When we perform an action, set a boundary or engage with others, our intent in doing so and/or the nature of the thoughts that precede that action is key to how the outcome can be perceived and played out.

In Buddhism, the concept of ‘wholesome goodness’ provides a guide to living a life that is morally righteous by examining the nature of ‘mental actions’ that spur on consequent verbal and bodily actions. This concept can help us frame our approach to mindfulness and the actions we look to perform in our daily lives.

In the paradigm of looking at wholesome goodness, mental actions can be classified as either wholesome (kusala), or unwholesome(akusala). But what defines each?

We have a prior blog post on the 5 Causes of Mental Suffering (Kleshas) which similarly outlines ‘mental actions’ and emotions that align with unwholesomeness. Essentially, unwholesomeness can be distilled down to three ‘roots’:

  • desire or greed,
  • version or hate,
  • delusion.

These roots are informed by an attachment to an image of self that is not real – particularly delusion. This could be a narrative about your identity, beliefs about what you should have based on external influences that are mistaken to be ‘permanent’.

Unwholesome actions are then informed by these roots, which permeate thoughts. For example, anger over losing money in an investment or a horse-betting race originates from the desire or greed of having more money – because of a lifestyle you believe you should have. Broadly speaking, unwholesome roots, thoughts, and actions are defined as such because they distort the mind from working in a wholesome way – when it is at its healthiest.

It is no surprise then that the roots of wholesomeness are the direct opposites of the roots of unwholesomeness:

  • Generosity
  • Love/Kindness
  • Wisdom

In actual fact, the concept is not so much about wholesome thoughts leading to good outcomes – which is the basis of “punya” or what most of us know to be good karma. Although this can be a motivating factor, wholesome goodness is more about creating a continuous state of wholesome health for the mind – a way to build up good morality.

Both wholesome and unwholesome actions work in cycles; once you entertain a wholesome or unwholesome root or thought, it becomes easier for the mind to follow that through into a wholesome or unwholesome verbal or bodily action respectively. However, moral actions can reverse the damage caused by immoral actions – as if to be a form of cleansing.

In the context of mental actions, being self-aware, mindful of the nature of your thoughts, and exploring their ‘harmful’ roots can be a tool to re-route back to wholesome goodness. At times we all have ‘unwholesome’ thoughts or ‘moral violations’ in our minds; an unpleasant interaction with someone can make us want to retaliate verbally or physically. However, we have the ability to show restraint and choose not to react in an averse way; building strong moral foundations can help exercise this restraint when necessary.

In the same vein, when setting boundaries, instead of using them as a way to control or manipulate from an unwholesome position, we can review our intent to see if it is coming from a wholesome place.

Integrating the concept of wholesome goodness can help give clarity to your mindfulness practice.