How a Shower got me Thinking about Skillful vs Unskillful Actions

I was having my usual morning shower, doing my best to be mindful of the activity, when I had a sudden impulse to increase the water temperature. Instead of acting on that impulse, I observed it carefully.

Upon close examination, this impulse was an attachment reaction to the pleasant sensations of the warm water on my skin. I wanted “more” of that pleasant sensation, more of that initial bodily pleasure and relaxation that you get when you first step into a warm shower. Since my body had acclimatized to the water temperature, I would need to increase it to recreate that feeling.

Now, it was clear that the temperature of the water was just fine. And it was pleasant just a few moments ago, before I had the impulse. So there wasn’t any real need to increase the water temperature. On the other hand, where was the harm in it? A little indulgence. Not a big deal, right? Why not make the water a little warmer and enjoy that pleasure a little longer?

If you read the old Buddhist texts, such as the Pali Suttas, which are considered to be the oral teachings of the Buddha that were later written down after his death, you come across a lot of passages that talk about “wholesome” and “unwholesome” or “skillful” and “unskillful” thoughts, actions and states of mind.

For the Western reader, this kind of language smacks of moralizing and it’s often omitted from popular books on meditation and mindfulness. I used to bristle every time I ran into the words “wholesome” and “unwholesome” while reading the suttas.

But my experience in the shower made me pause.

If I made the water in the shower warmer, I would be strengthening the habitual attachment reaction to pleasant sensations. I’d be greasing the groove of grasping. But if I refrained from increasing the water temperature, wouldn’t I be depriving myself of an innocent pleasure?

Looking closer at what was going on in the mind made the situation clear. The pleasant sensation of the warm water on my skin had been largely obscured by the grasping after more pleasant sensations. Attachment itself created the feeling that there wasn’t enough pleasant and that I “needed” more. As I continued to observe, the attachment melted away, and the enjoyment of the water was revealed once more. At that moment, there was pleasant, and there was no need for further pleasant.

So clearly, I wouldn’t be depriving myself of an innocent pleasure by refraining from following my impulse to increase the water temperature. In fact, it was the attachment reaction itself that had deprived me of the initial pleasure I was experiencing in the shower! Who knew that a simple shower could get so complicated?

That brings me back to those words, “wholesome”, “skillful”, “unwholesome” and “unskillful”. A wholesome or skillful thought, action or mental state is one that brings you closer to freedom from the habitual reactions of attachment/aversion. These are the things that take you one step closer to ending your suffering. Unwholesome or unskillful thoughts, actions and mental states do the opposite: they reinforce these habitual reactions and further entrench and fuel your suffering.

My experience in the shower made me realize that abstaining from enacting attachment to pleasant sensations isn’t deprivation, it’s a wholesome, skillful act that helps loosen the bonds of that attachment. It was the attachment itself that had already deprived me of the joy in that moment! Refraining from following the attachment helped me to uncover the joy that was already present.

When I looked at it this way, every time I followed through on an attachment reaction, I was actually depriving myself of the joy and pleasure of this moment.

This is where mindfulness comes in really handy.

In the West, mindfulness is generally conceptualized as a kind of awareness without judgement. To be mindful is to be aware of the bare sensation, accepting of whatever comes.

But there’s something really important that’s missing in that definition of mindfulness: discrimination.

Mindfulness allows us to discriminate between skillful and unskillful thoughts, actions and behaviours, and in that sense, there is some judgement in it. It’s not a harsh, penalizing form of judgement. It’s a wise discernment that has our ultimate best interests at heart.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this! Please write a comment below and let’s discuss this together.

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2 Responses to “How a Shower got me Thinking about Skillful vs Unskillful Actions”

  1. Anne Gerard

    Thank you Nicolas, really enjoyed this blog, and certainly got me thinking about the “non-judgement” aspect most usually referred to in practising Mindfulness. My sense is that through the “seeing more clearly” our habitual responses this kind of insight regarding wholesome/unwholesome or helpful/unhelpful reactions, arises naturally. My experience is that it (insight) may not be as immediate or spontaneous as you experienced in the shower but that at times momentary glimpses of insight can happen. However, your description here has given me a some very helpful guidance that could be incorporated into certain Mindfulness “more active” practises. There’s a place for all of this stuff. Thank you so much. Anne

    Reply
    • Nickolas Grabovac

      You’re most welcome Anne. Insight experiences seem to come in many shapes and forms. Often, after I have a “spontaneous” kind of insight, it takes many smaller, more gradual insights before I’m able to integrate it and have it shape and affect my daily life.

      Reply

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