getting unstuck

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Climbing a cliffSome years ago, two friends took me rock-climbing in Colorado. I’d only ever climbed with ropes once before, and that had been many years earlier, so really I was a complete beginner. And nervous.

I found myself suspended half-way up a cliff, in a state of anxiety, with my friends shouting encouragement from below. My breathing was tight, my heart was pounding, and my limbs felt weak and shaky, but I didn’t have time to think much about that. I was holding on to a narrow ledge that ran horizontally across the rock face — really it was more like a crease. The toes of my climbing shoes were precariously holding on to a couple of tiny nubbins that barely projected from the surface. It seemed like a miracle that I was able to hang on at all.

I looked up, and as far as I could see there was nothing but smooth rock all the way to the top. All I could see above me was a featureless expanse of cliff, with no hand- or toe-holds. I was only about a third of the way up, and it didn’t seem as if there was any way forward.

 If I hadn’t decided to change something I’d have remained stuck.  

My pride wouldn’t let me give up. I took a few deep breaths to steady my nerves and give myself time to think. I looked around, and realized that the only way I could move was sideways. That wasn’t going to take me closer to the top, but at least it was movement, and I’d rather move than stay frozen in fear and indecision. I decided to go for it, rather than remain in my paralyzed state. So I found another nubbin to dig my toes into, and began to inch my way to the left, my fingertips barely keeping a grip on the ledge.

Since moving sideways was all I could do, I did it. And once I moved and took another look at my situation, I could see a handhold above me that hadn’t been visible before. I reached for it, and managed to get a toe-hold so that I could boost myself up. Above me was another hand-hold, and another, and another, and soon there was a clear way to climb to the top of the cliff, which I did, “Like a rat up a drainpipe,” as one friend put it. It was hard to believe that this was the same rock-face that just a few minutes before seemed utterly unscalable.

And here’s the thing: if I hadn’t made that one earlier change in my position, my perspective would never have shifted and I’d never have been able to move forwards. If I hadn’t decided to change something — even though I doubted that what I was doing was going to help in any way — I’d have remained stuck.

 Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, is not part of what I do as a Buddhist.  

Sometimes, even if the way isn’t clear, you simply have to change something — almost anything — in order to see things from a different perspective. When we’re experiencing a “stuck” emotion, like despair, hopelessness, fear, or depression — those emotions that freeze us in place, unable to go forwards or back — sometimes we just have to try something new. We need to have the faith to take the first step.

And that means having faith in ourselves. And faith in the possibility that change is possible.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, and often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. This is not part of what I do as a Buddhist. And that’s quite proper.

Buddhism is not a “faith” in the sense that you have to assent to various unprovable claims. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal. That’s the attitude we should adopt if we are to follow the Buddha — not believe his words but to test the method that his words were attempting to communicate.

Once the Buddha was talking to a clan who were very confused about religious practice. The tribe — called the Kalamas — were in a similar situation to many of us in the West today. They were surrounded by competing religious and philosophical traditions. Due to the discovery of iron, society had been changing. The old religions — which said that the structure of society, with the priests at the top, naturally, was ordained by the gods — were on the defensive because the structure of society had changed, with the emergence of a powerful new class of merchants. Those same merchants had more time for leisure and for asking what life was really all about. And increasingly, new religious movements were taking root, often in the forests, where renunciates would cut themselves off from society in order to explore meditation and other practices (sometimes extreme ascetic ones).

 The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal.  

So the Kalamas were faced with trying to make sense of the competing claims of dozens of religious and philosophical teachings. Some said that adherence to the old ways of the god was the right thing to do — keep paying the priests to mutter mantras and the crops would grow and you’ll be blessed with many children. Others said that all comfort should be renounced. Yet others said that sensory pleasure was the highest good and that no opportunity for gratification should be passed up. And there were many other traditions, advocating ethical codes, worship practices, meditative exercises, and belief systems.

So when the Buddha was passing through, they took the opportunity to ask him some tough questions about how to decide which teachings were true and which false. The Buddha’s answer was extensive and involved some Socratic dialog, but the most important part was this:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

The Buddha wasn’t saying we should automatically reject tradition, scriptures, intuition, logic, etc. But he was saying that we need to submit these things to two tests:

1. Do teachings, when put into practice, lead to happiness and well-being. This doesn’t mean that we have to try out every teaching, because we can learn by observing others. But the important thing is to see whether or not teachings work in practice as tools for alleviating suffering, and for reducing craving, hatred, and delusion.

