The title of this entry is reminiscent of one of Gandhi’s most famous quotes and as I am a Buddhist, it’s extremely applicable. What this quote talks about is far easier said that done, especially if our worldview is aligned with the dominant culture in the U.S.. While the sentiment in this quote speaks a deep truth, how can we go about adopting it in a sincere and genuine way that doesn’t feel forced? How can we live in this way without putting on an “act” for the rest of the world? I’d like to explore this with you and how I’ve been making some progress on this task.
Growing up in the U.S. and as a european-american (a.k.a., white) male, I have assumed that I can have an impact on my surroundings and world. Given the right situations, I can take control of circumstances and change them directly, with or without the help of others. The dominant culture in the U.S. values doing, doing doing and more doing. This means that deep down, I retain the assumption that I can always DO something to change something else…and that this is what I should do. If I can’t change it because I am not in a position of power, then apathy can creep in, where I simply say to myself, “it’s just the way it is.” And so, I act, think, feel and live based on these two extremes. But what Gandhi and Buddhist teachings encourage us to do is to go with a third option…that we live our lives with virtue and that THIS, is what is vital large scale change.
The old adage that the beach is made up of individual grains of sand is relevant here, but all too quickly our mind rears its apathy, “yeah yeah…” However, this is important to consider as a Buddhist, especially when we are sincere in our practice and wish to embody the path regardless of the culture that we reside in. As we know, Buddhism is often referred to as the middle-way and this generally speaks to its position in relationship to any extreme. It is here that we can gain some insight into the path and also how to be more at peace with our surrounding circumstances, especially when the dominant culture is in opposition.
As I just mentioned, there is one extreme of doing and trying to control and the other one is apathy, where we give up and believe that we cannot do anything. Both of these, however, ensure that we live a life based in dukkha or psychological dissatisfaction. This is where we cater to our attachments and aggressively grasp at them like a person addicted to heroin…looking for their next fix to stave off withdrawal. We’re also catering to our aversiveness by working hard to avoid what we don’t want. We experience this through avoidance, anxiety, fear and anger, as we work to push away what we do not want. By catering to our mind’s extreme reactions, we ensure that dukkha prospers and that our mind dominates us.
I have felt the effects of this struggle for quite some time and I am sure that I am not alone. Our desire to change our external conditions to bring about happiness is very understandable. What we wish to change will be unique to each of us and our karma (here, karma is our psychological and spiritual makeup of attachments, hang ups, deep pains, etc.). For me, I grew up in a family where I functioned as a peace-maker and so I want big things and little things to change so that the human race, my community, friends and family are all able to benefit. It might have to do with the environment, human rights, financial matters, relationships between coworkers, criminal acts, living in harmony with others and so on. To think of letting go of trying to control or fix any of these circumstances arouses a degree of pain within me.
My mind tells me that if I do not work to change everything directly then, I’ve failed, that I am not doing my job or duty, that I will be lesser of a person and people can blame me for how things are. Yet, I become so exhausted by my mind’s constant efforts to do, do, do and do! After a while, apathy becomes so tempting because it will at least give me a little break! This back and forth that you might very well be familiar with, is exactly what the Buddha was talking about. This is the problem. Happiness can not be present or even possible so long as we cater to these extremes of mind. So what the hell do we do now? How else should we be that doesn’t feel like a joke to us? While each of us has to go our own way in order to fully answer these questions, I would like to share what I am working on at the moment and the progress that I’ve made.
First, I’ve noticed that my desire to help improve the conditions of the world is a beautiful endeavor, and it comes from a deep tenderness in my heart. I truly wish that everyone could experience an ongoing degree of contentment. While I’m partial to those that I love and care about, it is also extended to the entire human population and even to animals. Life is pretty tough and I wish for all people and animals to not have it so difficult. Yet, as my mind becomes more attached to this wish and ways that it can express itself there are times when my actions or how I relate to others becomes counter-productive. I might argue with some level of intensity with another, become angry at the drivers who speed ahead on the highway just to get a few car lengths in front us or frustrated by people’s lack of awareness that their actions impact others. In each of these cases, aggressiveness can and does arise, even if it is only a little. But this is NOT helpful and I must remember this! Not to mention, where is my wish for my own peace?!
