What about ME?

golden gate in fogOne reason that compassion is our Buddha nature, I think, is because compassion is a natural response to reality. If we remove our wrong conceptions holding ourselves to be independent of others, and focus on our interdependence, which exists, our compassion will naturally grow and grow and grow until it becomes the universal compassion of a Buddha. By the same token, I think the reason why wisdom is part of our Buddha nature is because it is a natural response to the reality of emptiness. 

In the sunshine of wisdom and compassion, our delusions have no choice but to dissolve into our clear light mind like the San Francisco fog.

The ME mind

As mentioned, one reason we find our own painful thoughts so intolerable is because we are identifying with them. Another reason is that we are forgetting something quite significant, that we are one of countless people. So it is not really all about me. Therefore, that ME mind is the crux of our suffering, based as it is on an hallucination. We forget:

We are just one person among countless living beings, and a few moments of unpleasant feeling arising in the mind of just one person is no great catastrophe. ~ How to Solve our Human Problems

We grasp at our painful feelings as if they were a storm in a teacup instead of a tiny, passing storm in a vast global sky.

duck
What about him?!

This is true, no? No one else really gives a monkeys, this is our private affair. When we get a glimpse into others’ minds and see their storm in a teacup, we might easily judge: “Get over it! Can’t you just drop it, or him or her, it’s not such a big deal.” Or “You haven’t lost that much money, what are you so worried about?!” But we grapple with our own problems like a dog with a bone because we are so obsessed with ourselves. “What about ME?” Our self-grasping and self-cherishing are like a black hole sucking everything into it.

As soon as we can identify with others, give ourselves a break from poor old me, there is relief. The “What about me?” mind hurts, for example comparing and contrasting our own situation unfavorably with everyone else’s. But everyone has a hard life, and we can use our own pain to remind us of that and slowly but surely get over ourselves.

As a neurotic Tweeter put it the other day:

I’m a tiny speck in the infinite cosmos that feels fat. ~ Melissa Broder

Cruel world

famineThis ME mind blinds us to others’ suffering. Yesterday I was eating my supper while casually reading The Week’s page The World at a Glance:

Gabarone, Botswana: Up to 49 million people across Southern Africa are at risk of famine from the worst drought in three decades.

I had to read it again, surely I didn’t just read “49 MILLION PEOPLE”? But I did. How come I never knew this? Why isn’t it the headline on every news outlet? Why has it not occupied a single moment of my attention until now? Why is it just one short paragraph at the bottom of one page in a short-circulation magazine?

I don’t know. But I suspect our global self-cherishing has a lot to do with it. And it is awful.

No ME

Meanwhile, the truth is that the Me we are so desperate to serve and protect and freak out about doesn’t even exist.

Of course it feels right now like it exists, but in truth it is nothing more than the non-existent object of an unrealistic painful idea of ourselves.

deerIn the course of one day we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, one day it’s I’m fabulous, other days it’s “I’m such a wreck, can’t keep anything together.” We have wildly different ideas about ourselves. We might say kind things to ourselves “You’re ok, you’re good”, and we get on with our lives, but then when we get angry, for example, there is the person we are angry with, whom we are holding in an exaggerated way as the source of our harm, and there is the Me we are holding onto in also in an exaggeratedly limited way, eg, “I am a hurt person, that’s who I am.” Then we have to do something to protect that poor hurt person from that really mean person, as described here.

As for the allegedly harmful person, we can go from zero to a hundred miles per hour with anger by exaggerating their faults and thinking about nothing else, leaving the nice bits about them conveniently on the cutting room floor. While we remain angry we give them no wriggle room — nothing they say or do makes much difference as anger has covered Mister Mean with superglue.

A few days ago I was invited to coffee just to have someone insult me in a myriad of quite creative (I thought) ways. But in the same conversation she was telling me about her dying mother, who insists on continuing to work through her painful illness because she wants to claim a $9,000 tax credit in April to give to her child. Wow, I thought. Stand up the real person, the one who is appearing unjust and weird to me, or the beautiful one loved beyond pain by her mother?pagoda

Choose freedom

In this article I explained how we have the chance to identify with our potential rather than with our painful limited self, and in this way come to our own conclusion that we want liberation. So why do we identify with pain? If we believed we had choice, would we not choose to identify with freedom, space, happiness? Ignorance removes our choice because it is convincing us that we are not creating the painful self and other, that these are independent of our mind; so then we have no choice but to go along with it all.