2. Are these teachings and practices praised by “the wise.” Now this is a tricky one, because who are the wise? Again, this comes back to experience. Who, in our observation, can generally be relied upon to give good advice? Who, in our experience, is generally reliable, trustworthy, and “walks the talk”?

In this teaching faith isn’t something that comes seems to come first. First is observation, reflection and practice (in short, experience), and then faith follows. We have to take the first step in order to get a sense whether the staircase actually leads anywhere. But in fact we need faith at the very beginning, even before we take the first step. When I was climbing, and found myself stuck, I had to have confidence that there was a possibility of climbing that cliff, and confidence that I could do it. In the absence of a clear way forward, I had to be open to seeing things from a new perspective, and that involved letting go of the handholds I had so that I could move on. In moving into the unknown there’s always a leap of faith.

 Enlightenment may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think.   

I’ve often thought of the Buddha’s teaching as being like a map. He outlines a spiritual journey, and of course without having trodden the path all the way to the end we can’t say for sure whether the map actually matches the territory. But if we’ve explored the lower reaches of the path and found that the map corresponds to our experience, then we start to have some confidence that the rest of the map might be accurate too.

In the beginning we may simply have some trust in the people who are teaching us meditation and speaking from their experience, while at the same time asking ourselves whether what we’re hearing rings true. But then we need to test things out for ourselves. And fairly quickly we can discover for ourselves that, yes, if we pay attention to the breath the mind settles down and we’re happier; yes, Buddhist ethical principles do make daily life more harmonious and satisfying; yes, there are five hindrances and the techniques for overcoming them do work; yes, there are meditative states that are focused, peaceful, and deeply refreshing, just as described in the texts and by our teachers.

And what about Awakening, Enlightenment? That may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think. When I had my first experience of non-self I was amazed by how easy and natural it was. There was no struggling for a breakthrough, just the gentle slipping away of a veil of delusion. I think if I’d realized how easy it was going to be it might have happened years earlier.

In many ways we’re conditioned to think of spiritual goals as being far off and almost beyond reach, and some later Buddhist teachings even suggest that it might take countless lifetimes to reach the end of the path. But in the earliest Buddhist scriptures people seemed to get awakened at the drop of a hat. Perhaps they were unburdened by expectations of how hard it was going to be. Perhaps they simply made a small shift in the way they were seeing things and found themselves with a new perspective — one that allowed them to go all the way to the top.

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Vajrapani: Breaking free

VajrapaniWrathful Vajrapani, the bold blue Buddha of energy, is helping Vajradevi to transform her demons.

A few years ago I was sitting in a London office one winter day as the rain came down in slick sheets. Lightning flashed across the low sky and, as the thunder suddenly crescendoed, a half-dozen car alarms shrieked out to the surprise of pedestrians. No-one had touched the vehicles. The unseen power of the thunder had set the alarms off. It seemed a mischievous reminder from nature of the power at her disposal.

It also brought to my mind Wrathful Vajrapani, the Bodhisattva of energy or power. This is the figure I took on as a focus of my visualization meditation practice when I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order. Vajrapani means “bearer or holder of the vajra” and one translation of the word vajra is thunderbolt. In Indian mythology the thunderbolt was the weapon of Indra, the chief of the gods, who used it to destroy spells or charms. Vajra can also be defined as: “denunciation in strong language – compared to thunder.”

It is easy to see how associations with thunder and with nature in general come to be associated with Vajrapani. When I try to sense the Transcendental that he embodies, all sorts of physical comparisons come to mind. I think of wild cyclones sucking up the earth and throwing down everything in their way: volcanoes vomiting boulders and liquid heat and submerging whole islands in their fiery spew; roaring waterfalls that are terrifying and beautiful in equal measure. These images make me aware of my smallness and insignificance, but something inside me is also thrilled at the possibility of meeting that power and eventually becoming it. In An Introduction to Tantra Lama Yeshe writes: “the West has discovered how to tap many powerful sources of energy in nature, but still remains largely unaware of the tremendous force, even more powerful than nuclear energy, contained within each of us. As long as this powerful internal energy lies undiscovered, our life is doomed to remain fragmented and purposeless, and we will continue to fall victim to the mental and emotional pressures so characteristic of our age.”

