Throughout our lives we have the thought of ourselves in terms of “me” and “my life.” We’ve experienced this the entire span of our lives, not just one year of it, and because we’re not some rigid, solid blob that can’t be affected by anything, we’ve been influenced by it all. To have a realistic view of ourselves, we need to think of everything we’ve experienced, and all of the influence from our family, friends, society and so forth. To think of ourselves as just a small portion of our lives is not at all accurate. The idea here is to integrate all the various aspects of our life so we have a holistic view.
Looking at this in terms of the theoretical basis, we saw that we have both negative and positive influences. Although it’s important not to deny the negative ones, there’s also no benefit in complaining about and dwelling on them. It’s much better to emphasize the positive influences we’ve had. All of this can be presented without even mentioning the word “Buddhism” at all, as it falls under the categories of Buddhist science and philosophy.
Gaining Inspiration from Others
Another aspect of the theoretical basis is that everyone needs some sort of inspiration. We all have good qualities to some extent, and these might be natural talents that we have, or taught to us by others. We need inspiration to encourage us to develop these good aspects even further. This type of training makes us think of the various influences over our lifetime, putting the emphasis on the positive qualities from others, our environment, society, culture and so forth. That way, we gain inspiration from them.
We can use the example of our mothers. There are undoubtedly certain good qualities from our mother that we ourselves have, so would try to discover these. We should also try to think of her other good qualities that might not be so obvious from their effects on us. For instance, depending on our age, our parents might have lived through war or some other really difficult times, and it’s very inspiring to think how they dealt with that.
When looking at the various influences on us, we think not only of the positive qualities that we gained from them, but even those that were perhaps not so directly transmitted, like their courage in wartime. When we start to see the positive in others, it helps us to build a positive attitude toward ourselves. If we have very low self-esteem, then to remember all of the positive things we’ve received from others makes us realize that we’re not so bad after all. If we have some positive qualities and wish for these to grow, we can also think that we have something to offer others in terms of sharing them, which helps to build self-confidence. When we have compassion, wanting to help others overcome their difficulties with the realization that “I do have good qualities and it’s something I can share with others,” then we realize that we’re not terrible at all.
This last bit comes from Buddhist teachings on how we relate to a spiritual teacher. Our attitude here should be to discover and emphasize the good qualities that the teacher has and to regard them with a sense of confidence that it’s possible to achieve. On the basis of this, we generate great respect for the teacher, and when we think of their kindness in teaching us, we develop a strong sense of appreciation. We then try to develop the good qualities that the teacher has ourselves through the inspiration of their example. We can do this with everyone we’ve met, trying to see their good qualities and respecting them on that basis. Like I mentioned before, we can imagine a yellow light coming from them, inspiring us.
Exercise: Thinking about the Influence of Our Mother
A good place to start is with our mother, but you can also start with your father. It doesn’t matter as you’ll do both eventually. We start with those who actually raised us.
First of all we need to quiet down. We let go of all the thoughts and feelings that are going on, and try to quiet our minds. We can do this by focusing on the breath, breathing perfectly normally through the nose, assuming you don’t have a stuffy nose, not too fast and not too slow. If recurring thoughts and emotions come up, try to let them go. Because the breath is usually quite calm and regular, concentrating on it helps to calm us down.
People often think you have to meditate when you have your eyes closed, but this is not actually recommended. While it might be easier to quiet down with them closed, nevertheless, because we want to be able to be calm and quiet in everyday situations, having our eyes closed could be a hindrance. If, for instance, you’re driving and want to calm down, it’d be better not to have to close your eyes! Usually, it’s better to keep the eyes relaxed, slightly open, and looking down.
Then we think: “I’m a human being. I, like everyone, want to be happy, and want to avoid unhappiness. I have feelings, like everyone else. If I think negatively about myself, it makes me feel bad. Since I don’t want to be unhappy, it’s good if I can find a way to be a happier person.”
Mentally, we then picture our mother. It doesn’t need to be precise, but just hold the idea of something that represents her. If necessary, we can recall her shortcomings, see that they have arisen from causes and circumstances, and that there’s no benefit in dwelling on them. We don’t deny them, but we don’t exaggerate them, think that that’s just the way she is. Everyone has shortcomings, it’s normal. Just put aside any further consideration of them.