If we dream of a monster and run away from it, is it because the monster is actually there? Or is it because we are misapprehending the monster’s mode of existence? Ignorance is causing this misapprehension. In the same way, we are not in pain because a real self or bay area treesother is actually there, but because ignorance is causing us to apprehend both self and other as independent of the mind.

Realizing this about ourselves gives us renunciation. Realizing this about others gives us compassion.

More coming soon! Meanwhile, please share your experiences on this subject in the comments below.

(And thank you for giving me an excuse to share some San Francisco photos I took this week 😉 Kadampa Meditation Center SF was the first Kadampa Center in America. I have been visiting this beautiful, lovable center and community for their 25 Year Anniversary Celebrations.)

Feel free to change your mind

FOMOWith attachment born of ignorance we are always splitting ourselves off from our actual happiness, the happiness of our own peaceful mind. Holding onto an isolated real “self”, distanced from “other”, happiness is now necessarily separate from us, other than us.

We distance ourselves from it in time – “Oh I was so happy back THEN!” Or “I won’t be happy until I get this thing! …” Or we distance ourselves from it in terms of space – which reminds me of this FOMO thing I read about recently, “fear of missing out”. An apparent modern-day epidemic where interesting things are always going on elsewhere and we losers are most likely missing out on all the action … (as evidenced by all that fun everyone else is having on their Facebook pages). We need to make sure we are not missing out on happiness, and we may just manage to catch it if we check our social media enough times (apparently the US average is at least once an hour).

We are massively distracted these days, are we not?!

As mentioned in this article, however, meditating on the nature of our own mind pacifies distractions very well.

What is a distraction?

The definition of distraction is “A deluded mental factor that wanders to any object of delusion”. We are constantly distracting ourselves from our meditations, and from our happiness, and from our actual nature and potential.

Interestingly, however, there are no objects of delusion from their side. For example, a person is only an object of attachment when we are thinking about them with attachment.

You ever look at a photo of you and an ex-lover, for example, that you’ve seen many times, but today it looks completely different, and you can’t even recall what all the fuss was about? Why you were so bothered by them?! You feel a sense of relief, like you too are a different person. The attachment has gone – and so of course has its object. As has the attached you, the subject.

FOMO 4Soooo, if we can learn to let go of our distractions, attachments, irritations, etc, by dissolving them into the clarity of the mind, we are then free to think about others and ourselves in non-deluded ways.

When we have a delusion, eg, attachment coupled with loneliness, that delusion has both an object and a subject.  We are holding not only onto them as being real and outside the mind, as a real object of desire, but also ourself as being a real needy person who has to have them.

Likewise, if we are irritated with someone, we are holding onto both them and us in a certain fixed way. Even seeing that we have an email from them annoys us, and we are suspicious if it is somehow a nice one – why? Because we have set them up as a real irritant and we have set ourself up as a real victim who is being put upon by them, etc.

BUT, and it is a big but, if we view that person with love instead of attachment or anger, our sense of self also changes for the better. They are no longer an object of delusion, and we are no longer a deluded subject. We can identify instead with being a loving person wishing happiness to other beings — this makes us very happy, is truer to our nature, and puts us in the driver’s seat of our lives.

“People always let you down!”

We complain all the time, don’t we, “Oh people are so unreliable!” And it is true, they are — if we have delusions. People are never reliable if they are objects of our delusions. However, they are always reliable if they are objects of renunciation, love, compassion, wisdom, or pure view. So, it is up to us.

Cherishing and protecting a limited self

I want to explore this development of delusions a bit further. Let’s say we suddenly remember something someone said that we didn’t like, 5 minutes ago, or 25 years ago. (It doesn’t make much difference! It still feels real!) That person appears to our mind, and we focus on their unattractiveness and turn them into an enemy. This is unbearable, and suddenly we are in pain. Where did that come from? It just arose out of our mind.

As mentioned, with every delusion there is always an object and a subject. On the one hand, we are exaggerating the object, the unattractive appearance becoming an intrinsic source of pain. On the other hand, we are also exaggerating our self — identifying with a self who cannot handle it, who feels overwhelmed. “I can’t bear that you don’t like me, that you didn’t look at me when I wanted you to.” This very limited sense of self appears to us and we believe it, “I am a person who cannot handle criticism.” This is self-grasping.

Now we feel the need to cherish and protect this limited self, and there we are, having a problem.ignorance

An unattractive appearance arose out of our mind due to karma, and then, instead of letting it pass, we grasped at and consolidated it, got lost in it, wrote emails about it, maybe even a book. We talked to others to affirm our view or to get some help. And we can get lost in this little drama for a long time, sometimes a whole life.

