Overcoming self-doubts

Buddha kindThis weekend it is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day and Easter, both good occasions it would seem for overcoming self-doubts, sloughing off despondency, and resurging our spiritual practice.

I’ve been writing about the four types of self-confidence or so-called “non-deluded pride” we need for this – the first two are pride in realizing our potential and pride in overcoming our delusions. Today would seem like a perfect occasion for a conversation about the third type, called “Pride in our actions”. This is:

a strong determination to perform virtuous actions, for example a mind of superior intention thinking “I myself will free all sentient beings from suffering.” ~ How to Understand the Mind

So many people …

Back in New York this January, I found myself thinking about this type of self-confidence a lot, maybe because wherever there are lots of living beings, there is also lots of suffering. Which is what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso said when he visited Manhattan years ago – after a glamorous “sight seeing” tour in the car, he shook his head and said:

So many people. So much suffering.

Cars DriveI walked home each day via a homeless pregnant young woman. One one occasion it had started raining and she was more bedraggled than ever. I gave her a juice, but it was so inadequate to her enormous needs that it brought to mind that Cars song they played at Live Aid back in the day:

Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

Did you wake up happy today?

One morning I woke up feeling stiff and sorry for myself, but then I opted to remember her and the umpteen others living under cardboard boxes, at which point my own pathetic problems vanished.

Later that day I asked a large group of New Yorkers if any of them had woken up really happy. To my slight surprise, with just one or two exceptions, they all laughed and said “No”.

dinosaurs eating humansI don’t really like that no one is even waking up happy. We haven’t even got out of our nice warm bed yet! Nothing has gone wrong! What chance do we have of being happy for the rest of the precarious day?

The thing is, we all have the potential to be happy all the time. But our delusions are ruining this for us. We wake up and cast around for things to blame for our malaise — surely there is something or someone out there I can pin this feeling on?! But in fact we only wake up unhappy because our mind is out of control.

This is why we need to develop compassion, superior intention, and bodhichitta, for both our own and others’ sake. We need to become, as my friend Gen Samten says, protectors, not victims.

Benefits of bodhichitta

Bodhichitta is the wish to attain enlightenment so that we can liberate all living beings from their sufferings permanently. It starts off as a nice idea, then we get more and more familiar with it until it sticks and replaces our hitherto selfish motivations. At which point, day and night, we experience outrageously huge benefits.

One of these, possibly my favorite, is that we have a state of mind that is a source of peace and happiness for all living beings!

superior intentionI don’t know about you, but I love the idea of being of instant benefit to this world before we have even lifted a finger. We should never underestimate the power of our mind. Just look at what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is pulling off for example, through his ideas and his blessings, even though he spends most of his time in his room. We can become like his emanation, a servant helping him and all enlightened beings in their work of liberating everyone. We can become part of that enlightened society and invite everyone else to join us.

It’s up to me

So this third non-deluded pride has to do with our actions, with benefiting living beings. It includes superior intention, taking personal responsibility for everyone. On one level, there is such audacity in this! Because normally we think so far beneath our potential — for example we hear teachings on compassion and we think, “Okay, then, I’m really going to try to make up with my second cousin who beat me up in fourth grade” – whereas what we need to think is “I am going to do that, but I am also going to liberate all living beings without exception.”

Not just help them, but liberate them. Take them out of samsara. Take them away from all their suffering, lead them to liberation and enlightenment. I’m going to liberate all living beings without exception. I’m going to do that.

We can put ourselves in that frame of mind. Step out from our limited self-perception and go there.

money doesn't buy happinessIt might be helpful to consider how it’s not possible to find lasting happiness from our possessions, friendships, and so forth; but it is actually possible for us to attain the lasting happiness of enlightenment and liberate all living beings. So why invest all our energy and time into happiness that is impossible, as opposed to happiness that is possible?

That’s what a Buddha is – a Buddha is a very blissful being who has the power or capacity to liberate all living beings. We need this big vision of ourselves, and what better day to think about this than today?

With superior intention, we have this thought, “It’s up to me. If I don’t liberate everyone, who is going to do it?!” If a mother sees her child drowning, she doesn’t just think, “How nice it’d be if someone would dive in and rescue her!” – she jumps in herself. That is like superior intention – it is a compassion that assumes responsibility, knowing that we can, and have to, take it on.