To give an example, my mother had a very low level of education. She had to go to work very early and could never help me with my school work. That’s a shortcoming, but it wasn’t her fault: she grew up during the economic depression, her family was very poor, and she simply had to work. I need to understand that, and put it aside. That’s the reality, it’s no big deal.
Then we can think of our mother’s good qualities, focusing on these aspects with firm conviction. We see the benefits that we derived from her, even the simple ones like her preparing food for us every single day when we were children. Looking at all of this, we focus on it with deep appreciation and respect.
Imagine that a yellow light comes from our mother, fills us with yellow light, and we feel inspiration to develop the qualities further. We feel uplifted, and imagine that this light shines from us, inspiring others to develop these good qualities themselves. We then settle down again, focus on the breath, ending with the thought, “May this positive feeling go deeper and deeper, get stronger and stronger, so that it can be of best benefit to myself and everyone that I encounter.”
Further Applications of This Holistic Approach
With this holistic approach, we’re trying to deconstruct a solid view that we have of our life. We don’t want to get stuck on one event, identifying with that and not thinking of the larger context of our entire life. For example, your relationship with someone broke up and you think that you’re never ever going to find another partner again. If you think of an entire life span, chances are you will find somebody else, and you probably had other girlfriends or boyfriends earlier in your life. By fixating and inflating this one incident of the break-up, you’re taking things out of context. It’s important to see things in the larger context.
Further, when a relationship breaks up, and you might think, “It’s all my fault. I’m the bad one. I’m a loser. Poor me.” But you have to see that everything that happens is influenced by a huge number of other factors. So there are the factors of everything else that’s going on in that other person’s life, their whole psychological makeup, and other things that have been going on in our lifetime as well that also have affected the relationship – my work, my family, etc., economics. So if you see the larger context, even using the image of a mandala if that’s helpful, then you don’t just isolate, “It was my fault and I’m the sole cause because I’m a bad person and no good. I don’t deserve to be loved” – that that was the reason why it broke up. You also don’t place the blame entirely on the other person as being the bad one. The break-up occurred for a network of reasons and influencing factors.
Dealing with the Negative Influences We’ve Received
In dealing with a negative influence, we certainly need to acknowledge its harmful effect, but it’s crucial not to emphasize it and dwell on it. The difference is whether you exaggerate it or not, so you try to be objective: “These are the shortcomings of the person. These are the strong points of the person (or of the country or of whatever). Everything and everyone has shortcomings and weak points, as well as strong points. That’s normal.”
Now, of course you could do a whole analysis of why your parents, for instance, have the shortcomings they have: it’s because of their parents and all of that. But the point is to not identify them with just their negative qualities. Acknowledge them without exaggerating them. If you have some understanding of why they are like that, fine. If not, that’s not the emphasis in this type of exercise. You can do that in another context. And then just leave it. If we complain about the negative side, what good is that going to do? It’s certainly not going to make us happy. We don’t get inspiration from negative qualities; we get depression from dwelling on negative qualities.
But I don’t think it’s helpful to introduce the idea of forgiveness here, “I forgive my parents for the mistakes that they made.” That’s quite arrogant actually, that I am in such a high wonderful position that I will look down upon them and forgive them. Understanding and letting go is quite different from forgiveness.
Purifying Ourselves of Negative Influences
Apart from acknowledging, accepting, and letting go of dwelling on the negative influences we’ve received, we can apply the Buddhist purification method. The main problem we have with these negative influences is actually acting them out, like having a short temper. The purification process is like this:
- We first acknowledge what the problem is, our negative quality.
- We then feel regret, which is not the same as guilt. Guilt is feeling awful about ourselves and not letting this feeling go, whereas regret is wishing that we simply hadn’t committed a certain act.
- We then make a decision to really try not to repeat what we did.
- Then we reaffirm the direction we want to go in our lives, which is toward happiness by overcoming shortcomings. In the Buddhist context, this would be to reaffirm our intention to gain liberation and enlightenment.
