The Buddha

Dealing with resentment (Day 47)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Resentment is seductive. We assume on some level that it’s going to help us, but it doesn’t. It just causes us pain.

This is something that just about all of us need help with.

1600 years ago, a compiler of and commentator on Buddhist texts called Buddhaghosa put together an extraordinary “tool kit” of ways to deal with resentment. I was recently looking at this guidance, which is part of Buddhaghosa’s encyclopedic work on meditation, The Visuddhi Magga, or Path of Purity, and thought it was so fresh, well thought-out, and relevant that it was worth restating some of what he had to say.

Twelve techniques for getting rid of resentment

1. Lovingkindness practice

This one’s pretty obvious — if you’re a meditator at least. You can simply call to mind the person you’re resentful of, and cultivate good will toward them. We have a whole section of this site devoted to teaching the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice, so I won’t say much about that here, except that it does work! When I first started practicing meditation I had a lot of problems with resentment, and I was often surprised by how quickly my anger and resentment toward someone would just vanish.

2. Reflect that resentment is never justified

Buddhaghosa suggests that we “reflect upon the saw.”

This one needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a “Simile of the Saw” in the early Buddhist scriptures, where the Buddha says that even if bandits brutally sawed a person limb from limb, “he who entertained hate in his heart would not be one that carried out my teaching.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what the provocation is, hatred is never justified. The mind can go “but … but …” as much as it likes, but hatred remains a negative emotion that destroys our happiness, causes suffering for others, and prevents us from experiencing peace.

Pretty much all of us, though, carry around the idea that there’s such a thing as “righteous resentment.” And we assume that hatred is justified. We tell ourselves stories about how bad the other person is, and this seems to make it natural for us to hate them. What we’re not doing is taking responsibility for our ill will. It’s our interpretation of other people’s actions that makes us hate them. We cause our own hate.

Don’t take the parable of the saw literally. Of course (unless you’re an advanced practitioner of superhuman stature) you’d experience hatred toward an aggressor who was torturing you. That wouldn’t mean that you weren’t a Buddhist — but it would mean that in the moment of hatred you would not “be one that carried out [the Buddha’s] teaching.” The point of the parable is simply to undermine the idea of “righteous resentment.”

Incidentally, some Tibetan monks and nuns who have been brutally tortured by Chinese security forces have avoided developing hatred toward their tormentors by means of compassion — reflecting that their torturers are building up bad karma for themselves.

3. Winning the real battle

Hot on the heels of the advice to reflect on the parable of the saw is an admonition to reflect that in developing hatred you’re actually giving a person who hates you what they want. (This is assuming that the other person hates you, which isn’t always the case.)

What does a person who hates you want for you? Bad stuff, that’s what. Buddhaghosa points out that hatred makes you ugly, causes you pain, destroys your good fortune, causes you to lose your wealth (or not to create any, perhaps because you’re distracted), detracts from your reputation, loses you friends, and leads to a bad rebirth. This is all bad stuff.

Someone who really hated you might wish all these things on you, and here you are doing them to yourself! You’re handing your hater victory. You’re doing him or her a favor. And by getting angry at an angry person, Buddhaghosa says, you become worse than them, and “do not win the battle hard to win,” which is of course the battle with yourself, to remain happy and unruffled.

So basically, we reflect here that true victory can’t come from getting angry at an angry person. That’s defeat. Victory comes from remaining calm, loving, and equanimous.

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4. “Accentuate the positive”

Buddhaghosa suggests that we think about something positive in the other person, so that you can “remove irritation.”

This works, too. Resentment doesn’t like complexity. When you bear in mind someone’s good points — even things (dammit!) that we admire — it’s harder to keep the resentment going.

5. Develop compassion

But if you can’t think of anything positive about the other person, or if they truly don’t have any positive qualities (although that’s almost impossible) then you should develop compassion toward them. In Buddhaghosa’s world view, a person with no redeeming qualities is bound for the torments of the hell realms, and is therefore worthy of our compassion. I should stress that in Buddhism the hells are not permanent and are not punishments — they are simply places where we are reborn for a while as a result of our actions. Buddhist hells are a kind of “fat farm” where we burn off our bad karma.

6. Notice how you’re causing yourself suffering

As Ann Lamott points out, resentment hurts us. Buddhaghosa offers many reflections along those lines:

If another person has hurt us, why should we then hurt ourselves? In your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness, so why not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable? If another person has done something we disapprove of, then why do something (like getting angry) that we would also disapprove of? If someone wants you to get angry, why give them the satisfaction? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself. The thing you got angry about is impermanent and in the past. So why are you angry now?

He’s kind of unrelenting, that Buddhaghosa.

7. Reflect that all beings are the owners of their karma

This is a common reflection in Buddhism: all beings create their own actions (kamma) and inherit the consequences of those actions. The other person may have done things that are unskillful, and those actions will cause them suffering. So what’s the point of you doing exactly the same thing, by acting out of the unskillful state of resentment? It’s like picking up a hot coal to throw at the other person. You may hurt them, but you’re definitely going to hurt yourself.

The other person, if they are angry with you, is causing themselves pain. It’s like, Buddhaghosa says, them throwing a handful of dust into the wind. They may be aiming at you, but it’s their eyes that will end up smarting.

Reflecting in this way we can untangle our respective lives. The other person’s faults, real or imagined, are no longer an occasion for us to exercise our own faults.

8. Reflect on exemplars of patience

Buddhaghosa goes a bit over the top with this one, devoting almost as much time on this method of dispelling resentment as he does on all the others put together. His approach is to remind us of various past lives of the Buddha, or jataka tales, as they’re called. These are mythological stories about the Buddha’s previous lives, as he developed the qualities of compassion and wisdom that led to his awakening.

