Self-cherishing thinks that holding onto ourselves and other things, finding pleasure for ourselves, protecting ourselves, serving ourselves, will make us secure, will make us rich, will make us happy. But this is a lost cause from the get go because we are busy cherishing an independent self that doesn’t even exist. It’s a phantom. There is no real me. If there was, everyone who looked at us would see ME, but they don’t. Not even slightly. They see “you”, “other”, “she”, “it”, and maybe on a good day “we”.
No wonder we tie ourselves in knots and don’t know who we are most of the time. A friend uses this analogy – a sleek black limo turns up at the Oscars, and a hefty bodyguard emerges from the driver’s seat and runs around importantly to open the back door… who could it be, everyone is wondering? The bodyguard is scraping and bowing, the crowd is on tenterhooks, and out steps…. nobody.
That bodyguard clearly has to engage in some elaborate tricks to keep serving and protecting a celebrity who doesn’t even exist and to convince the public that it does. It is the same for our self-cherishing – it has to engage in contorted mental acrobatics to sustain the illusion of a real self, telling constant stories to ourselves and others about who and what we are, needing our reputation and status even though they are hollow, grasping at permanence, and constantly trying to bolster up our flimsy self-image with seemingly solid props such as material security, a career, validating friends, etc.
This futile, misleading attitude also causes all our other delusions and their resultant suffering. Geshe Kelsang says:
It is impossible to find a single problem, misfortune, or painful experience that does not arise from self-cherishing ~ Transform Your Life
Self-cherishing thinks: “I am more important than others. My happiness matters more than your happiness. My suffering matters more. My problems are more interesting, for a start, and certainly more significant than yours.” Who exactly is this fascinating, important, unique I or me that self-cherishing is so keen to serve and protect? It is the I or me that feels independent and unrelated to everybody else, the REAL me! I’m me, you’re you, I’m self, you’re other, I’m over here, you’re over there. There’s a gap between us. The self-cherishing protecting that fake turf gives rise to all our problems, misfortunes, and painful experiences.
How? More coming later. Meantime, comments welcome!
Buddha said that the root of all our negative minds — all our so-called “delusions” or unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds — is self-grasping ignorance. We are grasping very tightly at an exaggerated sense of self — an I or me that is independent, real. Due to this we naturally develop a grossly overrated, over the top, overweening sense of our own importance, a delusion called “self-cherishing”. Due to this, we naturally develop all the other delusions such as anger and attachment. Due to this, we naturally do negative actions. Due to this, we suffer!
I find this to be an immensely encouraging summary of our human condition. We are not evil at heart, just ignorant, and ignorance can be overcome. We can tackle it in ourselves and forgive it in others. I think that Jesus understood that we are not evil, just ignorant, when he cried out on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
So, let’s rewind to the starting point. We grasp at a real or inherently existent me or I all the time, but sometimes it is more obvious to see how — when we are afraid or embarrassed, for example. Geshe Kelsang gives the example of being about to fall off a cliff. We are not thinking “Aarrghhh, my body is about to fall!” or “Aarrghhh, my mind is about to fall!” – just “Aarrghhh, I am about to fall”. We have a visceral non-analytical grasping at a me or self that appears solid, real and graspable, and we are terrified for it. (If we had the time and mental space to analyze, we’d see that this I we’re grasping is independent, different from our body and mind, and existent from its own side. But self-grasping doesn’t analyze, it just grasps, and strongly at times like this…!)
Here’s another example. Imagine for a moment that you are attending a large meditation class, and at the beginning the organizer says: “Please remember to switch off your cell phones.” But you forget, and just as it becomes all quiet and peaceful, your cell phone goes off. Loudly. And it’s one of those really funky theme tunes that you chose late one night and never got round to switching back. And then what happens is a sense of “UH OH!”
Check what’s going on now. You have a powerful sense of me or I, don’t you? “My cell phone’s ringing! Everyone is looking at me! I look like such an idiot!” Within that embarrassment is a strong sense of me or I as unrelated to, or distinct from, everybody else in the room. You feel rather estranged from them at this point, don’t you? They’re over there looking at me, I’m over here. I’m really me, this is the real me here, and they’re really other. And there’s a gap between us, there’s some alienation there, some estrangement, I am all alone in here. “Help me out!” Maybe you give the friend you came with a little embarrassed smile, mentally beseeching, “Maybe you can help me out here, I’m feeling out on a limb, share the burden …”
Does a scenario like this one ring any bells?! We are experiencing a sense of isolation, grasping at a self that is independent and unrelated to others, and feeling that it is the real, the only — the one and only — ME.
