Our topic, A Buddhist Outlook on Life, basically deals with how we apply the Buddha’s teachings in our daily life. What do they actually mean to us? This is extremely crucial. We may study the teachings and have a daily meditation practice, but how to relate these to our actual daily lives isn’t clear. What do they actually mean in practical terms? How do they change our lives or affect us personally? Is Buddhist practice just something that we do on the side, like a hobby or an escape from the difficulties in my life? Do we just go off into some nice pretty visualization or fantasy, or is our practice something very useful and in fact really helps us in life? After all, this is what the Buddhist teachings were intended for, to help us to overcome suffering and problems in our lives.
A Helpful Guideline
We can find a very helpful guideline for applying the teachings in daily life in a short prayer, called Three Practices to Be Done Continually, usually recited before most teachings. In it, we have the line:
Commit not anything negative at all; splendidly enact what is constructive; fully subdue your own mind. These are the teachings of the Buddha.
These are the most important points of the Buddhist teachings. In the first line, Commit not anything negative at all, negative means something self-destructive, something that causes problems and unhappiness to others or, in the long term, to us. Therefore, the first thing we do in Buddhist practice is to try not to cause harm to others or ourselves. In the second line, Splendidly enact what is constructive, constructive means something that brings about things going well for others and for us and brings happiness.
In order to do this, the third line says, Fully subdue your own mind. This indicates the source of both our destructive and constructive actions. In order to accomplish refraining from the former and enacting the latter, we need to work on ourselves – our attitudes and our emotions, and these come from our minds. Our attitudes and emotions will affect how we relate with others and how we act, speak and think in life. And so the last line, These are the teachings of the Buddha.
If we look a bit more deeply, as one of my Buddhist teacher friends pointed out, the basic approach in Buddhism is to be realistic: know what reality is and deal with it in a realistic manner. In other words, we need to base our behavior and understanding of things on reality.
What is reality? Reality is cause and effect or what is usually referred to as “dependent arising.” Things arise or happen dependently in terms of cause and effect. In other words, our destructive or constructive actions come from causes. If we look at our behavior, we see that it is either causing problems or bringing about more happiness and benefit to ourselves and others. But we need to look at our behavior non-judgmentally. Being non-judgmental is very important as the manner in which we deal with life.
Buddhist ethics aren’t based on following the laws either provided by some divine being or given by some legislature or ruler. If we have ethics based on such laws, we have judgments. If we follow the laws and rules, we are considered good and get rewarded; and if we don’t follow them – if we break the laws – we are considered bad and deserve punishment. This isn’t Buddhist ethics or the Buddhist way of dealing with life. It is important to realize this when we find ourselves being judgmental toward ourselves. This is one of the deep changes in attitude that we need to try to make: to stop being judgmental about ourselves – for instance, thinking we are bad, no good, not good enough, or that what we did was so terrible.
Instead, we need to view our way of dealing with life in terms of cause and effect. If we caused problems and messed up, this arose because of causes and conditions. It’s not because we are bad. If we go deeper, we find that we were confused about the situation; we didn’t understand. What it comes down to, really, is projections. We tend to exaggerate things and project all sorts of nonsense onto ourselves, situations, and the people around us. Then, we tend to believe that these projections correspond to reality, when in fact they don’t. If we examine ourselves and why we are acting in destructive ways, usually we can find that we have projected some nonsense onto whatever is involved in the situation and are responding to our projections.
The Two Truths
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has recently been speaking a great deal about what might be the most universal way of helping people to make their lives less problematic. He’s not restricting himself to a Buddhist audience, but speaking universally, as is his concern. He says that we need to begin by understanding the two truths. This is most basic. We don’t need to look at the two truths in a very sophisticated way, but in a much more basic way that anyone can relate to. On the one hand, there are our projections based on exaggerations or on nothing but our wild ideas; and, on the other, there is reality. These are the two truths.