I’ve found that being in the presence of someone who is very patient causes me to let go of my resentments. I had a good friend in Scotland who I never — not once — heard say an unkind word about anyone. Sometimes I’d be bitching about someone else, and my friend would just come in with some wise and kind word about the other person’s life that would put everything in perspective and leave me feeling a bit petty about having ranted. Even now, just calling that friend to mind helps me evoke a sense of patience.

9. Reflect that all beings have been your dearest friends and relations in a previous life

I’m not big on past lives, or in belief in rebirth generally, but if you do take that kind of thing seriously, then Buddhaghosa’s advice is to remember that because of the beginninglessness of time, every being — including those you get most pissed off with — have been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, and daughter. When that person was your mother, they carried you in their womb, suckled you, wiped away your snot and shit, and generally lavished you with love. And we can reflect, Buddhaghosa says, thus: “So, it is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being one of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that rely on assuming that rebirth is a reality rather than a myth, or perhaps a metaphor, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each reborn in every moment. Each moment we die and are reborn.

Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth. In fact, each perception is a kind of birth. It’s the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each contact that we have with another being is part of this process. Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, even think or someone, a new experience arises and a new being is born. So in this way, all beings that we have contact with are our mothers. Each being we have contact with in this moment helps give birth to the being that exists in this moment. And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers.

10. Reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness

You can reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness, and how you’ll deny yourself those benefits by indulging in resentment. What are the benefits? Well, it’s worth reflecting on that through examining your own experience, but here’s Buddhaghosa’s list, which comes from the scriptures: You’ll sleep in comfort, wake in comfort, and dream no evil dreams. You’ll be dear to human beings and to non-human beings. Deities will guard you. Fire and poison and weapons won’t harm you (although that seems unlikely, to say the least). More plausibly, your mind will be easily concentrated. You’ll be reborn in a pleasant realm (or at the very least the future you that arises will have more a pleasant existence than the being that would have arisen had lovingkindness not been a part of its previous existence).

Some of these are plausible. There is scientific research showing that there are health benefits, and mental health benefits, from practicing lovingkindness meditation. Friendly people generally seem to have a more pleasant experience of the world, with less conflict and more fulfilling experience of others. You’ll deny yourself these benefits if you indulge in resentment. Resentment is the saturated fat of emotions, clogging the arteries of our happiness.

11. Break the other person into tiny pieces

Mentally (not physically!) we can dissolve the object of our resentment into various elements, asking ourselves what exactly we’re angry with. Is it the head hairs, the body hairs, the nails, the teeth, etc? Is it the solid matter making up that person, the liquid, the gas, the energy?

This might seem a little silly. In fact it seemed silly to me, right up to the moment that I tried it. There had been resistance to the idea, because I thought, “Well, of course I’m not angry with any of those things, I’m angry with them — with the person as a whole. But setting that resistance aside, and just reflecting on the bits that make up a person takes you away from the thought of them “as a whole” and you temporarily can’t be angry with them!

As Buddhaghosa says, “When he tries the resolution into elements, his anger finds no foothold, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle.”

He’s right.

12. Give a gift

This one’s delightfully straightforward and earthy. If you give the other person a gift — especially something you value — then you break the dynamic of your resentment. You shake things up within yourself. You have to think of the other person as a human being with needs. You have to think about what they might like. You stop your mind from going around and around in the same old rut of complaining. You have to let go of your damned pride. You have to take a risk. You have to make yourself vulnerable.

And giving to the other person changes the dynamic of the relationship. If there’s mutual resentment, then you may shock the other person into seeing you differently.

Buddhaghosa points out that giving naturally leads to kind speech:

Through giving gifts they do unbend
And condescend to kindly speech.

Of course you may be thinking something along the lines of, “Wait! I hate this person; why on earth would I give them something?”

But that just brings up another question. Do you want to end your resentment?

Well, do you?

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Compassion as an antidote for our own suffering (Day 45)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’ve often written about how experiencing compassion for ourselves can naturally spill over to experiencing compassion for other people. When someone says something that you find hurtful, that hurt is a form of suffering. Often what we do is try to become angry, ultimately in an effort to rid of the “cause” of the suffering (the other person) and thus remove the hurt. This is a kind of double aversion, because not only are we experiencing aversion to the person whose words gave rise to the feeling of hurt, but we’re turning away from the hurt itself.

A compassionate approach to dealing with hurt, on the other hand, is to drop both these forms of aversion: let go of the thoughts of anger the moment we become aware of their presence, and turn toward the hurt, with compassion. We train ourselves to “drop down” below the level of emotion and thought, down to the level of raw feeling — that ache, that bruise, that sense of having been “punched in the gut.” When we embrace our own hurt with a mind of compassion — when we wish it well, as we would with a dear friend who was in pain — there is no need for anger. Our anger becomes redundant, because its purpose is to deal with our hurt, and our hurt is now being dealt with much more effectively. And having empathized with our own pain, we can then feel empathy for the other person and have compassion for them. From turning toward our pain in this way to experiencing compassion for the other person often takes seconds.

But it works the other way around as well. Having compassion for others helps us to be more compassionate toward our own pain, to drop our aversion toward it, and to accept its presence with an even mind.

There’s a great illustration of this that comes from the Buddha’s life. There was a time when the Buddha was injured by a falling rock. Tradition has it that the rock was pushed down a hillside by the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, who desired to take control of the Sangha. The rock missed the Buddha, but a splinter flew off it and injured his foot severely, causing great pain. (I have to say, though, that the symbolism of Devadatta taking something whole and creating a splinter [group?] that hurt the Buddha seems too good to be true.)

