In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is a practice called Dakshen Nyamje (phoneticized Tibetan), which means, roughly: recognizing our sameness with others and trading places even if only in imagination until we have an insight that allows us to understand directly that others are as or more important than ourselves. There are plenty of extraordinary commentaries in the Tibetan Buddhist literature that will tell you what Dakshen Nyamje is and how to practice it, but I would like to offer some words about what this practice means for me, not having really practiced it or much less realized it at all, but being inspired by it nonetheless, and as a way to remind myself of why I embarked on the Mahayana path to begin with.
How are we all identical? Since few if any of us wake up in the morning and confidently declare: Bring it on! May I have a stress-filled day full of perfect bullies, petty tyrants, impossible situations, long tech help hold times, traffic jams, and jerks! We can say everyone is identical in wanting freedom from misery. That feature transcends all boundaries and identities and is part of the genius of the Buddha’s message. How this freedom from misery is conceived of course varies. People have many ways of securing what they believe will bring them happiness.
What would trading places look like? We can’t bodily trade places just now, so we have to go on inference. What is hard is to actually deeply engage, deeply reflect on or consider, in a hi def way, what it might *feel* like, from moment to moment, to BE in others’ situations.
In the extraordinary Lamrim and Lojong practices, which can effect deepest development of very profound kindness, we don’t imagine merely intellectually what it would be like to be in others’ situations, clinically enumerating the things they lack access to that we thankfully do, thus adding to a fatal notion of ourselves as special or superior, nor do we take the spectator’s seat as if watching a show, while comforting ourselves in our temporary ease and security.
On the other hand, developing deepest kindness does not allow us to be directly available to all beings either, or to do what they want, or to do their spiritual work for them; what it does do is help us clean up our presence so that we don’t add to our own or others’ misery, helping us discern more adaptive and less compulsive courses of action in our increasingly complex world.
To switch places, we imagine in great and unflinching detail how it would feel to be that individual with leprosy and/or without a home who sits unmoving at the side of the road, shrouded by the exhaust of passing honking vehicles. Yes, that one who waits for alms, never asking for or demanding them. Do I rush by without looking? Or do I acknowledge him and maybe offer some bills? If I can’t bring myself to do that, or to deal with the more aggressive and persistent beggars, at least I must maintain a mind of wishing, with all my heart, to be able to help them in future if I cannot do so now.
I can’t help thinking that all the Buddhas’ or Jesus’ love manifested as that leprosy sufferer to wake me the hell up out of my well marinated self-obsession. As Mother Teresa referred to those she served (and who I am sure served her more): God’s distressing disguises. Now there was a woman who realized pure view and acted on it.
What does it feel like to be that nefarious hacker who wreaks devastation and yields profit with entire systems? Can you feel his or her smug sense of power laced with the bitter cold darkness of impending doom?
What does it feel like to be torn between two lovers with three small children who love both parents to the moon and back?
What does it feel like to be on death row taking one more step to the execution chamber facing a roomful of your victims’ family and friends?
What does it feel like to be apprehended and handcuffed in front of your children because you lack documentation?
What does it feel like to have your country seized and your people forced out, starved, and tortured?
What does it feel like to work three jobs and come home to kids who are being bullied at school til one jumps off a bridge and you find out on facebook?
What does it feel like to be that taxi driver who drives for 12 or 18 hours or more a day to feed his five children, wife, and both sets of parents?
What does it feel like to have built a huge trendy empire only to have it collapse under the weight of ill-conceived actions and decisions?
What does it feel like to be that 11-year-old cobalt miner in the Congo as he makes his way down dozens of feet in a confined tunnel, or that factory worker in you name the place?
What does it feel like to be that girl whose mother sold her into prostitution at age 10 and whose vagina gets torn and retorn with every hungry crazed predator who violates her until she elects the rope and tree?
What does it feel like to be that ethically compromised pharmaceutical scientist with a disabled child and Alzheimer’s parent, who knows the dirt on the way the clinical trials were actually done and what the drugs actually do?
What does it feel like to be wanting out from under the ruthless fist or phone of a boss, partner, pimp, or bully?
What does it feel like to be trapped in a cage with hundreds of other chickens, pigs, or cows?
What does it feel like to be those dogs who bark and snarl at each other at 3 in the morning or those cats that can be heard hissing, clawing, and fighting?
What does it feel like to be eaten alive by a snake who swallows your rabbit body whole?
What does it feel like to be impregnated again and again so your puppies or calves can be torn away from you as quickly?
What does it feel like to receive a bullet between the eyes, or to have shrapnel puncture your skin, rip off a limb, or wedge into your spine?
What does it feel like to be eaten alive? It’s just nature, we tell ourselves but why don’t we imagine how it would be for us in that situation? Would we want it for ourselves?
What does it feel like to be a mother with five small children running from bombs and walking for miles day after day along with hundreds of others and getting into a small boat to a land never before seen only to have the boat capsize and the children and/or parents drown?
What does it feel like to be forced to seek the next hit of a drug without which we feel we can’t get through the next 5 minutes?
What does it feel like to be the mother or father of such an addict and have our life be destroyed and savings and life force sapped dry trying to help them?
What does it feel like to be that bird who visits for a crumb that may have landed on the ground, while other bigger birds hover nearby?
What does it feel like to be that winner of American Idol?
What does it feel like to be that mother who lost her child in a school shooting?
What does it feel like to be that Hollywood mogul who once possessed enormous power and influence and who, though posting the million dollars bail, will never again be taken too seriously unless his mom still lives?
What does it feel like to get caught after getting away with so much for so long?
What does it feel like to be in jail for 20 years, knowing full well that what you did was wrong but still never managing to get out from under the label: criminal?