To a confused mind, the projections seem to be true, such as, “I am a loser, I’m no good, nobody loves me,” or “This is the biggest disaster in the world,” when our meal burned or they ran out of what we ordered in a restaurant or we’re stuck in traffic and we think that we’ll never get home. We exaggerate and project that these are the most terrible things that can happen and that being stuck in traffic, for instance, is going to last forever. We take these projections to be true. That’s conventional truth: what a confused mind will incorrectly consider is true.
Then, there is reality, the deepest truth. The reality is that the traffic is there because of causes and circumstances; it’s rush hour and everyone wants to get home. What do we expect? It’s like complaining that it’s cold in the winter. What did we expect? It’s winter. It’s like that.
We need to be able to differentiate between the two truths and when we recognize that we are exaggerating and projecting nonsense, deconstruct this nonsense. In short, to understand what is happening to us in our lives, we need to understand the difference between the two truths and integrate this understanding into our lives. This is essential.
This point is indicated in the next line of that same prayer:
Like the stars, a blur, or a (whirling) torch, an illusion, drops of dew, or a bubble, a dream, a flash of lightening or clouds, regard affected phenomena to be like that.
We need to recognize in our lives when we are exaggerating and projecting, making a big deal out of nothing or something very small. We need to recognize that what seems so real is like an illusion, a dream, a bubble and so on. It’s not really solid like it appears to be. Therefore, we’re not going to believe it corresponds to reality. Not believing it is like popping the balloon of our fantasy.
There are basically two types of projections; some are useful, and others are detrimental. What projections are useful? We could have a positive or neutral intention; for instance, we could have the intention to organize a trip. We are going to travel from here to there and we think ahead. That’s a projection: we need to do this or that, take this or that with us, make reservations, etc. This type of projection also applies to a work routine or a shopping list when we go to the store. These are projections regarding what we intend to do, a plan for how we will accomplish something. We often do this at work when we set up a plan for what to accomplish for the year.
But, then we need to realize that our projected plan is like a dream. What does that mean on a practical level? It means to be flexible. These are affected phenomena, as it says in the prayer. They are affected by causes and conditions; they are sometimes called “conditioned phenomena.” Things arise based on causes and conditions, so when we make a plan, the situation will be affected by causes and conditions, and these may change. An example of a change might be that there are no more seats available on a specific flight. Even though we planned to take that flight, we need to change our plan. Rather than complain and get upset about it, we just accept the reality. This is what we need to train to do. When we get stuck in our original plan and don’t have the flexibility to realize that the original plan is like an illusion, or like a bubble and all the analogies in the prayer, then we hold on tightly to it.
What does that produce? It produces a very unhappy state of mind. We can get very angry or frustrated. It just makes us miserable and changes nothing in the situation. Cursing at traffic when we are stuck in it doesn’t help; beeping the horn doesn’t help. The only thing that helps is to accept the reality that the situation we had hoped for has changed. For example, we planned to arrive at a certain time; we missed the train or the train gets delayed, and there is nothing that we can do about that. This is how we apply the teachings on a useful level in our lives.
We need to understand that there is a correct and incorrect way of considering things. The incorrect way is to think that something that is constantly affected by changing conditions is static and fixed – like thinking some plan must be fixed. Thinking like that is very common. We need to be ready to change our plans when they need to be altered and things don’t work out as we had planned. We can get stuck in traffic, or people cancel appointments and things like that. In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Shantideva gives the best advice for this:
If it can be remedied, why get into a foul mood over something? And if it can’t be remedied, what help is it to get into a foul mood over it?
That advice is really basic, something we need to digest and make part of our way of dealing with life. If we get into a difficult situation in life and we can change it, simply change it. If we can’t change it and there is nothing that we can do about it, then no point in getting upset. For example, our luggage is lost on our trip, and we won’t be able to get it for a few days. We just accept that reality.
I had a very interesting experience a few weeks ago. I was traveling to teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Holland. I went to the airport to fly to Amsterdam, waiting on line for the check-in. The computer system had gone down and there was a very long line. Everyone was freaked out that they wouldn’t be able to check-in in time to make their flights. At one point, the people in front of me on line took out their tickets and passports, and when I went to do the same, I realized that I’d forgotten to take my passport with me. I couldn’t check-in without a passport and I don’t have a German ID card.