This is a shame. All our problems are like this, by the way. It is similar with attachment. One moment we’re fine, the next we remember some attractive person, exaggerate their desirability and make it real, and simultaneously buy into a painful sense of a limited self, ie, “I need this person, I can’t be happy without them”. Suddenly we have a problem because that person has no interest in us! Others may agree, “Yeah, you’ve got a problem!” but it’s all created by the mind.

What happens is that we then try to solve the problem while relating to the self who sees the problem. How is that working for you?

Isn’t it Einstein who said we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it?!

We cherish that painful self that doesn’t exist, and as a result get attached to the things we think will help it and averse to the things that seem to threaten it. And so delusions are born, and the unskillful actions motivated by delusions. We keep doing this, so samsara rolls on.

This is where the meditation on the nature of the mind is so helpful. We learn this skill of recognizing that although at the moment we are caught up in the waves’ appearances, rather than the ocean, these are just the nature of the mind and if I don’t get caught up into them they’ll simply disappear.

Bad idea!

When we are relating to a painful neurotic sense of self, thinking about it obsessively, have you ever wondered how it is that no one else ever sees it?! They may even think we are fine. Is this construct of self therefore inside or outside FOMO 3the mind? If we look into this, it becomes more obvious that it is just an idea – and a bad idea at that. A private, painful idea that we’re walking around nurturing. It is a painful sense of self, but still our self-cherishing wants to nurture it, protect it, serve it.

What happens to an idea when we stop thinking about it?!

Ven Geshe Kelsang taught a wonderful analogy from Buddha’s Perfection of Wisdom Sutras of a man going to a doctor who tells him he has cancer and will soon die. Overwhelmed with anxiety and sorrow, he goes home to share the news with his family, who are all very upset too.

But then he gets a second opinion from a reliable physician who reassures him: “It is 100% guaranteed that you have no cancer.” His sorrow vanishes. His family throw a party!

The point is that this man never had cancer; he only believed he had it.

In the same way, this limited self has never existed and so it is not the problem – it is our belief in it that is the problem. Buddha is pointing out that the object of our self-grasping simply does not exist, 100% does not exist. If we realize this, we’ll relax. Profoundly relax.

If you are somewhat new to the idea of emptiness, you can think “My self is just an idea; I can let it go.”

Moreover, at the moment all our cherishing energy is circling around that self that we normally see. Once we let go of it, our cherishing energy is free to radiate to others.

“Love hurts.” Or doesn’t it?

(Part of the series Is compassion happy or sad?)

The main reason why thinking of others’ suffering hurts is due to our self-cherishing. This is not always obvious. In fact it’s quite subtle.

A dumb but destructive mind

self-cherishing

Self-cherishing believes that our self that we normally see (an inherently existent me) is supremely important, and that its happiness and freedom are supremely important. That inherently existent I is in fact non-existent, so self-cherishing is a really idiotic mind, which has nonetheless managed to pull the wool over our eyes since beginningless time! For us, self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing are almost the same, as Geshe Kelsang said in Summer Festival 2009. They are both aspects of our ignorance and, as such, the root of all our misfortune and suffering. To be clear, self-cherishing is not the same as caring for ourselves.

How can I bear this?

love and desire

In Modern Buddhism, page 78, Geshe Kelsang explains how with self-cherishing we find our own problems unbearable, and this makes us suffer, and how with cherishing others we find others’ suffering unbearable.

Why, one may wonder, would I then try to cherish others – it is bad enough cherishing just one person, me! Surely if I cherish others and then find their suffering unbearable too, I’ll just collapse in an agonized heap?

No. The interesting and profound thing about it is that if we don’t have self-cherishing, we don’t experience any mental pain. Ever. Cherishing others, we find their suffering unbearable, but it doesn’t hurt! It is compassion, which is by nature a peaceful, positive mind and leads to the everlasting happiness of enlightenment. Geshe Kelsang explained this in 2009, pointing out that we can see from this that it is self-cherishing alone that is making us unhappy. (Implicitly this seems to suggest that it is not contemplating others’ suffering, or even our own, that in itself makes us unhappy.)