Stand up the real me
Who is the real me? We always think it’s us, don’t we? “I’m the real me, everybody else is other. Everyone other than me may think they’re me, but I’m me.” That attitude is actually almost as familiar to us as breathing, but the fact of the matter is that it’s basically nonsense.
We’re not the only me. In fact, I don’t know where you are right now but my guess is that there’s probably a lot of me’s around you, each one of them with a perfect right to call themselves “me” for they’re just as much me as you are. We have a strong sense of self-importance, that our happiness matters and so on, and where is that coming from? If we check very carefully, we can see that it’s because we believe that our me is more real and therefore more important than others’ me! Strip away all the rationalizations and we end up with: “It is of the most crucial importance that I am happy and not sad because I am me.”
But that mind is an ignorant mind. This may or may not come as a surprise, but you are actually not more real and important than me! Or anybody else. Not even close. In fact, what grounds do we actually have for thinking that we are more real and important than others? Do we have any grounds?
If we really were more real and important than others, don’t you think there’d be at least a few other people who agree with us about that? Maybe I should put up a Facebook poll to ask that very question: who is the most important person reading this page?! Whose happiness and suffering matters most? I think it would be a fairly divided poll. I don’t think we’re going to get a whole lot of consensus on that question.
Continued in this article … meanwhile, your turn. Have you ever had a scary or embarrassing experience where you notice at the time or in retrospect that you are/were grasping at ME really tightly?! What did that feel like?
We can get in the habit of worrying about small things incessantly if we are not careful. Of course, our worries never feel small because they fill our mind. There is no objective scale.
I was in England this summer visiting my family. We spent a delightful weekend in a family reunion in St. Albans, quite a well-to-do town just north of London, where my brother, sister-in-law and their children live, work, and play.
As my sister-in-law and I dropped off my niece and nephew at their elementary school one morning, I noticed a mother hovering near us, looking ever so slightly tense. The moment we were done, she approached my sister-in-law, her friend, and, after feigning some interest at meeting me, started to spill the beans. She was really anxious and worried. Why, we asked? Because she had to buy a piano, was the first reason. The second? Because she had to plan a two-week holiday in Italy to celebrate her husband’s 50th birthday.
Ermm, these were problems?!?!
For the piano, it took a little while for C to reassure her that it’d all be ok and that she wouldn’t necessarily end up with an out-of-tune piano as she feared. As for the villa in Tuscany, half-way through reassuring her about this we ran out of time, which was not a bad thing.
Sarah is clearly a bit of a nervous Nellie. C said it is hard to imagine how she could ever not worry about something.
These middle-class worries reflected a skewed perspective – the headlines the very same day told of the new famine in the Horn of Africa. But she is not alone. We all get things out of proportion. Many of us worry at least some of the time about things that would clearly be considered luxuries by the rest of the planet. My own current worry concerns a cat, for example.
Are you ever a nervous Nellie or Nigel?
Over coffee my sister-in-law, brother and I discussed how to stop worrying, as C admits that she herself worries too much. For example, she was annoyed at having to waste an inordinate amount of time over the weekend on school politics. My niece, a gifted singer, was sharing the role of Alice in the school musical Alice in Wonderland. The mother of the other Alice wanted both Alices to wear a particular dress, but my niece hated the dress, and so who was going to back down? C said she worried about her daughter and how to resolve this situation all weekend, even in the midst of all the family jollity.
To digress slightly: worry can seem more justified when it is a mother bear defending her cub. It also becomes entwined with its best friend guilt, perhaps an even stickier delusion to shift. I had my first intimation of this not long ago — again being solely responsible for a wayward cat was the trigger — when I found myself guiltily thinking I wasn’t doing enough: “I am a terrible mother!” This was quite a new sensation for me, as it happens. I’ve never understood it before when perfectly saintly mothers say such things.