This is the first time in my entire life that this has ever happened. What do I do? I am at the airport and there is absolutely no way that I can go back to my apartment and then return to the airport with my passport in time to make that flight. Do I get upset about something like this? That isn’t going to help. Do I get angry? That’s not going to help. I went to the information desk and asked if there was a later flight and there wasn’t one from that airport; however, there was one from the other airport on the other side of town that night. This meant that I would miss the event in the evening that I planned to attend. What to do? I went home, made the reservation on the other flight, flew that evening and that’s it.
These kinds of experiences are a test as to how we have integrated the teachings into our lives. Do we get upset about the whole thing and freak out? If we get angry, all it does is hurt ourselves and makes us miserable. We need to instantly accept the reality of the situation and attend to what we need to do. That’s how we need to integrate and utilize, on a practical level, the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence, instead of fixating on projections, for example, of how I had planned to take a certain flight, take the train from Amsterdam airport to Rotterdam and go to the evening event. That’s like a dream and not going to happen that way. Okay, so now we do an alternative plan.
This relates to a very basic instruction given for meditation: we need to meditate with no expectations. If we have no expectations, we’ll have no disappointments. That’s very basic for the practical application of Buddhism.
My sister has two sons and four grandchildren. I’m always encouraging her not to expect that her sons or grandchildren are going to call her. If we expect that, we will be disappointed because they aren’t going to do it. If we want to speak with someone, we can call them. It’s as simple as that; we accept the reality. If we can change it, change it. If we can’t change it, we can’t change it. We aren’t going to get our lost luggage any sooner than it’s going to come. We accept that.
To repeat, there are two types of projections. One that is useful – we do need to make certain plans. We do need to make a plane reservation if we want to go somewhere. However, others are not only not useful, they’re detrimental.
Reflection and Practical Application
Before looking at our detrimental projections, it’s a good idea to take a moment to reflect on our own situation. How flexible are we? How upset do we get when things don’t go the way that we plan? How much do we get stuck in a fixed schedule of how something is supposed to be; for instance, this task must be done at this exact time; or if we go to a restaurant, they will have the exact food that we like, and it will be served quickly. How much do we stick to some sort of plan and expectation? Try to notice how unpleasant it is when we are disappointed. We are disappointed because of our expectations. We think that our plan must correspond to the reality of how things will actually work out.
But everything is dependent on causes and conditions. Restaurants can run out of the food we wanted. These are causes and conditions. The train was late; we got caught in traffic and missed the plane. These are causes and conditions. Examine for a few minutes how flexible you are. Is that something that you need to work on? It’s not enough to just learn about impermanence or to focus on the breath and realize that the breath is impermanent. That’s very nice, but how do we apply that in our lives? That is the crucial aspect of understanding impermanence.
Think of a practical example like dropping a dish and it breaks. What is your emotional response to that? You are cooking dinner and it burns. How do you deal with that emotionally? That’s where our progress is revealed. We try to do something on the computer or the phone and it doesn’t work. Can you instantly try something else? Or do you get upset? Do you swear?
These are the practical applications of the teachings. If we do get upset in those situations and aren’t able to just switch to plan B – there is always another way of doing something on the phone, the computer and so on – if we do get upset, it indicates that these are areas that we need to work on.
As mentioned, of the two types of projections, one is useful for planning and scheduling and the other is detrimental. Imagining things like “I am a loser; no one loves me; this person is a terrible person, and so on” are detrimental. Or thinking if a meal burns or we miss the train it is a complete disaster. Such detrimental projections are based on exaggeration.
With anger, we exaggerate the negative qualities of something and blow it up. Many people have experienced this with the subway or metro: just as we go down the stairs, the train leaves the platform. How are we able to deal with it? Do we swear? It isn’t the worst thing in the world to have to wait five or ten minutes. But we blow it up and react with anger and get upset. This makes us unhappy and it doesn’t help, does it?
