Definition of Destructive Behavior
Each system of ethics has its own list of destructive types of behavior based on different ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable. Religious and civil systems base themselves on laws that come from heavenly authority, a head of state, or some type of legislature. When we disobey, we’re guilty and need to be punished; when we’re obedient, we’re rewarded either in heaven, or in this life with a safe and harmonious society. Humanitarian systems focus on not causing harm to others, but this is also problematic: can we always judge what is really harmful or helpful to someone else? For instance, yelling at someone may hurt their feelings, or it might help them to avoid some danger.
Buddhist ethics emphasize refraining from self-destructive behavior – especially acting in ways that will harm us in the long run. If we yell at that driver madly trying to pass us on the road, it may make us feel better for a moment, but it also unsettles our minds and shakes up our energies, causing us to lose peace of mind. When we make yelling a habit, we’re unable to tolerate any inconvenience without getting upset; this damages not only our relations with others, but also our own health.
When, on the other hand, our behavior is motivated by genuine concern for others, with love, compassion and understanding, we naturally refrain from yelling even if we automatically feel like doing so – we graciously let that driver pass. The result is that the driver feels happy, and we also benefit: we remain calm and peaceful, with a basically happy state of mind. We don’t repress our urge to yell and end up frustrated. Rather, we see that everyone on the road equally wants to reach their destination as soon as possible, and so we understand the futility and pointlessness of trying to make our drive into a race.
Buddhism defines destructive behavior as acting compulsively under the influence of disturbing emotions and negative habits. We don’t discriminate correctly between what’s harmful and what’s helpful, either because we just don’t know what’s best or perhaps we do know, but we totally lack any self-control. The main disturbing emotions are greed and anger, plus naivety about the consequences of our ways of acting, speaking and thinking when they’re driven by these trouble-making emotions. On top of this, we often lack any feeling of self-worth, and so don’t care at all how we behave. We have an attitude of whatever, where nothing matters except a few superficial things like how we dress, what our hair looks like, and who our friends are. We certainly don’t care how our behavior reflects on our whole generation, or on our gender, race, nationality, religion, or whatever group we identify with. We lack self-dignity and self-respect.
Traditional List of Ten Destructive Actions
There are many physical, verbal and mental actions that are destructive. Buddhism delineates ten of the most harmful ones. They are harmful because they nearly always arise from disturbing emotions, shamelessness, lack of embarrassment, and just not caring. They come from deeply ingrained habits and, as a result, reinforce our negative tendencies. In the long-run, our destructive behavior results in an unhappy life where we continue to create problems for ourselves.
There are three types of physical behavior that are destructive:
- Taking the life of others – from another person down to the tiniest insect. As a result, we have no tolerance for anything we find unpleasant; our immediate response to anything we don’t like is to strike out and destroy it; frequently we get into fights.
- Taking what has not been given to us – stealing, not giving back something we’ve borrowed, using something belonging to someone else without permission, and so on. As a result, we always feel poor and victimized; no one will loan us anything; our relations with others become based primarily on mutual exploitation.
- Engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior – rape, adultery, incest, etc. As a result, our sexual relations are mostly short-term and both we and our frequent partners merely objectify each other; we’re attracted to things that are basically filthy.
There are four types of verbal behavior that are destructive:
- Lying – knowingly saying what is untrue, misleading others, and so on. As a result, no one ever believes or trusts what we say and we don’t trust what they say either; we’re unable to tell the difference between reality and our own fabrications.
- Speaking divisively – saying bad things about others in order to cause them to part from each other or to make their enmity or estrangement worse. As a result, our friendships don’t last because our friends suspect that we also say bad things about them behind their backs; we lack any close friends and so feel isolated and lonely.
- Speaking harshly – saying things that hurt others’ feelings. As a result, people dislike and avoid us; even when with us, others can’t relax and often say nasty things back to us; we become even more isolated and lonely.
- Chattering meaninglessly – wasting our own and other people’s time with meaningless chatter; interrupting others with our meaningless talk when they’re doing something positive. As a result, no one takes us seriously; we’re unable to sustain our attention on any task without checking our hand-held device every few minutes; we get nothing meaningful done.
There are three ways of thinking that are destructive:
- Thinking covetously – because of envy, obsessively thinking and planning how to get some thing or some quality someone else has or, even better, to outdo them. As a result, we never have peace of mind or feel joy, because we’re always tormented with negative thoughts about others’ accomplishments.
- Thinking with malice – thinking and plotting how to hurt someone else or how to get back at them for something they’ve said or done. As a result, we never feel safe or are able to relax; we live in constant paranoia and fear, afraid that others are plotting against us too.
- Thinking distortedly with antagonism – not just stubbornly thinking something that’s contrary to what is true and correct, but also arguing in our minds with others who disagree with us and putting them down in an aggressive manner. As a result, we become even more closed-minded, completely unreceptive to any helpful suggestions or advice; our hearts likewise become closed to others, always thinking just of ourselves and that we’re always right; we remain ignorant and stupid.
Irrespective of our religious background or belief, restraint from these 10 is pertinent for anyone wishing to lead a happier life.
