If we want 2017 to be better than 2016, we might want to cultivate some more self-confidence. I was thinking about how we cannot afford to become heavy-hearted or overwhelmed with all the things that will inevitably go wrong publicly and privately this year, or we will be of little use to anyone. The laziness of discouragement will kick in, wherein we will feel too dejected to help ourselves and everyone else bring an end to suffering and its causes. It is no fun to be like a dying snake, as in Shantideva’s illustration in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
If a snake lies dying on the ground,
Crows will act like brave eagles and attack it.
In the same way, if my self-confidence is weak,
Even the slightest adversity will be able to harm me.
According to Buddhism, there are four areas in which we need to cultivate self-confidence, and I thought it might be really helpful to set ourselves up with these for the new year. These will give us both courage and energy, regardless of what the day’s headlines are screaming.
Some things will go right in 2017, too, and, as you’ll see, we may need these special types of self-confidence then as well to stop ourselves getting side-tracked from our mission to save the world 😉
But first I want to tell Tara’s story, as I said I would in this last article. This is because she is a perfect embodiment of self-confidence and fearlessness, and we could do a lot worse than (1) having her on our side and (2) learning to emulate her. It’s helpful to ask, “What would Tara do?” when we notice ourselves getting forlorn, desperate, or panic-stricken.
Whether you take the following account of where Tara came from as an allegory or a true story, I don’t think it really matters, for either way it shows how cool and courageous she is. In the Sutra of Praises to the Twenty-one Taras, Buddha Shakyamuni said:
Homage to Tara, the Swift One, the Heroine,
Whose eyes are like a flash of lightning,
Who arose from the opening of a lotus,
Born from the tears of the Protector of the Three Worlds.
Aeons and aeons ago, in another world system, Buddha Avalokiteshvara, who had already liberated countless living beings from suffering, thought he’d check, “How many are left?” Seeing that there were still a countless number, he was so moved that he began to cry.
The Buddha of Compassion’s tears were so great that they formed a pool.
And in response, swift as the wind, as a manifestation of the wind element of all the Buddhas, Tara arose from a lotus on the pool and said to him these words:
Don’t cry. I will help you. I will permanently liberate all remaining living beings from their suffering.
Tara is therefore compassion in action, action Buddha, superwoman. She doesn’t mess about and she never backs down. Gentle, ferocious, whatever it takes … she will do it to liberate living beings. An incredibly popular, iconic Buddha in India and in Tibet, and hopefully now increasingly amongst us in the modern world, there are many stories of people calling out to her at moments of danger, fear, and duress and immediately receiving her help.
And if we want to assist all the Buddhas, including our compassionate Spiritual Guide, in their mission to liberate everyone on this planet and elsewhere from their pain, we need to aim at Tara’s degree of self-assurance.
What is pride?
So, back to the four types of self-confidence. Judging by the number of self-help books on developing self-confidence, a lot of people like this topic – probably because our self-grasping and self-cherishing make us feel so insecure all the time.
In other teachings, Geshe Kelsang refers to these types of self-confidence taught by Shantideva as “non-deluded pride.” In general, pride is deluded. Our mind is “puffed up” with an exaggerated sense of our own importance, as Geshe-la explains in the book How to Understand the Mind.
Pride refers to an inflated sense of self for slight reasons. For example, a new haircut. New shoes. Or you just got a promotion or a hot girlfriend or something like that. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. These things are never a reason to think that we’re better or superior to others, that we are somehow more special. But due to our ridiculous feelings of self-doubt, we’re constantly longing to feel special. Our self-cherishing makes us long to be affirmed in some way, any way. Yesterday a close friend I haven’t seen in a while said to me, as if he meant it, “You’re looking really great!” and although I brushed it off modestly on the outside, inside I was like, “Yeah, you’re right, thank you.” We swell up like a balloon.
Or maybe someone tells us excitedly of a beautiful place they visited and we reply, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve been there.” Subtext is that we discovered it, we got there first, it is pervaded by our ego blessings, they should count themselves lucky to be part of that. According to our self-grasping and our self-cherishing, the world basically revolves around us; and deluded pride is just an inflation of those ego minds. The self held up by our self-grasping and self-cherishing doesn’t exist, so we need pride to bolster it! Perhaps this is why deluded pride is one of the six root delusions, meaning it is pretty common, even if we hate ourselves. Perhaps especially if we hate ourselves.
Ego trips (up)
Self-confidence is not the same as self-importance, it is quite the opposite. If we are caught up with grasping at inherently existent self and inherently existent others — which leads to cherishing our important self and neglecting the importance of others — we find ourselves constantly jockeying for position. This undermines our self-confidence as we are always comparing and contrasting ourselves with others instead of just getting on un-self-consciously with the job of improving ourselves and helping everyone else. We feel superior, or we feel inferior, or we feel competitive. We have to focus on our own good qualities and others’ faults just to stay on top. We have to praise ourselves and criticize others, whether out loud or internally, just to feel good about ourselves. It’s exhausting.
Anyway, that’s deluded pride. There are seven types as a matter of fact, and you can check these out in How to Understand the Mind – they have names like “pride in identity” and “pretentious pride”, and the descriptions are embarassing. This pride stops us improving. And pride comes before a fall, as they say. It makes us vulnerable and sets us up for suffering because it’s only a matter of time before we’re not being acknowledged in the way we want to be acknowledged, or people are ignoring us, or suddenly there’s a biting comment, and whoooosh, all the wind goes out of the balloon, just like that.
Feeling full of ourselves based on external stuff that doesn’t last is highly suspect – youth and good looks, for example, are neither a stable nor genuine basis for feeling cool. (Doesn’t mean we’re not appreciative to be young and good-looking, but we don’t need to be all conceited about it.) Pride also leads to disrespect and gets in the way of empathizing with others. On the subject of ordinary coolness:
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder. ~ John Lennon
Buddha Vajrayogini often appears as an old hag to help her followers realize that youth and looks aren’t everything, aren’t much in fact. And of course there is Tara, who is totally cool, as is Geshe Kelsang, not because he is young or has movie star looks but because he is fully in control of his mind. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la says:
At present we might be beautiful, fit, intelligent, and successful, but we have no power to remain like this. Eventually, without any choice, we will have to become old, decrepit, impoverished, disabled or senile. If we compare ourselves to realized beings who have perfect freedom and whose happiness cannot be destroyed by external conditions, we will soon lose our pride.
Non-deluded pride is completely different to deluded pride. Non-deluded pride is also a strong sense of self, but this self is not the inherently existent self, which doesn’t in fact exist, but a self that is identified with the truth, or imputed on something that does exist. These are the four types of non-deluded pride, or self-confidence:
- Pride with respect to our potential.
- Pride in thinking we can destroy our delusions.
- Pride in our actions.
- Divine pride, taught in Buddha’s Tantric teachings.
I’m out of space, so can come back to these in the next article.
Meantime, over to you. Comments very welcome! (To leave a comment, by the way, just scroll down to the bottom of this page.)