We often divide our actions into good and bad. We went for a walk after a busy day at the office - we did good. We chose the cheese steak with fries instead of the salad bar - we did bad. The same happens at work: We get triggered in a meeting and lose our temper - bad. We make sure our new team member will find their way around the office and take the time to show them around - good.
My gripe with good and bad is that those terms are absolute. If you do something bad, you feel, well, bad. And if you do something good, it feels faultless somehow. Good and bad also convey a sense of objectivity. Going for a run three times a week is generally considered good - but how does this relate to me, my values, my aspirations and my personal life circumstances? Not getting enough sleep is considered bad, but how are those sleepless nights connected to my own situation? Maybe they make perfect sense right now.
I'd like to suggest an alternative way of looking at our actions that I picked up from Buddhist teachings and which I find much more valuable in helping me pursue my aspirations. The two alternative terms are "wholesome" and "unwholesome".
I understand a wholesome action as an action which is nourishing my development in the direction of my aspirations and self-actualisation. A wholesome action is aligned with my values and brings me closer to the things that matter in life. It's benefitting me.
An unwholesome action I consider an action that impedes my development toward my aspirations and self-actualisation. It's an action which doesn't align with my values, maybe even contradicts them. An unwholesome action takes me further away from the things that really matter to me.
The idea here is to gradually increase the wholesomeness in my life by choosing wholesome behaviours and actions over unwholesome ones, one action at a time.
This distinction may seem insignificant at first, but considering something wholesome instead of just "good" does have a different ring to me. There's an added element of directionality and intent. An action is no longer just "good for me," and that's it. It becomes an integral part of my broader journey.
Similarly, an unwholesome action is no longer just "bad for me". It becomes something that stands between me and my aspirations. It's a hindrance and it becomes more personal. At the same time, an unwholesome action doesn't feel like something I must be ashamed of. It doesn't have that judgemental "bad dog, no biscuit" vibe to it. It's nothing I have to justify in front of anyone - or myself, more like a drag that's holding me back on my journey.
Leaving the judgemental harshness of good vs. bad behind and labelling our actions as wholesome or unwholesome, we can navigate our journey through life in a much more conscious and caring - and, as I believe, more effective - way.
Here's an exercise: For the next week, look at each of your actions and decide if you consider them wholesome, unwholesome or neutral. If you consider an action wholesome, great. You're moving in the right direction. If you consider an action unwholesome, you now know what to work on to get back on course towards your goals and aspirations. As the week unfolds, you may spot patterns and maybe even find ideas and motivation to increase the share of wholesome actions.