Making Friends with Ourselves
A Dharma Talk Given at
South Central Correctional Center, Licking, Missour, July 2006
by Ven. Thubten Chodron ©
Be aware of sensations in your back, shoulders, chest, and arms. Some people store their tension in their shoulders; if you’re one of them, I found it very helpful to lift your shoulders up towards your ears, tuck your chin in a little bit and let your shoulders drop rather suddenly. You can do that a couple of times and it helps to relax the shoulders.
Be aware of the sensations in your neck, jaw and face. People store their tension in their jaw. Their jaw is clenched. If you’re one of those people then let your jaw and all your facial muscles relax.
Be aware that the position of your body is firm, but also at ease. Be aware that being firm and being relaxed can go together.
This is how we prepare the body, now let’s prepare the mind. We do this by cultivating our motivation. Begin by asking yourself what was my motivation for coming here this evening? There’s no right or wrong answer, just be inquisitive. What was my motivation for coming? Why did I come here tonight? (pause)
Now whatever your initial response was, let’s build on that. Let’s transform it into a very expansive motivation. Think that through working on ourselves through meditation and the sharing of the Dharma we will be better able to serve and benefit others.
Generate the mind of loving compassion that wants to practice the Dharma. The mind that seeks full enlightenment. We do this for our own benefit as well as for the benefit of each and every sentient being. This is the motivation we want to generate. (pause)
Now turn your focus to your breath. Breathe normally and naturally. Be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. Be aware of what is happening in your body and what is happening in your mind. If you get distracted by a sensation, thought or sound, just recognize that and bring your focus back to the breath. By staying focused on one object, in this case the breath, we let our minds settle down. We let our minds become peaceful.
While you’re breathing allow yourself to be content to sit here and breathe. What you are doing is good enough. Be content with what is happening now. Be satisfied with what is happening now. Simply do that for a few minutes. Do silent meditation being mindful of the breath. (bell)
I started off cultivating the motivation at the beginning of the meditation. This is a really important part of our Buddhist practice. The long term effects of our actions, this kind of karmic seed we create by what we do is largely based on our motivation. Being aware of our motivations increases our knowledge about ourselves. Consciously cultivating a motivation of love, compassion, and altruism towards others helps us to become friends with ourselves.
We have to look at our mind. What is our motivation? What are our emotions? What are our thoughts? What is going on inside of us? Our mind is what generates a motivation. When the mind has a motivation, then the mouth moves and the body moves. Deliberately cultivating a good motivation is an essential part of Buddhist practice.
This is something that really appealed to me when I first met the Dharma. It put me very squarely in front of myself. I couldn’t wiggle out by trying to look good. You can try to look good all you want and impress people all you want, but getting them to think well of you doesn’t mean you’re creating virtuous karma. Manipulating people so that they’ll do something for you doesn’t mean you’re putting good energy into your mindstream. It’s quite the contrary: a motivation in which we’re looking out only for our own pleasure now puts negative karmic seeds on our mindstream.
Our motivations and our intentions are what leaves karmic seeds on our mindstream. It’s not what other people think about us; not what they say about us; not whether we’re praised or blamed. What is going on in our own heart and mind is what determines the type of karmic seeds we’re depositing on our mindstream.
One example I like to give is someone is building a clinic in a poor neighborhood. They’re collecting donations to build this clinic. There’s somebody who is really rich and they give a million dollars. The thought in their mind when they give the million dollars is, “My business is going really well. I’m going to give this million dollars. When they build the clinic, in the foyer where you walk in, they’ll have a plaque with my name. I’ll be chief benefactor.” That is their motivation.
There’s somebody else. They don’t have much money, so they give ten dollars. Their motivation, the thought in their mind is, “It’s fantastic that there’s going to be a clinic here. May everyone who comes to this clinic be instantly healed from all of their diseases and ailments. May they abide in happiness.”
We have one guy giving a million dollars with one motivation and another guy giving ten dollars with a different motivation. In general society, who do we say is the generous person? The one who gives a million dollars, right? That person gets so much credit and everyone goes, “Ah, look at so and so, how generous he is and how kind he was.” They make a big deal out of that person and the person who gave ten dollars, everybody just ignores.
When you look at their motivations that they had, who is the generous one? It was the one who gave ten dollars. Was the person who gave the million dollars generous? From the point of view of his motivation, was there any generosity? No, the guy was doing it completely for his own ego benefit; he did it to gain status in the community. He came out looking good in people’s eyes and everybody thought he was generous. But in terms of the karma he created it was not a generous action.
In Dharma practice we have to face ourselves honestly. Dharma is like a mirror and we look at ourselves. What’s going in my mind? What’s my intention? What are my motivations? This kind of investigation into the workings of our own mind and heart is what produces real change in us. This brings about actual mental purification. Being a spiritual person is not about doing things that look spiritual, it’s about actually transforming our mind.
The majority of the time we are totally unaware of our motivations; people live on automatic. They get up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to work, have lunch, work some more in the afternoon, have dinner, read a book, watch TV, talk with friends, and collapse into bed. There went a whole day! What was the motivation underlying all that? They have such incredible potential, human intelligence and the human rebirth. What was the person’s motivation for everything they did? They probably had motivations for what they did, but they weren’t aware of their motivation. When they went to breakfast their motivation was probably, “I’m hungry and I want to eat.” Then they ate with that motivation. Maybe the motivation switched after a few bites and became “I’m eating because I want pleasure.”
When we wake up in the morning, what is our motivation for living that day? What’s the thought that gets us out of bed in the morning? We wake up and what are our first thoughts? What are our motivations? What are we seeking in life when we wake up?