What does it feel like to have no meanness, no hate, no ingratitude, only love, in mind? No pettiness, no dismissiveness, no judgment, no criticism, only the question of: how can I better myself, how can I love that one better?
What does it feel like to struggle out of poverty and create or offer something beautiful for the world?
What does it feel like to know your stuff on exam day?
What does it feel like to be a fish yanked out of water and suffocating in the air before being sliced open while still alive?
What does it feel like to make that old lonely lady smile or laugh?
What does it feel like to know your family fortune was acquired through violence and destruction of others’ lives?
What does it feel like to be restricted to a social role with no wiggle room or hope or option for radical reinvention?
What does it feel like to want nothing more than an education but not to be able to have it?
What does it feel like to have invented something that ended up causing incredible destruction?
What does it feel like to be Meghan Markle on her wedding day?
What does it feel like to find out that the fairytale’s dark underbelly reasserts itself even among the best intentioned?
What does it feel like to really know your mind and body are giving way to old age and dementia?
What does it feel like to not be able to heal, learn, grow, improve?
And then we wonder how people become mean, vain, proud, destructive, or terrified.
Truly this exercise makes me see the world as filled with amazing, kind, and decent people who are eager to help others in the face of incredible obstacles.
What causes and conditions led to each of those scenarios? What specific mental states, mental habits, inherited beliefs, took place for those experiences to ensue? This is what Buddha’s teachings can help us understand.
Well, thank goodness for impermanence. All things change. But whether they change for the better or worse is not random. While the low points are interspersed with less low points, and while there are some high and very high points, thanks to the ever-changing nature of reality, we are on a quickly moving conveyor belt. What skills do we most need to cultivate right now to make things manageable in an increasingly complex world? What structures within and outside of us need redesign?
If our own and others’ suffering and overwhelm make us think it’s an option to check out of life altogether, we need to think again. We are wanting to get rid of the suffering self, and desperately offing the body does not guarantee that our mind, or consciousness, soul, spirit, or whatever we wish to call it, will not continue to suffer, and possibly even more. And raging about it, becoming hateful, belligerent and angry about things, is like cutting off the head of the Hydra only to have another hundred heads sprout immediately.
What does such an exercise of deeply reflecting on our own and others’ situation do in and for us? What kind of people can we become by reflecting this way? Most of us not only do not want to hear any of this (too depressing, got too many problems of my own, talk to the hand), we don’t want to actually do the hard work of what tumbles out so easily from even the most influential mouths: compassion, empathy, love. The question is how does a recognition of another’s situation change how we behave toward others and toward ourselves? What does “love one another” demand from one moment to the next?
Thinking of such scenarios, imagining being within them ourselves, moment by moment, day by day, has an effect on the mind that only those who do it regularly can imagine. As the great Arya Nagarjuna said, meditate the hells daily.
We are not required to go all medieval or Hieronymus Bosch with this, there are plenty of hellish scenarios (without invoking the many levels of post mortem hells) right here on our little space rock to note carefully. Doing that can bring priorities and purpose sharply into focus. How can I live without bringing harm to myself and others? Those answers can be found in the Buddhist wisdom literature, and particularly in the Lojong (Mind Training) and Lamrim (Stages of the Path) traditions.
And in no way do we have to be Buddhist to do this kind of heart-asana practice; but what Buddha’s teachings absolutely do help us with is to come back from the precipice such a reflection can lead us to through the training in wisdom, a very particular kind of wisdom, without which we could easily just give up and defer to our lower, instead of higher, natures.
Among other things less easy and merciful, by reflecting deeply on situations beyond our own, our respect for the law of karma grows exponentially, our humility grows exponentially, as does the wish and longing that all of us be healed and free in the way Buddha said we could be.
For me asking: What does it feel like? from the time I was a kid in a hospital room with two terminally ill roommates under the age of 13, wondering how much time I too had left, drove me to seek out meaningful approaches to tough existential and ethical questions. What the Buddha Dharma gave me was a way to work directly with my mind and my experience without having to put a spin on what was going on or accept an irrational (which is to say unhelpful) explanation. The process of finding the essence of the Buddha Dharma is not an easy one, it’s like separating gold from gold ore. For me, the essence of the Buddha Dharma is to work directly with my mind and experience in relation to the precious Teachings I have received from my exquisite mentors. My first late Teacher, Ven Geshe Lobsang Namgyal’s last words on his death bed were: “Your experience is the ultimate authority.”
In Puerto Rico, the country of my parents, there is an expression: pasarlo bien, as in: Lo pasamos tan bien! We had such a great time! To the degree that you lo pasaste bien, or had a great time, is the degree to which you are deemed “successful.”
Having a good time; being here in human format to have a good time. Nothing wrong at all with having a good time. I guess after my hospitalization at age 12 it was hard for me to really care too much about having a good time knowing so many weren’t having a good time, and that a good time can and always does at some point change into a bad time. Not to say I am seeking misery, or that my being miserable about others’ misery is at all helpful, it clearly is not. And that is not the objective. The objective is a heart as roomy and generous as a sunlit sky. There’s a cascade of joy, gratitude, and insight that comes when we hold others in thoughts of kindness and recognition; witnessing, walking alongside, their suffering.
These days there’s the ever popular credo YOLO (You Only Live Once…um; how can you be sure?), which from the perspective of any wisdom tradition is one of the most delusional ideologies out there: “The world’s going to hell let me just have my fun.” That would be okay except that the crystal radiant dimension of our innermost being, which definitely knows better, will never really settle for that, because secretly we all want to be superheroes benefitting ourselves AND others, and rightly so, since it’s within our capacity to be much more fulfilled than we are. If we haven’t yet been overtaken by the intractable toxin of cynicism, it’s worth reflecting on what it means to be human while the world is on fire.