The other day someone asked me: “I know we’re supposed to put others first – but I was taught that in the Girl Guides and its always just made me feel like a doormat.”
Interestingly, someone else in a separate conversation on the same day also told me that they’d been taught that in the Girl Guides, but their take was different, they felt it was a Buddhist teaching for them in disguise, and they really liked it.
What is the difference? The answer is what is going on in the mind. Putting others first has to come not from a sense of onerous, self-sacrificing duty but from a genuine cherishing of others, feeling that their happiness is important, even more important than our own. If we genuinely feel that way, we will naturally and happily want to put them first, there’ll be no self-flagellation involved. But that does not mean that our happiness becomes entirely unimportant. Happiness is our nature, our Buddha nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong, insofar as it doesn’t work, is seeking it outside when it is inside, and thinking that our happiness is more important than anyone else’s when it’s not.
Actually we need to learn to enjoy our own company a great deal, and it is no fun hanging out with a doormat! We have to like and respect ourselves, which means we have to have something good to like and respect about ourselves = and generally this is our positive and happy qualities, all of which come one way or another from cherishing others. Cherishing others is a win win for us and for others.
The great Indian Buddhist Shantideva famously said that all suffering in this world comes from self-cherishing and all happiness in this world comes from cherishing others. All of it. I’m not sure there is even an exception to this rule. What Shantideva says makes sense because self-cherishing is a delusion, an unrealistic mind – who else but your own self-cherishing attitude thinks you are the most important person in the world?! (Asked what he felt about death recently, an Australian comedian joked half-seriously that his main fear was who was going to take his place in the center of the universe.) Not even your own mum agrees with this assessment of your own importance, except maybe sometimes, and certainly none of the other 7 billion humans on the planet does — and don’t even think about all the animals who have no clue who you are and don’t care. When we are thinking and acting while taken in by an hallucination, it is no surprise when things don’t work out. Cherishing others, on the other hand, is entirely realistic because it understands that others actually are important, both to themselves and also to us. Others also think they are the only real ME, and we depend on them for everything.
Test the teachings like gold
We don’t need to take Shantideva’s word for it though. In fact we should never take even Buddha’s word for anything, he said so himself – advising people to test everything he said as they’d assay gold to see if it was genuine. We test what we hear and read about Buddhism in the laboratory of our own mind, reasoning, and life experiences in order to come to our own conclusions and decisions, our own good ideas. However much we admire or trust someone, just taking on what they say without thinking it through and making it our own idea has limited benefit, for sooner or later we’ll fall back on our own habitual thoughts and behaviors again. That’s one reason why I think in Buddhism we talk about listening, contemplating, and meditating – we don’t just stop at listening.
So, in this instance, we can look at our own lives to see whether self-cherishing causes us problems or not, and whether cherishing others causes us happiness or not. A simple experiment to get us started is to think of a problem we’ve had recently, such as today. Any problem will do.
Okay, I’ll go first. I work as a project manager for a medical journal and sometimes one doctor or another can be a bit big for their boots. One was complaining about the imposition of only being paid $1,500 for a few hours’ work, and I found myself wondering briefly what planet he lived on. I was a little miffed at his rather rude and condescending email and felt discouraged for a few minutes. Then I got over it.
So, let’s analyze what was going on, and, specifically, who was I thinking of when I was feeling miffed…
Why, me, of course. “How dare he be so insensitive to ME!! Doesn’t he realize what my hourly rate of pay is?!” As my thoughts began to run away with themselves, I started to project this worry into the future as well… “Oh no, I have to work with this guy for a whole MONTH, what if I can’t do it …?”
Then, how did I get over it? By thinking about him and how he wants to be happy but, in this instance at least, doesn’t really know how to – if $1,500 for 3 hours work can’t make you happy, you may be relatively hard to satisfy. His own irritation was doubtless stressing him out. Plus, his dog probably loves him, he can’t be all bad. I genuinely wished him happiness and the problem magically disappeared.
Ok, your turn. Who were you thinking of while you were having your problem? ….
…. Now, if you imagine cherishing the other person or other people around you instead of yourself, what happens to your problem? ……
Did the problem disappear? Poof…!
If it did, you can extrapolate that the same thing will happen to all your problems if you move away from the poky space of self to the vast space of others.
(This is not just the case for relatively small problems, such as having to work with an irritating client, but with seemingly insurmountable, existential ones. Loren Jay Shaw, for example, was in Super Max solitary confinement for 3 years, and it was cherishing ants that stopped him going quite literally insane.)
Combine your understanding with breathing meditation
Then, what you can do next, if you like, is think that this problem and all other problems caused by your self-cherishing appear in the form of dark clouds at the level of your heart, in the center of your chest. Think:
“I don’t need any of this – these thoughts are just bad habits, and they are not me.”
Then with this decision, breathe the dark clouds out through your nostrils so they disappear forever. Do that for a while, feeling your heart becoming lighter with every breath.
After a little while, imagine breathing in blissful, clear light – like the sky, only infinitely clearer. It enters your nostrils and descends to your heart, or heart chakra — your spiritual heart located in the center of your chest. It looks like light, but its nature is love, cherishing others. You can also think of it as all the love from throughout the universe, including that of all holy beings, blessings. With every breath, feel your heart become happier.
Than spend a few minutes combining the two, breathing out the last of the dark clouds and breathing in the blissful clear light.