We roll over and we think, “Ugh that alarm, that bell again! I want to stay in bed.” Then we think, “Coffee, oh coffee, that sounds good, some pleasure. I’ll get out of bed for coffee, breakfast. To get pleasure I can get out of bed.” Many of our motivations are seeking pleasure, something to make us feel good ASAP. If somebody gets in our way when we’re trying to get some pleasure, we get mad and take it out on them, “You’re interfering with my pleasure! You’re preventing me from getting what I want! How dare you!!” These thoughts of ill will and malice put karmic seeds in our mindstream. These thoughts motivate us to speak harshly or behave aggressively. That creates more karma. As the ones who create the karma, we are also the ones who experience the results of our own actions.
We wake up in the morning instantly seeking our own pleasure. Is that the meaning or purpose of human life? It doesn’t seem very meaningful, does it? We just seek pleasure, help our friends, and harm our enemies. If people give us pleasure they’re our friend; if people get in our way they’re our enemy.
That’s how dogs think. What do dogs do? If you give him a biscuit, the dog considers you his friend for life. You’re giving that dog a little bit of pleasure and now he loves you. Then if you don’t give him the biscuit, he’ll consider you an enemy because you’re depriving him of pleasure.
The mind grasps onto pleasure. It gets upset when someone interferes with our pleasure. Our slogan is “I want what I want when I want it!” and we expect the world to cooperate. We make friends and help them because they do things that benefit us. We get upset when people do things we don’t like; we call them enemies and want to harm them. This is how most people live.
From the Buddhist point of view, we have a much greater human potential than just seeking pleasure and getting mad at the people who interfere with that. This is not the meaning or purpose of life.
Since all of these pleasures end very quickly, what’s the use of greedily chasing after them or of retaliating if someone gets in our way? How long does the pleasure of eating breakfast last? It depends on if you’re a fast eater or a slow eater, but either way it doesn’t last longer than half an hour and it’s over.
We run around struggling for pleasure, but the pleasure doesn’t last very long. We do all these things to have a feel-good experience, and we retaliate against those people who obstruct our feel-good experiences. But these experiences last a very short time. Meanwhile the motivations we’re operating under put negative karmic imprints in our mind. When we operate under the influence of jealousy, hostility and resentment, it puts karmic seeds in our mind.
These seeds influence what we experience in the future. These seeds ripen and influence what situations we encounter and whether we’ll be happy or miserable. Sometimes the seeds ripen in this life, other times in future lives.
It’s ironic that even though we want happiness, we create the causes for unhappiness when we act motivated by the self-centered thought, “My happiness now is the most important thing in the world.” Whenever we act with a selfish and greedy mind, we’re putting that energy into our consciousness. Is the selfish and greedy mind relaxed and peaceful? Or is it tight and clinging?
The Buddha said that we have incredible human potential. That Buddha potential is what allows us to become fully enlightened beings. Enlightened beings may seem very abstract to you. What does it mean to be a fully enlightened being?
One of the qualities of a fully enlightened being or Buddha is that the seeds of anger and resentment have been totally eliminated from the mindstream in such a way that they can never reappear. What would it feel like not to have even the potential for anger or hatred in your mind? Can you even imagine what that would feel like? Think about it: No matter what somebody says to you, no matter what somebody does to you, your mind is peaceful. You calmly accept what’s happening and have compassion for the other person. There is no possibility for anger, hatred or resentment to arise.
When I think about that I go, “Wow!” Anger is a big problem with a lot of people. Wouldn’t it be wonderful never to get angry again? And this not because you’re stuffing the anger down, but because you are completely free from the seeds of anger in your mind.
Another quality of a Buddha is that a Buddha is satisfied with whatever there is. A Buddha doesn’t have greed, possessiveness, clinging, craving, or any other attachments. Imagine what it would be like to be totally satisfied. It wouldn’t matter who you’re with or what’s going on, your mind wouldn’t crave for more and better. Your mind would be satisfied with what is in the moment.
How different that would be from our present state of mind. I don’t know about you, but my mind is continually saying, “I want more! I want better! I like this. I don’t like that. Do it this way and don’t do it that way.” In other words, my mind loves to complain. What a pain in the neck that mind is.
When we think about a Buddha’s qualities, we get an idea of our potential. There is the possibility to be completely free from craving, dissatisfaction, and hostility. We also have the potential to develop equal love and compassion for every living being. This means that anytime you meet anybody, your instant reaction would be one of closeness, affection, and care for that person. Think about that, wouldn’t it be great to have that be your automatic reaction to everyone? It’d be so different from how our out-of-control mind acts now. Now when we meet somebody, what’s our first reaction? We ask ourselves, “What can I get out of them? or “What are they going to try to get out of me?” There is a lot of fear and distrust in our reactions. Those are the thoughts in the mind. They’re only conceptual thoughts, but they sure create a lot of pain inside of us. Aren’t fear and distrust painful?
What would it be like—even here in prison—to be able to greet each person you meet with an open heart? What would it be like to have a heart that feels kindness and closeness instantly towards everyone? How wonderful it would be if you could see that one nasty guard that you normally can’t stand and be peaceful! Wouldn’t it be great to be able to look into his heart and have a feeling of kindness and affection for him? We wouldn’t lose anything by doing that. Instead, we would gain a lot of internal peace. Don’t immediately tell yourself it’s impossible. Instead, try being less judgmental, try being more pleasant to others. Give it a try and see what happens not only to your inner sense of well being but also to how others treat you in return.
We have such incredible potential inside of us. We have the ability to transform our mind in this way, to become a fully enlightened Buddha. Now that we’ve seen our human potential, we should want to live our lives in a very meaningful way. Now can you see how just looking out for “my pleasure ASAP” and getting “my way as much as possible” can be a dead end? It’s a waste of time, not because it’s bad, but because it doesn’t make much sense to put so much time and energy into doing things that bring such little happiness? Instead we see we have great human potential for magnificent happiness that comes from purifying our own mind and developing a kind heart. We’d prefer big happiness to small happiness, wouldn’t we? We’d prefer long lasting happiness or peace to a quick fix that left us feeling empty afterwards, wouldn’t we? Then let’s have confidence in our potential to follow the path and become an enlightened being, and let’s act on that confidence by being more respectful and kinder to others. Let’s develop that confidence by studying the Buddha’s teachings and increasing our wisdom.
