Throughout the Pali canon, the Buddha consistently encourages practitioners to live a life of vigor and courage. Within the bounds of ethics and compassion, we’re asked to make the most of our very brief lives and rejoice in knowing we have led a life well-lived. Theravada teacher Bradley Donaldson discusses the principles of living with courage and compassion through the lens of the Middle Length Discourses (Majjhima Nikaya 131).

Bradley Donaldson is a lay teacher in the Theravada tradition. Formerly known as Bhante Sumano, he guides contemplative practice informed by critical approaches to Buddhism and philosophy, especially in relation to black and queer experiences. He currently lives in the United States.


It has been edited for clarity.

Hello, my name is Bradley Donaldson, and I’m a lay teacher in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. I was formerly a monk named Bhante Sumano. 

Today I’m going to be talking about living life courageously by using the practice of mindfulness and meditation to not just improve your life, but to ensure that every moment of your life counts, every moment of your life matters.


We’ll be taking inspiration from a Buddhist text called One Fine Night, in which the Buddha talks about how to use mindfulness and meditation to live each moment of your life courageously and fully. 

Living Life Courageously

Living life fully encompasses many different things. We’re going to be talking about how to focus on the parts of your life that fall into one of three categories: the past, the present, or the future. 

These categories are useful in terms of thinking about our experience of life: the things that we have done, the things that we’re doing, and the aspirations or goals that we have for the future, the things that we plan to do. 

Even though a lot of Buddhist practice is about living in the moment, and using the moment as your zone of action, we also keep in mind that there is a past, and there is a future. The question is how do we regard the past, the present, and the future? How do we view each of those modes of time in a way that is useful? 

By bringing awareness to the way that we view and act in these different spheres of time, we can relate to each more mindfully. Let’s start with the past. 

The Past

The past involves those aspects of our life that are in our rearview mirror. These are things that have happened decades ago, years ago, months, weeks, days ago. It may have just been a few moments ago. 

We recognize this space of time as an area that we can’t really do much about anymore. 

The past consists of things that we’ve done, and having done these things, we can’t change them. However, they still have consequences for the present, they still have consequences for the future. 

When it comes to how we can use mindfulness to relate to the past, a lot of what we’re talking about is how to relate to the past skillfully, so that it does not negatively affect our present. 

We can think of moments in the past, for example, that are filled with regret. We can think of moments in the past that we wish had not happened, either because we did something that we didn’t like, or because someone else did something we didn’t like, or simply something happened that we don’t appreciate, or impacted our lives negatively. 

If however we view the past as something to learn from, then we have something that we can work with in the present. When it comes to the past, we tend to get bogged down by either regrets wishing that certain things hadn’t happened, or that we hadn’t done certain things, or we’re longing for something that happened in the past that no longer is. 

Perhaps there was a relationship that we really cherished but that relationship is no longer. Or maybe there were things that we did or said that we regret, that weigh on us. 

What the Buddha encourages us to do is to not run back to the past. That’s what he says to the monks in the discourse One Fine Night. This idea of running back to the past is using the present to reflect on the past in a way that’s unhelpful. 

Wise reflection involves considering the past and learning from it. Unwise reflection involves this chasing of things that have already happened, as if they were still happening in the present. 

When we think about the past, about things that have already happened and things that we cannot change, then our encouragement is to learn how to use those experiences of the past to make our present better. 

In terms of things that we may have regretted doing for example, we can use those past experiences to make different choices. This is where our sphere of influence lies in the present with regards to the past.

We can make a different decision that doesn’t change what happened in the past but it does create stepping stones in the present, as well as the future. 

So even though we separate past, present, and future into different categories, they are all interconnected. What we do in each moment has an effect both on our past actions, present actions and future actions in the way that I described. 

If there is a bad habit that we had in the past, and we did some unskillful behaviors because of it, if we make an effort to change that in the present, then we’re creating seeds for change, change that happens both now because of what we’re doing but as well as in the future. 

It doesn’t change what we did in the past. But we can see now that we’re changing, we’re becoming different. That improvement on our past actions is a healing of the past. 

When we’re healing from the past, in this way, or learning to use the past as an experience to learn from, then we will come free of its grasp. It doesn’t hold anything over our heads. We can look to the past, learn from the past, and be free in the present to make different choices or to make choices that lead to where we’d like to get to. 

The Future

The future is another area that often bogs us down or leaves us feeling anxious, nervous, uncertain. That uncertainty can create uncomfortable feelings, and also cause us to do things in the present that may not be in our best interest. 

The important thing that the Buddha does remind us is that the future is uncertain. By its very nature, the future is always slightly out of reach. It hasn’t happened yet and when it does happen, it’s happening in the present, and then eventually becomes the past. 

So it is this uncertain, blurry, somewhere over there, that because it is out of reach, makes us feel nervous. However, this doesn’t mean that the future is something we should fear. 