With greed and attachment, we think that something is the most wonderful thing in the world or that we are with the most wonderful person. We exaggerate, fall in love, and only see the good exaggerated sides of the person. We expect the person to live up to our exaggerations, but nobody can. Then we get disappointed.
Such attitudes are problematic. Often what happens is that we look at things from too narrow a perspective. This can happen, for example, when we have some setback in our lives, or someone rejects us, or someone does something unpleasant to us. A person that we are in a relationship with does something we don’t like, not calling us on our birthday or gets angry and yells at us or whatever it might be. We just focus on that one incident. We don’t see the larger picture of the whole relationship. We only identify them with this narrow thing and so we get very angry.
If we have difficulty or an illness, we might think, “Poor me; I’m the only one suffering like this.” Again, this is a very narrow viewpoint. It’s a projection based on not seeing the larger perspective. For instance, “No one loves me.” If we scan our entire lives, is it that nobody in our entire lives ever loved us? Our dog doesn’t love us? Nobody was ever nice to us or cared for us? As another example, “I’m such a loser.” Is that true? Is it true that we have never succeeded at anything? We succeeded in learning how to walk or in becoming toilet trained, so we have certainly succeeded at something.
Again, our projections don’t correspond to reality; but we want them to correspond and so we believe that they do. We want it to be that our partner is the most wonderful, special person in the world. A good example is the penguins in Antarctica and how they have one mate for life. To us they all look exactly alike, but to the penguin, it’s this one out of all of them that is the special one. Surely, from the perspective of the penguins, humans seem exactly the same; but, to us, it doesn’t matter if anyone else loves us. No, it has to be that that only you – the most special one – that you love me. This kind of exaggeration isn’t very helpful.
Another variation of a detrimental projection is denying reality, not seeing the reality of others and denying it. This happens when we objectify people and make them into objects without considering that they are human beings with feelings. There’s a very famous line in Buddhism: “Everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy.” How seriously do we take that in regard to other people? Very often we ignore that and act as if it doesn’t matter how we treat someone or speak to others. It’s as if cause and effect don’t apply here, and no one else has feelings.
For instance, someone in our office is very obnoxious and unpleasant. But still, that person wants to be happy and doesn’t want to be unhappy. They want people to like them and don’t want people to not like them. They act unpleasantly because they are very confused about what will bring them happiness. Again, this goes back to being non-judgmental. As Shantideva said, we destroy our happiness as if it were our enemy. In other words, we run toward the causes of unhappiness. If someone is acting in a terribly selfish way, it just causes everyone to reject them. Nobody likes the way they are acting, but that person thinks it’s going to make them happy.
This is very important: when encountering others, try to understand, “You want to be happy, just as I do. You have feelings, just as I do. You don’t want to be unhappy and want to be liked, just as I do. You don’t want to be disliked or rejected, just as I don’t.” This is very helpful to practice when we are on a bus or in traffic. Everybody wants to get to their destination, and nobody wants to sit in the traffic, just as we don’t. There is no reason to get angry at the other people. Everybody has feelings, just as we do.
A most helpful line is: “Not everybody liked the Buddha; so why should we expect that everyone is going to like us?” Or, “They crucified Jesus, so what do we expect for ourselves?” Is it that everyone is going to love us? This is very helpful when someone doesn’t like us or doesn’t respond to us in a positive way that we would like. These are lines that can be very helpful in life on a practical level to counter our unrealistic expectations and projections. We may think, “I should always be right and everyone should listen to me.” But why should they?
Remember, we are making a distinction here between what is realistic and what is not. We could have the intention to do better, to improve, to have more concentration or whatever. To do better when, in fact, we are capable of that, is a realistic expectation. But when we think, “I should always be the most important person in your life. You should always be available for me,” so that when our partner comes home from work and it appears as if nothing happened in his or her life during the day and they arrived out of nothing, so that now they should be totally available for us – that’s an unrealistic expectation, isn’t it?
Let’s take a moment to consider when we have unrealistic expectations. How many of these unrealistic expectations do we have and how well can we recognize them? Do we recognize that they are detrimental and harm us when we believe them? Do we see how they cause emotional pain? The Dalai Lama likes to call them our internal trouble-makers.