So the Buddha, injured, and in agony, is lying down in a hut, mindful and alert, when he receives a visitor in the form of Māra, the Buddhist personification of doubt. And Māra taunts the Buddha about how he’s lying there in a stupor, unable to do anything, unable to fulfill his goals of teaching beings to liberate themselves, lying there as if he were a dreamer.

So you can imagine anyone, injured and in pain, unable to do what they loved, having this kind of doubt.

The appearance of Māra is interesting. As the personification of doubt, his presence implies that the Buddha was not entirely immune to those inner voices that taunt us that we’re not good enough. Those voices still arise for him, but he’s able to face them and send them packing. And that’s what happens in this case.

And the Buddha says something very interesting. He says, amongst other things: “I lie down with sympathy for all beings.”

And Māra realizes he’s defeated, and vanishes. The Buddha’s self-doubt vanishes. Doubt arise for the Buddha, but they can’t “infect” his mind. His clarity and mindfulness act as a psychological immune system.

So what about “I lie down with sympathy for all beings” makes it an effective immune response to protect the Buddha against suffering and doubt?

Well, when we’re in pain — when we’re lonely or sick, for example — we tend to assume that there’s something special about it, and about us. We’ve been singled out: “Why me?” We’ve been afflicted with an especially severe form of suffering: “This is terrible! I can’t bear it!” And these thoughts intensify our suffering.

But when we consider others’ sufferings — when we “lie down with sympathy for all beings” — we realize that we’re all in it together, and that many other people have it worse than we do. You have a cold? Someone else has just been diagnosed with cancer. You have cancer? Someone else has just learned that their child has cancer. When we recognize the commonness of suffering, and have sympathy and compassion for others’ pain, we can (once again) let go of our stories — let go of our thoughts and emotions — and drop down to the level of raw feeling, and have compassion for that pain too.

So having compassion for ourselves frees us up to have compassion for others, but having compassion for others can also free us up to have compassion for ourselves, and to bear with our suffering mindfully, and without aversion.

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How not to practice “idiot compassion” (Day 33)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Chogyam Trungpa borrowed from Gurdjieff the very useful notion of “idiot compassion.” Gurdjieff, a rather fascinating spiritual teacher of the early to mid-20th century, had said that we are all idiots of one kind or another, and his extensive lists of the various types of idiots included “the compassionate idiot.”

Compassion is wishing that beings be free from suffering. Idiot compassion is avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over you, not giving people a hard time when actually they need to be given a hard time. It’s “being nice,” or “being good.”

It’s not compassion at all. It ends up causing us pain, and it ends up causing others pain.

The more someone self-consciously thinks of themselves as compassionate, the more likely it is that they’re a compassionate idiot.

Idiot compassion lacks both courage and intelligence.

Idiot compassion lacks courage because “being nice” and “being good” are held to be the most important qualities we can manifest, and so we’re afraid to do anything that might make us unpopular. It’s not uncommon to see a related phenomenon, “idiot kindness,” in parents’ interactions with their children. Some parents want to be their children’s best friends, and don’t want to be unpopular. And so they indulge their children, giving them what they want and never disciplining them, or using very inconsistent discipline. But it’s not a parent’s job to be a BFF for their children. It’s their job to help bring their children up to be responsible adults.

Idiot compassion lacks intelligence, because it doesn’t lead to happiness or to freedom from suffering. If someone cheats you, and you immediately decide to trust them again, you’re not helping either them or you. The person who cheats you is unlikely to have a sudden conversion to being conscientious. Any easy promise they make to change their ways is likely to be just another form of cheating. And so by letting them off the hook you don’t help them. In fact you become an enabler of their dysfunctional behavior, and thus you’re helping them to suffer more in the future, when their unskillful behavior catches up with them. And you end up suffering as well. At some point either resentment against the cheat, or against themselves, is going to kick in.

True compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. Causing pain is not the same as causing harm, by the way. The Buddha talked about this in relation to speech, in an interesting dialogue with a prince named Abhaya.

Abhaya was the follower of a rival teacher, and he was sent to try to entrap the Buddha. He was to ask whether the Buddha would say words that were disagreeable to others. If the Buddha were to say he would say things that were disagreeable, then he would be accused of acting just like ordinary, unenlightened people. If he were to say he wouldn’t, then it would be pointed out that his words had in fact caused others to be upset. This was described as a “two-pronged question.” “When Gotama the contemplative is asked this two-pronged question by you,” Abhaya is told, “he won’t be able to swallow it down or spit it up.”

Of course the Buddha has no difficulty in avoiding this trap, and he turns the “two-pronged” metaphor to his advantage.

Now at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the prince’s lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince: If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”

“I would take it out, lord. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have sympathy for the young boy.”

So the Buddha leads Abhaya to recognize that it’s acceptable to cause pain in the short term if you want to save someone from long-yerm harm. And he goes on to say that:

In the case of words that the Tathagata [i.e. the Buddha] knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

And those are the only circumstances under which the Buddha would say something that he knew to be disagreeable.

So this is quite a tough order. What you say has to be true — not just your opinion, but actually true. This requires a great deal of mental clarity. What you say has to be beneficial — which implies that you have a good understanding of psychology and of the spiritual path, otherwise how can you know what it helpful? And you have to have an awareness of what’s the right time to say what needs to be said. This requires some empathy.

I don’t think it’s wise to say, though, that honest but critical communication should be avoided until we’ve attained some kind of near-superhuman state of wisdom. How do we learn when it’s beneficial and timely to tell the truth? How do we clarify whether we’re actually in possession of the truth? We learn by speaking, with as much courage, honesty, kindness, and wisdom as we can muster, and by reflecting on the consequences.