Exchanging myself with others

equalizing self and others loveIf this is true, it has far-reaching consequences because it really does mean that all we need to do is change our views and intentions by removing self-cherishing from our minds and cherishing others instead (also known as exchanging self with others). According to Kadam Lamrim, this is the actual way to become a Buddha, and it is devastatingly simple – anyone can do it through the force of determination and meditation. It may take a while at first to get going with it, like anything, and we’ll have to review the reasons a lot more than once; but with familiarity it becomes easy. If we believe this, we will gradually lose all resistance to contemplating others’ suffering and generate compassion, enabling us to attain the bliss of enlightenment.

Does it really work?

To believe it, I think we have to “suck it and see”, as they say. Does it really work? If I reduce my self-cherishing, and then contemplate my loved ones’ suffering, will it really not hurt my mind? I tried to apply this to one specific scenario, the swelling of Rousseau’s third eyelids. (I have of course many other scary examples I could use, such as friends with serious illnesses, but the same principles will apply.)

What is happening when I look at Rousseau’s eyes at the moment? His eyes appear unsightly and unpleasant to my mind and various things are going on if I’m honest:

Rousseau the catThe good bits:

(1)    I love this cat, feel for him, and want him to be free from sore, itchy eyes and having to stay inside all day long, which he loathes.
(2)    I will do anything it takes to make him feel better.

The not-so-good-bits:

(1)    Those swollen eyes mean expense at the vet. This is his second infection in three months and I cannot afford to keep paying for his treatments.
(2)    Pushing and grasping – if his eyes aren’t completely better after 5 whole days, someone’s gotta do something! This is desperate. Panic.
(3)    I am guilty that I allow him to roam free outside so he can pick up infections, even though I feel even more guilty keeping him cooped up inside in prison his entire life. I can’t win. It’s frustrating.
(4)    It is more urgent to get rid of his suffering than that of all the other cats in the neighborhood, nay in the world.
(5)    I feel woefully inadequate at protecting him from sickness and suffering even though he is my responsibility. I am a failure.

Yes, the good bits are all about him. And if I can stick to the good bits, no matter how much I consider his sickness, I feel no mental pain at all. I’ve been trying it, it is true. Good bit (1) is also a basis for wishing better things for him, like complete liberation from all sufferings, and good bit (2) is the basis for my determination to become a Buddha as quickly as possible to help him become one too. That is actually bodhichitta, a most blissful state of mind. I can even think: “What would a Buddha do in this situation?” and then approximate it. (For one thing, Buddha would be giving him mental peace through blessing his mind – something we can do somewhat ourselves already, especially if we identify with being a Buddha right now — perhaps a subject for another day. Meantime, see Joyful Path pages 60-61 and page 116 for how to self-generate as Buddha Shakyamuni out of bodhichitta, and bless others, even without an empowerment.)

what to do about depressionThe 5 not-so-good bits are all about me, and they are what are actually causing my pain and worry. They are also the basis for all inappropriate attention and getting stuck down grimy mental cul de sacs, such as (1) dwelling on his eyes in an unhelpful fashion, and then on how little money I have to fix him, and then moving on to all the things that can go wrong, requiring money; (2) not letting things run their karmic course but trying to force all the issues ahead of time, impatiently grasping at results, not seeing the mere (mistaken) appearance of the situation; (3) guilt, which is an entirely useless, cracked-record state of mind; (4) finding Rousseau’s suffering to be more important than the suffering of a gazillion other cats in the world, just because he is my cat, instead of having equanimity and universal compassion; and (5) identifying with my current limitations as opposed to figuring out that I need to, and I can, swiftly get into a position where I can help EVERYONE by practicing Kadam Dharma – going down the open road.

I have been reading both too much into Rousseau’s eyes (with inappropriate attention, causing worry) and too little (not recognizing them as a symptom of needing to get him and all of us out of samsara altogether).

“Question ourselves and give ourselves the answer”

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Summer Festival 2009You can try doing something similar with the person you are most worried about right now, including even your own child – what is going on in my mind, the good bits and the not-so-good bits. As Geshe Kelsang suggested in 2009 when analyzing whether or not self-cherishing is indeed the root of our suffering, we can “question ourselves” and “give ourselves the answer.” (No doubt we’ll have to do this a number of times before the answer sticks.) Please let us know in the comments what you discovered.

Jennifer, my neighbor, also loves Rousseau and often has him to visit, but she is not over-dwelling on his problems – she is not worried about him, and is simply efficiently helping me put in his eye drops, confident that he’ll feel better soon. And although we sometimes want other people to worry about our loved ones with us, for misery loves company, in fact it is far more uplifting when they are not worried, but simply care.