Vajrapani’s energy is not mere force, nor even power in a neutral sense. It is what the Buddhist tradition calls virya: “energy in pursuit of the good.” This means energy that is directed towards the goal of Enlightenment for all beings. It is energy that sees things as they really are rather than through the lens of the ego.

My connection with Wrathful Vajrapani started soon after I had begun to meditate, on a week-long retreat dedicated to him. I found Vajrapani visually intriguing. His body is heavy-set and he is deep blue. With his angry bulging eyes, matted brown hair and aura of flames, he was hardly beautiful but he was compelling. I remember being particularly fascinated by his huge blue belly.

Up to this point my knowledge of Bodhisattvas was limited to beautiful and refined peaceful deities, such as Tara and Amitabha. Vajrapani seemed unconventional to say the least. He wore a tiger skin (or sometimes an elephant hide) around his body. A live snake coiled around his neck. He held a vajra high above his head ready to use as a weapon. Vajrapani seemed to be “the Bodhisattva as Transcendental Thug” and I did not know what to make of him. His companions were a bunch of unlikely-sounding goddesses — Vajra-Hook, Vajra-Chain, Strong-Armed and Vajra-Army. He seemed more likely to have been at home in a heavymetal band or riding a 1,000 cc motorbike than residing in the sky, waiting to be visualized!

But the stories about him from various Buddhist scriptures caught my imagination. Through them come a sense of Vajrapani’s personal history. Unlike most Bodhisattvas his beginnings are humble. In his first canonical appearance (in the Pali Sutta Nipata) he starts out as a lowly yaksa (a kind of coarse sprite). In later texts he has been promoted to “the great general of the yaksas.” And later still he becomes one of the bodily forms of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Eventually he emerges as a Bodhisattva in his own right and in some scriptures he is also referred to as a fully Enlightened Buddha.

I like the progression of Vajrapani’s “life story.” As well as his associations with power, Vajrapani, like Vajrasattva, is connected with purity But while Vajrasattva represents purity achieved, or the essence of purity, Vajrapani is “the process of becoming pure.” The fallibility and humility in the stories about Vajrapani appeal greatly to me. He makes occasional mistakes, bears the consequences, and then continues his quest in service of “the good.”

According to one story, at one point Vajrapani was pure white. But while guarding the elixir of life for the peaceful Buddhas he became unmindful for a second, and the demons stole it. He wrestled back the elixir but the demons had defiled it by urinating in it. As a punishment Vajrapani was made by the Buddhas to drink the now poisonous liquid, and this turned him dark blue. Hence also his mudra (hand gesture) of “warding off demons.”

The first tale I ever heard about Vajrapani comes from The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. Vajrapani’s role is comparatively minor but he manages to make a strong impression.

Tarpa Nagpo (or Black Salvation) was a monk who was full of pride and arrogance. He used the Dharma to his own advantage, deliberately miscommunicating the teachings to amass power for himself. After he was found out and stripped of his robes, he joined his friends (ogres, brigands and demons of the twilight) and travelled around Tibet causing wars, famines and other calamities.

By doing all this, he created terrible karmic consequences for himself, and suffered highly unfavorable rebirths. These included 500 rebirth as, respectively, a nimble worm, a wandering mastiff, a sucker of toes and an eater of vomit! Finally he was reborn “with neck and shoulders rotten” as a “pus ghost” named “Eager to make inquiry.” He took rebirth again as Rudra (or “He who devoured his mother”) and, not in the least deterred by his three-headed vile form, he continued spreading chaos and devastation throughout the world

The peaceful deities were at a loss to know what to do. Rudra was beyond their reach. They decided that Rudra needed to be dealt with by “force and restrain” so Vajrapani and Hayagriva (also known as Horsehead and Swine-face) were called up. Vajrapani climbed up Rudra’s urethra and Hayagriva into his anus. They met somewhere in the middle, and Rudra, the force of negativity and destruction, was subjugated and brought under the power of the good.