Many people in the West are influenced by its judgment-oriented philosophies. For many of us, one of the most troubling thoughts is that we aren’t good enough. This is very judgmental. We need to recognize that no one is judging us and we certainly don’t need to judge ourselves. We may be confused; but that doesn’t mean that we are deficient or bad. This is a very self-destructive projection.
It is essential to be able to differentiate between the two truths. What seems to be true to us – that we aren’t good enough, for example – is actually false. There is no reason to believe that, so we need to try to stop believing it and lead life in terms of cause and effect. If we want to accomplish something, we need to bring about the causes. If that is possible, just do it; and if it’s not possible, accept reality. For example, if we want to get a better job, we need to look for it and not just wait for something to fall from the sky or for someone to give it to us. There is cause and effect. We need to be receptive to possibilities and take advantage of them, and not just get locked into a situation thinking it is so terrible, we will never get ahead, and nothing can be done about it. This sort of thinking is very negative. As the prayer states: Commit not anything negative at all. This is not just in terms of doing or speaking, but also thinking. It includes how we regard ourselves and others.
The Four Noble Truths
This approach of differentiating projection from reality is how to apply the four noble truths in our lives. As His Holiness emphasizes, we need to go from the two truths to the four truths. We need to understand that our problems, the first noble truth, come from causes, the second noble truth. We have these projections and, in addition, ignorance or unawareness of the fact that these projections don’t correspond to reality. If we want to achieve a stopping of that – the third noble truth – to get rid of it, we have to understand reality – the fourth noble truth – and pop the balloon of our fantasy.
We don’t need to be Buddhist to apply this. As the Dalai Lama says, this is a universal approach, and we don’t have to refer to it as the four noble truths. We don’t have to call it anything. In this way, it actually leads to the Three Jewels without even having to say what they are. We understand that if we eliminate the cause of our problems, the problems will go away. The state in which all the causes and problems are gone and the understanding that brings this about are the Dharma Jewel. These are the third and fourth noble truths. The Buddhas are those who have done that completely and the Sangha are those who have done this in part.
In this way, we have two truths, four truths and three jewels and we don’t even have to be Buddhist for that. The dividing line to be Buddhist is the aim to work to improve future lives. However, this approach does require a belief in past and future lives. As His Holiness was pointing out, our traditional sutra approach as introduced in Tibet at the time of Atisha is the lam-rim, the three levels of motivation. These are to improve future lives, gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring future lives, and then attain enlightenment so as to best be able help everybody else get liberation from future lives. This entire structure depends on future lives and rebirth. With the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma it is the same thing – rebirth. The whole path is based on faith that there is such a thing as rebirth.
For Westerners or for a more general approach, it is better to start with two truths, four truths and three gems. After this, we can introduce the discussion of cause and effect; but cause and effect won’t make any sense if we have an absolute beginning. This leads to beginningless mind; and if we understand beginningless mind, then we understand rebirth. At this point, we can get to sincerely wanting to benefit future lives and gain liberation from samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. When our engagement in the lam-rim graded path is only based on faith in rebirth, it isn’t stable. This doesn’t mean that practicing the lam-rim on this basis is useless; but it’s just that it would be more stable if we could catch up to the place where traditionally Tibetans begin, namely with conviction in rebirth.
This scheme of two truths and so on also indicates the way that we can integrate the teachings into our lives. It begins with the differentiation between our projections and reality, the recognition of when we are projecting and our mistaken belief in those projections. All of this is to be accomplished without being judgmental. For example, “I thought you were going to help me with that and you didn’t,” or “I thought that you were going to do it correctly, and you didn’t.” In our work, we assigned a task to someone with the expectation that they would do it well and they didn’t. What do we do? We do it ourselves. Do we get angry with the person? It doesn’t help. Don’t give them a similar assignment in the future or teach them how to do it correctly. Deal with reality. We get upset because of our expectation that the person will do it correctly without any guidance. We can hope that they will; that’s different. With no expectations there are no disappointments.