Finally, exchanging self with others is primarily a mental training — we change our thoughts, and our physical and verbal behavior naturally follows suit. Which leads me to a question I have for you, which I’ll ask soon.

Your turn: Do you think your self-cherishing is responsible for all your mental pain or not? Please share your experiences.

Giving ourselves permission to be happy

… doing what?

Sometimes our lives are so busy helping others that we get out of the habit of letting go and taking any time to recharge our batteries, and end up thinking it is too selfish to take “me-time” in any case. This ends up ironically, being the selfish choice if we’re not careful because it undermines our ability to help ourselves and others. And there is no excuse for it, such as the martyrish, “It doesn’t matter if I’m happy or not, so long as I’m helping others.” Because it does matter.

Do you love yourself?

We need to have the wish to be happy. Over the decades I was on study programs there was an almost annual debate over Shantideva’s words that all happiness comes from wishing others to be happy and all suffering comes from wishing oneself to be happy, ergo we shouldn’t love ourselves because love is the wish for someone to be happy.

Is this how we feel about ourselves?!

I’ve heard some people also object to the term “self-love” because they see it as a term favored by “new agers” and equate it with self-indulgence, putting ourselves first; and would prefer us to use words like “self-respect” or “self-confidence” instead. As someone put it on Facebook: “Self-love flirts rather dangerously with self-cherishing and is associated with self-indulgence.”

All this, ironically, can feed nicely into self-cherishing’s tendency to beat ourselves up on those occasions we find ourselves feeling good, thinking it must be some kind of mistake to be this happy. Self-cherishing doesn’t really give us permission to be happy, if you check. It doesn’t let us savor the moments of peace, as described in this article, because its existence is threatened by them. It rapidly comes up with pretexts as to why we should start feeling neurotic, deficient and graspy again. It’d prefer us to feel guilt rather than an uncomplicated, unquestioning joy. Self-cherishing is far more at home in an agitated mental territory.

The word “self-love” isn’t found in Tibetan Buddhism or explicitly in the New Kadampa Tradition books, and I’m personally not too bothered whether we use it or not. But at the same time I think it’s important not to assume that because we don’t talk about “self-love” all that much, this means we shouldn’t love ourselves, or that loving ourself (or even self-love) has to mean the same as self-cherishing. (“Cherishing”, of course, is a type of love, the love considering someone to be special or important; so that is another reason for the occasional confusion as to whether or not we should love ourselves.)

I think it makes no sense psychologically or rationally to say we shouldn’t love ourselves. Insofar as living beings always do want to be happy, and even Buddhas possess this wish, this cannot be what Shantideva is referring to. In that quote, he is referring to self-cherishing. This ignorant mind destroys our happiness because it is under the erroneous impression that our happiness is more important than others’, and it forces us to seek happiness in all the wrong ways that lead to suffering.

Renunciation and compassion

If we cannot wish ourselves happiness, and allow ourselves to taste it, then what are we wishing for ourselves? It seems we cannot develop renunciation even with that attitude, and without renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom and lasting happiness) our compassion for others is like a toothless tiger, as Je Tsongkhapa put it. (I wonder if he was the first person to use that expression ;-)) It is not rooted in anything. We need the wish for true happiness for ourselves in order to generate that wish for others. As Eileen Quinn put it: “We need to renounce false happiness and wish to escape to true happiness.” And: “If we don’t have a taste of real happiness/don’t know what it actually is, how can we wish for it for ourselves or anybody?”

We need to want to be happy, really happy. We need to savor the happiness we already have within us, and practice it so that every day it increases. As mentioned in this article, Buddhism is “happiness-training”. If we don’t have this wish to be happy, why are we practicing meditation, and how can it work? It may sound obvious, but sometimes trainee Mahayana Buddhists tie themselves in knots thinking that this wish is now self-cherishing, and they need to get rid of it; in extreme cases they deny themselves happiness. But that wish can be love, and love is always a good thing, even when directed at ourselves. I think it is important to start every meditation with the wish to be actually happy for once. We need to give ourselves permission to be happy.

What we need to get rid of is the self-cherishing mind exaggerating our importance and seeking happiness in the wrong places. We don’t need to love the limited, neurotic self that is the object of self-cherishing, but we do need to love ourselves. We can understand self-love in those terms (so not necessarily in gooey or self-indulgent terms.) As Nicola Williams concisely puts it: “I think I love myself in ways that I shouldn’t and don’t love myself in ways that I should!”

