cites a Tibetan proverb:

Engaging in the practice of virtue is as hard as driving a donkey uphill, whereas engaging in destructive activities is as easy as rolling boulders downhill.