So ask yourself, “Am I avoiding conflict and calling it compassion? Am I afraid to be honest because I might end up being disliked? Am I letting people off the hook too easily? Am I setting myself up for resentment?” And if any of these is the case, muster your courage, and speak up, even if you make mistakes. The spiritual path is, as I like to say, the fine art of making mistakes.

Eventually this all becomes spontaneous. And in fact when the Buddha has done explaining the circumstances under which it’s skillful to say something disagreeable, he goes on to talk about the spontaneous nature of his communication. Those who are most genuinely compassionate don’t think in terms of “being compassionate.” Expressing themselves honestly and with empathy is just what they do.

So be wary of trying to be compassionate in a self-conscious way. The more you do this, the more likely it is that you’re being a compassionate idiot.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Sorrow is failed compassion (Day 28)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’ve had more people asking me about the “near enemy” of compassion. So here goes…

The “near enemy” is, by definition, something you might confuse with compassion. You might think you were cultivating compassion but were actually cultivating something else, in the same way that you might water and care for a weed, thinking it’s a useful plant. The “far enemy” is quite straightforward. It’s cruelty, or indifference to suffering, which is just the direct opposite of compassion. That’s easy to understand. But what is compassion’s “near enemy”?

People often use the word “pity” to describe the near enemy, but the traditional commentaries use the word “grief.” Compassion is also said to fail when it becomes sorrow, and that also seems related to the notion of the near enemy, since grief and sorrow and virtual synonyms. I’m going to point to three things that I think can be the near enemies of compassion.

But first, as a reminder:

Metta, or lovingkindness, is the desire of bringing that which is welfare and good to oneself and others. Compassion is the desire to remove suffering, especially from others.

1. Your suffering’s making me feel bad, dammit!
Now, grief is a sense of loss. We can be attached to our own “normal” state of mind and find it unpleasant to have that interrupted by seeing someone suffering. We experience the “grief” of losing our normal sense of ourselves — even our normal ego-centric sense of ourselves — taken away from us.

So we see someone suffering, and it’s unpleasant. Now we’re suffering too! Now we may just turn away, or we may want their suffering to stop and in doing so think that we’re being compassionate. But we want the other person’s suffering to stop because we want to stop our own suffering. We really just want to remove an obstacle to our own happiness! There’s no real empathy. No real recognition of the other’s suffering. There’s just our own pain, which we want to get rid of. So this is very self-focused and it’s essentially egotistical pseudo-compassion.

We can’t empathize with others unless we empathize with our own suffering, so we need to connect with our own vulnerability, which is something I’ve talked about in relation to compassion, and with lovingkindness. I wouldn’t recommend going into compassion meditation “cold.” We should always start by acknowledging that we suffer.

Another form of this may be when we feel the heart-ache of considering another person’s suffering. This heart-ache is completely normal. It’s just a deep-rooted response to pain in another person. But it’s uncomfortable, and we may not be very good at dealing with discomfort. You know what it’s like when you have a cold or some other minor ailment, and you find yourself wallowing, telling yourself (and anyone who’ll listen) about how awful it all is? And it ends up that 95% of your suffering is actually caused by your reaction to the cold, not to the cold itself? Well, that can happen with developing compassion as well. We move from the heart-ache of being aware of someone’s suffering, to going on about how awful everything is.

We can’t empathize with others unless we empathize with our own suffering, but we also can’t empathize with others’ suffering if we’re not able to accept our own. We need to learn to become comfortable with discomfort, otherwise the heart-ache of compassion turns into a wallow-fest that’s all about me, me, me.

2. Stop samsara, I want to get off!
Another way attachment can get in the way of compassion is when we get despondent (i.e. we experience sorrow, which is failed compassion). So we might be aware of someone’s suffering, and we get overwhelmed. Maybe we try to cultivate compassion for a friend who has terminal cancer, and we feel dreadful because we’d like to help but can’t. There’s attachment to the idea that we should be able to make things OK. We can’t accept that there are things we can’t fix.

Or the mind takes this one step further, and we start thinking not just about our friend, but about all the other people who have cancer, and maybe other terminal diseases as well. Now we get despondent because there’s so much suffering in the world, and we can’t fix it! So we feel terrible. But compassion isn’t about saving the world, because none of us can do that. We can and should act where we can, but it’s just going to make us suffer if we’re attached to being a “savior” and think that we should be able to help everyone.

As they say, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There’s grief and sorrow when we don’t know the difference.

This very much connects with the Buddha’s teaching about the “two arrows” of suffering:

Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”

The first arrow here is simply the heart-ache of sensing someone’s suffering. Sure, it’s uncomfortable to consider someone’s suffering. But how do we deal with the discomfort of compassion? The second arrow is the reactions I’ve described above, where we “sorrow, grieve, and lament” about the fact that we or others suffer.

The Buddha called wallowing a “bottomless pit” of pain, because we generate pain in response to pain. It’s bottomless because there’s no end to that. But this wallowing is not necessary. “When a well-taught noble disciple is afflicted by painful bodily feelings,” the Buddha says, “she will not worry nor grieve and lament, she will not beat her breast and weep, nor will she be distraught.” And thus she becomes one “who can withstand the bottomless pit and has gained a foothold in it.”

We can learn to bear suffering mindfully, without reacting. We can practice being aware of suffering, and beaing aware of — and letting go of — our thoughts and reactions to suffering. We just let the suffering be there. It’s OK to feel discomfort. Over time we become better at experiencing the first arrow without adding a second.