Right now, though, the mind is very much externally orientated. We believe that happiness and suffering come from outside of ourselves. This is a deluded state of mind. We assume that happiness comes from outside so we want this and we want that. We’re always trying to get something; one person wants smokes, another person wants cheesecake, but everybody wants something different. Ultimately though, we are looking outside of ourselves for happiness. We end up sitting here our entire life mentally clinging to stuff that we think is going to bring us pleasure. Some of us try to control the world around us, to make everyone and everything be the way we want it to be so that we can be happy. Has that ever worked? Has anyone ever succeeded at making the world and everyone in it conform to his idea of how they should be? No, no one has ever succeeded at controlling everything and everyone.
We keep trying to make other people what we want them to be. After all, we know how they should be, don’t we? We have really good advice to offer all of them. We all have a little advice for everyone else, don’t we? We know exactly how our friends could improve so that we could be happy, how our parents could change, how our kids could change. We have advice for everyone! Sometimes we give them our wonderful and sage advice, and what do they do? Nothing! They don’t listen to us when we know the truth of how they should live and what they should do and how they should change so that the world would be different and we’ll be happy. When we give others our wonderful and wise advice about how they should live their lives, what do they say to us? “Mind your own business,” and that’s if they are being nice. When they are not being polite, well you know what they say. Here we offered them our wonderful advice and they just disregard it. Can you imagine? Such stupid people!
Of course when they give us their advice do we listen? Forget it. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
This world view that thinks that happiness and suffering come from outside puts us in the situation of constantly trying to rearrange everybody and everything to make it the way we want it. We never succeed. Have we ever met anyone that has succeeded in making the world everything they wanted it to be? Think of someone you are really jealous of—have they ever succeeded in making the world what they wanted it to be? Have they found any kind of lasting happiness by getting everything they want? They haven’t, have they?
We look at others’ lives and we feel that something’s missing in our life. This comes from these views that believe happiness and suffering come from outside. These views make us try to rearrange everybody and everything. But what we’re missing is inside, because the real source of our happiness and suffering is not other people. The real source of our happiness and suffering is what is going on inside of us. Have you ever been in a beautiful place with the right people and been totally miserable? I think most of us have had that experience at one time or another. We finally find ourselves in a wonderful situation but we are completely miserable. That’s a perfect example of showing how happiness and suffering don’t come from the outside.
As long as our mind has the seeds of clinging, ignorance and hostility, we’re never going to find any kind of permanent or lasting happiness because these emotions will always continually arise and interfere. All we have to do is look at our life and we can see that has always been the story. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in prison or outside, this is what is going on inside all of us.
The Buddha said that actually happiness and suffering aren’t dependent on the outside. They’re more dependent on the inside—on what is going on inside your own heart and mind. How you perceive the situation is what is going to determine whether you are happy or miserable. That’s because the real happiness comes from inside.
We’ve all had the experience of going into a room of strangers. Think of a time when you’ve had to do that. Your thought process before going into that room is, “Uuuu, there are all these people in there and I don’t know them. I don’t know if I’m going to fit in. I don’t now if they’re going to like me. I don’t know if I’m going to like them. They’re all probably judgmental. I bet they all know each other and they’re all friends with each other, and I’m going to be the only person that nobody knows. They’re going to leave me out, and it’s going to be horrible in there.” If you think like that before you go into that room full of strangers, what is your experience going to be? It is going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy; you are going to feel left out, like the odd person out. The entire incident happens in the way it does because of they way you’re thinking.
Now let’s say that before you go into that room full of strangers you think, “Well, there’s all these people that I don’t know. I bet they have really interesting life experiences. Most likely they have a lot of stories and experiences I could learn from. It’s going to be really interesting going in and meeting all these people. I’m going to really enjoy it. I get to ask them questions about their interests, their lives, and what they know about. I’m going to learn a lot, and it’ll be fun!” If you go into that room full of strangers with that thought, what’s your experience going to be? You’re going to have a great time. The situation hasn’t changed at all, the situation is exactly the same, but our experience has changed dramatically! All of this is because of what we are thinking.
When I was a teenager, I hated it when my mother told me what to wear. Why? She was infringing on my independence. “I am an independent person; I can make up my own mind. I can do what I like. Don’t tell me what to do, thank-you very much. I’m sixteen years old and I know everything.” With this attitude, I of course was upset with my mother when she told me what to do. Every time she suggested I wear something, I would growl; it wasn’t a happy situation for either of us.
Years later, when I was an adult, my parents were having some friends over. At breakfast, with my sister, sister-in-law and mother, my mom says to me “Oh why don’t you wear this and such when the company comes this evening?” I said “Okay.” My sister and sister-in-law came to me afterwards and said, “We can’t believe you were so cool with what she did, and we can’t believe that she did that!” I said, “Why not wear what she suggested? It makes her happy and I don’t have any trip with it.”
Here you can see the difference in my mind in those years. When I was younger, my mind framed anything they said to me as, “They don’t trust me, they don’t respect me. They’re infringing on my autonomy and independence, they’re bossing me around.” I was defensive and resistant. When I was older and more confident, they could say the exact same thing to me but my mind didn’t perceive it in the same way. I just thought that their friends were coming over; it will make them happy, and let’s make someone happy. You see the difference? The situation was exactly the same, but what was different was my own mind.
When we really understand deeply how our mind works to create our experience, then we see that we actually have a lot of power to control our own experiences. We have power not by making other people do what we want or by making other things be what we want them to be. Instead, we have the power to control our experiences by changing what is happening in our own heart.
