Dealing with temptation

We all have things we are tempted by, whether it is cigarettes, alcohol, porn, drugs or even just wasting time watching too much TV or playing video games for hours on end.  It could be any number of other things.  The thought arises in our mind that it would be great to indulge ourselves in one of these things.  We think it would bring us happiness and there wouldn’t really be any negative reprecussions.  We think back to times when we did these things in the past and we romanticise how great it was, somehow forgetting the bad that came with it.  We think we can get away with it and nobody would ever know.  We try rationalize to ourselves why doing so is not all that bad.  We start to make plans for how we will do these things to test them out to see if they are workable and if we can find a way to do them that has minimal fallout or chances of getting caught, but that still enables us to get what we want.  Since we know we can’t and we shouldn’t, but we still want to, we experience a good deal of mental pain wrestling with this.  We feel pain at not being able to have what we want and we feel pain of the struggle within ourselves to not execute on our plans.  We think the way to eliminate the pain is to say ‘screw it’ and to go ahead and indulge ourselves.  We tell ourselves we will just do it once (or twice, or three times…) to get it out of our system, and then “that’s it”, afterwards we will be good (even though our past experience has taught us that giving in now just makes it that much harder to say no next time, so we keep giving in again and again).  Sometimes we will have unique circumstances where we can do these things with minimal external impact, and we tell ourselves “if I don’t do it now, the window of opportunity will close on me and then I won’t be able to do it again for a long time, if ever.”  It starts to become the only thing we can think about, and every time we have a spare mental moment we start thinking about this again.  If we are already a Dharma practitioner, when we go to sit down to meditate and our mind starts to become more quiet, it seems as if these calls become even louder (they don’t, we are just becoming more aware of the deep currents running underneath the surface).  We might even try rationalize things with the Dharma, such as by misusing the tantric teachings.  Even though there can be extraordinary risks of losing everything we hold dear, we think the risk is minimal and it will be OK.  Does any of this sound familiar to anybody?

Here’s the thing:  all of this is completely normal.  This is the normal struggle faced by anybody who has chosen to adopt some form of personal moral discipline.  Here’s the other thing:  there is a way we can turn this process to our great advantage!  But our ability to do so depends on one thing:  we have to have more faith in the law of karma than we do faith in our object of attachment.

One of the laws of karma says that the practice of moral discipline is the cause of higher rebirth.  In particular, there is a practice of moral discipline called the “moral discipline of restraint.” Basically it says we restrain ourselves from giving into our negative impulses.  Everytime we successfully practice the moral discipline of restraint, according to the law of karma, we create the cause for a higher rebirth.  In other words, with one moment of saying no (and yes, this means “depriving” ourselves of the “happiness” we think our object of attachment will give us), we create the causes for an entire lifetime in the upper realms.  Even at an ordinary level, we will have far more happiness in an entire lifetime in the upper realms than we will in that one moment of indulging ourselves.  So the choice is a little bit of enjoyment now or an entire lifetime of enjoyment in the future.  It is like a dollar today or a million dollars tomorrow?  The choice is not a hard one.

The reason we use to say ‘no’ is very important in determining the karmic consequences of our having said no.  If we say ‘no’ because a lifetime of enjoyment is better than a moment of enjoyment, then that is what we will get – an ordinary upper rebirth (still, not bad…).  But if the reason we say ‘no’ is a spiritual reason, the karmic consequences are far better.  If we say ‘no’ because we want to avoid falling into the lower realms, then we create the causes to have not just an ordinary upper rebirth, but a precious human life in which we will encounter instructions on karma and moral discipline and we will have an interest in practicing them.  If we say ‘no’ because we have made the decision that we are going to get out of samsara and indulging ourselves in this object of attachment takes us in the wrong direction (back in vs. getting out), then we not only create the causes for a precious human life where we can continue with our practice of moral discipline, but we also create the cause for a rebirth outside of samsara as a liberated being.  If we say ‘no’ because we have made the decision to transform ourselves into a Buddha so that we can liberate all countless living beings from samsara then it really starts to get good.  Not only do we create the causes for a rebirth as a Buddha, but we create countless such causes.  Engaging in moral discipline for countless living beings is karmically equivalent to engaging in moral discipline for one being countless times.

The point is this:  each time the temptation to break our moral discipline arises within our mind, it provides us with an opportunity to create the causes for up to countless precious human lives and even countless causes to become a Buddha!  If transformed in this way, each time temptation arises within our mind it is like we are winning the spiritual jackpot.  If temptation arises in our mind 20 times every five minutes, if we stay with our practice we just won 20 spiritual jackpots.  You can even go so far as to say without these temptations arising in our mind we would not be able to engage in this practice.  So instead of fearing and suffering from the internal struggle of moral discipline, like a seasoned warrior, you will relish the battle!

If we have more faith in the law of karma than we do faith in the ability of our objects of attachment to give us real happiness, then we will succeed in our practice of moral discipline because we will clearly know there is more to be gained from saying ‘no’ than by giving in.  How do we develop such faith?  You can read the chapter on Karma and the faults of attachment in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.  How do we improve the scope of our spiritual reasons for saying ‘no’?  You can engage in a daily practice of lamrim as explained in the New Meditation Handbook and once again in Joyful Path of Good Fortune. 

If the doubt arises, “if I only need one cause to be reborn as a Buddha, why do I need countless of them,” the answer is because we need to get that one seed to ripen at the time of our death.  If we have countless negative seeds and only one pure one, statistically speaking which one is more likely to ripen?  If we have the doubt, “saying no is just repression of/suppressing my negative impulses.  Won’t the desire to indulge just come back even stronger next time until eventually it overwelms me and I give in,” the answer is there is a difference between repression and a qualified practice of moral discipline.  Repression says “I want to indulge the negative impulse, but I shouldn’t”, whereas a qualified practice of moral discipline says, “I do not want to, because it is just not worth it.  I have much more to gain by saying no than I do by giving in.”  If we have a qualifed practice of moral discipline, the tendencies to indulge in negativity will grow weaker and weaker until eventually they have no hold over us at all.  It takes time and it is a long training, but it is doable and if we perservere we will get there in the end.

Your turn:  Describe a temptation that you have struggled with and how have you overcome it?

5 thoughts on “Dealing with temptation

  1. Thanks KR …”spiritual jackpots” …i just love it !
    i am going to try to do this when i promise in
    my purification practice not to exaggerate or lie,
    or make judgements and i am sure it will be very fun…!

  2. No one else needs to know that huge kebab you are eating is an offering or what not. I never outwardly prostrate etc. In fact, I think I’m getting better at pretending to be normal. Buddha’s blend in really well, it’s mind-boggling! Not that I am anywhere near that level, I still make a hash of everything ha ha

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