3. Poor you!
And maybe related to this is a sense of superiority, where we’re feeling good about ourselves in relation to all these “poor souls” out there that aren’t as “sorted” as we are. So that is “pity” in that we feel superior. But here the grief is hidden, because we’re probably having a blast thinking of ourselves as being so wonderful and benevolent. The grief comes later, when the people we’re so “benevolently” helping tell us how arrogant and out-of-touch we are, for example. This is what the Buddha called the “suffering of reversal.”

The cure again here is acknowledging our own vulnerability. You want to be happy. You don’t want to suffer. And yet over and over again you encounter suffering when you hadn’t expected it. Suffering sideswipes you. So you’re not in control. You’re not “sorted.” You’re struggling, like everyone else. Compassion doesn’t make us superior. Bearing this in mind helps keep us real.

Doubt is deadly! People are always looking for excuses to think that they might, secretly, be doing a meditation practice wrong. So I feel compassionate, but maybe it’s not real! Just keep going. If you feel despairing, then that’s probably a sign you’ve tipped over into “grief” or “sorrow.” If you just have an ache in the heart then that’s probably just the “first arrow,” which is an unavoidable part of the practice.

All of the above are simply things we have to work through, so don’t beat yourself up or despair. But maybe if we learn about these unhelpful patterns we can recognize them a bit earlier.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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“No man chooses evil, because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft’s words encapsulate perfectly something I’ve long held, which is that the Buddhist view of greed, hatred, and delusion — often called the Three Unwholesome Roots (akusala mūla) — is far removed from the western conception of sin.

Sin is “bad.” It’s “evil.” It’s a transgression against the Divine law.

When we encounter the Buddhist teaching of the Three Unwholesome Roots, it’s easy to slip it into the sin-shaped space that exists in our minds. But the Buddha’s understanding of these roots is wholly different from how sin is understood, and we need to disentangle the two sets of concepts in our own minds.

Here’s something that when you think about it is rather stunning. The Buddha said:

I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’

So if giving up greed, hatred, and delusion (“what is unskillful”) made you unhappy, then he wouldn’t ask you to do it. If greed, hatred, and delusion made you truly happy, then the Buddha would say it was all right to keep on doing them!

The reason for this is that the Buddha said that “Both formerly and now, it is only suffering that I describe, and the cessation of suffering.”

So the Buddha was only concerned with the problem of suffering, and of how to end suffering. He was concerned with the effects that your actions have on your welfare. And it’s only because greed, hatred, and delusion are detrimental to your welfare that they’re to be given up — not because they’re in some sense ultimately “evil.”

So the Buddha was the ultimate moral pragmatist. He took a totally practical regard toward “the unskillful.” Greed, hatred, and delusion can’t make you happy, so you should abandon them. Abandoning them will make you happy.

But if greed, hatred, and delusion can’t make you happy, why do you still do them? The answer is simply that you believe, on some level, that they will in fact bring happiness. This belief is very strongly rooted in our psychology. We think that by having aversion toward things we don’t like, we can avoid sources of suffering. We think that by desiring what we want, we can have it, or by trying to hold on to the pleasant we can make it last forever. But actually both those things — aversion and craving — simply cause more suffering.

I find all of this very encouraging, because it suggests that, deep down, our impulses are a desire for happiness and well-being. Below the level of the skillfulness or unskillfulness of our actions, there is a simple, basic, human desire for happiness. Whether we act skillfully or unskillfully, we have the same motivation — to be happy. And our skillful or unskillful actions are simply strategies to being about the happiness we seek.

The difference between skillfulness and unskillfulness is simply pragmatic — acting unskillfully doesn’t work. Acting skillfully does. We simply suffer from delusion, thinking that things that make us unhappy will somehow make us happy. Acting unskillfully, then, is simply an ineffective strategy for finding happiness.

This is encouraging because it means you can drop any notion you might have that there is something inherently bad inside you. Even when you hurt others, you’re not doing it out of inherent badness. You’re doing it because you’re under the sway of a powerful belief that hurting others will, in the end, bring you joy. When others try to hurt you — or even just hurt you accidentally — they too are simply acting under the influence of delusion. Deep down they simply want to be happy. In fact, at your core, below the level of all the strategies you employ in order to find happiness and escape suffering, is this basic need for happiness. That need is the most fundamental thing about you. And it’s good.

Knowing this, it’s easier to be forgiving of ourselves and others, and to drop the idea that unskillfulness is just another name for sin, evil, or badness.

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The value of “going through the motions”

For at least a couple of weeks now I’ve felt that I’ve been “going through the motions” with my meditation practice. I’m still a rock-solid daily meditator. I still remind myself “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.” But sometimes my sits have been shorter and squeezed in at the end of the day.

It has, though, been a tough few weeks. My wife was sick, both kids have been repeatedly ill — one with pneumonia. That’s interrupted my sleep, so that I’m more tired than usual. Work’s been challenging as well. These things take a toll.

Sometimes I’ve felt a sense of despair and overwhelm rise within me. I try to meet this with equanimity, giving it permission to be there. I also do what I can to dispel it, for example by making sure my body is in an open, upright posture. And I’m also striving to cut down on some of the overstimulation and to tackle, step by step, some of the tasks that I find most unpleasant to do.

100 day meditation challenge 090My meditation practice has sometimes been very enjoyable, or at least mixed. Last night, for example, I felt a sense of joy alongside a feeling of tiredness and distress. But on the whole my practice has felt rather flat. It’s a bit of a chore.

I’m sure some people would say that if you’re not enjoying your meditation, you shouldn’t do it. That you should be “authentic.” I have to say, though, that I don’t see why the desire to give up meditation is any more authentic than the desire to keep going. They’re both just desires. Neither of them is ultimately me, mine, or myself. But one of those desires is more likely to lead to my long-term happiness than the other.