With renunciation, we love ourselves properly for the first time, wishing actual happiness for ourselves through overcoming the delusions including self-cherishing. Self-cherishing wishes for the pretend happiness that Buddha called “changing suffering”, simply satisfying the desires of our ego-driven attachment as in scratching an itch instead of getting rid of it. Mark Thompson says: “I think self-love really means the mind of renunciation. If we understand our natural wish to be happy, and we understand that in samsara there is no true happiness and only suffering, we will develop the wish for liberation.”

universal love

And when we hear the Mahayana teachings, we come to understand that the best way to find daily and lasting happiness for ourselves is to love others even more than we love ourselves. No contradiction. We still love ourselves, we just love others even more. You could say that loving others is an advanced form of loving ourselves! It is a win win, as far as I can see.

Unhappy people cannot help others anyway. (If we try to, we often end up just spreading our own upset and anxiety.)  So for others’ sake we have to wish to be authentically happy and allow ourselves to be happy at every possible opportunity. That is love. Self-love even! So, though I don’t use that word often, I have no problem with it.

Facebook insights

Read on for insightful comments on the subject from Facebook friends:

Here is what Tim Larcombe said most clearly in response to the question “Do you love yourself?”:

Do I love myself? No, but I’m working on the first step – learning to like myself. Not liking yourself is the dirtiest trick of the self-cherishing mind. This mind says “you’re not good enough, you’re not worth much, you’re limited and stuck – but don’t worry, I’ll help you cover it up and get what you want anyway. Just trust me”. Then like a pusher with a junkie, we are held hostage by self-cherishing, thinking that we are not good enough and must obey its every word to survive with, and hide, our faults. Believing we have to trust self-cherishing leads to untold harm for ourself and everyone else.

Liking yourself on the other hand encourages you to identify with your pure nature and unlimited potential. It’s perfectly possible to fully accept yourself and recognise your faults without identifying with them. And if you know some Dharma then you can reduce and finally eliminate them – which is an act of self-love that benefits everyone. The degree to which you can accept and like yourself, is the degree to which you can accept and like others. I can’t see how it can be otherwise, no matter how good we become at covering up the fact that we don’t like ourselves.

Gradually self-liking can develop into self-love. Loving yourself is wanting yourself to be happy. As long as you don’t view your happiness as more important than others’ happiness (as self-cherishing tells you), there is nothing wrong with loving yourself. You CAN love yourself and cherish others at the same time. They are not contradictory. In fact, cherishing others IS self-love because all happiness comes from cherishing others….

… It’s also helpful to remember that our Spiritual Guide finds us worthy of his unconditional love. If we don’t love ourself, aren’t we saying that he’s mistaken? :-)”

I can’t put it any better than that! Thanks Tim.

Eileen Quinn makes some great points too:

“Strange how so many of us find it hard to accept happiness for ourselves.

And having a strong not liking oneself problem is ‘inverted ego’ anyway. Too much grasping/cherishing of self. That’s not a morally judgmental statement in any way because I know this from experience. I think some people are naturally blighted with this sort of thing and some people aren’t and don’t have to try so hard. (Black and white, there are probably shades of grey in between.) So in my better, more connected, moments, I try to turn to the Great Mother Prajnaparamita and use the emptiness mantra to attack this big black spider of self as that will solve all problems….

… ‘Self-love’ to me can even be a form of humility (our self is seen as the same as everyone else’s, no better, no worse, therefore no exaggeration of ego for want of a better way of putting it), far from being the same as self-cherishing.”

Over to you: Do you love yourself?! How many times a day do you give yourself permission to be totally, utterly happy?! Please go ahead and explain why you agree or disagree with all this in the comments, I love a good discussion.

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Why am I so sad? Removing the two ego minds at the source of our pain.

In a recent article I tried to explain how self-grasping and self-cherishing, and the delusions they spawn, entirely undermine our happiness. Luckily, nothing is fixed – if we can understand these two ego-centered states of mind at the source of our pain and dissatisfaction, that’s the first step to removing them. We don’t need them to survive, to live. The actual nature of our mind is purity – all our delusions are temporary defilements like clouds obscuring a clear sky.

Who comes first?

Not only are we not more important than anybody else, we’re certainly not more important than everybody else, which is what self-cherishing actually thinks. “My happiness comes first.” What does that mean?  My happiness comes first means it comes before the happiness of everybody else. That’s what “first” means, doesn’t it? There are millions of beings in the area around us alone, and our self-cherishing still manages to hold onto the thought, “I’m more important than all of them.” We may not admit that in polite company, it’s way too embarrassing to say it out loud at a dinner party; but if we check what motivates our thoughts and actions day and night, we are trying to serve and protect this sense of me or I, holding it to be the most important me in the world.

