- My wonderful cousin posted a gorgeous photo today of my mom and dad looking really happy at the beach, holding hands. (This meant so much because our family’s been going through a tough time lately.)
- The coffee I’m drinking is really really good
- A new friend emailed last night to stay in touch.
- It’s common to complain about neighbours, but can you take the challenge and say something good about them? My new downstairs neighbours keep their heating really high, so they’ve lowered my bills because I need less heating at my place.
- The view outside my window is beautiful.
Question: In my lifetime, I have seen what I perceive as an inordinate amount of abandonment. Starting at about 3 years old with my own father and continuing in a pattern throughout my lifetime, I’ve been purposely abandoned by the people closest to me. The ones who didn’t physically walk out of my life were unable to be present for a child, and it’s been said that’s another form of abandonment. I can provide more details but I don’t think that’s important.
I’d like to know what might be going on with my karma and how and why abandonment has become a major theme in my life. I can’t help but wonder if I’m bringing it on myself, though I don’t really think that could be true for my childhood self.
Is there a lesson I’m failing to learn? What can I do to prevent this theme from continuing on in other lifetimes?
Whitney, Massage Therapist
This is a subject close to my heart. An adopted friend of mine also shared this sense of abandonment, and it was serious enough to propel him to become a monk. I will never forget one of the last things he said before leaping into the folds of the monastery, “Until I face this karma, the same thing is going to happen to me over and over again.”
So it’s wonderful that you’re asking the question. In my experience, he was right. Different relationships and situations through the years seemed to play out the same pattern. Between the ages of 4 and 34, more often than not, my friendships and relationships followed the same routine: I’d be alone, I’d meet someone and be close to them for a while, then for a myriad different reasons out of nowhere, they would turn away. Over and again.
Finally after ordaining in Buddhism I learned that whatever the cause is, and whatever my current situation is, I’m going to have to completely accept it. And stop telling myself stories about what the situation is and why. You may be familiar with the oft quoted parable of the arrow:
“The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts. Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world, the Buddha said, “Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of your liberation remains the same.” Another time he said, “Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.” Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys
There are insights to be had, and there is something we can do about it. But as you’ve probably already figured out, speculation has a limited effect and if used in the wrong way, it can even be destructive.
I learned that to some extent, I was actively carrying this situation with me. Thinking of solitude made me feel lonely, and the feeling of loneliness perpetuated more loneliness. Thinking negatively of my past made me feel like a victim, and needless to say, victims don’t make a lot of friends!
In other words – was I abandoning myself?
I resolved to come to each situation and each morning afresh, not expecting anything from any particular day. Maybe this day I will meet lots of people, maybe I won’t; who knows? Maybe this new friend will stay, maybe she won’t. My only job is to give myself to the current situation, whatever it is. If I’m alone and feeling lonely, okay, so be it. If over a long period of time I’m with someone and feeling lonely, and experience shows that it isn’t possible to reconnect with that person, I may have to move on.
Running from any feeling will perpetuate it, so I allowed all feelings to stay for as long as they wanted. I didn’t perpetuate them or expect anything in particular; I just observed and accepted as they came and went, without trying to manipulate anything.
This may sound like a passive approach to life, but it turned out not to be. When I stopped trying to make things happen one way or another, I learned that they happened by themselves. In fact, it’s the “stopping trying” that allowed them to unfold for the better. For example, if you’ve deeply accepted solitude, that gives you a genuine confidence which attracts people. If you’ve trained yourself to not desire a specific outcome to an event, then from your point of view, every situation is ok.
What is abandonment really? Is it someone leaving, whom we think shouldn’t have? The “rights and wrongs” of this are clear when it comes to parents and children; most of us agree that parents have a responsibility to do everything in their power to be there for their children. But when you’ve grown up, your responsibility is to yourself. Whether you were abandoned in the past or not, dealing with your feelings and caring for yourself is now your responsibility.