We can identify with this peaceful, spacious feeling at our heart, thinking:
“This is my Buddha nature. This peace and love I am feeling, however slight, indicates my potential for limitless love. This is who I am.”
We are not the clouds of our delusions, we are the sky of our Buddha nature. We can hang out in this blissful clarity at our heart for as long as we like, feeling at home there, thinking “This is me.”
Then, for the extra icing on this meditation cake, we can think that everyone in the world has this same potential at their heart. How wonderful it would be if they could remove self-cherishing and its problems and identify with their pure love instead. Then we can dedicate all the good karma or good fortune we’ve created so that we and others quickly accomplish this.
Before we rise from meditation, we can think ahead briefly to how we are going to remember this love for the rest of the day. One excellent way is to use the Lojong (mind-training) motto with everyone we meet or think about:
“This person is important. Their happiness matters.”
Over to you! Comments are most welcome.
This is so simple, yet meaningful. For everyday living. 💕💕💕😁😁😁
Aw, i’m glad to hear that. Thank you.
Dear Luna Kadampa,
I read the article with interest.
The example with the doctor who was not satisfied with the 1500$ for 3 working hours.
I could understand so far how you coped with your inner problem – realising he was looking for a way to satisfy his wish to be happy.
That helped you realise there is no reason to take personally the rude way in which he expressed his expectations…and were even able to feel compassion about him.
What I miss in the story is how it continued and how your conclusions helped you to work with him in this one month – as the outer problem still persists , i.e. his wish to be better paid is still not satisfied. This leads to an upcoming confrontation with the person , who insists on that.
Thank you very much in advance for your answer,
kind regards, Victoria
I agree with almost all you say & find it inspiring but I’m lost & In need of help I would love to discuss this with you. Maybe you could clarify some points for me, show me what’s wrong with my thinking. I struggle to balance being non judgemental & compassionate with being a doormat. Also cherishing and loving others (something I couldn’t stop if I wanted to seems to be causing me untold pain. But then my problems aren’t about getting miffed with annoying inconsiderate folk. Well let’s take 2 lil examples.
I have a damaged spine. Recently another persons refusal when asked and demanded to stop actions they ment no harm by lead to my spending 3 days unable to stand let alone walk. I got past this problem by cherishing that person and understanding they did not intend on crippling me.
Living alone with my dog now on the sofa unable to move I phoned someone The only person who since my grandparents died has made me feel loved or cared for. This person kindly agreed to pop over feed my dog and provide me with empty bottles to pee in bottles of water & fetch a loaf of bread from my kitchen for me. He instead decided to go out drinking n didn’t bother with me for 24hours except to answer the phone n reassure me he’d be over soon we’ll for the first 6hours anyway. By the time he appeared 24hours after I begged his help my sofa was soaked in my own urine I was dehydrated and worst of all devastated that friend I love so dearly could do that to me. Especially as out if my own love generosity & compassion I regularly help him out if he needs anything. Now after a year of thinking I had a friend who cared about me (and still claims too) I’m afraid I may have just contacted another parasite happy to abuse my kindness but no intention of returning it. If I act on this I’ll be alone. Please put this in your terms and help me to prosses
I am so sorry to hear this. Your friend does not seem to have behaved well for whatever reason. There are two things here — the outer problem, which needs fixing, and I am wondering if there are any medical or social services near you that can help you, depending on what country you live in? The inner problem is the disappointment at being let down. People are deluded, they do let us down, and we have to accept that sometimes and love them without trusting them.
Luna always is a real blessing to read your articles and take them to the practice in our daily life…this meditation is great !
I really cannot see how it’s possible to feel compassion for the politicians who are making people homeless or cutting services for disabled people while eating food subsidised by young working families who are unable to provide for their own children. Perhaps you are unaware that this is going on ‘in the modern world ‘. Please do not give me any platitudes.
It is possible to develop compassion for those who are doing negative, harmful things by remembering that they are motivated by their delusions, such as ignorance and selfishness; and people are not the same as their delusions. For example, a mother does not hate her child when she sees him doing something wrong. If anything her compassion wanting to protect the child from the consequences of his own actions is deeper than when he is being good. She’ll try to stop the child from harming himself and others. I think this shows that it is also possible to act to right wrongs motivated by compassion as opposed to frustration? It is no platitude to point out that this kind of mind-training is possible as a response to the horror we see in our world, anger is not inevitable.
I don’t think anger is inevitable as a reaction to what we see — it may be habitual, but it is possible to learn to react with more compassion over time, and plenty of people have managed this. I don’t think that there is any other effective way to get us all out of this mess, especially over the longer-term.
We can only cherish others if we cherish ourselves can’t we? Not in the selfish ‘self-cherishing’ sense; but in the sense that we treat ourselves with loving kindness ~ and this enables us to give that love back out to others. As you say, “we have to like and respect ourselves”. It is a “win-win” thing. I think that’s widely misunderstood in our tradition, maybe in Western Buddhism?
* Oh, but consultant’s do tend to think that they’re God, don’t they? It’s more of a challenge to feel compassion for them. I like your take on it – I’ll remember that 😉 Thank’s Luna!
That same consultant has been gentle as a pussy cat with his nails in this last week…
Thank you Luna. This ties in nicely with what we are studying at present on FP from Joyful Path of Good Fortune. Your blogs make the teaching come alive in the modern world! Thanks.