This non-deluded pride overcomes discouragement, self-pity, and self-indulgence. Imagine sitting on the bank of the river feeling sorry for yourself just because no one gets you or acknowledges you, while meantime others are drowning right in front of you. It is a fairly sad state of affairs.

Sandwich Man

I love riding the subway. So much food for practice, so much scope for connection.

New York subway 1One day I was covertly watching the people around me, each in their own worlds and/or Smartphones, furrowed brows, far from the present moment, far from each other. But a man then entered the carriage with a trolley full of plain white-bread sandwiches. And he asked, simply: “Is anyone hungry?”

Everyone was snapped into the present moment — something about this man was making us smile, at him and also at each other. He then declared: “You don’t have to be homeless to be hungry!” A man wrapped up in the corner seat then asked if he could have one, which he devoured before asking for a second. Then someone else asked. Then people started giving Sandwich Man money. All of a sudden there was so much connection there, so much meaning, so much hope.

(And affectionate love brought everyone out of the past and the future and into the here and now, as virtuous minds always do. We all shared a moment.)

This man had taken personal responsibility for feeding all the hungry people on the subway, and it was making all the difference. Imagine taking that kind of responsibility for everyone everywhere, I thought. Our life would be entirely different, as would the lives of all the people we met and worked with.

Our worries and self-doubts diminish straightaway when we develop this big heart as it is no longer about us. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso said to someone recently:

What is there to worry about? All you are trying to do is help others.

One more article on this third type of self-confidence in the pipeline. Meantime, over to you for feedback … how do you overcome self-doubts on a daily basis?

Related articles

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Do you ever feel discouraged?

Is enlightenment pie in the sky?

Compassion ~ the quick path to enlightenment

 

Do you ever feel discouraged?

Happy Easter in Buddhism Happy Easter Everyone! I thought today would be a good day to start a series of articles on how to become unstuck – overcoming the long winter of our discouragement to arise anew. Sloughing off our sense of a limited, fixed, deluded self — a self that doesn’t in any case even exist — and arising and identifying ourselves as a wise, peaceful, positive, loving, happy, blissful, free person instead.

Easter and Spring both seem to me occasions to celebrate the ripening of deep potential and fertility. Isn’t that what Jesus was showing when he arose from the dead on what is, according to Christian friends, the most uplifting day of the Christian calendar? Isn’t that also what eggs and bunnies are about? And, when the daffodils do finally manage to get their little yellow heads up above the snow, isn’t that what daffodils are about too?

Self-effacement or self-sabotage?

don't believe everything you thinkAt my day job last week I was asked to fill in an incredibly long and complicated (to me) application form in a very short period of time, and I was protesting inwardly and a little bit outwardly too: “Don’t make me do this! It’s way above my pay grade, someone else could do it so much better, there’s so much at stake, I’m going to blow it!”

Later that day I overheard someone talking about the impossibility of their realizing emptiness in almost exactly the same terms!

I realized we were both under the influence of discouragement, and therefore setting ourselves up for failure. Only when I got going and realized I probably could do this after all, (with a little encouragement), did I start enjoying myself; and I did a perfectly okay job of it. Likewise, only when we get going and get rid of the notion that we can’t do emptiness, (with a little encouragement and inspiration), can we start enjoying ourselves and get the job done.

Laziness in disguise

Discouragement is rampant in our times, and when it is applied to our spiritual practice it becomes a dangerous type of laziness, called the laziness of discouragement. Over the last year or so, quite a number of people have asked me to write something about it. Now that I’m back in the land of self-deprecation bordering on self-sabotage, I thought it would be a good time to start.

We have enormous spiritual potential. And everything depends upon our mind, our thoughts; including our sense of self. Holding onto the thought of a fixed, limited self is preventing us from changing and realizing our potential.

British self-effacement can be endearing and sometimes even humble, but as often as not it is a tight grasping at a limited sense of self that is holding us back from attempting or achieving anything that will help ourselves and others. The self-talk thoughts, “You’re useless”, “You’re too old”, “You can’t do this!”… these are not humility, these are aversion, and comments we would not want to put up with from other people. That we put up with and heed our own self-defeating thoughts is a big shame, considering we have a precious human life and Buddha nature and can do anything if we go for it. As one Facebook friend put it:

overcoming discouragement in Buddhism

“Discouragement is a problem for me – often there is no boundary between being self-effacing and being self-destructive in my mind. My teacher once very helpfully pointed out that the full name for discouragement is ‘the laziness of discouragement’, but we don’t often think of ourselves as lazy when we’re feeling discouraged.”

