In all my years of contemplating people, their sameness, their differences, their common experience of emerging from a womb, I had never truly developed a philosophy that allows me to accept people as I find them when I find their values at variance with my own. This failure has always been a source of anxiety for me. My ideal for myself is to cultivate some form of equanimity. And I’ve known for a good long time that going about my life in a state of annoyance with other people – and with myself – was somehow falling short of the mark.
The whole point of studying comparative religions was to arrive at an understanding of people, despite differences of belief, perception, and culture. And yet I had to own up to a failure to achieve even a simple understanding and acceptance of people who I share a society with but can’t sympathize with religiously, politically, or ethically. I tried to look at things from other people’s perspectives but found that ultimately my beliefs were my beliefs. As green as it sounds I believe in fairness and honesty, in generosity and decency, in tolerance, in manners and kindness, and was finding it increasingly difficult to forgive the blatant violations of those values I saw around me. And I wasn’t very happy with myself, either, for not only failing to develop a working philosophy but for my own lack of patience and skill. Where was my equanimity? I was – and I knew I was – calcifying.
Until I read – really read and digested – the Dalai Lama’s book.
The first thing I learned: Everyone wants to be happy. In that way we are all the same. I may believe that a person’s motives and actions are “wrong,” but I can accept that we are the same in that we both wish to be happy and I cannot fault a person for wanting the same thing that I do. Well I could, but it wouldn’t make much sense to.
I found that idea helpful because this thought helps me to refrain from being judgmental. I have an obnoxiously judgmental frame of mind. I can barely stand myself. Without meaning to, I evaluate and pass judgment on every little thing that comes under my nose- including myself. But with this new lesson, when I feel the urge to condemn someone for unkindness or greed or selfishness I remind myself that their wish is to be happy, no more or less than myself, and this pacifies me. Conversely I forgive myself for my wish to be happy because I am like everyone else in this respect. At least temporarily, the judgement goes away. This was a HUGE leap for me. Before attaining this little weapon of the mind I would remain offended with people’s behaviors or stew over my own failures. But the thought that we are seeking happiness – however misguided I may believe us (others or myself) to be – allows me to dismiss my judgement.
This goes a long way toward helping me cultivate patience. I am still working on remembering this principal in critical moments. But eventually I do remember it, even if I’ve already set my head on fire with some annoyance or other, and I manage to calm myself.
The next thing I learned was that I can cultivate happiness inside my mind, quite apart from the circumstances I find myself in. This has a huge potential for happiness. For years I have chased happiness in the form of creating situations or accomplishing tasks. But none of the situations I’ve created or tasks I’ve accomplished have succeeded in bringing me happiness. Satisfaction, yes, perhaps … but not any sort of lasting happiness. Masters degree, marriage, kids, home, garden, career, novel … pah. And yet, a simple act of self forgiveness and releasing judgment inside of my mind has brought me more happiness than any of my most hard-earned accomplishments. Not that my calcifying mind was putty in my hands, but the prospect of creating happiness within the confines of my mind is better than setting off on another achievement adventure. They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same behaviors and expecting different results. So I deemed the change of direction a promising thing. Which brought me knocking at the door of compassion practices, as a matter of course, according to the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama writes eloquently about compassion and its many practical virtues. I will allow those to speak for themselves, but a cursory and simple application of his principals led me to several much happier days – all in a row – and to open a book that claims to elucidate the path of Thibetan Buddhism …
The afore-mentioned opens with a prayer:
I take refuge in the buddha, the dharma, and the spiritual community
until I attain the state of enlightenment …
By then it was an easy and natural step to the concept of refuge because I found myself wishing to take refuge from my own thoughts, which I had become aware was causing me to feel unhappy and anxious. A steady stream of thought chatter – mostly vapid, from what I could tell – which I fancied resembles a group of monkeys taken together in a fit of excitement, was not contributing to my ability to empathize with other people or to relax. It was not enabling me to accomplish my goals. And I wanted to turn it off.
So I took the Dalai Lama’s advice again, and I took refuge … which led me to another door.
2 responses to “what happened”
All my life I was taught that I could use my education and religious upbringing to not only solve problems in the world, but understand people from all walks of life and make educated guesses on what was right or wrong. That is just crap.
It seems like the universe continually forces me to experience life from a first person perspective. I can have the best intentions to be the most honest, caring, understanding and giving person possible, yet fall short. I seem to only really understand people and life when I am personally in the thick of it.
No amount of reading about, posturizing about, projecting or guessing can take the place of actually living through situations. Empathy over sympathy seems to be my strongest suit.
Do people really feel fullness and glory in life without having to go through and own up to challenges? Challenges either make us stronger or destroy us. What is the delineating factor? Why do some survive and move on and grow and others continue to struggle their whole life without ever moving on?
I continue to learn that the more compassionate I am, and I mean compassion from a first person perspective, not just, “oh, I feel for (this, that, them, etc)” is what is the binding force between me and the rest of humanity. When I can actually feel in my heart versus my head an opening up and embracing of that which is around me, then I feel a sense of happiness and contentment. My body actually buzzes and tingles with the connection.
Maybe it’s like building muscle. In order to grow more, muscles must be continually fed, exercised, broken down, rested, and repeated. Each time causing greater growth. Enduring the aches and pains during the breaking down and rebuilding process help us realize the progress we are making.
When others notice the growth and start looking at us differently, then we know we are doing something right. People are starting to look at me differently lately and it is both exhilerating and terrifying at the same time. I guess something is beginning to work…
Thank you for this, Michael. I couldn’t agree more that being “in it” is the only way to develop a compassion muscle. I agree that it doesn’t *just* happen because you go through a trial (at least it hasn’t for me) but also, along with having experienced your own pain, choosing to put a compassionate lense on your own experience and then turn that lense on the world is where it takes hold. In other words, I intending it …
I don’t know why some people thrive and others don’t. I have struggled to keep myself from giving way to negative emotions my whole life, being depressed at times. And I think in some ways I’ve failed to have patience with myself which then left me impatient with other people. So I’m trying to be patient and compassionate with myself so that I CAN be compassionate with others … and I am wondering if that isn’t somehow the key to moving on and thriving or staying stuck … ? Having patience and compassion with and for your self, I mean.