That’s not to say that Buddhism is about forgetting your past completely. It can help to reflect on how an abandoning parent was a victim to the pattern too. Even when we create destruction in our wake, each of us is doing our best. This doesn’t remove accountability, but it does help to release your death-grip on “how things should have been” and “what people should have done”. We have to accept that it is not an ideal world with ideal people. As in the parable of the arrow, what we think about how things should have been is completely irrelevant. The life-saving question is, what can realistically be done now?
In terms of adult relationships, many make and break commitments. Few people have supreme willpower, we only have limited knowledge of ourselves at any given time, and to top it all, things happen to everyone beyond their control. I can promise to do my best, but ultimately I can’t guarantee anything. Even among married spiritual masters, the divorce rate is as high as anywhere else.
There are things we can do to limit the chances that we’ll break commitments. For example, get to know yourself as well as you possibly can, and be upfront about your limits; and get clued up about codependency so you don’t find yourself making promises for all the wrong reasons.
What can we do to limit the chances that we’ll be abandoned, though? Getting clued up about codependency helped me here, too, and supplemented what I was learning in Buddhist practice. I had thought that someone (or several people) left me who shouldn’t have left me. This idea of “what should have happened” was however my judgment, and the judgment created the idea of abandonment. Once I’d learned how to be ok on my own, it was no longer possible to abandon me. Abandonment ceased to exist. Without the story, when we stop playing roles and stop thinking about what we want and don’t want, all that’s really happening is that people come and go.
I might decide to trust someone, and I could be wrong. The worst that can happen is that I would have liked someone to stick around, and they don’t. Because I’ve learned that I’m ok on my own, there is ultimately nothing to lose. The simple knowledge that I’m ok, takes the pressure off people to have to be a certain way around me; which makes them more likely to be happy to stick around.
So it’s radical acceptance and self-nurturing which break the pattern. Be patient and play the long game; most of us have spent a lifetime establishing a pattern of thinking about the past, so it won’t go away immediately. This is one of the problems with many modern self-help directives: they give the impression that we can simply will our way out of our past. But the fact is that after you stop engaging with it, it hangs around for a while. Expect the pattern to re-emerge several times, even while you’re doing the right thing. Keep the faith that you will come out the other side.
I hope this helps; please add comments below if you’d like to question or ask anything more. All best wishes and please keep in touch.
When a great man dies, as Nelson Mandela did last night, it is tempting to share your feelings and say what you think about it. You want to honor a great hero, a good man, and an inspiration for our times. Immediately after the news, social media was awash with touching tributes. Memes with Mandela’s face and a quote were hastily assembled and posted.
It is normal human nature to express what we feel, and to a large extent, of course it’s good for us. It helps us stick together and support each other, as the human community that we are.
And it isn’t for me or anyone else, to tell you how to grieve. Grief finds its own expression, unique to each person. Some people crave silence, others need to wail; most of us do both at different stages of our process.
But I want to say please remember, that expression is not the only way to love and honour a man.
Expression is, in fact, one step removed from feeling. It may feel simultaneous, but if you were to slow things down, it would become clear that you cannot fully go inside to connect with feeling, and direct expression outwards, at the same time.
Fully connecting with feeling takes everything you’ve got. It takes your whole heart. It’s why every religion worth its salt emphasises silence and contemplation.
In a subtle way, we in fact often use expression as a way not to feel. It’s a way of keeping ourselves busy, side-stepping reality, while still thinking that – and looking to others like – we are engaging with it.
Today and maybe tomorrow too, I want to lower the flag. I want to honour his memory by feeling fully what his impact on my life was. My heart feels full and overpouring, grateful that he gave himself to us and showed us what a worthwhile life looks like. There are no words for love.
Boredom struck at the heart of my being, like a string strung so tight that it snapped. It made a dull sound. Then like a fragile egg I cracked open, shattered and sharp. It hurt.