In his lecture Breaking through to Buddhahood (MP3 or PDF), Sangharakshita comments that the spiritual life may involve inner forcefulness. This idea, he suggests, is not a popular one. But if we are to break through to the Unconditioned, sometimes violence towards recalcitrant aspects of ourselves is necessary. At these times, love is just not enough. This is where Vajrapani comes in. He is not going to seduce us into the spiritual life with his beauty. He is there to help us to force our way through intractable bad habits and psychological traps. Whatever demons we have within us, Vajrapani is equal to them all. He presents a fierce, raw face of reality, and something deep within me resonates with that. He often shocks me — sometimes into laughter that opens me up to seeing myself a little more clearly.

In another text Vajrapani’s unconventional methods are described in a teaching to Tsong Khapa and Karmavajra. He gives a long discourse on dealing with hindrances to meditation, which ends with a vivid and unexpected tip. “If you want to avoid the pitfalls (of distraction) whack the pig on the snout with a club!”

Vajrapani’s mantra — om vajrapani ah hum — is deep, untuneful and resolute. It has a mysterious sound. Sometimes when I chant it, I imagine that the mantra is hurtling along the corridors of the universe, revealing glimpses of his immeasurable power. Perhaps, I feel, I can hear an echo of his heartbeat, or see a faint blue light that will pass within light years of his huge, golden vajra. When meditating on his figure, I listen for the sound of the dust that is moved by his magnificent footsteps.

Vajrapani is unpredictable. You never know what he might do, because he is associated with the wisdom that goes beyond the rational mind. He is also associated with the Tantra. Tantra means both the movement of energy and direct experience. The tantric tradition of spiritual practice is concerned with looking beyond the realm of the conceptual to the non-rational. Through the non-rational we can experience ourselves directly as pure energy or pure awareness that is unmediated by concepts.

Most of our energy is unconscious. We are like icebergs — largely submerged, with just a visible tip. In opening up to Vajrapani we look to make the remainder conscious, awake, and working in support of our desire to grow and change.

Vajrapani is sometimes portrayed as the Buddha’s protector — or the protective aspect of the Buddha. Some sutras recount people arguing with the Buddha, or insulting him. Vajrapani can be found hovering in the air above the Buddha, his vajra raised threateningly, just waiting to split open the person’s head.

Vajrapani mourningEven Vajrapani’s tenderness is frequently portrayed in terms of his might. When the Buddha died, it is said that: “letting fall his vajra in despair, Vajrapani rolled himself in the dust.” It is as if the earth shuddered from the weight of the fallen vajra — and from Vajrapani’s grief.

Sometimes I find things that help me to deepen my connection with Vajrapani in unexpected places. Recently I was in Barcelona and was introduced to some buildings designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. The spontaneity, creativity and freedom in the buildings brought Vajrapani to my mind. The exultant playfulness in Gaudi’s placing of a bunch of grapes or an ice-cream cone in marble perched on top of a fish-scaled roof is reminiscent of Vajrapani’s willingness to go anywhere or do anything in pursuit of the good.

A friend, who was formerly a Quaker and is now a Buddhist, told me of a label that was given to her by Quaker friends: Holy Boldness. I immediately thought of Vajrapani. It is him to a tee. I love the contradiction in the words and their suggestion of irreverence. Holy Boldness is vigorous, brave and pure. I want to develop Holy Boldness. I want to be like Vajrapani.

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Elizabeth Appell: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”

Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton)I sometimes think that my life has proceeded by way of a series of breakdowns and reconstructions. Such episodes haven’t exactly been frequent in my life, but they have represented important turning points. There have been three times I can recall where I’ve hit emotional bottom, learned something important about myself, and found a release that led to significant growth taking place.

In each case there had been a long period of holding on to some pattern that had been causing me pain (usually unacknowledged). I’d been a tightly-closed bud. This was followed by a catalyzing event (in each case it involved being on retreat) in which I became fully aware of the pain I’d been causing myself. The pain of remaining closed became too much. Then there was a grand finale of emotional release and a spiritual awakening into greater wholeness and well-being. The bud opened, albeit painfully. Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton)’s quotation* — “…the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” — seems to perfectly encapsulate that process.