This is where forgiveness comes in and is very important. We’ve all experienced harm and hurt in our life. We can probably sit down and, without thinking twice, rattle off a list of the harm, hurt, injustices, and unfairness that we’ve experienced. We can talk about it very easily, it’s right there. We have a lot of baggage around it and carry around anger, resentment, and grudges for many decades. Sometimes, we become bitter or cynical. I sometimes think that’s why old people are so bent over—not just because of their bones, but because they carry so much psychological weight. They carry their grudges and bitterness with them everywhere they go, no matter who they’re with. That’s just something that’s happening in the mind. However, it’s important to know that there is the possibility of letting go of all that, because all of that is created by the mind. It’s not objective reality at all.
Thus forgiveness is important to heal our own anguish. What is forgiveness? Forgiveness is nothing more than our thinking, “I’m not going to be angry about this anymore. I’m going to let go of my pain, I’m going to let go of my anger.” Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what the other person did is okay. They did what they did. They had their intentions; they planted karmic seeds in their own mind. Forgiveness is just our saying, “I care about myself and I want myself to be happy so I’m going to stop carrying around the baggage of all this hurt, resentment, and anger.”
Forgiveness is not something we do for someone else; it is something we do for ourselves. Forgiveness is a tremendous way to make our mind very peaceful, very calm. Those of us who have meditated for a while can remember many meditation sessions where we’re sitting there meditating in a safe place with people that we like. Then we remember something that happened 15 years ago, and the inner dialogue begins, “I can’t believe it. That idiot, that jerk, he had the nerve to do that, unbelievable! I was so pissed off and I still am!” We sit there and ruminate about it, “He did this and then he did that. Then this happened and I was so hurt and it was so unfair and I can’t, grrrrrrrrr!”
Then all of the sudden you hear the bell ring to conclude the meditation session. We open our eyes and go, “Oh! Where was I during that meditation session? I was drowning in my perceived fantasies of the past.” The past is only an appearance to our conceptual mind, our memory. What happened in the past isn’t happening now. That person did what they did. Where are they now? Are they doing anything to us right now? No, we’re sitting here, we’re perfectly okay, nobody is doing anything to us, but boy did we get furious. Where was that anger coming from? Sometimes we remember something that happened in the past—somebody said something really biting or somebody we really cared about walked out on us—and we feel this tremendous hurt. But where is that person right now? They’re not here in front of us Where is that situation right now? It’s gone! It’s non-existent! It’s only our thoughts now. What we remember and how we describe the past to ourselves can make us incredibly furious without anybody doing anything to us. We’ve all had that experience. The pain, anguish, and anger aren’t coming from outside, because the other person isn’t here and the situation is not happening now. Those feelings arise because our mind got lost in its projections and interpretations of the past.
So forgiveness is just saying, “I’m tired of doing this. I’ve run that video of my life in my mind countless times. I’ve run it and re-run it. I know the ending and I’m bored with this video.” We press the stop button. We put it down and get on with our life instead of staying stuck in the past with so many painful emotions. The past is not happening now.
That’s why I say that forgiveness is so refreshing and healing for our own mind. Forgiveness doesn’t mean what the person did is okay, it just means we’re putting it down. We have this incredible human potential, such amazing internal human beauty and we’ve decided not to waste it filling our minds with anger, resentment, and hurt. We have something more important, more valuable to do, and for that reason forgiveness is so important.
Sometimes our mind says, “Well, how can I forgive this person after all they did to me? They really wanted to hurt me.” Here we’re pretending to be able to read others’ minds and to know their motivation. “They wanted to hurt me. It was deliberate. They woke up that morning wanting to hurt me. I know it!” Is that true? Can we read minds? Do we know their motivation? In fact, we have no idea of their intention. We have to admit that actually, we have no idea why they did what they did that we didn’t like.
Our mind thinks, “Well, if they did do it with a negative motivation, my anger is justified.” Is that true? If someone had a negative motivation and hurt you, is your anger justified? They can have all the negative motivations that they want. Why do we need to get angry at them? We think that somebody did this and that our only possible response is to hate them and be angry at them. Is that true? Is the only possible response we can have is anger or hate? Of course not! It’s a complete hallucination.
In seventh grade a situation happened that I held onto with rage for years. My family’s background is a minority religion, I grew up Jewish. In the seventh grade one person—I’m sure I’m going to meet him one day, I never knew what happened to him—Peter Armetta made some anti-Semitic remarks. I stood up and ran out of the classroom. I started crying, went to the bathroom and cried all day. I thought that’s what you were supposed to do when somebody insulted you. You were supposed to get angry and you were supposed to be so angry that you cried. I thought that was how you were supposed to respond, that it was the only way to respond when somebody made a cruel remark. I wasted one whole day crying in the bathroom at school because of something Peter Armetta said. And after that incident, even though we went all the way through high school and part of college together, I never spoke to him again. I was like a cold hard wall to him, because that’s what I thought I was supposed to be when someone disrespected me. For years, my anger was like a knife in my heart.
But, people can say what they want to say; it doesn’t mean it’s true. I don’t have to feel insulted; I don’t have to take what they’re doing as disrespect. I can still feel good about myself even when somebody makes a comment like that. I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. Why trouble my own mind, getting bent out of shape because somebody said something like that? Peter didn’t make me angry; I made myself angry by interpreting what he was doing in a certain way and holding onto it.
We have a choice how we respond to things. We have a choice about our emotions. Many of our meditation practices are geared to help us look at these emotions and discern which ones aren’t realistic or beneficial and then let them go. In this way, we cultivate a more realistic and beneficial outlook on the situation.
How else could I have seen Peter Armetta?—I’m waiting someday to give a talk and Peter Armetta will raise his hand say, “Here I am.” I’m also waiting for Rosie Knox to come to one of my talks. Did any of you read my article in Tricycle? They asked me to write an article about gossip, so I began the article by apologizing to Rosie Knox for all the mean things I said about her in sixth grade. I’m waiting for a letter to come from Rosie Knox saying. “I read your letter, and it took you forty years to apologize to me.”