When we want to follow the line Commit not anything negative at all, we need to recognize when we are acting, speaking or thinking in a way that is under the influence of disturbing emotions. The definition of a disturbing emotion is a state of mind that, when developed, causes us to lose peace of mind and self-control. When we get angry, we don’t have peace of mind and we say and do things that later we regret. When we are greedy or clinging to someone, it’s not a peaceful state of mind, and we say things that later we consider to be quite ridiculous. Often, it chases the other person away because of being too demanding and clinging.
We need to recognize when we are acting under the influence of a disturbing emotion. When we become a little bit sensitive to our own energy, we can feel that we are a bit nervous when there is some underlying hostility or grasping. These destructive and disturbing emotions come from our ignorance, our unawareness. We are unaware of cause and effect. It’s not that we are stupid; we are unaware that things come from cause and effect and we are unaware that our projections don’t correspond to reality.
The Seven-Point Mind Training states succinctly:
Place all the blame on one thing, self-cherishing.
This means that we are always grasping for things to go our way, the way we would like them to be. It’s the “me first” attitude: “The way that I project and expect things to go should be the way that it is.” Blaming our problems on such attitudes is very helpful advice. Examples are: “I wanted this restaurant to be perfect,” or “I wanted this evening to be perfect,” or “I wanted you to act like this toward me.” This is coming from “me, me, me.” We are only thinking of me and not you. We aren’t thinking that someone might have had a difficult day or be preoccupied with something else. It’s just about “me” and what we want. These are the types of issues that we want to focus on and change in our daily lives. The Buddhist outlook on life is that the blame for all our problems is self-cherishing. This means being selfish and self-centered. This isn’t suggesting that we totally ignore our needs, but rather not to take our needs as the only thing that matters and ignore the needs of others. This is a very basic approach.
To splendidly enact what is constructive means to act with understanding and without being angry, greedy or needy. We want to avoid being someone who needs approval and always needs attention. When we act under the influence of those attitudes, we cause trouble, don’t we? We make unrealistic demands on others and we are disappointed. To act constructively means to act without that. This doesn’t mean that on the deepest level we have achieved a true stopping of these disturbing emotions and attitudes; but that we are able to not act under their strong influence.
Life Is Our Training Ground
We don’t want to be naive and not recognize the qualities of others. We need to recognize that just as we have feelings, others have feelings too. Just as we don’t like to be rejected or ignored, others also don’t like to be ignored or rejected. These are the realizations that we need to apply to our lives. To do this, we need to fully subdue our own minds, as it states in the third line of the prayer.
It’s very helpful to look at our lives as training grounds. This is what the practice is all about. It certainly isn’t limited to sitting on a cushion in a beautiful environment with candles, incense, silence and definitely no crying babies.
Once I went to a Buddhist center where a student of mine was teaching, and someone had brought their two-year-old. The two-year-old was running around in the teaching room while the session was going on. What do we expect from a two-year-old – that they will sit perfectly still for an hour and a half? The teacher pointed out that bringing the toddler to the class was perfect; it was a wonderful challenge to have this little child running around and making a lot of noise while we’re trying to meditate. This is the real practice. Can we practice and not be upset or distracted? It doesn’t mean that the parent doesn’t pay attention to avoid the child getting hurt. But can we do practice with loud traffic noise outside, or even when we’re stuck in traffic?
This is life, and life needs to be the area of practice, the real battleground against our ignorance, unawareness and disturbing emotions. In A Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems, Atisha states it so clearly:
When in the midst of many, let me keep a check on my speech. When remaining alone, let me keep a check on my mind.
This is very helpful. When we are with others, watch how we speak to them. It isn’t just the words but also the tone of voice, the emotions, and the attitudes behind them. If we find that we are speaking with hostility or arrogance, notice it and tone it down. It’s the same thing with our minds when we are alone. Watch for what we are thinking, the whole “poor me, no one appreciates me” syndrome.