But the shell is not who I was. Warm liquid poured out – is still pouring out. It embraces everything. It won’t stop. I can block it if I want to, but when I do, it turns into a brittle shell again, and waits to break, again. I don’t want to hurt anymore, so I let go, over and over. So you see, there is choice – but not really.
We all thought that boredom was the enemy. Billions of pounds are spent each year to guard against it. Entertainment centres are erected, livelihoods are made and broken, the earth itself is consumed in the name of keeping it at bay.
In the midst of this frenetic activity, are we not entertained? As if given shots of morphine, yes – for a time. A brief time.
It’s the brevity that is our undoing. Sporadic bursts of activity are like dots adding up to connect into a line, giving the illusion of some kind of continuous existence.
The dots are far apart to begin with. Then their mass densifies and expands, accumulating like puncture wounds on an addict’s arm. Your ‘stuff’ definitely looks like a continuous line, now. Your self-identity feels stronger; for a short moment, you think you can finally relax. How many ‘finallys’ are you waiting for? Have you ever been afraid to look yourself in your own eyes, in the mirror? Does it often strike you, that something feels wrong?
The more we act in particular ways, the more those habits attract more. If this argument sounds circular, it’s because it is. Don’t blame the writer; you’re the one who is arguing. If I was to give modern western culture a name, it would be More. There may have been wisdom at some point, but right now, there is only the wanting of More.
How did this happen? It’s simple. In terror of annihilation, we created a self-feeding, growing hole which devours us. We created annihilation itself.
It wants to devour you, you find yourself saying “yes!” - and yet in the same breath, you fool, you say you are bored. It’s as if you are bored while running from a blood-thirsty lioness. You’ve anaesthetised yourself against noticing her gaping mouth. It’s as if you wake up from a dream, but this time there really is someone standing over your chest with a machete, for real. Your eyes are wide open and you are about to lose your life, but you can’t breathe or move or shout for help. You are one breath away from death and there is nothing you can do.
That is what it is really like, being bored. But you’re not aware of it yet. I would suggest that you become aware of it, before you are no longer able to. The lioness will come after you over and over again, until you have the heart to look yourself in the eye in the mirror.
It’s ok to be afraid of what you might see. I won’t lie: it’s possible, even likely, that you will see a monster there. There is someone looking back, someone in you, whom you don’t know. But there’s a trick to this that I will show you: the definition of monster is only yours. It’s something you made up. It’s a misunderstanding that happened because you were afraid, so you labelled everything and pretended that you knew it all. It’s time to give up the game.
She who is looking back at you in the mirror is unknown, it’s true. You’re afraid of the Unknown. I understand that, but there’s no need to be. Let me tell you more about her, so you can get a bit more comfortable.
You don’t know her, but she knows you. You reject her, but she always loves you. You will feel like you are dying when you embrace her, but it is only in embracing her that you will live. It isn’t that you have to be afraid of nothing before you can see her truly, but you do have to be willing to face anything at all, including your own death. There is no room for your rejections or objections, at all. It’s all or nothing, with her.
Or you could turn back now. Like I said, you have a choice. But not really.
This post was republished in Rebelle Society.
“Tons of my problems come back to the fact that I’m constantly thinking about myself, and what other people think of me, and whether they think I’m weird or strange or ugly or whatever.
I hate that my mind is constantly, constantly focused on myself. I can’t escape the fear of everyone potentially judging the Christ out of me at every turn and it makes me nervous and scared.
I feel like if I could only get away from this, I would be okay. How can I do that?”
Eireannach, 19 (Ireland)
What a lovely question. I honestly think it’s wonderful that you’ve identified and decided to step out of what might be called self-consciousness. Many choose to perpetuate it for a lifetime. They may try to feel better by treating it with pride, inflate it into egotism, and don’t realise that they’re perpetuating it in a way that’s making them unhappy. You, on the other hand, have decided to identify and step out of it early on.