  …to my surprise, I found myself overcome by emotion. I’d try to say something and the words would get stuck in my throat, turning into inarticulate sobs.  

I realized how important friendship was to me a few years after taking up Buddhist practice. I was on a retreat which had the theme of spiritual friendship (coincidentally the theme of last month’s blog). As part of the retreat we studied a series of talks on the theory and practice of friendship, or kalyana mitrata, and we also spent time with each other, as we do in my tradition, getting to know one other and developing friendships. (It’s not like that in all Buddhist traditions — sometimes retreatants are not allowed to talk to each other or even to make eye contact). All of that was great — the part of the retreat I was anxious about was where we were going to talk in small groups about the spiritual friendships in our lives.

Basically I thought that it just hadn’t happened for me — that spiritual friendship just wasn’t a significant part of my life. I mentioned the word anxiety in relation to this part of the retreat, but it wasn’t the terror of public speaking or the nervousness one experiences about revealing oneself to relative strangers that I was experiencing, it was more a kind of embarrassment at not having anything to say, while everyone else (I imagined) would.

The evening arrived when it was my turn to “share” and I started off by apologizing that I wasn’t going to be able to say much. But there were a few people who had helped me or attempted to befriend me, to various degrees of success, and I thought that I should at least say something about them. And to my surprise, I found myself overcome by emotion. I’d try to say something and the words would get stuck in my throat, turning into inarticulate sobs. I’d collect myself, let the emotion subside to the point where I could speak once again, and the same thing would happen again. And again.

Loneliness became my defense against loneliness.

I realized a number of things. I’d remained tight in a bud. I’d come to Buddhist practice because of painful experiences in which I’d lost friends and experienced loneliness and suffering. Those experiences revealed the world to be an unreliable place, and I was looking for a spiritual tradition that emphasized looking within for happiness. I thought that with Buddhism I’d found a way to close myself off from the world. A famous Buddhist saying was “Fare lonely as a rhinoceros horn.” And inspired by this kind of thinking I’d been resistant to opening up to friends. I was guarded and wary, and suspicious of looking outside of myself for happiness and wellbeing.

The isolation I was imposing upon myself created a deep sense of loneliness, but I managed to avoid acknowledging those feelings. After all I didn’t want to take the risk of developing and losing friends again. Loneliness became my defense against loneliness. So remaining tight in a bud was painful. But not painful enough to make me change.

It was in the very act of communicating with others that I came into a more intimate contact with myself.

It took two weeks spent on retreat, reflecting upon friendship — and more importantly experiencing friendship in the form of the small group in which we were sharing our stories — before I could really start to experience the pain of the closed bud. I always think it’s very significant that it was in the very act of communicating with others that I came into a more intimate contact with myself, that the moment in which I started to open up to others was the moment in which I opened up to myself and acknowledged my pain.

But the bud was now opening.

Difficult though it was to experience the pain that I’d managed up to that point to avoid, there was also a sense of the light finally making its way into the heart of the bud. I experienced gratitude towards those who had been kind to me in the past and who had tried to be a friend to me. And I could see how I’d limited myself, and how I could no longer keep doing that. I’d seen the risk of remaining tightly closed, and it wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take. I’d been stuck, but now (for a time at least) I was unstuck, free, an open and opening bud.

And in that moment, as I sat in a circle, I realized that I was being fully accepted. No one was judging me. No one was thinking less of me for having been a closed bud, or for having shown my vulnerability. Instead they were quietly and compassionately being there for me. We were a circle of opening buds, all of us having decided that the risk of remaining closed to each other was greater than the risk of opening up. We were open to each other, blossoming. And the reward of that was more than worth the pain of having opened up.

* This quote was originally attributed to Anais Nin, but it appear that these words are not found among her works and that the quote was actually composed by Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton). You can read the story here.

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The truth of not suffering: The Buddha’s teachings on happiness

balloonsThe Buddha’s teaching on suffering does not say that we have to accept all of our unhappy circumstances. For those living the lay life, his advice was to look after ourselves and seek abundant happiness.