Part of Buddhist practice is learning to become comfortable with the uncertain. And we become comfortable with the uncertain not by not planning, or not by thinking that the future is so far out there that we don’t have to worry about it, think about it, or even care about it. 

Rather we take steps in the present, so that the future isn’t as scary. We try to think about how we can be free from the future in the sense of not letting it keep us in a stranglehold. What is it that we can do in order to plan for the future? To move towards a future that we like, that doesn’t restrict us, that doesn’t keep us anxious, always leaning towards something rather than experiencing what’s happening in the present. 

The encouragement in thinking of past and future is to view them as spheres of time that can help us in the present moment, or that we can use in the present moment to help how we feel or view them.

In particular with the future we’re seeing that we can’t predict what can happen. But we can take steps that lead us in a direction that we can say with some probability will turn into something wholesome. 

We know that if we lead our lives with kindness, with joy, with consideration, then whatever feelings that we’re having in the present moment are things that will very likely continue into the future. We know that skillful behavior done in the present leads to skillful outcomes. That’s something that we can sort of extend towards the future. 

For instance, if we worry that we may experience a future that is unhappy, without fulfilling relationships, or fulfilling work; when we know that in the present, if we’re working towards relationships that are wholesome, towards an occupation that is fulfilling and wholesome, then even though we can’t predict exactly what the future may look like, we know that in the present moment, we’re doing all that we can, and also experiencing results in the present, so that the future will also be wholesome. 

So regarding the past and the future, these are both spaces of time that we don’t directly have control over, but that we can use the present to influence and also change our relationship towards. 

The Buddha specifically encourages us not to run after the past, and also not to long for or worry about a certain future. The way that he says we run after the past is by letting all of these thoughts about how we were, how we felt, what we did, what happened to us, weigh us down, and it’s the same with the future. 

What will we be like in the future? How will we be in the future? What will our life situation be like? All of these anxieties that we have, both for the past and the future, aren’t things that are actionable, aren’t things that we can use to affect the present moment if we’re only regarding them as these thoughts of worry and concern. 

Instead the Buddha encourages us not to run back to the past or long for the future, but instead do what we can in the present. To change our relationship to the past and to change our relationship to the future so that our present moment is wholesome. Our present moment is what makes us fulfilled and happy. 

The Present

So we come to the present. What is it that we can do so that we’re not getting bogged down by the present? The unskillful or unwholesome way of viewing the present is with confusion, according to the Buddha. 

We see things that are happening in the present, but we don’t know what to do, where to go, what decisions or what choices to make. 

So he encourages us to view the present with understanding. Understanding what exactly? Understanding the way things are, what it is that makes a life worth living. What it is that makes life wholesome. What makes us happy. 

This is thinking of happiness, not just in a personal sense, but in terms of what we can contribute to the world, to our relationships, that has this rebound effect. 

In the present we might be reaching for things that we think will provide a stable happiness. There are things that as a knee jerk reaction or reflex reaction we reach towards in order to be satisfied, whether it’s possessions, achievements, people, relationships. These are things that we collect and consume, because we think they describe who we are. They’re part of our identity in the world. 

But what the Buddha says is that when we reach for these things, thinking that this is where our stable core of being is, ultimately, we’re disappointed. We’re disappointed because these things change, we’re disappointed because these things don’t last. So what is it that we should be doing instead, in the present, to make the most of it? The Buddha says simply to understand that it is the case that things are imperfect, impermanent, always changing. As a result, to do things that bring us happiness simply because doing them is wholesome. 

Skillful Action in the Present

We take skillful actions knowing that we can’t predict their results and that it doesn’t change the past. Even in the present, it may not create the situation that we so long for, but we do them simply because doing them is wholesome. Simply because doing them is good. 

When it comes to the present, we may choose kindness, consideration, to work with our unskillful feelings or actions in such a way that improves the situation for ourselves and for others. We do this because doing it is in and of itself is a good thing. 

It doesn’t mean that we don’t plan for a better job, that we then don’t accumulate anything. Instead we look at what it is that we’re buying, that we’re working towards. We consider why it is that we’re doing so and what the effect of doing that is. 

If we live in a place, for example, where we need to drive and we need to have a car, then we understand the reasoning for that. And understand too, that there is a difference between having a car that does what meets our functional needs, and what falls into luxury, what falls into things that are unnecessary. And we have an internal feeling of what that’s like. 

So when it comes to the present, we’re relating to our circumstances with a loose grasp, with wisdom, or in such a way that it brings us joy, and also sets the stage for a future that we can be happy in. And mentioned before, it can be a space for healing the results of our past actions without being able to change the past itself.

For the Buddha, we’re thinking about the past in such a way that we’re not running back to it. We’re thinking about the future in such a way that we’re not longing for it, we’re not running towards it. 

And we’re acting in the present, relating to the present with understanding in such a way that we can impact the past and impact the future, because what we’re truly impacting is the present. 