Self-consciousness – if you’re happy to call it that for now – is a natural human condition. I’ve met some great and wise teachers, and yet having gotten to know them, I’d happily bet that even they suffered from it. Typically children are un-self-conscious until they reach pre-puberty; then it enters, along with the psychological maturing process. Suddenly we are painfully and minutely aware of our existence. Where once we would have run wild and naked down a beach in joy, instead we may turn inward and cringe in the shadows.
The extent of this development varies culturally; some cultures are more self-conscious than others. It serves a purpose by creating a contemplative space in which we can examine what we’re made of, and how the adult world works. It’s a good time for extroverts to temporarily become introvert, and re-assess what role they’d like to play in that adult world. The following is an analogy, but sometimes it can feel like breaking out of an egg: very sensitive, as if the lights are sometimes too bright, the things people say too harsh.
In response it’s easy to feel defensive, go into overdrive, and either over- or under-express ourselves. As a teenager I would swing from being the life of the party, to being a depressed recluse. Take the time to learn to hear and meet your own needs, before emotions get out of hand (although when they do, it isn’t the end of the world). The rich emotional tapestry of daily life is changing and will never look the same; take it slow, get to know it and learn to get comfortable with it.
Remember to be your own best friend through this. Whether we like it or not, acceptance, gentle guidance and patience are the only things which have ever worked, when we want to change. It’s tempting to try shortcuts and it’s common to beat ourselves up, but such tactics only slow us down and prevent development.
One reason I liked your question was that I always ask myself, where is the question coming from? It can only be your place of selflessness, that wants to rid itself of self-concern. Self-concern wouldn’t want to rid itself of itself. So the fact that you asked means that you’re already coming from a place of generosity and connection.
Sitting still for a moment, allow yourself to feel the feelings that gave rise to your question. You said you felt nervousness and fear, for example. Remember to breathe, and without deliberately thinking, let yourself feel nervousness and fear of judgment completely. (It might be a bit uncomfortable, but it won’t kill you.) Locate the feelings in your body, and describe how they feel to yourself. Butterflies? Pins and needles? Shortness of breath? Every few minutes relax any tense muscles and breathe calmly, and realise that relaxation is something you can choose to do anytime you want.
The trick is to relax into it and explore the feeling, and it will dissipate. If you relax as a distraction away from feelings, they will only keep coming back.
This is the meditative aspect of guiding yourself to grow out of what feels like a constricting shell. You can do it wherever you are, and anytime you feel something coming up again. It might be several times a day.
There’s a practical or ‘worldly’ aspect to it, too. It differs from person to person; you’ll need to find yours. It could be a combination of lots of things, and usually changes as you grow older.
It’s one or all of the following: a project, hobby, job, passion, sport, activity or service, which you find attractive enough to want to immerse yourself in completely. It’s likely to be challenging and a bit scary, but something that you feel much better for having done. (So it isn’t drugs or gambling ) For some people it’s having kids, however it’d be a bit drastic to go that far only for the sake of self-liberation! For me it’s been travel, study, dance, learning filmmaking, and creating challenging work projects. (This was over a 25-year period – I haven’t been busy always.)
Giving yourself to a bigger cause, or working in a group, is a great way to lose yourself, and it serves both you and them. And believe me, you’re not too “weird” to do anything you want. The weirder the better, even; are there not a plethora of weird role models at the top? True, there are those who call others “weird” like it’s a criticism. That’s their insecurity and not a reflection on you, since they don’t even know you. The original meaning of “weird” is “destiny”. Once you know what you yourself want, what others think will roll like water off a duck’s back.
The other joy in pursuing interests you’re passionate about, is that you eventually meet people who feel the same as you. It might take years, but when you do meet them it feels like coming home to your “tribe”.