Let’s say you’re in a job or a relationship that isn’t really working for you, but it’s not so horrible that you have to flee. It’s a comfortable routine and provides security, and you can name a whole bunch of reasons why it’s a perfectly good place to stay. But you’re dissatisfied. Feeling a bit stuck. Like you’re not going anywhere. Oh well, I hear you say. Life is suffering, right? We have to learn to accept what is.

Yes, that is the gist of the Buddha’s famous teaching on suffering in the Four Noble Truths. He said that it’s an inevitable part of human existence to encounter pain and disappointment, and we need to learn to accept that. Yes, these are very wise words, but do they really apply here? All too often I’ve seen people use this teaching to justify staying needlessly stuck in unhappiness, and therefore miss reaching their true potential.

So let’s take a look at another teaching from the Buddha that might shed a different light on the situation.

“If by renouncing a limited happiness one would see an abundant happiness, let the spiritually mature person, having regard to the abundant happiness, sacrifice the limited happiness.”1

So this suggests that the Buddha might ask you to consider picking yourself up and going after a more “abundant happiness.” How does this square with the idea of accepting one’s suffering? Well let’s examine your situation more closely. Imagine for a moment that you’re in a new job or relationship, completely free of the things that are making you unhappy right now. Close your eyes and really put yourself in that scene so you get a good visceral sense of what it might be like. How does it make you feel? Free? Joyful? Energetic? And with all those positive feelings, how likely will you be to start something new, take on new challenges, and grow? And how likely will you be to share this positive energy with others?

The Buddha’s teaching on suffering is that we need to accept the things we can’t control, such as loss, sickness, aging, and death. But for things we can affect, he advised that we change our conditions so that they’re more conducive to our happiness and spiritual growth. So which seems like the better choice now? Staying with your current situation, or picking yourself up to go after a more “abundant happiness”?

At this point, I often hear another counterargument that casts doubt once again. Isn’t it selfish to go after my own happiness? Shouldn’t I be working for the good of others? Isn’t it better to stay in my job (or relationship) where I know I’m valued and would cause some harm if I left?

My reply to this question is to remind you of the Metta Bhavana meditation practice, and how the first stage is on cultivating loving-kindness for oneself. The implication I draw here is that if we’re not in a positive frame of mind, we are less likely to be at our best. We’re also less likely to be fully open-hearted, and make the contribution to others that we are fully capable of. So why settle for a lesser happiness for myself AND a lesser potential to help others? Helping others does not require us to sacrifice ourselves. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. There are plenty of ways in which we can help others AND ourselves at the same time. Doesn’t it seem worth the effort to look for them?

I’d like to bring in one more teaching from the Buddha here, one that reinforces the idea that it’s spiritually healthy to look after oneself. The scene is an intimate moment between King Pasenadi and his wife, Queen Mallika. The king asked his queen if there was anyone more dear to her than herself. She had to admit there wasn’t. And the King, when asked the same question in return, had to admit the same. Later on, the King relayed this conversation to the Buddha, who responded,

“Searching all directions
with one’s awareness,
one finds no one dearer
than oneself.
In the same way, others
are fiercely dear to themselves.
So one should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.”2

So you’ll note that the Buddha, far from rebuking them for selfishness, took their realization and turned it into a spiritual teaching. By holding ourselves dear, we can more deeply understand why we shouldn’t hurt others. By loving ourselves, we can more fully appreciate how to relate compassionately to others. Throughout the scriptures, the Buddha consistently taught that it is wise to look after oneself and one’s own spiritual progress, as long as it causes no harm to others.

To close, I’d like to say that each person’s situation is unique, and has its unique challenges and rewards. So I don’t mean to imply that everyone in all cases should jump for the supposedly greater and more abundant happiness. There could be many valid reasons to stay where you are, and sorting all that out is the work of mindful inquiry. My main intent in writing here is to help you avoid staying in an unhappy situation for the wrong reasons.

So I leave you with a question. What’s really keeping you where you are? Is there some objective reason (like needing the income) that rightfully keeps you there? Or is it fear of change? I’d like to challenge you to find out the real issues underneath it all.

1. The Dhammapada, verse 290 (chapter 21, verse 1). Translation by Sangharakshita, available for free download at

2. Udana 5.1. Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, available at Access to Insight.

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