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.