Apropos of this, yesterday I came across this passage in the Pali canon, called the Nava Sutta:

Just as when a carpenter or carpenter’s apprentice sees the marks of his fingers or thumb on the handle of his adze but does not know, ‘Today my adze handle wore down this much, or yesterday it wore down that much, or the day before yesterday it wore down this much,’ still he knows it is worn through when it is worn through. In the same way, when a monk dwells devoting himself to development, he does not know, ‘Today my mental pollutants wore down this much, or yesterday they wore down that much, or the day before yesterday they wore down this much,’ still he knows they are worn through when they are worn through.

So yes, progress isn’t always visible. In fact sometimes progress doesn’t look like progress. Perhaps the resistance I’m experiencing at the moment is just sleep-deprivation. Perhaps it’s me approaching a breakthrough. Whichever it is, I just keep on going with my practice. Eventually something will “wear through.” I’m going through the motions, but they’re good motions to go through.

“I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.”

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The Buddha, meditation, and householders

colorful Buddhas in front of a cityscape

The other day I posted some commentary on a study showing that mindfulness practice improved students’ working memory and boosted their grades by 16% in just two weeks.

Yay, for meditation! You’d think Buddhists would generally be happy to see that their practices can be shown to be effective. But not everyone’s happy about this. On one of the social media networks, someone criticized the study as “misuse of Dhamma” because meditation is being used for to “make people continue the usual [worldly] ways.”

Furthermore, I was told the “The Buddha even did not teach meditation to ordinary laymen.”

So there are two things here: the use of meditation for “worldly” ends (as opposed to getting enlightened), and whether the Buddha taught meditation to householders. Let’s deal with them one at a time.

The Buddha was quite happy to stress the worldly benefits of meditation. For example, with walking meditation he said the benefits were: “He can endure traveling by foot; he can endure exertion; he becomes free from disease; whatever he has eaten & drunk, chewed and savored, becomes well-digested; the concentration he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time.”

And the benefits of lovingkindness are enumerated as follows: “One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The devas protect one. Neither fire, poison, nor weapons can touch one. One’s mind gains concentration quickly. One’s complexion is bright. One dies unconfused and — if penetrating no higher — is headed for the Brahma worlds.”

These are largely worldly benefits, helping us to be happy (but not necessarily enlightened).

One has to start somewhere. People don’t generally start to meditate because they want to attain Buddhahood. They generally want to become less stresses, or a bit happier. Having started there and found that the Dhamma works, they may then find that they wish to explore further.

Next, is it true that the Buddha didn’t teach meditation to householders?

The Buddha taught the Eightfold Path (which includes Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration) to householders and monks/nuns alike. Additionally, there were many hundreds of householders who were stream entrants, as well as householders who were once-returners and never-returners. I’m pretty sure they didn’t become enlightened without meditating.

And if you want something more explicit, here’s the Buddha talking to a householder:

As he was sitting there the Blessed One said to [Anathapindika], “Householder, you have provided the community of monks with robes, alms food, lodgings, and medicinal requisites for the sick, but you shouldn’t rest content with the thought, ‘We have provided the community of monks with robes, alms food, lodgings, & medicinal requisites for the sick.’ So you should train yourself, ‘Let’s periodically enter and remain in seclusion & rapture.’ That’s how you should train yourself.”

So it’s quite clear here that the Buddha thought that householders should not restrict themselves to donating to the monks and nuns, but should “periodically” go off and meditation. By contrast, my correspondent said that “All he stressed was dana, gratitude and hints to lead a good householder live.”

“Seclusion and rapture” is jhāna, or meditation. “Seclusion” is the word the Buddha used, in the standard description of meditation, for first jhāna: “A monk — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters and remains in the first jhāna: rapture and joy born of seclusion, accompanied by initial and sustained thinking.”

Rapture is mentioned here as well, but piti (rapture) is particularly associated with the second jhāna, and so the Buddha was probably suggesting that householders not just meditate, but seek to experience both first and second jhānas, which — with practice — are not that hard to experience, even for people who have busy lives.

Another famous, but often overlooked example, is the Kalāma Sutta, which is most well-known for being where the Buddha said to rely on experience (and the testimony of the wise) rather than on scripture, hearsay, speculation, etc. After the Buddha clarifies what the Kalamās should rely upon, he goes on to explain the Brahmavihāra meditation practices, and he doesn’t say that these should be done by monks, but by “one who is a disciple of the noble ones” (ariyasāvako). Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the ariyasāvaka as “any disciple, monastic or layperson, who has learned the teaching and earnestly takes up the practice.” So these meditations are meant to be practiced by all sincere followers of the Buddha, not just monks and nuns.

Not only are there clear signs that the Buddha encouraged householders to meditate, he even singled out one particular woman, Uttarā Nandamātā as “the foremost of my female lay followers among meditators.” I think we can safely assume from this that householders did not merely dabble in meditation but could attain distinction.

So we’re dong something very traditional, those of us who live a household life, and who meditate. And there’s every reason to assume that high degrees of spiritual insight are open to us, if we make the effort. And let’s start people young. Teach them meditation in school — even elementary school. And for some it will just be stress management, or a way to increase their grades. But for some it will be the beginning of a path — a path than might lead them all the way to awakening.

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Planting ourselves in the universe

Here in this body are the sacred rivers: here are the sun and moon, as well as all the pilgrimage places. I have not encountered another temple as blissful as my own body.
—Tantric song

When I meet with people at retreats or in counseling sessions, some will tell me they feel numb, lost in thoughts, and disconnected from life. Others might tell me they are overwhelmed by feelings of fear, hurt, or anger. Whenever we are either possessed by our feelings or dissociated from them, we are in trance, cut off from our full presence and aliveness.