Even if somebody says cruel, mean things and they did it deliberately, why do I need to get angry? If I look into that person’s heart, what is actually going on in their heart? What is going on in the heart of a person saying mean things? Is that person happy? No. Can we understand that person’s pain? Can we understand that they’re unhappy? Forget about whether we like them or not. Here’s a living being who is unhappy. We know what it’s like to be unhappy; can we understand their unhappiness, just as one living being to another? We can do that, can’t we? When we can understand someone else’s unhappiness because we know our own happiness, then we can have compassion for them. Then, instead of hating them for what they did, we wish them to be free from their internal pain that made them do what they did that we didn’t like. We can look at someone who harmed us with compassion, wishing them to be free from suffering.
Compassion is a much more appropriate response to people whom we don’t like or to our enemies than hatred is. If we hate somebody, we do a lot of mean things. How does that affect the other person? It ticks them off doesn’t it? They’re hurt by what we do; they get angry so they do more mean things to us. We think that when we hate somebody and come down hard on them, that it is going to bring us happiness. Does retaliating make our life happier? It doesn’t. Why not? Because when we’re mean and nasty to somebody, they respond in kind. We then have to deal with that person doing more things to us that we don’t like. Holding a grudge doesn’t make us happy. It actually brings about the result that we don’t want.
When we look into the heart of someone who is doing things that we don’t like and we see that they’re doing that because they’re unhappy, doesn’t it make more sense to wish that person was happy? If they were happy, if they had a peaceful mind, if they were content inside, then they wouldn’t be doing the thing that they’re doing that we find so objectionable. Think about somebody who really hurt you and recognize that they did what they did because they were in pain. They were confused and in pain. How do you know? Because people only do mean things when they’re unhappy, when they’re in pain. People don’t act cruelly when they’re happy. Whatever somebody did that we find to be so painful; they did because of their own confusion and their own unhappiness. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, “I’m so happy today; I think I’ll go hurt someone.” They only act in harmful ways when their own unhappiness overwhelms them and they mistakenly think that doing that action will remove their misery.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were happy? Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Because if they were happy, then they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. They wouldn’t have a troubled mind, so they wouldn’t be saying or doing actions motivated by that troubled mind. You see, even for our own benefit, it makes much more sense to wish our enemy to be happy.
That doesn’t mean we wish for them to get everything that they want, because lots of people want things that aren’t good for them. It doesn’t mean if Osama Bin Laden wants weapons, that we wish him to have more weapons that harm others. That’s not compassion, that’s stupidity.
Compassion, wanting somebody to be free from suffering, and love, wishing them to have happiness, don’t mean that we necessarily want them to have what they want. People can sometimes be incredibly confused and want things that are not good for them or for anybody else. We could look at Osama Bin Laden, see the pain in his heart and wish that he be free of that pain. Whatever pain in him that’s causing his hatred, wouldn’t it be wonderful if he were free from that? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he had a peaceful mind? Then he would have no need to harm anybody else in his confused attempt to be happy. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
When we think this way repeatedly and work it into our meditations, we discover that compassion is a more suitable response to harm than hatred is. I really see this embodied in my teachers, and especially in H.H. the Dalai Lama.
His Holiness was born in 1935 and in 1950, when he was only fifteen years old, he was enthroned as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, because the Tibetans trusted him and wanted him to take political leadership of the country. The Tibetans were having so many problems with the Chinese Communist, so at fifteen he became the leader of his country. Think about that: remember what you were doing when you were fifteen. How would you have felt having the responsibility of running a country and protecting other people? Pretty amazing.
Then when he was twenty-four years old, in 1959, there was an uprising against the Communist Chinese and His Holiness had to disguise himself as a soldier, sneak out of his accommodations and cross the Himalayan Mountains in March, when it’s really cold. He went over the Himalayan Mountains into India and became a refugee. It’s very cold in Tibet so there aren’t many viruses and bacteria there. In contrast, the Indian plain is hot and full of viruses and bacteria that cause illness. Here he is, twenty-four years old and a refugee. In addition, he has to help tens of thousands of other Tibetan refugees.
I remember seeing a video of a reporter from the LA Times interviewing His Holiness. She said to him, “You’ve been a refugee since you were twenty-four and there’s been genocide and ecological devastation in your country. You haven’t been able to go back home and the communist government continually calls you negative names.” She listed many of the hardships His Holiness had experienced and was still experiencing. Then she looked at him and said, “But you’re not angry, and you continually tell the Tibetan people not to hate the Communist Chinese for what they did to Tibet. How can you not be angry?”
Imagine someone saying that to Yassar Arafat or any other leader of a displaced people! What would he have done? He would have taken the mike and really used the opportunity to blame the others! “Yes, they did this and they did that. It’s unfair, we are unjustly victimized. Grrrrrr!” That’s what any leader of oppressed people would have said, but that’s not what His Holiness did.
When the reporter said, “How come you’re not angry?” His Holiness leaned back and said, “What good does it do to be angry? If I were angry, it doesn’t free any of the Tibetan people. It doesn’t stop the harm that is going on. It would just keep me from sleeping. My anger would keep me from enjoying food; it would make me bitter. What positive result could anger bring me?” This reporter looked at His Holiness with her jaw agape, totally blown away.
How could somebody say this with such total sincerity? I’ve lived in Dharamsala and have heard His Holiness repeatedly say to the Tibetan people, “Do not hate the Chinese Communists for what they did to our country.” He has compassion, he’s not angry. But he doesn’t say that the Communist regime is fine, that what they did is okay. He doesn’t say, “Fine. You occupied my country and killed a million people, come and do it again.” No, he opposes the oppression in Tibet and directly states what the injustice is. He speaks and tries to draw the world’s attention to the plight of the Tibetan people. He opposes injustice in a completely non-violent way.
Having compassion for somebody that harms us and letting go of the anger is much better for ourselves and others than holding onto a grudge and seeking revenge. We can still say that something is wrong, that world attention must be brought to a situation, and that improvement and resolution is needed. Compassion doesn’t mean we become the world’s doormat. Some people have the wrong idea about compassion, thinking it means being passive. For example, if a woman is being beaten by her husband or boy friend, compassion does not mean she thinks, “Whatever you did was fine. You beat me up yesterday, but I forgive you so you can beat me up again today.” No, that’s not compassion. That’s stupidity. His beating her is not okay. She can have compassion for him and at the same time she must take steps to stop further abuse.