Which is true. We might be assuming that putting ourselves down is almost innocent. We don’t think of it as a delusion, but this laziness of discouragement IS a delusion. Perhaps it is even the most pernicious delusion, insofar as, under its influence, we let our life go by without changing ourselves, and it keeps us forever stuck in suffering if we let it.

We can understand the delusion of laziness better if we appreciate what is its opposite, positive mind, which is effort. So perhaps we can start here.

What is effort?

“Effort” can sound like a lot of effort! Joyful effort, its full name, is better, but still seems to require, well, effort. Is “energy” any better? Inspiration? Enjoyment?  I’m inspired to practice, I’m happy to practice, I love practicing, I enjoy practicing – these are all manifestations of effort, far more than “I need to put in the effort”, “I really ought to be practicing”…

amazing race to enlightenmentEffort can sound tense, can sound like we’re squeezing or pushing for results. Sometimes we are — as competitive westerners we can bring our competitive streak to our spiritual practice. We may be sitting next to someone thinking “I wonder how they’re concentrating? Oh no, they can meditate for far longer than me! Oh, their posture is so much better…” We tend to push a lot in our own culture, job, family, society and so forth – we push for results. And we can also feel under pressure to fake for results in order to look good.

Do you ever live your life as if people are looking over your shoulder and judging you? Perhaps feeling guilty when you don’t think you’re up to scratch as mothers, workers, partners, and even spiritual practitioners? Then we feel we need to push and try harder (or fake better!); but guilt is certainly no substitute for joy, and this is not effort. I love to practice Buddhism or Dharma as if no one is looking.

When I first went to America, I noticed that Americans are unafraid to tell you about their qualities, whereas you could never get a Brit to tell you about their qualities except under torture. Brits resort to understatement and self-deprecation: “I am perfectly useless at that… I can’t meditate for the life of me”, whereas Americans like to put their best foot forward at all times, which can be good, but which can also sometimes mean faking it a little – it’s a bit like a job interview culture. Perhaps some of us associate effort, then, with pushing, and not being entirely authentic – and basically not really experiencing any change. However, effort is all about changing.

If we can avoid the extremes of self-deprecation and insincerity, and have a joyful, confident, enthusiastic, and relaxed approach to our meditation practices, we are guaranteed to change a great deal for the better.

What is “virtue”?

Effort is defined in Buddhism as “a mind that delights in virtue”.

Virtue means the causes of happiness. Again, not what we always think when we think of the word virtue, which can sound a bit too, well, virtuous (goody two shoes = not what it means.)

So, effort delights in the causes of happiness. This doesn’t sound much like effort as we know it! But we can see that if we did have a mind that delighted in cultivating the causes of happiness, we’d end up being very happy, because we’d be joyfully creating joy! With effort our meditation becomes delightful, like a child playing his favorite video game, and how much effort does THAT take?! We are aiming at enjoying our practice so that it feels effortless – and that funnily enough IS what genuine effort feels like.Buddha's face in flower

We may not be there yet, but it is as well to know that this is what effort is. Not pushing. Not squeezing. Not clenching. Not forcing. Not grasping at results. Not feeling miserably as if I am over here TRYING so hard to practice, and the results are over there, years or even lifetimes away in the future, an unbridgeable chasm between us — setting ourselves up for failure. Not comparing and contrasting what everyone else is doing or fantasizing about what they think of us. Not putting ourselves down or believing all our own inner narrative about who we are. Effort is all about being in the present moment, enjoying virtue or the causes of happiness, identifying with being a happy person – enjoying, in other words, being positive, kind, wise, happy, and free.

A little tip: To begin with, if you have to, you can pretend you are enjoying your virtuous activities — or rather imagine that you are.  I remember when I first got into Buddhist that I used to do this with really long prayers, prostrations, fasting, and so on, as I didn’t always automatically enjoy these spiritual practices. So I would think: “I’m really enjoying this!” until I believed it. It is just thoughts, after all. It worked for me.

Next time, more on how we get stuck and how to get unstuck.

YOUR TURN: Please help me with my continued market research on the subject. Do you ever feel discouraged? How do you overcome it?