This distinction is somewhat linguistic, and cerebral but we can see how actions yesterday affect actions today, affect actions in the future. What we have the ability to change is what we’re doing, thinking, feeling, considering right now, in this moment. 

What is it that we can use this moment to do? What encourages us to use the present moment in the most reliable and inspirational way is the fact of death. When it comes to living courageously, what the Buddha talks about is an urgency that lights a fire underneath us and everything that we do, because we want to use this urgency to encourage us to make the right decisions. The urgency is based on the fact that we are mortal creatures, the fact that one day we will pass away.

Living Courageously 

So we frequently hear that life is short. And it’s a truism. It’s something that everybody knows and Buddhist practice is no different in encouraging us to think about this fact. 

What I’m here to say is that in order to live courageously, in order to live a life that is worthwhile, we need to take this fact to heart. 

What is it that we are keeping ourselves from doing or saying or feeling out of fear, regret, nervousness, knowing that we actually don’t have much time. In the discourse, One Fine Night the Buddha has us reflect on the fact that death is coming, death and its mighty horde as it’s described. 

When we see this, we realize that there really is no time to waste getting lost in the past, getting lost in the future and living through the present without some sort of direction or guide for ourselves. 

Creating Seeds for the Future

When we understand that life is short, then we see that what we’re doing, what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, are all things that not only take up time, but things that as we’re doing, thinking and feeling them are creating seeds for the future. 

So how is it that we’re spending our time? Are we spending our time surrounded by the people that we want to be with? Are we spending our time working towards things that will actually bring us peace and happiness? 

Are we cultivating a future that is not aimless? 

Are we healing a past that might be weighing on us? 

Are we taking steps in the present, not to create a self improvement project for our lives, but simply, are we making decisions in each and every moment that can help us feel better, be better, think better. 

When we really take this into consideration, then we know that we’re living a life that makes us feel good, a life that improves conditions for ourselves and others. 

Aain, it becomes this feedback loop. That then allows us to be surrounded by goodness, because we’re good. We’re surrounding ourselves with people who are good. And we’re also doing things in the world that generate goodness.

I very much like the translation of the title of this discourse, One Fine Night, because we realize that when we think about the past, the future, and the present skillfully, when we do things in the present, that make us accept the past as it was, and accept the future as uncertain, then it creates a moment of ease and of joy, a fine moment, when this is something that we do as much as possible, and each and every moment, then we create a fine life. 

A fine life isn’t a perfect life, but it’s a life that is lived knowing that in each moment as much as we can, we’re doing the best we can. We’re making choices that improve our circumstances, without knowing exactly how those circumstances will turn out. 

The funny part about that is in each moment, as we’re building a life that is more compassionate, more wholesome, more joyful, then when things do go awry, we’re resilient. We have that goodness to fall back on. And that goodness that we fall back on then also builds on itself and veers our life in a direction of wholesomeness, of happiness. Then the past becomes less heavy, the future becomes less heavy and the present becomes a place where we can exist peacefully and joyfully. 

A Practice of Compassion

Now let’s take a moment to practice together. And in particular, to practice compassion. We use the breath to guide our practice, using it as an anchor, using it as a calming focus, and we just allow whatever feelings both physical, emotional, mental, come up, to be, knowing that we can follow the breath in and follow the breath out. 

And just observe and hold everything with compassion. 

Breathing in. If it’s helpful, you can think that you’re breathing in with compassion for past mistakes. 

Breathing out, you’re exhaling with forgiveness of the past. 

Breathing in, I have compassion for myself and others. 

Breathing out, I forgive myself and others.

Whatever feelings, tensions, anxieties, excitement comes up, we just hold that with acceptance. 

Once again knowing we’re breathing in with compassion, and breathing out with compassion.

Letting the breath be just as it is. In and out.

When it feels right to do so, you can take one more deep breath in, and a deep breath out and open your eyes.

Taking This Practice into Daily Life

So that’s a practice that you can do, sitting down for 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 minutes. Just following the breath with compassion. And it can be something you use during your daily life as you go about various activities as you spend time, walking, commuting, driving, being on the train, wherever you are. It’s always something that you can use and have in your arsenal. 

Another thing you can do as a take home practice, when you find yourself anxious or nervous about the past, the present or the future, is another breath meditation, which is simply breathing in and noting your anxiety. 

I feel nervous about XYZ, I feel anxious about XYZ. And then breathing out. I hold that anxiety or nervousness with compassion. I feel compassion for myself in the face of this anxiety. So with this practice, you don’t necessarily have to change anything that’s happening. 

But simply by observing the feeling, accepting the feeling and holding it with understanding, love, and compassion. You might find that little by little it becomes less, and then if there’s an opportunity to do something or change something you can. 

So thank you for joining me today. I hope this has been helpful. I hope that you can use what we’ve talked about today, to relate to the past, relate to the future, and relate to the present in such a way that you can live your life to the fullest. 

Thank you.