Compassion means that we want somebody to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. That doesn’t mean that we say everything they do is good. It doesn’t mean we give them what they want if they want something harmful. There’s a clarity that comes with compassion that can enable us to be very assertive when assertiveness is needed. Patience doesn’t mean you roll over and hum a song, it means you’re able to remain calm in a situation when you’re confronted with harm or suffering. Instead of your mind being overwhelmed by hurt, anger, or self-pity, you remain calm and clear mentally. That gives you the ability to look at the situation and consider, “What is the best way to approach this? How can I act in a way that will be most effective for everyone involved in this situation?” Compassion and patience may not be the way the world looks at things, but it’s nice not to look at things the way most people do, especially if their way causes more suffering.
Let me pause here and see if you have questions or concerns, topics you want to bring up.
Q. Sometimes painful memories come on very strong. I’m not choosing to think about an event from the past, but it just comes in my mind and I feel like I’m stuck there in the middle of the situation again. It’s as if it were happening all over again and so many old feelings come up again. I don’t understand what is happening or how to handle it.
A. We’ve all had that happen. It’s not something that can be repressed and it’s not something we can necessarily make go away quickly. When this happens we have to sit there with it and keep breathing. Remind yourself that the situation is not happening now. Try to press the stop button on the thoughts so that you don’t get lost in them. When strong memories come up, our mind is telling us a narrative; it’s describing the event in a certain way, it’s looking at the event from a particular perspective, “This situation is going to destroy me. It is terrible. I’m worthless. I did the wrong thing and don’t deserve to be happy.” That narrative is not true. We usually get trapped in the story, so it’s helpful to just focus on your breath, focus on physical sensations, and observe the emotion itself. What does that emotion feel like? Make sure not to get involved in the story that your mind is telling you. That story isn’t true. The event is not happening now. You are not a bad person. If you just observe the feeling in the mind and observe the feeling in the body, then whatever it is will automatically change. This is the nature of everything that arises; it changes and passes away.
We have a stockpile of those painful situations. They’re like computer files that you can’t delete. Something that I have found very helpful is when I’m not in the situation and not stuck in the middle of my emotions, to consciously remember one of those situations and practice looking at it in a different way. Try to use one of the antidotes the Buddha taught to work with whatever emotions are arising. I talked about some of these antidotes—different ways to see the situation—tonight, so remember them and practice them. Also read Shantideva’s Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life or my book Working with Anger. There are a lot of techniques in there. To show one we talked about tonight, here’s an example.
Let’s say I’m sitting in meditation, I think about somebody who betrayed my trust a few years ago; somebody whom I really trusted and they turned around and stabbed me in the back. Somebody whom I never expected to act that way, turned around and harmed me. I sit there in meditation and know I can easily start telling myself the story again—he did this and he did that and I’m so hurt—but then I think: No that story’s not true. That person was in pain, that person didn’t actually have the intention of hurting me. Although it might have seemed at that moment that he did want to hurt me, actually what was happening was he was overwhelmed by his own suffering and under the control of his mental afflictions. What he did didn’t really have much to do with me. What he did was an expression of his own pain and confusion. If he weren’t overwhelmed by these emotions, he would not have acted in that way.
We know that this is the case for us whenever we’ve betrayed someone else’s trust. Or maybe there’s someone here who has never betrayed another’s trust before? Come on, we all have at one time or another! When we look in our own mind after we’ve betrayed somebody’s trust, we usually feel horrible about it. We think, “How could I ever have said that to this person I love so much?” Then we realize, “Wow! I was in pain and I was confused. I didn’t really understand what I was doing. I thought that by acting in that way I would release my own internal suffering, but boy I didn’t! That was the wrong thing to do. I hurt someone I care about and even though apologizing is hard on my ego, I want and need to make amends.”
When we understand the confused emotions and thought processes inside of us that prompted us to betray someone else’s trust, we know that when others betray our trust it’s because they were under the influence of similar emotions and thoughts. They were overcome by their own pain and confusion. It wasn’t that they really hated us or really wanted to hurt us, it’s that they were so confused they thought that doing or saying whatever they did was going to relieve their stress and pain. They would have acted in that way to whoever was in front of them at that moment because they were stuck in their own story. When we understand this about them, we can say, ‘Wow! They’re hurting.” We then let go of our own hurt and anger and let compassion for them arise in our mind because we know that their behavior really had nothing to do with us.
To work through some of these situations—especially the ones where our mind has been stuck in a negative emotion for a long time—we need to do this meditation repeatedly. We need to familiarize our mind with a new way of looking at things. We have to retrain our mind and set up new emotional habits. It’s going to take some time and effort on our part; but if we put in that time and make that effort, we will definitely experience the result. Cause and effect operate and if you create the cause you will experience the effect. If you don’t create the cause, you won’t get that effect. When we really practice, it is possible to change; I can say that from personal experience. I’m still very far from Buddhahood, but I can say that I’m much better able to deal with many of the painful things in my life now than I was years ago. I’ve been able to let go of a lot of anger simply through repeatedly practicing these meditations.
When you repeatedly start looking at previous painful or stressful situations in different ways, it helps the next time you’re in a similar situation. Then, instead of our mind getting stuck in the same old emotional habits, we’ll be able to call that other way of looking at the situation to mind and practice it. We’ll remember it because we’ve familiarized ourselves with that new perspective during meditation.
