Is Goodness a Skill?


By Mary Jaksch

Are you a good person?

Most likely, you’ll answer, “Yes, but…”
What that answer signifies is that you, like most of us, have good intentions, but tend to fail.

Let me give you an example:

Imagine that you are in a row with a loved one. (If this never happens to you, then you are saint. Congratulation. Please stand aside for a moment while we mere mortals figure this out…)
So, here you are in a row. You’re feeling (tick one):


Suddenly you feel a hurtful phrase welling up inside you. You manage to avoid it, thinking, “No, I won’t say that.” Another hurtful phrase comes to your mind and you say to yourself, “No, I won’t say that either.” You are doing well!

Fast forward half an hour, your anger has come up a notch and you suddenly blurt out not just one, but both of the hurtful phrases. Now you’re really got row on your hands and your relationship will need some repair!

What happened?

At that moment you lapsed from goodness.

It’s regrettable – but also interesting. Because this scenario indicates that goodness is a skill.

Our Western cultures imagines that Good is opposed to Evil. The two seem like to huge forces, locked in battle. Because of that idea, we don’t usually think of goodness as something we can study, practice and get skilled at. The Christian tradition has instilled in our culture the belief that goodness is the absence of evil. That is, if only we could expel all that is bad in us, we would arrive at pure goodness.

But there is another way to see good and evil.

In Buddhism the ancient Pali terms for good and evil are kusala and akusala which mean ‘skilful’ and ‘unskilful’.

I find that a much more interesting concept!

When we act unskilfully we become estranged.

Think back to the scenario of the row. In the process of a row, we start to feel estranged from our loved one. It’s as if they are suddenly on the other side of a divide. (I wrote about this estrangement in a previous article, called Hero or Villain: What are YOU Capable of Being?)

There is a very interesting description of the mental process of estrangement in some early Buddhist texts. They lists the following mental steps:

1. The mind froths up problems and issues.

2. The mind starts thinking round and around something.

3. The mind settles on a desire to do something.

4. The mind takes up sides on something.

5. The mind becomes hostile and malign.

I am sure all of us recognise this sequence of mental events! Of course, once we recognize the pattern, we can develop the skill to stop this sequence of mental anguish.

Let’s return for a moment to where we started out from: the grand opposition of Good versus Evil. When we substitute the words ‘skilful’ and ‘unskilful’, the grandeur crumbles away and we are faced with something small and manageable. What we are faced with is a simple fact:

In every moment there is a choice to act skilfully or not.

‘Good’ and ‘evil’ come down to the smallest mental choices. What are you choosing right now? Are you choosing to be connected, grateful, present, and content? Or are you choosing to be isolated, estranged, grumpy, frustrated, and unhappy?

Maybe you think it’s not possible to change a whole mood at will?

You’re right! But you can let go of the next unskilful thought. And the next one. And the next one. Taken together, all these thoughts form a mood.

Let’s come back to my earlier example of the row. An important question is: why did we finally blurt out what was hurtful, although we knew it was being unskilful?

The key is to be present.

And that’s difficult to do when we’re angry. Because in order to be present, we need to see what is going on for the other person. (And not just see the bit that fits in with our angry story!) We also need to be present to what is going on for ourselves. We need to be present to the anger roiling in our belly, as well as to the sadness or hurt or fear behind it. When we are fully present, we are much less likely to blurt out cutting remarks.

It’s important to remember that we are humans. We make mistakes, we get it wrong – but we have the ability to start over.

There is an old Samurai saying, “Seven times down, eight times up.” As my son pointed out when he little, this only adds up if you start from lying down.

Lying down is a good place to start from. When we are on the ground, having made a mistake, this is a moment of opportunity. When we are hurt, lonely, ashamed, distressed, or in despair – this is when a new way can open for us. Lying on the ground gives us a new perspective and the opportunity to get up and start anew.

Here is a story about failing from the early Christian tradition:

A monk looking for some guidance and encouragement goes to Abba Sisoius and asks:
“What am I to do since I have fallen?”
The Abba replies: “Get up.”
“I did get up, but I fell again.”
“Get up again.”
“I did, but I must admit that I fell once again. So what should I do?”
“Do not fall down without getting back up.”

I love that story! Here now are three suggestions on how to practice the skill of goodness.

1. Notice the turning points in your mind where you can choose to act skilfully or unskilfuly.

2. Be present to the emotions and stories within yourself and within those who are in conflict with you.

3. Do now fall down without getting back up!

There is a lot more I could say to this. In particular about being present to ourselves, as well as being present for others. If you take a look here, you can see that ‘How to be present with ourselves’ and ‘How to be present for others’ are two of the themes I’ll be taking up in the upcoming retreat Virtual Zen Retreat.

What do you think about goodness? Do you agree that it’s a skill? Or not? Let’s have a conversation in the comment section.


You can read more about Virtual Zen Retreats here.

About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.


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