One of my spiritual mentors often speaks thusly:
Why do we need to practice mental cultivation motivated by the meta-ethic of bodhicitta and non-harming actions?* Why do we need qualified spiritual mentors who have experience with this terrain to teach us?
We don’t want to miss out.
What don’t we want to miss out on?
Peace of mind, mental and physical well-being and mental equilibrium, openings and opportunities that seem to manifest for those dedicated to training; the ability to gradually come to master our reactions, and as a byproduct of such training, the direct experience of an ongoing flow of inspiration, grace, rewarding interactions and experiences; the ability to retain equanimity in the face of inevitable difficulties.
What prevents us from experiencing these?
Mental afflictions such as rage, jealousy, arrogance, greed, inconsideration, righteous indignation, etc., and karmic conditioning– the “residue” left in the mindstream from repeatedly enacting unskillful actions of body, speech, and mind, which, when met with particular external circumstances and triggers, force us to keep the wheel of reactivity turning endlessly.
All mental afflictions issue from a mistaken perspective unrecognized as such; this is a fundamental and active misknowing, beyond just ignorance of the mechanisms that drive our misery.
And “talking it out” can’t help for those unwilling to acknowledge the role of their own mental afflictions. Active mental afflictions preclude adaptive communication (characterized by mirroring, empathy, and validation). This is why oftentimes our spiritual mentors will not meet or have discussions with outraged students until they’ve settled themselves down and recognized the role of their own afflictions in a given situation; to protect the students from piling more harsh karma and misery on themselves with their ongoing anger, resentment and pride, they will wait for the right moment to engage.
In Buddhism the cardinal sin is attributing our misery, unhappiness, malaise, dissatisfaction, indignation, problems and suffering to an external source, rather than on the actual culprits: grasping at intrinsic identity of person/phenomena, and inflated self-importance. We say: she did, said this to me, he did that: how dare they! We locate the source of our distress everywhere but in our minds.
But as the great saint Shantideva declared in his Bodhicaryavatara, translated below by Stephen Batchelor, (with a light edit) under the title Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But wearing leather just on the soles of my shoes
Is the same as covering the earth with it.
(Chapter 5, Verse 13)
It’s not as though this means we do not take care of ourselves, it just means that we gain a vaster perspective with respect to our experience.
So Buddha’s teachings are a depth psychology; they are a method to work with one’s direct experience, and do not require an appropriation of dogma, so anyone who applies these trainings, practices them like a patient taking a medicine, will experience changes in their body and mind. Simple as that. Would we keep taking aspirin if it didn’t work to remove a headache? And similarly, we keep applying the teachings because the results are palpable, over time our existential pain goes away, and well-being gradually increases.
As another of my precious mentors teaches, going at it from another angle: if you want to continue to experience multifarious physical and mental disturbances over and over, by all means! Keep giving free rein to your rage! Holding a grudge, being reactive, speaking harshly, making easy dismissive judgments! Keep ignoring cause and effect, being as petty, small-minded, humorless, officious, disrespectful, resentful, unforgiving, cold-hearted, and thankless as possible! And by all means for an extra dollop of agonizing festering inner strife keep finding fault with others instead of going within to locate the source of the problem!
The difference between actions that issue from an afflicted mental state, and actions that issue from a dispassionate recognition that one’s mind is temporarily afflicted is enormous. It’s not as though what is required is perfection, but a commitment to working on ourselves and stopping the blame game. Remaining blended with anger one cannot but respond maladaptively; unblending from anger, simply non-judgmentally noticing: hm, anger has arisen in my mind, and, knowing right away that it will damage oneself and others if it’s acted out of and not held delicately, one can express as Thich Nhat Hanh offers: Darling, I suffer, I am angry, please help me, please listen.
Again, this is not an issue of doctrine or belief. Anyone, regardless of belief, can benefit from the reality-based practices of the Buddha’s teachings. Buddha was a scientist of the mind: an empirical approach to experience is what the Buddha’s whole mission was. For those who think that being a Christian, atheist, etc., precludes practicing Buddhism and vice versa, please see the work of Duane R. Bidwell, especially his book, When One Religion Isn’t Enough.
Everyone wants to experience well-being and increasing, not diminishing freedom, no one wants to experience misery, frustration, limitations, problems. For that, though, we need to recognize and respect the law of cause and effect and cultivate the causes, nurture the conditions, that distance us from the experience of malaise, and abandon the causes and conditions that produce for us a miserable experience. Often, people will defend their right to cleave to maladaptive behaviors, declaring: “this is just the way I am” (and by implication, there’s no room for growth, change, improvement). They need to consider what use that attitude is to themselves and others.
Returning to the meta-perspective of bodhicitta mentioned above, it is a fundamental stance, and no secret unique to the Buddha’s teaching, that orienting our minds and lives to be able to be of benefit to an ever widening circle of sentient beings, not just ourselves and families, brings joy, confidence, and well-being; while sour exclusion, fault-finding and rehashing of perceived wrongs, based on an inability to recognize and own our mental afflictions and the behaviors that issue from them, brings nothing but endless and self-replicating dramas characterized by dissatisfaction, suspicion, fear and paranoia. Any refusal on our part to acknowledge these truths is the last hurrah of the recalcitrant ego, and often worse. To dismantle these and live up to our potential we will first be faced with challenges or problems that no longer allow us to pretend otherwise.
As the Lama Chopa declares (scholars and lotsawas: here I am paraphrasing, this is not a literal translation):
Not wanting even the slightest problem, nor ever satisfied
with the happiness we do enjoy,
in this there’s no difference between myself and others;
please inspire me to rejoice in the success of others.