This leads to the point in the Seven-Point Mind Training where it states that there are three difficult things: to be mindful of the opponents – mindful means to remember them – mindful to apply them and mindful to maintain them. These are the most difficult and important things to be mindful of. We hear about mindfulness practice, but this doesn’t mean, as it’s understood in the Western context, that we are just to be in the present moment. The word “mindfulness” is the word meaning to remember. We need to remember that what we are projecting is garbage and then apply this realization and keep it up. That is the real practice in daily life.
Non-Conceptual and Conceptual States
We hear all this Buddhist advice about being non-conceptual and not to be conceptual. What does that mean? Of course, we could recite a very technical definition and analysis of that; but if we look at it on a practical level, what we’re aiming for is not to have to think about these things in order to apply them. In a situation where we missed a flight or a train, the aim is to not have to think about impermanence, and how everything is affected by causes and conditions, and that if we get angry it’s going to be unhelpful. We may need to think about these points as a first step; but what we want is for it to become automatic. We won’t have to think about it; it’s just there. Automatically, we don’t over-react and are flexible instead.
This is what we are aiming for. It’s not some mystical state. Maybe this isn’t the full deep non-conceptual state, but in a non-technical way, this is what we are practicing to achieve. We practice to be able to integrate all these teachings into our lives in order to avoid creating more and more suffering for ourselves and others. That’s what it’s all about.
When to Be Flexible in Pursuing a Plan
I want to think that I’m flexible and want to face reality, but it isn’t always so true. One problem I face in knowing reality is when to give up and when to not give up holding onto a plan, knowing what can and cannot be changed. For example, I missed the train and ran off, took a taxi, and caught the train at the next station. How do we judge when it’s useful to try to fight for our plan?
There are several factors involved in regard to pursuing a plan or giving it up. We have to see if there are alternatives and if it can be changed, such as your example of taking a taxi and catching the train at the next station. If there are no taxis available, then we would have to give up. That’s an example on a practical level. But on another level, let’s say we applied to get into a school and we get rejected this year. Do we give up, or do we apply again the following year? We have to evaluate. There is nothing negative about applying next year if we don’t get accepted anywhere else. That entails analysis of the situation as to what is realistic. Are we exaggerating our abilities and qualifications or not? We need to ask other people’s opinions as well.
Each individual choice requires analysis; there isn’t one patented answer that covers everything. We need to examine what accomplishing our aims depends upon, because things arise due to causes and conditions. Can those causes and conditions be met? If they can’t be met now, is there a possibility that they can be met in the future? Are there alternatives? We need to approach these decisions and changes in a very rational manner.
Being a Very Emotional Person
It is new to me to see how I keep myself in a suffering loop. I try to remember that my projections aren’t rational, but my feelings are different, and I keep falling back. What can I do to practice not devaluing myself, because remembering is difficult now?
Often, we know what would be helpful and what would be best, but our emotions are so strong that it’s difficult to actually do anything about it. It’s actually a very common occurrence. We need to try to be more decisive, meaning to be convinced that although I might get very emotional and upset and so on, that this is not something that I’m going to take so seriously.
It’s important not to misunderstand what this means. We can be very upset or moved by something; but these things pass. Moods and emotions pass and change. We don’t want to grasp onto them and identify with them. We shouldn’t think, for example, “I am so upset because I messed up again and didn’t live up to my expectation. I’m no good.” Thinking that way, we are identifying with the mood and so we hold onto it. We consider what we feel to be so important or special, but it’s not. It’s just a passing mood. We need to become convinced that it isn’t really what we want. We need to be convinced that this mood will pass and then let it pass. Deep down we understand that it was an unrealistic expectation that we had. We feel hurt, but that hurt will pass. We don’t take that hurt so seriously as if it were the end of the world.
Traditionally, a mood can be described as a cloud in the sky and it will pass. That’s really the only way to begin to deal with it. Also, we need to realize that emotions are going to go up and down. Some of us are much more emotional than others and, okay, we don’t have to be judgmental about it. It’s part of accepting reality. The reality is that this is where we are at now; we can be very emotional and get upset easily, but we don’t have to hold onto it. Work more and more on becoming convinced about what reality is.