On this occasion, as always, C was very sensitive and diplomatic and actually did manage to sort it all out to everyone’s satisfaction, but she didn’t enjoy any of it, and she did still begrudge the whole event.
My brother is not a worrier. In a flash of inspiration, but in his typically laconic way, he suggested:
“A problem like this could have been time-consuming without being mind-consuming.”
He followed that by explaining she may have to deal with it, as life is like that, but that she didn’t have to take it personally, make it her problem, or worry about it at the same time. For effect he turned on his Billy Bass fish who sings the ‘Don’t worry be happy’ song.
(I noticed that he also has a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster above his desk. There is a saying in Buddhism ‘Train in every activity by words’, and Billy Bass and a 1939 Ministry of Information poster seem to do the trick for him.)
They both inspired me to write some articles on the subject of worry as it seems to be a bit of an epidemic. The whole of Buddhism is methods to decrease worry, but with the help of my Facebook friends I’ll look at a few methods that might work straightaway. Anyone can have a go at applying these, regardless of background. After all, worry is universal and knows no boundaries of culture or geography – it arises from inappropriate attention and seems related to all or any of the three root delusions (attachment incl. expectations; aversion; ignorance). Your comments, as always, will be very welcome.
(The remaining articles on overcoming worry can be found here.)
The unexpected riots and looting in England left all of us wondering where they sprung from. There were some extenuating external factors but, as I said in this last article, I think they certainly were inflamed by inappropriate attention and the baleful influence of unhelpful “friends”. I also agree with those who say that they arose from attachment/greed (no shop was safe, no matter how innocent), the “me first” mind of self-cherishing and even plain boredom. A lot of vandalism in general is primarily motivated by boredom, and even back in the Roman days a graffitist wrote:
“Wall, I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.”
Rioting might have seemed like a lot more fun than slouching around on another street corner or trying to find something to watch on summertime British TV. Perhaps the 24/7 access to You Tube, Xbox, Google and Facebook had also at least temporarily lost its ability to charm and distract, I’m sure we all know that feeling.
Santino the Chimp
A chimp called Santino collects rocks before his Swedish zoo opens in the morning so he can pelt them at the roughly 300 humans who come to stare at him. Is he bad-tempered, seeking relief from boredom, or a bit of both?
Where does boredom come from?
Do you ever feel bored? Or how about ennui, lethargy, inertia, melancholy, flatness, or any of its other close cousins!? What does it feel like? What do you do about it? It seems to be a universal predicament in all age groups and income brackets. Kids during endless summer holidays get bored, adolescents notoriously get bored, people working day in and day out at dead-end jobs get bored, people with no jobs get bored, old people stuck in their houses get bored, caged animals get bored, and even people with comparatively nothing to be bored about get bored (think mid-life crisis). Perhaps we all get bored sometimes unless we are just too busy, which may be the opposite problem?! Nor is it just a recent phenomenon – humans and animals have been getting bored for as long as they’ve had minds, namely since beginningless time.
So where does boredom come from? The reason it is so common is probably that it is a facet of one of the three main mental poisons – ignorance. One reason I think this is that in the meditation on equanimity we get rid of our three poisons of: (1) closeness for our friends out of attachment, (2) distance for our enemies out of anger, and (3) indifference for boring strangers out of ignorance. And we can also develop equanimity with respect to inanimate objects, overcoming attachment, aversion and indifference/boredom for them too.
In some ways, if we are not in a state of attachment or aversion and things appear just neutral, boredom may be our kind of natural default! We feel unengaged, indifferent and distanced from the things we find neutral. At the same time, we paradoxically feel more hemmed in because everything seems more solid and real. What do you think?! In the mind-training bookUniversal Compassion, Geshe Kelsang says that for ordinary beings:
Attractive objects cause desirous attachment to arise, unattractive objects cause anger, and neutral objects cause ignorance… Those with special interest in training the mind, however, should try to change this and develop the three virtuous minds instead of the three poisons.
We become bored by supposed predictability and unavoidable and unchanging circumstances that seem beyond our control – not understanding that our own minds are the creators of our ever-changing and indeed unpredictable circumstances, and that we can take control of our minds. In terms of the inappropriate attention that accompanies all delusions, I would think that we are exaggerating the apparent solidity, permanence, and inherent existence of our situation whenever we are bored.