I used to be excruciatingly shy and self-conscious, to the point where if I realised I was walking the wrong way down a street from where I wanted to go, I was too frightened to turn around because I thought that people would laugh at me for it. So I’d walk all the way around the block, and then stealthily side-step into the right direction when nobody was looking. I also spent many years alone because I felt too much like an alien to know how to make friends!
The thing that first brought me out of my shell was finding people interesting. At the same time I had absorbed myself in hobbies I enjoyed doing, so a couple of people found me interesting in return. When they reached out to me, I dared to venture a stumbling conversation. Friendships developed, but I was still frightened and massively defensive (and as a result I could be verbally aggressive, as can be common with teenagers.)
Without realising it, I styled my appearance accordingly: aggressively “attractive” according to how I thought people wanted me to look. If you’re a young woman and you’re somewhere where everyone really is looking at you no matter what you wear, it’s near impossible not to be painfully self-conscious anyway.
My way of facing my fears was a bit extreme, and mixed in with my love for travel and people – I took up work as a model. While I wouldn’t recommend that, the theory works for everyone: it might be a drama class, singing class or anything in which you have to express yourself in a group at some point.
Other major things which helped me was working for charities abroad, and serving at a monastery. Again, these may be too extreme for some, but the simple practice of spending most of my day serving others was tremendously helpful in letting go of self-concern. Wherever you are, there will always be places and people which need your help.
It isn’t all about creating big dramas; the little things add up too. Make small social steps for the day which you wouldn’t normally do, like talking to the local grocer, dressing differently, getting a shoulder massage, or smiling at a stranger just because you feel like it, without expecting any particular reaction in return. Share a secret. You might even dare yourself to play the fool, just once, by being silly with friends or in public to see what happens. Playing the fool is one of the most generous and fun things you can do. In my experience it makes people laugh with you, every time.
My point in mentioning my experiences is to show that it’s possible to change from being very self-conscious, to being happy talking on stage in front of hundreds if not thousands of people. I’ve learned that it really, really doesn’t matter what people think of me, as long as I know myself and that I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m not doing it to please anyone else; I’m doing it because I’ve figured out what’s important to me. The fear that being open would make me completely alone was unfounded; in fact it had the opposite effect.
Very few people over the age of five are completely un-self-conscious, and to a degree it’s healthy to keep some of it. Don’t think that you have to change yourself completely, just because one thing is making you uncomfortable. Nobody expects you to be perfect. The difference is in your perspective, and perspectives change with practice.
Hi, I’m an 18-year-old recent high school graduate from France, from the suburbs west of Paris. I remember your article about staying in a Zen temple for a year. I am looking to do something similar. Could you tell me how you set that up, what you had to know beforehand, and that sort of thing? Thanks a lot,
That sounds exciting I’ve had similar questions from different people who are interested in longer stays, so I’ll give you the long answer, and hopefully it’ll answer them too.
Once I realised that I wanted to commit completely to studying Zen, it felt urgent. I rang up the first good monastery I heard of and said “I want to go there immediately!” The monk on the phone sounded bemused and said calmly, “well why don’t you start by attending an introductory weekend next month, then we’ll see?”
I was annoyed that he wasn’t taking me more seriously. There I was, ready to give my whole life to the Dharma, and he was suggesting a pesky beginners’ weekend? My ambition, I felt, carried more gravity than that. So why was I not being welcomed with open arms?
As the monk knew and I eventually found out, the answer is simple: you’ve got to start somewhere, and a weekend is a good start. The equivalent of my fantasy would be if someone with no experience decides they want to work in TV, so they ring up the BBC switchboard and expect to be given a job.
I’m not saying that this is what you think, and it doesn’t sound like you want to be ordained as a monk. It can be helpful to remember all the same, that even from a practical point of view monasticism is one of the most serious vocations there is.