If I’m acting with frustration and anger rather than acceptance, kindness and openness, then I am becoming a part of the very problem that I’m wishing to change! Not to mention, I’m not even living a life of contentment and kindness so…!? How messed up is this, right?! If I act on these frustrations and anger then another person just like me will likely dump me into the category of people who need to get their shit together! So how different am I from the rest? Ultimately, when I act on these I AM no different. This insight is so important for me to remember and while it is challenging to let go of how I have been, I can see that I am a part of the problem when I cater to my mind in this way! Therefore, I need to muster the courage to not always trust what my mind tells me and to attempt a different approach. If I truly desire contentment, I must do this!
For me, I need to spend time reflecting upon circumstances such as this, to sit with and observe my hang ups or as Pema Chodron has called them, shenpa (sp?). I need to get to know it and through this process I can realize another, kinder and softer approach to myself and others. At the moment, I’m facing these head on and moving directly toward them. Learning how to be with my mind, observe it and take a step back when it starts to yack at me, “Do something! Control this! Screw it, give up!” Sure, it’s going to yack repeatedly and even yell at me at times, but my challenge is to let go of it and just rest. But rest in what? Ah yes…the “now what?” scenario!
Though my mind knows that all human beings and animals desire happiness, wish to avoid discomfort, are innately good, kind and loving…my mind convinces me otherwise. So I need to change my worldview and paradigm. This means that I need to put continuous effort into remaining mindful of what arises that is not helpful or does not represent the ultimate truth of things. “I cannot control them, apathy is not helpful but I can live in harmony and feel that they are like me. They wish for the same things, are good and deserving of my caring, kindness and patience.” And it is at this point that each of us will have to find our own way. None of us can give each other the necessary insight into this matter, we have to do our own work. If you tend to think very logically about things like I often do, then let us try to reason our way to this new perspective and way of being in the world.
We wish to live a life of contentment, joy and happiness. We also wish this for all others and for our numerous problems to be resolved. However, we do not currently feel completely content and we know that many others are also not content. If we act with aggression and intensity toward others, will this inspire contentment in them? Will it inspire them to think any differently? Or will they be immediately turned off? If we become angry and honk at the person on the road, will they even know what the hell we’re trying to say them? Most likely they won’t and they’ll probably tell us to piss off. I have surely made this mistake many times and I am regretful that I have acted this way…though I do forgive myself for it.
So if we wish to promote contentment, peace, kindness and social and environmental responsibility, then WE must contribute to it by changing how we are, even though it is difficult. Even though we see how much pain, difficulty and disruption occurs in the world we must do this. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche discusses, we have a broken heart when we see the world this way and that this is a part of the path. We also have a broken heart when we let go of how we have been and when we witness ourselves acting in unhelpful ways. Our challenge, therefore, is to learn how to live with this sadness but not allow it to transform into unhelpful or harmful states of mind and action. This way we can achieve our goal by ensuring that one person, us, is contributing contentment, kindness and peacefulness to the world. Another thing to consider, is it even possible for us to control another person and our circumstances?
Gaining insight into our limitations and remembering these may also help us let go of thoughts and tendencies to act in ways that are ultimately, unhelpful. Since we cannot control another person’s will and they cannot our’s, what’s left to do? The only thing that we may ever really be able to do is embody contentment and this alone may inspire others to alter their ways. What’s ironic about this is that by embodying the path, we may exert more influence upon the world than by trying to control it. It’s a win win because we don’t have to expend so much energy and individually, we experience a greater sense of peace and happiness. Also, others benefit more from this than when we attempt to control circumstances because they will naturally resist our attempts. At the very least, this is what I am working to remember each moment of the day…it is tough but it is truly necessary if I want to be of help to everyone, to all of you.