Here’s another example. I was at a retreat that one of my teachers was leading. One nun there loved arranging the flower offerings on the altar. She took such joy in it; she would design beautiful flower offerings on the shrine near the Buddha’s image and near our teacher. But she was unable to stay for the entire retreat and left early. One day after she had left, at the end of the day when I was leaving the meditation hall to walk back to my room, another person joined me. She says to me, “Ven. Ingrid left and nobody is taking care of the flowers. It’s the nuns’ responsibility to take care of the flowers and now all the flowers have wilted and look so ugly and disarrayed since Ingrid left. The nuns are being disrespectful to our teacher because they’re not taking care of the flowers.” She is going on and on about this. Inside of me, I’m going, “I don’t remember a rule saying that the nuns had to take care of the flowers. Are you trying to guilt trip me? Yes, you are guilt tripping me. But you’re not going to succeed. No way! I’m not going to care for the flowers just because you’re saying that!” I’m getting pretty worked up about this. I didn’t show it on the outside, but inside, I was getting really mad. As she goes on and on with this guilt trip, I’m getting madder and madder.
A little background on this retreat: My teacher doesn’t let us sleep very much—sessions last late into the night and begin early in the morning, so we’re all sleep deprived. The conversation with this other retreatant is going on as we’re walking to our rooms to go to sleep. The problem is that when you’re angry you can’t go to sleep. Suddenly the thought came to my mind, “Ahw! If I keep on being angry, I’m not going to get to sleep and I really cherish my few hours of sleep. So I’ve got to let go of this anger because I really want to go to sleep!” So I said to myself, “This is just her opinion. I don’t need to get mad at her. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I don’t need to be so reactive when someone’s opinion differs from mine. The flowers look okay to me. If they were really bad I would do something, but they looked fine to me. I’ll check tomorrow and if they look bad, I’ll take care of them.” In that I just let the whole situation go and I got some sleep that night!
After practicing looking at things in a different way when you’re not in the situation, it becomes easier to catch yourself in the situation and not get angry. Here’s a story about when Ven. Robina and I had a problem. I don’t know if she remembers it. It was during the same retreat. I had been talking to another nun about a topic and during the break time, we asked our teacher about it. After that, Ven. Robina came up to me and said, “Why did you ask that ridiculous question? You already know what he thinks. Just because you don’t agree, why do you need to keep harping on it?” Well, I don’t like being talked to that way. I’m getting mad and the bell rings for us to come back into the meditation hall. I felt misunderstood. I had asked a sincere question to our teacher and my mind was saying, “It wasn’t her business! She wasn’t supposed to be listening to that conversation.” I didn’t know what she was getting riled up about but I was sure getting angry.
Then I thought, “Where am I ever going to go in this world where everybody is going to understand me?” I’ve been misunderstood many times in the past; this is not the first time that somebody has misunderstood me and blamed me for something I didn’t do. It’s not the first time, and it’s not going to be the last time either. This is samsara—this is cyclic existence—and these kinds of misunderstandings happen all the time. It’s sure to happen again. Somebody else will misunderstand me and criticize me. Someone will accuse me of a wrong motivation when I didn’t have one. This is just the nature of our life in cyclic existence, so why should I bother getting angry about it? What good is anger going to do for me or anyone else? There is already enough suffering in cyclic existence, why should I get angry and increase it? So I said to myself, “Let’s just chill out, Chodron, and relax because there’s nothing worth getting upset about here.” Thinking in this way helped me to let go of the anger. What’s nice is we’re friends and I don’t hold what happened against her. Instead, she gave me a good story to tell!!
Some past painful events have stuck with me for a long time, but I’ve found that if I continuously apply the meditations and the antidotes, eventually I’ve been able to let them go. There’s so much peace of mind when we stop holding onto false stories that our mind has made up.
Here’s another story. In the early 1980s, my teacher sent me to work in an Italian Dharma center. I’m a pretty independent woman and was given a position of authority in the Dharma center. The people under me were macho Italian monks. Do you know what happens when you put macho Italian monks together with an independent American woman who is in a position of authority over them? You have something close to Los Alamos! The monks were not happy campers about the situation and they didn’t hesitate to let me know that. Having an uncontrolled mind, I was getting really mad at them in return.
I was in Italy for twenty-one months. One time I wrote to Lama Yeshe, the teacher who sent me there, and said, “Lama, please, can I leave? These people are making me create so much negative karma!” Lama wrote back and said, “We’ll talk about it when I’m there. I’ll be there in six months.”
Finally I left Italy and went back to India where I did a solitary retreat for a few months. I did four meditation sessions a day and in almost every meditation session I would think of the macho men and get angry. I was just furious at them for everything they had done: They had made fun of me, they teased me, they didn’t listen to what I said, they did this, they did that. I was so angry one meditation session after another, but I just kept applying the antidotes from Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Slowly my mind began to calm down.
I just kept applying the antidotes again and again. I calmed myself down in the meditation session and took a break. But the next session when I again thought about what this one did and what that one did, I got angry all over again. So I’d practice the antidote once more and calm myself down. This experience showed me that if I persevered and just kept applying those antidotes—which usually involved reframing how I was seeing the situation and thinking about the situation in a more realistic way—that there was progress. Gradually a shift happened and I was able to let go of the anger a little more quickly. Then the anger wasn’t so intense and finally, I was able to relax about the whole thing. Working With Anger was written years later because I’d become familiar with these meditations due to the kindness of those Italian men.
Why are we angry? Often it’s because we’re either hurt or afraid. These two emotions underlie our anger. What lies behind our hurt and fear? Often it’s attachment, especially if we’re really clinging to somebody, something, or to an idea we have. Let’s say we’re attached to a person and want their approval, love, affection, and praise. We want them to think and say nice things about us. If they don’t do that and they say something a little bit off, we’re so hurt. We feel betrayed and vulnerable. We don’t like feeling hurt or afraid because we feel powerless, and feeling powerless is really uncomfortable. What does the mind do to distract us from those feelings and to restore the illusion of having power? It creates anger. When we are angry, the adrenaline starts pumping and we have a very false feeling of power because the body is energized. The anger gives us the feeling, “I have power, I can do something about it. I’ll fix them!” This is make-believe. Anger won’t fix the situation; it only makes it worse. It’s as if we were thinking, “I’ll be so mad at them that they’ll regret what they did and love me.” Is that true? When people are mad at us and say nasty things, do we love them in return? No! It’s just the opposite; we want to stay away from them. Similarly, that’s how the other person will react to my anger. It won’t make them feel close to me; it’ll only push them away.