- We then try to counteract the negative impulses by emphasizing our positive ones. The more familiar we are with our positive qualities, the earlier they will appear in our minds, rather than the negative ones, when we’re in a difficult situation.
Although this purification process derives from a Buddhist context, in no way does it need to be tied to Buddhism for it to be effective.
If the negative influences we’ve received are extreme, for instance from situations that involved being physically or sexually abused and so on, the various methods we’ve discussed are not appropriate. Other therapeutic methods are needed for dealing with extreme situations.
In general, the methods suggested in Buddhism are not really suited for people who are seriously emotionally disturbed. You need a fairly stable mind in order to apply the various methods, either within or outside of a Buddhist context. With this method, you’re bringing up old memories, which could be devastating for those who are very unstable. We shouldn’t think that Buddhist methods can be used for anybody in any situation.
Methods for People in Large-Scale Conflict Situations to Use
If we’re talking about a whole society that’s in conflict, this is obviously quite difficult. Buddhist methods need to be applied individually, and the only way to work on a larger scale is perhaps through the education system, by presenting a more balanced, objective view of history, society and so on.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes that introducing some sort of ethics into the basic education for children would be very helpful. This would be secular ethics, respectful of all religions, but not based on any single religion. It should be ethics based purely on biology, in that everyone responds positively to affection – the basic factor that you have between a mother and her baby. On this basis you recognize everyone as a human being, who wants to be happy, who likes to be treated nicely. In this we are all equal.
You learn to differentiate between a person and their actions or behavior. The behavior might be unacceptable, but that doesn’t mean the person is unacceptable. The person is still a human being. If your child is naughty, you disapprove of their behavior, but you don’t stop loving them. This is something that can be transposed toward everyone. This kind of thinking would help on a larger scale, but obviously would take a great deal of time and effort.
Practicing These Methods in a Group or As a Family
The methods we’ve introduced here can be practiced either individually or in a group. The advantage of practicing them in a group is that it provides a sense of discipline, and people can share their experience if they feel they are in a protected space, where other people won’t judge or laugh at them, which actually needs to be a ground rule. The group leader needs to have the skill to provide that protected space.
If the group that is practicing these methods is a family in family therapy, the therapeutic situation creates the protected space. Then, if each person could hear from the other members of the family the positive things that they have learned and gained from them, I think this could be very helpful. Especially if you have rebellious teenagers and the parents have the impression that, “They disapprove of everything that I do, and they hate me, and they just want to get away. They’re ashamed of me,” and so on, it can be quite healing if that teenager opens up and actually admits that there are some things about the parent that he or she likes and admires and has learned. The same thing would be the case with the parent in terms of what are the things that they admire in their children. It’s not just they’re always disapproving.
The therapist, then, needs to give the space in which each family member can analyze, contemplate, and think about the positive qualities of each of the other members of the family that they’ve benefited from, that they admire, that they feel positively about. Obviously that would be an adjunct to thinking of the difficulties within the family.
The Point at Which We Have Worked through Difficult Influences on Our Life
If there’s been a particularly negative influence in our life that has really affected us badly, we overcome it when we reach a state of what we can call “equanimity.” This is defined as a state of mind that is neither repelled, attracted, nor indifferent. We’re not angry about it or constantly thinking and dwelling upon it, nor do we totally ignore it.
When we can be completely open and relaxed about this negative influence, thinking that it’s simply a part of our history, like anything else, and that it was difficult but everyone has difficult times, then we don’t need to work on it anymore. Some people might describe this as acceptance.
We’ve all had negative influences, since we were born; this is normal, because humans aren’t perfect. While we do need to acknowledge these influences, there is no need to dwell on them because, simply put, doing so doesn’t bring any benefit to us. Instead, we can analyze and find the incredibly positive influences we’ve received, from our parents, from our culture and society and schooling and so on, to give us a more rounded view of ourselves. When we see that we have, to some extent, these good qualities ourselves, we gain a sense of confidence whereby we can try to improve and develop them, not just for ourselves, but ultimately to be of best benefit to others.