In Buddhist meditation training, awakening from trance begins with mindfulness of sensations. Sensations are our most immediate way of experiencing and relating to life. All our other reactions—to thoughts, to external situations, to people, to emotions—are actually in response to physical sensations. When we are angry at someone, our body is responding to a perceived threat. When we are attracted to someone, our body is signaling comfort or curiosity or desire. If we don’t recognize the ground level of sensation, we will continually be lost in the swirl of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that make up our daily trance.

One of the best instructions I’ve heard for meditation practice was given by Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa: “Do not do anything that takes you away from your body.” The body lives in the present. When you are aware of the body, you are connected with living presence—the one place where you can see reality, see what is actually happening. Awareness of the body is our gateway into the truth of what is.

This gateway to refuge was crucial to the Buddha’s own awakening. When Siddhartha Gautama took his seat at the base of the bodhi tree—the tree of awakening—he resolved to stay there until he found full freedom. He began his meditation by collecting his attention, quieting his mind, and “coming back” to a full and balanced presence. But then, as the story is told, the demon Mara appeared, accompanied by a massive army, and with many deadly weapons and magical forces at his disposal. Mara is a tempter—his name means “delusion” in Pali—and we can also see him as Gautama’s shadow self. Mara’s intent was to keep Gautama trapped in trance.

Throughout the night Mara hurled rocks and arrows, boiling mud and blistering sands to provoke Gautama to fight or flee, yet he met these attacks with a compassionate presence, and the missiles were all transformed into celestial flowers. Then Mara sent his daughters, “desire, pining, and lust,” surrounded by voluptuous attendants to seduce Gautama, yet Gautama’s mind remained undistracted and present. Dawn was fast approaching when Mara issued his final challenge—doubt. What proof, Mara asked, did Gautama have of his compassion? How could he be sure his heart was awakened? Mara was targeting the core reactivity that hooks and sustains the sense of small self—the perception of our own unworthiness.

Gautama did not try to use a meditative technique to prove himself. Rather, he touched the earth and asked it to bear witness to his compassion, to the truth of what he was. In response, the earth responded with a shattering roar, “I bear you witness!” Terrified, Mara and his forces dispersed in all directions.

In that instant of acknowledging his belonging to the earth, Gautama became the Buddha—the awakened one—and was liberated. By claiming this living wholeness, he dissolved the final vestiges of the trance of separation.

For us, the story of the Buddha’s liberation offers a radical and wonderful invitation. Like the Buddha, our own healing and awakening unfolds in any moment in which we take refuge in our aliveness—connecting with our flesh and blood, with our breath, with the air itself, with the elements that compose us, and with the earth that is our home. Whenever we bring our presence to the living world of sensation, we too are touching the ground.

In the early part of the last century, D. H. Lawrence found himself in a society devastated by war, a landscape despoiled by industrialism, and a culture suffering from a radical disconnect between mind and body. Written in 1928, his words have lost none of their urgency:

It is a question, practically of relationship. We must get back into relation, vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe. … For the truth is, we are perishing for lack of fulfillment of our greater needs, we are cut off from the great sources of our inward nourishment and renewal, sources which flow eternally in the universe. Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.

When we disconnect from the body, we are pulling away from the energetic expression of our being that connects us with all of life. By imagining a great tree uprooted from the earth, we can sense the unnaturalness, violence, and suffering of this severed belonging. The experience of being uprooted is a kind of dying.

Some people tell me about the despair of not really living, of skimming the surface. Others have the perpetual sense of a threat lurking around the corner. And many speak of being weighed down by a deep tiredness. It takes energy to continually run away from pain and tension, to pull away from the life of the present moment. Roots in the air, we lose access to the aliveness and love and beauty that nourish our deepest being. No false refuge can compensate for that loss.

Yet, like the Buddha touching the ground, we can reclaim our life and spirit by planting ourselves again in the present. This begins by connecting with the truth of what’s happening in our body. Then, when we’re finally in direct contact with the felt sense of that aliveness in our own being, we can fully experience this mysterious field of aliveness we call home.

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Meditation is not enough

Meditation is a cool means of transformation, and essential as part of our practice, but the Buddha offered much, much more.

Last night at a Dharma study group that I meet with on Skype, we looked at the Meghiya Sutta. Meghiya was an attendant of the Buddha, and one time when the two of them were together, Meghiya asked if he could go off and meditate in a lovely looking mango grove that he’d spotted when he was off on his alms-round. Meghiya had thought that the mango grove would be the perfect place to meditate.

The Buddha asked him to wait, though, since he would be left alone. Presumably he wanted the company, or might need Meghiya for some practical reason, or perhaps he thought it would benefit Meghiya to stay with him.

But Meghiya was very insistent about going off to meditate. He kept asking and asking (parents are very familiar with this!) and the Buddha eventually said (and I imagine him with a wry smile on his face), “Well, Meghiya, what can I say when you talk of practising meditation? Do what you think it is time for.”

Meghiya’s obsessing with the mango grove as a perfect place to meditate sounds like a kind of spiritual materialism. It’s like when you or I might get really excited because we have a new meditation app on our smartphone, or a new meditation bench; surely now our meditation practice will really take off!

So Meghiya goes off and has a terrible meditation. He’s assaulted by craving and ill-will. This isn’t surprising. He’d been craving to go off to the mango grove to meditate, and he took his craving with him. Of course that’s wat he experienced in meditation! And he’d been anticipating having a great meditation, and when we have expectations like that and they aren’t fulfilled, we tend to get frustrated and angry.

So he goes back to the Buddha and expresses his puzzlement about what’s gone wrong.