Seeing that this chronic disease of holding myself as most important
is the cause that gives rise to unwanted misery,
please inspire me to place the blame where it belongs,
and eliminate the monstrous demon of self-importance.
Seeing that holding all sentient beings as precious
and wishing to secure their well-being is the gateway to excellent qualities,
please inspire me to give more importance to these beings than to
my own life, even should they rise up as my enemies.
Mind you, this is a mental practice. It takes virtue to perceive goodness in others, and if we lack a habit of intentionally cultivating virtuous mental attitudes and behaviors, we will likely see nothing but faults even in those committed to overcoming their faults and harmful actions of body, speech and mind.
As one of my great spiritual mentors once said: if you keep finding fault with others, you will come to criticize even those who are wise and pure, and because of doing that, eventually you will not see any goodness in anyone: you will be forced to see only flaws in others, and you will think you are right, and this is the worst form of poverty.
To counteract misknowing, mistaken ways of knowing, we cultivate the wisdom of dependent arising/lack of objective existence. We should not believe everything we think, especially if we believe our thinking to be sophisticated and rhetorically sound. Rhetoric is not wisdom.
To counteract hatred, we cultivate loving-friendliness; since hatred and anger undermine both physical and mental health, while loving friendliness promotes intersubjective harmony.
To counteract pride/arrogance we acknowledge the countless things we do not and cannot know either directly or indirectly. We repeatedly ask ourselves in relation to our pronouncements, opinions, biases, etc: Is that true, how can I know it’s true? How does it help me and others to hold that idea, thought, or opinion as really true? This is especially important to fend off ideological possession, which precludes deepest forms of inquiry and reflection.
To counteract spiritual and material stinginess we cultivate an expansive mental attitude of generosity; while this may not mean always giving materially, it is the thought, the wish to give everything that others may want or need. This counteracts petty-minded contractedness and mean-spiritedness reminiscent of children who refuse to share toys. When has stinginess ever been uplifting? When has generosity not been? We are instinctively inspired by and grateful for the generous, and when we are threatened by it, most likely it’s because on some level we feel shown up for being little and mean.
Selfishness, self-importance, masquerading as “me and my boundaries” are never truly empowering or protective, as though no one but us suffers and experiences unhappiness or needs empowerment and protection.
How do we maintain healthy boundaries? First we have to recognize what it is that feels unsafe and threatening to us. From there we investigate whether that feeling relates to an actual threat or to a challenge to our comfort zones and status quos. Those who are constantly engaged in identifying and overcoming their own mental afflictions and who refrain from projection tend to be threatening for those who want to participate in the blame game. Who refuses to look at themselves will naturally drop away from the company of those engaged in the hard work of the inner laboratory, or, with time, they may rise up to the challenge of coming around to see the truth of needing to own our stuff, realizing the benefit they stand to gain and the confusion they stand to lose.
We think our “boundaries” are what protect us. The true protection is the energy produced by the intentional cultivation of wisdom and virtue, which grow as we counteract our own mental afflictions and quit locating the problem as only outside ourselves.
To counteract the incredibly destructive toxin of jealousy we cultivate appreciating and being grateful for others’ great qualities, skills, and actions, focusing our attention on delighting in those (wonderful! wonderful!), and being ready to admit and recognize that whatever flaws we fixate on in others most likely belong to a disowned, wounded, or unresolved part of ourselves, which is why so-called flaws in others trigger us; if we didn’t have the same, we could not be triggered or affected, but only informed.
To counteract subtle and gross forms of malice we cultivate wishing others well, all others, including (and especially) those who despise, disdain, dismiss, or diss us, since we are all, each and every one of us, subject to sickness, aging, death along with countless unwanted problems, limitations, and obstacles. Since we are all in the same sinking boat, why not let a larger perspective inspire and guide us? Why would we cut off our nose to spite our face? Silly, no?
Those dedicated to the hard work of inner knowledge can and do use hostility directed at them to strengthen and deepen spiritual practice: to strengthen and deepen patience, insight, compassion, well-wishing, and any number of virtuous mental states, which in turn minimize obstacles, misery, problems; this dynamic produces conviction about the value of the teachings. Faith in the Buddha’s methods comes from directly experiencing the results of practice. Those who work with their minds are the existential laborers who have made of themselves the laboratory, have carried out the experiments repeatedly, and who because of that, know incontrovertibly the transforming efficacy of Buddha’s methods. Thus are such folks able to turn straw into gold.
When the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and the maras or demons launched their missiles at him, trying to block his by then inevitable trajectory toward awakening, he sat unperturbed and, in his mind, returned the arrows as flowers. He did not fixate on the demons as being “evil” or as existing “out there” separate and apart from his own awareness, and he understood that if he mastered his mind, so-called demons would themselves transform, dawn in his awareness as great spiritual teachers and be unable to effect harm for him.
Nothing and no one can harm us more in the short and long term than our misknowing and mental afflictions.
As another of my mentors says: can a cracked mirror reflect objects clearly? Thankfully, it’s a metaphor, and unlike a cracked mirror, we, possessed of this incredible mystery of awareness, can learn to identify, address and remove mental afflictions and negative karmas, step by step, in order to come to perceive more and more clearly.
*Referred to in the Great Vehicle tradition of Buddhism as the ten restraints: not killing, stealing, no sexual misconduct; no lying, no harsh words, no divisive speech, no purposeless talk, no avarice, no malice, no distorted views.