Stepping into others’ shoes

When our mind is less ignorant and deluded — for instance when we manage out of love to step out of our shoes and into somebody else’s — then what happens to our sense of self at that time, and our sense of other? It is less polarized, isn’t it? It evens out somewhat. Others feel more like “us” and we feel closer to them. When we do the meditation on equalizing self and others for example, we’re equalizing our sense of self and our sense of other so that we no longer have the sense that our self is like this incredibly important weighty thing and others are neither here nor there. When there is love, empathy, consideration, and so on, our sense of self is far, far less exaggerated and we see no real difference between our self and others.

Big fat ME

But when a delusion such as attachment, anger, jealousy or miserliness is arising, there’s a big fat sense of ME. Why do we cling tightly to our possessions, for example, or our time? Why do we not share ourselves with others, and instead hold ourselves back?  Because we’re trying to defend this isolated castle of me against the hordes of other. On the other hand, when we’re feeling really open and generous, that sense of me is greatly reduced.

Referring to cherishing others on the one hand, and the self-cherishing that thinks our happiness matters most on the other, Shantideva says:

All the happiness there is in the world
Arises from wishing others to be happy,
And all the suffering there is in this world
Arises from wishing ourself to be happy.

Destruction

I sometimes get the New York Times on Sunday. The cashier in Publix the other day wanted to know, “What’s in that paper that’s worth the six bucks?!” And, apart from using it to develop renunciation and compassion, I’m not sure why I do pay good money to torment myself with it for, as they say, no news is good news. Where does this seemingly endless array of disasters around our world actually come from? I think it’s easy to see how much suffering comes from negative, destructive actions — actions motivated by attachment and greed such as pollution and theft, actions motivated by hatred and anger, such as war and murder. When people’s minds are peaceful, calm, and loving, they don’t engage in negative actions (and generally they don’t make the news…)

According to Buddhism, our negativity all comes from our negative minds. This negativity gives rise to suffering, both in the short term, and, from a karmic point of view, in the long term. So these negative actions are all coming from our delusions, these delusions are all coming from our self-cherishing, and our self-cherishing is coming from our self-grasping ignorance.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Transform Your Life:

All negative actions are motivated by delusions, which in turn arise from self-cherishing.  First we develop the thought,    “I am important,” and because of this we feel that the fulfillment our wishes is of paramount importance. Then we desire for ourself that which appears attractive and develop attachment, we feel aversion for that which appears unattractive and develop anger, and we feel indifference toward that which appears neutral and develop ignorance. From these three delusions, all other delusions arise. Self-grasping and self-cherishing are the roots of the tree of suffering, delusions such as anger and attachment are its trunk, negative actions are its branches, and the miseries and pains of samsara are its bitter fruit.

Samsara refers to a life seeded by and poisoned by delusions and suffering, the world described for example in the New York Times. Those who live free from delusions are not in samsara; they are called Foe Destroyers as they have destroyed the foe of delusions (and presumably have their own rather more cheerful newspaper.)

So, who does come first?

The fact is that we’re not the most important person. We’ll never get anyone to agree with us that we are, except possibly our mother (sometimes). We have this strong sense of self-importance, but everybody is exactly the same in that they’re seeking happiness and trying to avoid suffering. Everyone is equal in that respect, and their happiness and their suffering are just as significant as ours. When our mind is in a balanced non-deluded state, we understand this.

Everybody is me or I. We pay lip service to equality – it is even in the American constitution!

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

It would be wonderful if we could really feel that everybody was equal. It would instantly solve so many problems arising from self-cherishing and other delusions.

The Mahayana Buddhist path involves reducing our delusions, especially self-cherishing and self-grasping, and increasing all our positive minds that are the opponents to those delusions, especially compassion and wisdom.

Conclusion
Which direction, samsara or liberation?

As I said at the beginning of this short series of articles, Buddha’s synopsis of the human condition is very encouraging because we are not evil, much less doomed. It is possible for all of us to overcome all our suffering if we simply overcome our ignorance. When we finally cut the root of delusions and suffering through realizing selflessness, delusions and suffering cannot survive. For a full understanding of this, check out the Ultimate Truth chapter in Modern Buddhism, which you can download entirely for free!!