The entire monastic community is signing up to work side-by-side with you day and night, seven days a week. In many temples there’s no privacy at all, and you eat and sleep in the same room together. In a relatively closed and sensitive community, every personality has a magnified effect on all the others and vice-versa. It’s a pressure cooker. If one person gives up, messes up or leaves – which happens as often as it does in any other job – it feels like a serious blow to everyone who is left behind.
So it’s safe to say that they’re going to want to get to know you before signing you up to a longer stay. Along I went to the introductory weekend, at a temple that someone had recommended.
The first question
The question to ask yourself after the introduction is not “do they like me”, but do you like them? Not in a sentimental way, but rather, do you trust them to be reliable teachers? Do they seem to know what they are talking about? Does the kindness and compassion they preach show in their day-to-day actions? Are they genuinely humble and yet confident? How do they handle conflict or disagreements? Do you feel respected and at ease? In some places (sects in particular), the question to ask yourself is are they manipulative or trying too hard to impress you?
Trust your gut feeling on whether it’s the right place for you. This can be tricky because most of us have mixed feelings when we start spiritual training. I was suffering and confused when I started out, and projected my pain everywhere I went. As a result, the main impression I got in my introductory weekend was that everyone was irritating!
However, despite this I could tell that the teachers knew what they were talking about. All my questions were answered with care. If a teacher didn’t know the answer, they were happy to admit it. Both teachers and long-term students seemed content and relaxed, and yet they weren’t going around boasting that I needed them or that theirs was the best school among all schools. There was no pressure on me to join, and there certainly wasn’t any pressure to pay donations.
A common complaint among beginners is that they don’t get as much access to the teachers as they would like. Again, this is something that builds up with time and patience. As in any school, beginners are often assigned junior teachers, and senior students then see more of the senior teachers. You wouldn’t expect to immediately get regular meetings with the abbot, although in smaller priories where there are only two staff, that’s more likely.
After the introductory weekend I signed up to a week-long retreat, which went equally well, although it was hard. I was learning so much and felt like I couldn’t get enough, so I started to attend as many week-long retreats as I could. Gradually over several years, I got to know the monks and they got to know me. It was a very slow process, because the monastery isn’t a social club exactly, and most of the time we don’t say anything at all.
After about five week-long retreats, I still felt that I would benefit from staying longer-term. So I spoke with the Guest Master and then the Abbot to explain why I felt that way. Together with other senior monks they then considered my progress so far, and whether they agreed that I would benefit. It wasn’t a case of whether I was “accepted” or not. It felt more like we were all considering together whether a longer stay was the right path for me at that time, and if so, if that was the right place for me to do it.
All I could do was be honest about how things looked to me, and then be open to the views of the hosts. It didn’t help to be attached in my mind to the idea that I had to stay “or else my life will be directionless”. Be confident that there are always other paths. The way to find the right one is to accept that you don’t know the whole picture, and to be willing for any of those paths to be the ‘right’ one.
To get back to how the admin worked: I asked to stay for nine months simply because my gut feeling was that that’s how long I needed to stay to learn the practice. The abbot responded, “Maybe. Start with three months, then we’ll see.” Every week, I reported back to let him know how things were going. My reasons for residency were reviewed a couple of times during the stay, and eventually it felt like the right time to leave.
Other temples have long-term residential structures worked out and you can apply formally, but the spirit of the process is similar. These days almost all of this info is easily available on temple websites. At the very least, there’ll be a phone number you can ring and ask them about how to get started. The most comprehensive online directory is Buddhanet, or you can simply google e.g. “Zen” and your area. If you ask enough people for their advice, you’ll soon figure out which places have the most solid reputation.
Do you need to know anything beforehand?
The less the better, I can imagine some teachers saying They taught us everything we needed to know at the introductory weekend, and on the website they said what things we might need. (Working clothes, toiletries. Obviously.) What I’d also learned to bring is a rather pedestrian list:
- A blindfold, to help me sleep on bright summer nights
- Earplugs. We shared a large room and people snore.