I agree with a Facebook friend Matthew who says that the boredom of the UK rioters is related to impatience (a type of anger) and attachment too:
“I think boredom is a form of impatience. Therefore patience is an antidote – so is contentment. It is said that young people tend to equate happiness with excitement while older people equate happiness with peace. Boredom in the young is related to attachment to excitement.”
It could be that in this age of instant ever-shifting entertainment in our pockets it is harder in general to stay interested and absorbed, and boredom is likelier to crop up. But I think that the lack of excitement or pleasure itself comes from an ignorance grasping strongly at an inherently existent world outside the mind and thus feeling alienated from it, adrift, unconnected, unable to enjoy. Boredom also comes from fruitlessly seeking happiness in that inherently existent external world for, as Jenny on Facebook puts it:
“Maybe it arises from lack of understanding of where true happiness is to be found – surely if we didn’t search for happiness in external things we would have no reason to be bored?”
Are these the causes or symptoms of boredom that Kelsang Dorje describes on Facebook?:
“A lack of feeling of any place in the community or world. A feeling of impotence and disenchantment for a world that seems to ignore one and holds no opportunity for productive action or pleasure.”
The stronger we grasp at the world existing outside of ourselves, the more isolated, alienated, impotent, bored, and yes, ignored, we are going to feel. Then we are naturally going to start craving anything that will excite us and become impatient when nothing exciting enough seems to be forthcoming to relieve the monotony and feeling of being hemmed in.
Lack of or too much identity?
It is paradoxical that young rioters are described as suffering from a “lack of identity” because although on one level that is true insofar as they are demonstrating no healthy sense of self-worth, when we are bored our sense of identity is more concrete than ever. We are holding ourself separate from the rest of the world, me versus them. It is just not a very constructive or wise sense of self as it ignores our profound connection to others on every level. Although we can be bored on our own or in the company of others, loneliness also seems to be boredom’s never far-straying twin.
Creativity v. boredom
Whenever as a kid I complained of having nothing to do, my mother would say that annoying old-fashioned thing:
“If you’re bored, you’re boring.”
Thing is though, I could see she had a point. Boredom is the opposite of creativity. While we’re bored we feel like a victim of our circumstances, we feel disenfranchised, we don’t feel creative, we don’t feel in charge. When I heard teachings on emptiness I realized I had lost my excuse to be bored ever again because I was creating my own reality moment by moment through conceptual imputation – and there is nothing boring about an act of creation that cosmic! It doesn’t mean that I have yet completely conquered boredom though, I still detect it sometimes – which is partly why I am interested in the subject. The best antidote for me is to meditate, which is creative and uplifting, and in particular to remember emptiness. Wisdom, I find, dismantles the temporal and spatial walls erected by boredom. For an amazingly clear introduction to the wisdom realizing emptiness, you can download this free Buddhist eBook Modern Buddhism and read the chapter called “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”.
Because boredom lacks creativity, it is understandable that graffiti artists, for example, try to assuage it by writing on walls in an act of creation that may or may not annoy everyone else in the neighborhood. We can of course try to change our circumstances in helpful ways to alleviate boredom if the opportunity is there — seeking a more challenging job, for example, or meeting new people, or taking up a hobby, or simply taking ourself out of the house for a walk in a new area. This can be helpful, especially if we are well motivated. Boredom, in other words, can lead us to creativity and useful innovation. But as the main cause of boredom is internal (ignorance), the main creative solution is also to be found within our own minds – dismiss that fact, and we may soon enough find ourselves becoming bored by our new job, companions, trees, or hobbies. After all, we’ve been trying to change the circumstances of our lives to solve our boredom since beginningless time, yet here we all are, still finding ourselves bored.
Precious human life
Paul on FB suggested the rioters:
“Meditate on ur precious human life!”
which is a good starting point providing someone lets them know that they have one! In fact it is the starting point for all of us, realizing that we have more choices and prospects than we knew. Nick Vujicic, who I wrote about in this article, has no arms or legs and therefore seemingly far fewer opportunities than the rest of us; but try telling him that!