In that situation, I’m clinging, I’m wanting some kind words or acceptance from somebody and they’re not giving me what I want. If I can acknowledge that and release the attachment, I’ll see that I’m a whole person already, regardless of whether the other person likes me or doesn’t like me, praises me or blames me, approves of me or disapproves of me. If I feel fine with myself, I’m not so dependent on what others think, and then I’m able to let go of the attachment and stop feeling hurt. When I’ve stopped holding onto the hurt and blaming them for it, there’s no more anger.
A lot of hurt feelings come because we don’t feel totally sure of ourselves and we’re wanting somebody else’s approval or praise so that we can feel good about ourselves. This is a normal human thing. However, if we learn to evaluate our own actions and motivations, we won’t be so dependent on other people telling us if we’re good or bad. What do other people know? Remember the example I gave at the beginning of the talk about the guy who gave a million dollars to the charity. Everybody will say, “Oh you’re so good, you’re such a wonderful person!” What do they know? He had a crummy motivation. He wasn’t generous at all, even though he was getting praised.
Instead of relying on other people and what they say about us, we need to look at our own actions, reflect on our own speech, and look at our own motivations: Did I do that with a kind heart? Was I being honest and truthful? Was I trying to manipulate somebody or trying to pull the wool over their eyes? Was I being selfish and trying to dominate them? We need to learn to honestly evaluate our motivations and actions. If we see that motivation was self-centered, we acknowledge it and do some purification practice. We calm our mind and then looking at the situation freshly, we cultivate a new, kinder motivation. When we do that, then whether somebody praises us or blames us, it doesn’t matter. Why? Because we know ourselves. When we see that we acted with a good motivation, we were kind, we were honest, we did our best in the situation, then even if somebody doesn’t like what we did, even if they criticize us, we don’t feel bad about it. We know our own internal reality; we did what we could given the situation, with a positive mental state. When we are in touch with ourselves and more self-accepting, when negative emotions arise we can immediately remedy them, instead of just letting them fester inside our mind. The more we are able to look at ourselves honestly and begin to apply the methods the Buddha taught to let go of the harmful emotions and enhance the constructive ones, the less dependent on other people’s comments we become. This gives us a certain kind of freedom; we become less reactive to what they say about us.
One time I gave a Dharma talk in a Seattle bookstore to an audience of about fifty people. During the Q and A session, somebody stood up and said, “Your kind of Buddhism is different than my kind of Buddhism. What you’re teaching is all wrong. You said this and that, and that’s not right because this is what’s true.” This person spoke for about ten minutes, really trashing the talk that I gave in front of all these people. When they were done, I just said, “Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.” I wasn’t angry because I knew that I had studied, that what I said was correct to the best of my ability, and that I’d cultivated a compassionate motivation before giving the talk. If they had said something that I thought was correct, I would have said, “Hmm. What you’re saying makes sense. Maybe I did make an error.” I would have gone back and asked my teacher, studied more, and checked it out. That wasn’t the case though. I listened to their criticism and I didn’t find anything in it that was accurate, so I just let it go. I didn’t need to defend myself or put them down. I knew that I did my best and wasn’t offended by their comments. After the talk some people came up to me and said, “Wow! We can’t believe you were so calm after this person acted this way!” Perhaps that was the real teaching of the evening; I think something good came out of it.
Q. Do you think things are progressing or deteriorating on the planet?
It’s hard for me to give a global statement because some people’s minds are generating negative thoughts, but other people’s minds are changing and being more tolerant and compassionate. I do have cause for hope. Before the Iraq war; they had a debate in the UN on whether to invade Iraq. Even though our country stepped in and took over the show although other nations did not agree that it was necessary to invade Iraq, this was actually the first time that they’ve ever had a discussion about starting a war in the UN, where all the countries could discuss it openly.
I see more people becoming more aware of the ecological situation. Many people who are not Buddhists come to Buddhist talks and are moved by the teachings on love, compassion, and forgiveness. I live in an abbey in a very Christian area with a lot of libertarians, close to where the Aryan nation used to have their headquarters. Here we are—a group of Buddhists moving in near to the former capital of the Aryan nation. I teach classes in the town and people come. They aren’t Buddhist classes—we talk about how to reduce stress, how to cultivate love and compassion, and so forth—but everybody knows I’m a Buddhist monastic. People in the local town come and they’re appreciative. I think people are looking for a message of peace and it’s impressive to see how well His Holiness the Dalai Lama is received around the world.
To conclude let’s sit quietly for a few minutes. This is a "digestion meditation," so think about something that we talked about. Recall it in such a way that you can take it with you and continue to think about it and put it into practice in your life. (silence)
Let’s dedicate the positive potential that we created as individuals and as a group. We listened and shared with a positive motivation; with a good intention we listened to and contemplated words of kindness and compassion in an attempt to transform our minds. Let’s dedicate all that positive potential and send it out into the universe. You can think of it as light at your heart that radiates into the universe. That light is your positive potential, your virtue, and you send it out and share it with all other living beings.
Let’s pray and aspire so that through what we’ve done together this evening every living being may be at peace in their own heart. May every living being be able to let go of their grudges, hurt, and anger. May every living being be able to actualize their incredible inner human beauty and make manifest their Buddha potential. May we be able to make greater and greater contributions to the benefit of each and every living being. May each of us and all other living beings quickly become fully enlightened Buddhas.
Many thanks to Kalen McAllister from Inside Dharma for arranging this talk and to Andy Kelly and Kenneth Seyfert for arranging it. Many thanks also to Kenneth Seyfert for transcribing and lightly editing this talk.