- Insect repellent in summertime
- Smart but comfortable clothes. Some people wander around in tracksuits, but I feel more respectful in trousers and a shirt.
- Wet tissues to clean up fast, because often there’s little time between a work period and a talk.
- Small packs of tissues to salvage my hayfever with, and pockets in all my clothes to keep them in.
- Shoes that are quick to slip in and out of, since we take our shoes off when popping in and out of the cloister. You’ll also need a pair to get muddy in outdoors.
- For long stays: small things you might want to gift to new friends, e.g. small packs of chocolate or little souvenirs.
- My friend Jason is very fluffy coming back from retreat just now, and would like to add that men tend to forget: a razor, nail scissors, dental floss and tweezers.
What I realised I didn’t need was
- Books – the emphasis was on practice, not reading, and we were encouraged to take a break from what we normally do (for me, that’s reading.) There are books there, as well.
- Computers and a phone. It’s liberating to take a break from these things we enslave ourselves to every day. The temple was out of range anyway, and there’s a guest phone when you need one.
- A stinky deodorant. It’s really embarrassing at close quarters. Stinky sweat is embarrassing too, of course. See “wet tissue” entry above and bring toiletries that don’t smell.
That’s enough about deodorants. What about the intellectual stuff?
From a point of view of zazen practice, I’d suggest that the less you know the better. Some of my fellow trainees had taught Buddhism for 25 years, but it was all intellect-based so they felt that they had to start from scratch. What the monastery does is point you back to your sitting cushion, and you don’t need anything to do that. They even supply the cushions (or chairs, for the many trainees who can’t sit on the floor).
One of the things that surprised me the most was the other trainees. In my solipsistic mind, I’d imagined that they’d all be like me – i.e. in their 30s, single-minded in a sort of masculine way, flown in from all over Europe, and dressed in black. But there were all sorts. Most were actually easy-going retired men and women from the local area. Don’t be disappointed if it isn’t what you expect
Another piece of advice I’d give myself in retrospect is, don’t take everything that all teachers say to heart. Not even masters are necessarily clued up about how emotional psychology works. Insight into the Dharma is not the same as worldly awareness, and understanding compassion doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to put your interests first. I gratefully soaked up every word of every formal Dharma talk; but there were things said in between to trainees personally, that were not always on the mark. Ultimately the only person who can know you and stand up for you, is you. Concentrate on your own training, while being kind to those you find yourself working with. Keep a non-judgmental and humble beginner’s attitude, but at the same time, trust yourself.
I hope this answers your questions. If not, please ask more.
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Most of us get lost in drudgery from time to time. I know I do. Real life will not always be exciting, and Zen students in particular are encouraged to sit still for some time every day, as if letting leaves settle from the storm.
When we do, a vibrant aliveness emerges. However, being human, I’m not always good at letting the leaves settle. Particularly when hard times hit – maybe I won’t have seen sunshine for weeks, and I’m facing more challenges than normal – I’m prone to depression and a ‘giving up’ state of mind.
When this happened a couple of days ago, I listened and asked myself, is this really all I’m aware of? Perversely, I kind of wanted it to be. Depression is real – but it can also be a convenient story which puts my problem in a box so I don’t have to do anything about it.
But then I opened up awareness, and noticed a whole load of other things which complicated the picture. I’m thinking I’m depressed, but actually I’m really enjoying the sun on my skin, a connection with a friend, an idea I just got. So there’s more to the story.
These are the things which make me feel alive. What are yours?
- A good story
- A good friend
- Groups of people coming together to make good things happen
- Single-minded passion for a cause or subject, in me and in others
- When I’ve made something well
- When others want something I’ve made
- Seeing other people flourish
- Meditation (the act of)
- The breathless understanding that space is infinite
- Fashion! Vibrant, creative, expressive
- Dreams, which bolster me to dare to reach for the stars.
- Exercise (the effects of!)
- Good dub, electronica & ska. The beat runs through my hips.