According to Buddhism, when we’re attached, the main opponent is non-attachment or the wish for true mental freedom. When we’re angry the main opponent is patience or love. When we are indifferent, or bored, the main opponent is non-ignorance, or the wisdom realizing emptiness and an understanding of the mind’s power to create. There is always something creative to do. Loren Jay Shaw managed to find creative ways to stave off boredom for three years in solitary confinement!
As with all opponents to delusions, however, we need to know about them before we can apply them. Once again I find myself grateful for Buddha’s teachings, or to be honest I think I too would be bored out of my mind with samsara by now.
Do you have any good solutions for boredom? Please share them. And share this article with anyone who might be getting bored during these long dog days of summer!
We make up our own storyline as we go along. So we might as well make it a good one.
I just heard that our two $700 bicycles that I ride all the time have been stolen. The upstairs tenants left them unlocked in the front yard. (I’m property manager but away at the moment).
I know straightaway that these things happen all the time – that things appear and disappear, even every moment. The bikes appeared out of nowhere in the first place, someone generously gave them to us when they left the area.
Inappropriate attention v appropriate attention
But my initial response is nonetheless one of disappointment followed fast on its heels by its best friend annoyance. And I can easily increase both these states of mind if I want to, for example by dwelling on detailed memories of the red and blue bikes with their cute convenient little key holders, the perfect distance between the seat and the handlebars, the 21 gears, the way I could sail up and over the bridge…. and how that is now all gone!! And the greater the disappointed lather I work myself up into, the greater the annoyance at Irena and the other Russian tenants who’ve ruined my fun: “I never said they could use those bikes! What were they thinking?! How careless!! How can we get $1400 out of them?” And kicking myself too for good measure: “You idiot, why did you trust them with the shed key in the first place?”
The definition of delusion is:
“A mental factor (state of mind) that arises from inappropriate attention and functions to make the mind unpeaceful and uncontrolled.”
With the delusion of anger (including aversion, annoyance, irritation, resentment etc), we pay inappropriate attention by mentally exaggerating the seeming bad qualities of a person or object until we consider it undesirable and become antagonistic and averse, wanting to push it away or even harm it/destroy it.
There are so many ways in which inappropriate attention can run riot and take down our peace of mind! And within that inappropriate attention is a corresponding editing out of anything that inconveniently contradicts it e.g. the good qualities of Irena. Appropriate attention could be thoughts like: “This same Irena is looking after my feral cat Korska, who now apparently loves her and whom she even named, she empties all the smelly trash cans, she waters all my newly planted flowers, she spent ages trying her healing techniques on little Ralph… she’s actually a good person and probably feels bad about the bikes herself.” But annoyance doesn’t want to think about any of that stuff because it commits hari kiri if it does.
We choose what we focus on. And Irena only annoys me if I focus on her seeming bad qualities, not if I don’t.
We can find plenty of things to annoy us every day of our lives (and being currently in England, the land of the Daily Mail, reminds me how superbly daily tabloids can tap into our potential for whininess.) Alternatively we can choose to follow any number of positive lines of thought and deeper meanings, like those explained in Buddha’s teachings. For example, when something is stolen from us we can practice patience by remembering karma and impermanence, or what a downer attachment is and how great it is to live lightly, or compassion for those who have lost far more than a bicycle in the recent tornadoes in southern US, or the children in the horn of Africa who desperately need our attention, or how there is no point giving people a hard time when life is hard enough already, etc. I can even mentally give the bikes away so that the (quite possibly homeless) person who stole them doesn’t incur negative karma, advice I magnanimously gave to someone else just weeks ago 😉
After all, the bikes are gone whether I choose to get disappointed and annoyed or not, and so the disappointment and annoyance solve nothing.
I have this theory that if you’re going to get your perspective back sooner or later anyway, you may as well skip out the annoying bit in the middle. We can hold onto certain things for years (our anger turning into the even worse delusion of resentment) due to stuck-record inappropriate attention, but don’t you find that we usually get bored of our negative thoughts sooner or later and end up dropping them? For example, what were you annoyed about this time last month, or last year? Can you even remember? And will the stealing of the bikes be any more than an anecdote in a matter of months, weeks, or even days?
There were two kids at Madhyamaka Centre long ago, brothers Edmund and Tamlin, who’d play with a third kid called Stephen, who was a bit of a handful. One day they fell out very badly with him and didn’t want to talk to him ever again.
