There’s a verse in the Dhammapada—perhaps one of the best known of all the Buddhist scriptures—which can be said to encapsulate the entirety of the Buddha’s teachings. It’s verse 183, which reads:
To avoid all evil,
to cultivate good,
and to cleanse one’s mind—
this is the teaching of the buddhas.
Not long ago I was working with this verse and, in turn, working with someone very new to Buddhism to whom I wanted to offer this teaching as a pragmatic and accessible tool for practice. To do so required a little massaging, so I began with Thich Nhat Hanh’s deceptively simple translation of the same verse. Taken from the Chinese version of the Dhammapada in his book The Art of Power, it reads:
The bad things, don’t do them.
The good things, try to do them.
Try to purify, subdue your own mind.
That is the teaching of all buddhas.
I’d read other translations in which the third line was rendered as “master the mind,” and I liked the way it implied both agency and the possibility to hone a skill. Subduing, on the other hand, with its connotations of suppression and defeat, is too bellicose, and the terms purify and cleanse are morally loaded. I chose to use “master” and simplified the verse even further:
Don’t do bad things.
Do good things.
Master your mind.
Presented this way, this is a sensible teaching. Except,, it’s not always easy to refrain from doing what we shouldn’t. It’s not always our first impulse to do good, nor do we necessarily know what that looks like in any given situation. It’s certainly not always clear how we should go about mastering our fickle, wily minds. My own student, in explaining their situation, shared their difficulty with a parent, who knew exactly which button to push to make them explode. It wasn’t enough for me to say, “Don’t do what’s bad,” and “Do what’s good.” They didn’t want to hear, “Calm yourself.” They wanted to know how.
What if, I thought, with all due humility and respect to the Buddha and buddhas after him, I changed the order of the teaching?
Don’t do bad things.
Master your mind.
Do good things.
Further, what if I frame each of these phrases with a simple, actionable verb that approximates the spirit of the original teaching?
These simple words became a helpful three-step practice that I offered my student to face their suffering.
Stopping is the first step. When hurt, we often want to hurt back. We want to lash out, protect, point out, condemn. To refrain from harm means to be willing to give up our right to be right in the moment when we feel put upon or insulted. It means deciding we’d rather be free and at peace. At the brink of revenge or reprisal, we stop and do nothing. Truly nothing. We pause, and then exert all our power to not take the next hurtful step.
This is the hardest point in the sequence. We’re hardwired to defend ourselves, to right a perceived wrong—and indeed, there are all kinds of wrongs that should be righted. But perpetuating the conflict won’t get us there. Meeting harm with harm only creates more harm, so the challenge is to find a way to break the cycle.
In the Sallekha Sutta (The Discourse on Effacement), the Buddha says to Cunda, Shariputra’s brother: “Others will be harmful; we shall not be harmful here… Others will be agitated; we shall be unagitated here… Others will be angry; we shall not be angry here.” We will not participate or collude in samsara, the Buddha was saying, because that will not lead to our liberation; it will not stop our suffering.
When working with this step, I talk to myself calmly but firmly, repeating, “Do nothing. Do nothing.” As thoughts swirl in my mind, as my blood begins to boil, I keep repeating slowly and evenly, “Do nothing. Do nothing.” If I need a little more encouragement, I remind myself that it won’t help to act in that moment. I know from vast and often painful experience that every time I react instead of respond, every time I let the story looping through my mind dictate what I should do, the result is far from optimal. Therefore, I encourage all of us to stop and rein in the urge to unload our discomfort on someone else. This is the first step to engaging more skillful action.
The second step is to find a way to master the mind in the very moment when it feels most turbulent. Having inched our way into the eye of the storm, where it’s quiet, we begin to work with the tempest surging all around us. To soothe ourselves is to turn inward rather than outward for relief. In psychology, this is called “down-regulation,” the process of calming the nervous system through simple activities like walking or breathing.
Meditation is of course an excellent way to down-regulate, but even taking a few slow breaths can make a tremendous difference for the body. We can also use our senses to ground ourselves, since the fuel of our unease is not the storm of sensations rushing through our bodies but the stories we tell ourselves about how we feel. To counter the onslaught of negative thoughts, a therapist I know instructs his emotionally dysregulated patients to fix their gaze on a pleasant form or color. It can be a spot on the carpet, the leaf of a potted plant, a rectangle of light on a wooden floor—anything to anchor their attention and allow their brain to shift out of the fight or flight response.
Like so many of us, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. I was alone at my partner’s apartment, getting ready to go back on schedule at the monastery where I lived and trained during the week. The moment I heard the news, I instinctively started chanting the Sho Sai Myo Kichijo Dharani, a Zen chant to avert disasters, and kept chanting it until I got to the monastery and could talk with others about what was happening. I needed something to anchor my mind and stabilize my emotions, and without thinking I reached for a tool I’d learned and practiced often.
Mastering our minds may feel like a tall order, particularly when we’re upset, but soothing ourselves is something we can do, and with a little practice, do well. All we need is the willingness to break the pattern that keeps us trapped in a cycle of harm and retaliation, trigger and reaction. Once we’ve soothed ourselves, we’ll be in a much better position to do good, or to at least consider it.
The third step is to shift from a triggered or reactive state to an open, engaged, even curious point of view. To do this, we can ask ourselves, “How can I respond so that I benefit both you and me?” or “What will help, not just to make me feel better, but to make the situation better?” If it’s not clear what action we should take in the moment, we can at the very least keep the conversation going—something that’s unlikely to happen if we respond with anger or judgment.
Maybe we shift by changing the mood, for example by asking a question about something that we know interests the other person. I once saw my aunt do this masterfully with her cantankerous husband. He’d gone on a rant about a politician he found offensive, and others at the dinner table were happily jumping on the bandwagon. At one point, the conversation turned extremely heated, but with impeccable timing, my aunt leaned toward my uncle during a lull and said, “Honey, what’s the name of your third book? Rosalind assures me it’s The Pride of the Nation but I don’t think that’s right.” Off went my uncle on one of his favorite topics, his work, and the table talk shifted completely.
Maybe we shift by asking the other person to postpone the dialogue until a time when both parties have had time to be with themselves. Or we change the momentum of the conversation by giving voice to our vulnerability or our confusion. There are few things more powerful than when someone says, “I’m sorry. I’m upset right now and I’m feeling too many things to name. I do want to understand you, however, so would you be okay if we return to this?”
This third step involves shifting from unskillful to skillful action. That’s why it’s helpful to first take some time to calm ourselves and get in touch with what we’re feeling and thinking. Creating space for ourselves is always beneficial. As we become more practiced in this three-step process, it’ll become second nature to stop before acting, to wait before responding, to change lanes when the one we’re on is likely to lead to a collision.
I think we can all agree that doing what helps and not doing what harms is good for all of us. How to do so on a consistent basis and in all kinds of situations is a question that can occupy an entire lifetime—and it does. I offer this simple tool of stop, soothe, shift as a distillation of the Buddha’s guidelines for living a full and happy life. The path he outlined over 2,500 years ago confirms that all of us can do this, as do the millions of practitioners who’ve benefited from his profound teachings. How fortunate we are to count ourselves among them.