For example, “I went to this retreat and thought I would have wonderful concentration, but my mind wandered throughout the entire thing.” Okay. So we had an unrealistic expectation. Of course, the mind is going to wander and, of course, it won’t be great yet. Lower the expectation and feel sincere about that. For example, “I can achieve the highest level, but it’s not going to come without depending on cause and effect. I have to put in the hard work.”
Also, if we are very emotional, that tendency can be transformed and used for generating positive emotions. In that case we are able to feel stronger love and compassion. In this sense, it is a positive thing to be emotional. After all, there are some people who are very rational and it’s very hard for them to feel any emotion. For them, it’s very difficult to really feel love and compassion. If you are a very emotional person, something positive is already there, and it’s a matter of transforming it. That will gradually happen if you apply cause and effect.
Working Outside our Comfort Zones
We do all this training and we also see that there is a need for people to take responsibility in many situations in society. When do we know if we are ready to step up in this way to go out of our comfort zones and deal with things that would challenge us emotionally?
This has to do with what is constructive or destructive. To go out of our comfort zone to go to a bar, for example, and hang out with drunken people might not be constructive. We can say that a bodhisattva would go to hell to help the beings there, but that might be a bit drastic for someone like us. But to go out of our comfort zone to do something constructive, like saying some kind words to a homeless person on the street, is something different.
The first thing that we need to differentiate is how helpful the situation out of our comfort zone might be in terms of what we are trying to accomplish. Some young people might go to a club and dance to techno music all night until the morning. Would it be of any benefit for us to go out of our comfort zone and do that? It is going out of a comfort zone, but there isn’t anything positive to it, unless we are trying to overcome our negative judgmental attitudes. But we can work on overcoming them without dancing until the morning and become deaf from the volume of the music. However, there are other things that might be out of our comfort zones, such as working with refugees. To go out of our comfort zone to work with them would be constructive and positive and help with our development of generosity.
In Berlin, I have a small weekly discussion class. We are all friends and we go out together for a meal after class. I posed the question of how the Dharma helps them in their daily life. One of my students in the class said that he was making an effort to go out of his comfort zone, explaining that he tends to pay more attention to and become closer to people who are good looking. In a sense, he considered them to be more important than others. So, he made a point to befriend someone at work who was extremely obese, with some weird thing on their face and who wasn’t attractive. He wanted to really see that this was a human being who wants to be happy, to be liked, and doesn’t want to be disliked or ignored. This person could turn out to be a new great friend, a gem. He decided not to ignore this person. That is a very good example of something positive in regard to going outside of our comfort zones. Things like that are very do-able. If we are going to go beyond our normal limits, do it in steps that are possible and not inaccessible.
Another friend went to an extreme. He likes to go out of his comfort zone all the time, so for example he would hang out with junkies selling drugs in the park. He did it because it was uncomfortable to be with these people. I don’t really see any benefit in that. It’s almost a macho type of demonstration to do that.
It’s an interesting question about how to go out of our comfort zones and what does our comfort zone really mean. How much of a projection is it to think that inside our comfort zone is where we feel safe? What is a comfort zone? That is something to analyze in ourselves. Can we become comfortable in any situation with any type of person?
The key to that is to place the blame on one thing: self-cherishing. When we are uncomfortable with others or situations, it is because we are thinking about “me, me, me.” We think, for example, “I don’t like this, and I can’t handle it,” we aren’t thinking about the others. It’s a matter of taking interest in others and seeing that we are all human beings.
These are some very basic principles. If we can stop being so selfish and self-centered, we will be happier. When we’re with another person, instead of only talking about ourselves, if we show sincere interest in that other person and ask them about their lives, we will be much happier, and certainly the other person will be happier as well. These are basic and practical changes in our ways of dealing with life and with others. To remember this is the mindfulness we want to achieve. We try to remember to apply this advice when we are being selfish or only thinking about ourselves. The other person, for example, is busy and wants to leave, but we just keep talking. We are thinking that what we have to say is so important. Does the other person really want to hear it? No, but we project that they do. Life is where we need to apply the Dharma.