Ten Broader Categories of Destructive Behavior
The ten destructive actions suggest ten broad categories of behavior we need to avoid. We need to think as broadly as possible about our behavior and its consequences. Here are some examples to think about, but I’m sure each of us can elaborate on this list.
- Taking the life of others – beating or treating people roughly, ignoring to help someone do a physical task when the person needs help, walking too quickly with a sick or elderly person, and causing any type of physical harm, including polluting the environment and smoking in the proximity of non-smokers, especially children
- Taking what has not been given – illegally downloading material from the internet, plagiarizing, cheating, evading taxes, invading others’ privacy, and even taking a taste from our partner’s or friend’s plate without asking
- Engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior – sexually harassing someone, ignoring the needs of our partner when making love, and showing too little or too much affection
- Lying – deceiving someone about our true feelings or our intentions in our relationship with them
- Speaking divisively – criticizing something positive or ethically neutral that someone is either involved with or is planning to do and discouraging them from engaging in it
- Speaking harshly – yelling at people, speaking in an aggressive tone, speaking unsympathetically and critically to someone when they’re emotionally vulnerable, and using foul or sarcastic language in inappropriate company or at improper times
- Chattering meaninglessly – betraying others’ confidence and revealing their intimate secrets to others, texting or messaging others about trivial things, especially in the middle of the night, posting on social media photos and comments about trivial aspects of our daily life, interrupting others without letting them finish what they’re saying, and making silly remarks or saying stupid things during serious conversations
- Thinking covetously – wishing that the person we’re eating with at a restaurant will give us a taste or a sip of what they ordered, and when seeing photos or reading posts on social media about exciting, wonderful times that others have had, feeling sorry for ourselves and thinking with envy how we wish we could be as popular and happy
- Thinking with malice – when someone says something nasty or cruel to us and we are lost for words, dwelling in our minds afterwards about what we should have said back that would hurt the person
- Thinking distortedly with antagonism – thinking negative, hostile thoughts about someone offering or trying to help us do something that we feel we can handle by ourselves, and thinking how stupid someone is for trying to improve themselves in some area that’s not harmful, but which we’re not interested in or think is unimportant.
Acting Destructively toward Ourselves
The ways in which we act toward ourselves can be just as destructive as when our behavior is aimed at others. To lead happier lives, we need to recognize these negative patterns and work to correct them. Again, the ten destructive ways of acting suggest the types of behavior we need to stop.
- Taking the life of others – mistreating ourselves physically by overworking, eating poorly, doing no exercise, or not getting enough sleep
- Taking what has not been given – wasting money on trivial things, or being stingy or cheap when spending on ourselves when we can afford not to
- Engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior – engaging in sexual acts that may endanger our health, or polluting our minds with pornography
- Lying – deceiving ourselves about our feelings or motivation
- Speaking divisively – speaking in such an obnoxious way, like complaining all the time, so that others find it so unpleasant to be with us, they avoid our company
- Speaking harshly – verbally abusing ourselves
- Chattering idly – speaking indiscriminately about our private matters, doubts or worries, or wasting endless hours looking at social media, playing mindless video games, or surfing the internet
- Thinking covetously – thinking about how to outdo ourselves because of being a perfectionist
- Thinking with malice – thinking with guilt about how horrible we are and that we don’t deserve to be happy
- Thinking distortedly with antagonism – thinking we’re stupid for trying to improve ourselves or to help others.
How to Deal with Our Destructive Patterns
When we start to look at all the destructive ways we’ve behaved in the past, it’s important to avoid feeling negatively about ourselves. Instead of becoming paralyzed with guilt, we should acknowledge that what we did was out of ignorance and being naive of the effects of our behavior: we were compulsively driven by our disturbing emotions, not because we’re inherently bad. We feel regret about what we did, wishing that it hadn’t happened, but realizing that we can’t change the past. What’s passed is past – but now we can resolve to try our best not to repeat such behavior. We then reaffirm the positive direction that we’re trying to put in our lives, and make efforts to engage as much as possible in constructive acts, based on love and compassion. This builds up more positive habits to counterbalance and eventually outweigh the compelling force of the negative ones.
Then we start to slow down our response to the people and events we encounter, so that we can catch the free space between when we feel like acting destructively out of habit, and when we actually act out. We use that moment to decide on what will be helpful, and what will be harmful, helping us to refrain from doing, saying or thinking something destructive. As the great Indian Buddhist master Shantideva recommended, “Remain like a block of wood.” We can do so, but with understanding, love, compassion, and respect both for ourselves and others. It’s not that we’re repressing anything, which would only make us anxious and tense. With a wise and compassionate mind, we dispel the negative energy that would have driven us to do or say something we’d later regret. We then become free to behave in a constructive manner, based on positive emotions and understanding.
When we refrain from destructive behavior, it doesn’t just benefit others, but it’s ultimately in our own self-interest. When we see that it is our own behavior that is the cause of our own unhappiness, we will naturally – in fact, we will delight in avoiding destructive and negative habits and actions. When we stop reinforcing these habits, our relationships with others improve and become more genuine, while we feel more at peace with ourselves. If we really wish for peace of mind, we need to make effort to rid ourselves of destructive ways of acting, speaking and thinking. Doing so will enormously improve the quality of our lives.