- The desert and the desert sky
- Tropical air, like warm folds of fabric
- Snowfall. Perfect silence
- Preface your ‘helpful’ comment with “I’ve been meditating for 20 years” in order to make people take you seriously. You sitting on your bum, even if it was in a temple, is no guarantee that everything that comes out of your mouth is true. Let people judge what you say on its own merits.
- Appoint yourself the judge and jury of ethical questions. Ordaining as a Buddhist unfortunately does not automatically make you wiser than anyone else. I think we all know what some Buddhists get up to, including you.
- Build up your case for the Truth with big fancy arguments. The truth is strong enough to stand on its own. And even if nobody gets it, it’s not like it’s going anywhere.
- Go out of your way looking for places where you are ‘needed’ to defend Buddhism, your preferred kind of Buddhism, your whole Sangha, and all the little people who don’t seem to be standing up for themselves. This is a false saviour mentality and a helpful distraction from something you really should be doing, which is probably somewhat less heroic, like doing the dishes or walking your dog. Sorry.
- Say snide things about others, even (especially) anonymously, or on private message to your best buddy.
- Give personal unsolicited advice. It never, ever, ever, works. Particularly if you think someone needs it. Its real-life equivalent is to march uninvited into someone’s private room and rant at them.
- Insist on continuing your unsolicited advice when someone starts crying and/or shouting. This can be hard to notice online – please read carefully and err on the side of caution.
- Defend unsolicited advice with “I was only being helpful”. If people did not find it helpful, you were not helping. Fact.
- Say “Sorry but” or “I wish you well” (or “metta” or whatever) when you’re actually thinking “what a plonker”. (If you said it straight after unsolicited advice, you definitely didn’t mean it.)
- Inflate your status by saying that you are great friends with monks, or even worse, by saying that you once were a monk – even if it’s true. Do monks need to preface their teachings with “I am a monk, and I’m great friends with so-and-so”?
- Comfort yourself that when people don’t recognise you as the second coming, it’s because they are deluded. If nobody’s listening to you, it’s probably because you have poor social skills.
- Think that being Buddhist is a licence to do away with social niceties such as introducing yourself (what’s the ‘self’ anyway?), caring about hurting others (‘feelings’ aren’t Truth!), and giving compliments (all things are subject to change, so who cares if someone makes an effort to look nice?)
- Assume that celibacy is a higher calling
- Assume that sex is a higher calling
- Be smug that your calling is better than anyone else’s
- Think that anyone else’s calling is better than yours.
One translation of the ancient Chinese poem Sandōkai says, “with the ideal comes the actual”. The poet’s name, Shih-t’ou Hsi-ch’ien, is translated as “He who hopes for improvement”. I can’t blame him. Maybe, before becoming a Tang dynasty Zen master, he was an over-achieving perfectionist just like many of us.
It is in the human DNA to keep striving; or if we do not strive, to judge ourselves negatively. She who strives and achieves is considered successful; she who does not is labelled lazy or unfortunate.
To take a small example, my last blog post was written months ago, in a digital world where the ideal is to post twice a week. I was waiting for a time when I’d have the time to write ‘properly’ – at length, with flashing inspiration and far-reaching research. Frozen by my own ambition, I achieved nothing.
My teacher is an erudite writer and lifelong student of the Zen tradition, and yet the advice of his that comes to my mind the most often, is also the most mundane: ‘Set yourself the task of doing one thing every day. Even if it’s only putting a nail in the wall to hang a picture’.
Think of someone you admire, who has achieved an impressive body of work. At any one time, were they doing anything other than having one thought? Or picking up a pen or an instrument? Saying a single word, or putting one foot in front of the other? They too built their lives around the mundane chores that keep us alive, by doing just one thing at a time. That person’s life is just like yours.
Ideals play their part, but we give them far too much credit. All you ever need to do is focus on the one thing you’re doing now.