They tell me this, so I test out my theory on them: “Have you ever liked Stephen in the past, like yesterday for example did you play with him?” They consider this for a moment, then: “Yeah”. “Can you see a time when you might like to play with him again in the future, for example if he lets you use his space cowboy gun?” Pause while they think about this. “Errr, yeah, probably.” “How about then just saving time and energy by liking him now as you’re going to end up liking him again anyway?”
They both got it. They nodded their heads and laughed, and the three of them were playing again that very afternoon.
So, who is Irena? — the warm smiling woman who risks life and limb to stroke Korska or the woman chatting carelessly to her friends while she goes inside leaving our $700 bikes unattended? Do I waste mental energy and time itemizing her faults or do I recall how much easier she made my life by taking on my property manager responsibilities? Stand up the real Irena! But the fact is she cannot because nothing and no one exists independent of mind. Can you point to a world outside of your experience of the world? Where is it? And the world we experience is the world we are focusing on.
Thinking differently is not that hard once we decide to do it. You might be objecting: “But I can’t help feeling disappointed and annoyed when things don’t go my way!” But I reckon you can. If I can, you can. We all can. Start with small annoyances and work your way up. If you want to do it, there are a gazillion enjoyable ways to do it.
Well, dear reader, guess what? I have just heard that it was their own bikes that the Russians left in the front yard, not ours, thus rendering all those mental acrobatics unnecessary. But I’m putting up this article anyway because they still happened and so I can now use this article to also underscore another point: Many of our objects of disappointment, anger and annoyance, major or minor, do not have even the slightest basis of imputation to begin with e.g. imagined slights, fear of future unlikely events, etc, yet the deluded thought processes are the same.
The problem is not in the person — the problem is the problem and the person is the person.
~ Solution-focussed social work theory
Our problems do not exist outside our mind. The real nature of our problems is our unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind.
~ How to Solve Our Human Problems, Gyatso, 2005, p3.
When I first started training as a social worker I was immediately drawn to an approach which I feel is similar to Buddhism. It’s called “solution-focussed assessment and intervention”. As the first quote says, you don’t identify a problem in the person — the person is the person, the problem is the problem — and it is about identifying with solutions, and not giving too much energy to problems.
This reminded me of my Buddhist practice of trying to acknowledge my delusions, then let go of them and increase my positive qualities (solutions), and how as an aspiring Bodhisattva I can have a special view of others by not looking at their negative qualities, but focus on their good qualities and let these outshine any negative ones. As Geshe Kelsang often says:
“Where is a problem? It does not exist outside our mind.”
Many social workers are into empowering people and I find solution-focussed social work to be empowerment at its very best. You try and get clients to understand that they don’t have to identify with their problems, to get them to try and see the changeability of a problem and that they can eventually deal with and even transform the situation.For example in a mental health charity I worked for I helped a service user realise that external problems such as personal relationship difficulties and negative people within the community weren’t always problems and that, when she was feeling good, the people were friendly and the problems weren’t there as much. She understood the changeability of the situations and my advice helped a little. This person lacked self-esteem but I was able to help her improve her view of herself by helping her understand her good qualities such as being a good cook, being good at arts & crafts and being a very social person. She learned to deal with her problems and difficulties better.
As a social worker you are a mediator between an individual and society. You are concerned with helping vulnerable people and can often be a positive change agent for individuals. Helping vulnerable people can be very beneficial. In Joyful Path of Good Fortunemy teacher Geshe-la quotes Arya Asanga’s eleven ways of helping others such as: alleviating the suffering of others and offering them assistance in their work, teaching others skills when they do not know how to accomplish tasks, removing dangers that threaten others, consoling others when they are in grief and giving material assistance to those who are destitute. (Gyatso, 2006, p457)
My Kadampa values have definitely helped me in my social work practice! Through them I am now adopting my own individual assessment and intervention approach based on solution-focussed theory. You always have to be aware of risk and assess this, but resilience, people’s strengths and solutions to problems are the main emphasis.
Your turn: your comment, questions and observations are most welcome! Please leave them in the box below. And do share this article if you found it helpful.
Other articles by our guest social worker are available here.