In response, the Buddha outlines five things that lead to the heart’s release (enlightenment). These are:

  1. Spiritual friends, good associates, and the companionship of good people.
  2. Being virtuous, keeping to one’s vows, practising ethical behaviour, seeing danger even in small faults, training oneself in the precepts.
  3. Being surrounded by talk that is serious and opens up the heart, that conduces to detachment, to dispassion, to calm, to understanding, to insight, to nibbāna.
  4. Being firm and energetic in abandoning what is unskilful and acquiring what is skillful, and being stout and strong in effort, not laying aside the burden of pursuing what is skillful.
  5. Being endowed with the penetrating insight that sees all things rise and fall, and leads to the end of suffering.

The Buddha makes it clear that this is a progressive list, and that spiritual friendship is the foundation of all the rest. So there’s a teaching here for Meghiya. Meghiya had become obsessed with going off and having great meditation experiences, but he hadn’t been a friend to the Buddha. He hadn’t taken the Buddha’s needs into account, and instead had followed the path of self-centered craving. Also, he’d been with the man who was arguably the greatest spiritual genius the world has ever seen. And what does he want to do? Go off and meditate in a pretty spot in the countryside! Talk about skewed priorities! Think of the opportunities that he had for learning in the presence of the Buddha. Think of the opportunities he had to transcend his craving-based desires by staying, and being helpful, and practicing lovingkindness, taking another person’s needs into account as well as his own.

It may not be obvious at first sight, but the Buddha’s five-point response is based on the well-known eight-fold path. Meghiya has been fixated on meditation, which corresponds to Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, the 7th and 8th factors of the path.

The Buddha counters with “virtue” (Right Action and Right Livelihood), “talk that is serious and opens up the heart” (Right Speech), being energetic (Right Effort), and insight (Right View and Right Intention). It’s as if he’s saying — sure, meditation is important, but it’s not enough. You need the other six factors of the path as well.

And the key to successfully practicing all the factors of the path is, perhaps surprisingly, friendship, or kalyana mittata. Getting enlightened, as I’ve said before, is a team sport. We need other people to inspire us and to support us, and we also need them in order to transcend our own self-clinging — something Meghiya had forgotten, and which we’d do well to remember, especially with the rise of the various “mindfulness-based” approaches that treat the practice of meditation in isolation from the other factors of the path.


To get a little bit meta, I should point out that this realization that the Buddha was bringing to Meghiya’s attention the rest of the eightfold path besides the meditation that he was fixated upon would not have arisen if it wasn’t for the fact that I was discussing the text with friends. It’s very unlikely that I’d have stumbled upon this myself, and it was only a stray question from one of the other group members that let me in this direction. So yay for spiritual friendship and “serious talk that opens the heart.”

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Karma confusion in Malaysia

Karma is one of the most misunderstood Buddhist teachings, even among Buddhists. For example, a number of medical students in Malaysia reportedly decided to quit their studies because they’d been told by a monk “that patients should not receive medical treatment for their condition as sickness is the result of their karma.” The had become convinced “that they should not become doctors as the act of treating patients [would] interfere with karma.”

The monk seems to be rather atypical, and “allegedly claimed that he had supernatural power and was able to tell the past and predict the future of the students.” It’s possible that he’s a charlatan, or even that he’s mentally ill.

But ideas like this do tend to pop up from time to time, and so here are a few arguments against this particular take on karma.

First, the Buddha specifically stated that not everything that happens to us in the present moment is a result of karma. He pointed to physiological and environmental factors as affecting us, as well as the actions of other people. The earlier Buddhist commentators enumerated a number of forms of conditionality that included physical causality (physical and chemical laws), biological causality (which would include things like viruses and other diseases), mental causality, karmic causality, and also a form of transcendental causality. I won’t go into all of this, but it’s clear that neither the Buddha nor early Buddhists believed that karma was the only thing affecting us. Certainly our mental states and the choices we make can affect our health, but even Buddhas get ill.

Secondly, the Buddha stressed compassion, himself took care of the sick, and encouraged his monks to take care of the sick. “Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick,” he is reported as saying.

Thirdly, following from this, there are ample provisions in the monastic code of conduct allowing for medicines. Our unnamed monk would be well aware of this!

Fourthly, the Buddha said that trying to figure out what’s the result of karma is an “unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.” Although perhaps it also works the other way around: that people who are mentally ill are more prone to have delusions about karma.

And lastly, if it was indeed the karma of sick people that caused them to be sick, then wouldn’t it also be their karma that brought them into contact with a doctor?

The Buddha taught compassion. He taught us to recognize that other people’s sufferings are as real to them as ours are to us. And on the basis of this we should empathize with others and seek not to cause them suffering but to relieve suffering when we can. Here’s Dhammapada verse 20:

All tremble at violence
Life is dear to all
Putting oneself in the place of another
One should neither kill nor cause another
to kill.

This is the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule.

And in the Saleyyaka Sutta the ideal practitioner is described like this:

There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his rod laid down, his knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings.

Now I’m sure that this monk would argue something like “it’s more compassionate to let being suffer from sickness because it allows their past karma to come to fruition,” but a view like that is very far from the kind of compassion that the Buddha advocated.

In a conversation on the now-defunct social network, Google+, Denis Wallez pointed out the corollary that is karma determines everything then it brings sick people into contact with doctors and suggested that the antidote to such gullibility (thinking here of the medical students rather than the monk) was to get people to read more of the Pali canon, which contains ample evidence to contradict the idea that the sick do not deserve treatment, and more importantly to encourage critical thinking. The Buddha himself, in the Kalama Sutta, famously encouraged us not to believe something just because some monk says so!

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