Your turn. Where do you think all pain comes from?! Please share your experiences in the comments and or on the Facebook page, and also give this article to others if it’s useful.

Previous articles in this series:
What is the root of all evil according to Buddha?

Must we all suffer?
Why can’t I be happy?

Oh woe is me! How to stop distracting ourselves from happiness.

Probably, as mentioned in this previous article, the worst fault of self-cherishing is how it undermines our wish and capability to love and help others. I have a couple of embarrassing examples of this from just now, which I have summoned up the courage to share with you below …

As my teacher says in his wonderful mind-training book Eight Steps to Happiness:

The main reason why we do not cherish all living beings is that we are so preoccupied with ourself, and this leaves very little room in our mind to appreciate others.

It is like you’ve worked hard and paid a fortune for a hotel room with a view, only to discover that this view is entirely obscured by a huge rocky mountain right in front of your window. Self-cherishing is likened in the scriptures to a huge mountain blocking our view of the valley of others, a big shame when we’ve paid a karmic fortune to be in this precious human life.

Tai Lung

The awful distraction of self-cherishing cannot be over-estimated and makes us useless to others. Whenever it arises it distracts us to a greater or lesser extent, and sometimes tragically, from the meaning of our lives and the source of real happiness, which is cherishing others.

I had a haircut yesterday and I don’t think Vince (not his real name) cut enough off. Vince was regaling me with a long sad story about an obese employee, and clearly he is a bit of a ham, and I’m not sure if he paid enough attention to my hair. He probably did, but my self-cherishing thinks he should have talked less and concentrated more. So I’m wondering whether to go back and have more chopped off, even though a friend told me its nice (but she doesn’t have to live with it on her head…). Basically, I have had some boring monotonous petty thoughts, plus annoyance at those bits of hair that keep falling into my eyes (which also remind me that my eyesight is deteriorating, which reminds me that I’m getting old…) Oh woe is me!

Then a particularly crafty mosquito buzzed around me all night and this morning, and I haven’t been able to catch her to take her outside. I have slathered myself with OFF! and smell like a chemical factory, but nonetheless she scared me in the night into having the sheet right up to my neck even though it’s hot, and she was still hungrily bugging me during my morning meditation session. Look, I love mosquitos in principle, and especially when they are behaving themselves. But I’m covered with itches. Oh woe is me!

So I open my emails and one is from a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, who was always a bit disturbed but is now sounding flat-out paranoid and threatening suicide. I have to find a way to help her…. I also get an email from a close friend saying that her mother has just had a (mild) stroke and is being kept in the hospital, and that it is a “shock”. And it is, for a few minutes until Madam Mosquito bites again.

Okaaaaaaay……

You’d think those two bits of news would be enough to occupy my mind with thoughts of compassion and how to help, but no, still my self-cherishing wants to veer off those things and back onto the bad hair day and the buzzing mosquito. I have to make an effort to ignore its demands.

(I would like to seguey into a little praise here for my friend, the Buddhist monk Kelsang Nyima. Standing chatting with him outside the NKT mother center Manjushri Centre’s front entrance one day, I noticed his hands were covered with small red welts. Indeed, there was a still a mosquito sucking out his blood. I asked him why he didn’t shoo her away and he replied matter of factly that she was hungry. Then he changed the subject.)

I can only be humbled by such patient generosity, but at least my own 30 years of practice helps me to recognize that it is crazy and, frankly, embarassing to be even remotely bothered about myself given the far worse situations of my friends, not to mention the entire rest of the planet and all six realms. Yet these two incidents have been a useful reminder that, until my self-grasping and self-cherishing are entirely eliminated, I am always in danger and cannot be complacent. My “biggest problem” during the minutes of distraction is bad hair and buzzing mosquitoes, not my sick friend or my friend’s sick mom, if I’m honest, and I might as well be. Those seemingly reasonable and self-protecting worries are entirely unreasonable and treacherous. Stop you buzzing biting mosquito and let me generate compassion!!! Let me offer the victory to others, but please be sure my hair looks hot while I’m doing it.

(Check out this blog, where the blogger says the same thing, only better. I don’t think this blogger is a Buddhist, which just goes to show that these teachings are common sense and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to choose cherishing others over self. It works for everyone, every time. Buddha gave some beautiful wise practical advice on how precisely to do it though – and you can read this in Eight Steps to Happiness.)

Got any examples of your own that you’d like to embarass yourselves with in the comments? And if you like this article, please share it.