Living on Automatic Versus Living from Our Heart

by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron ©

I find challenging my thoughts in this way extremely helpful. It shows me very clearly that my way of thinking is erroneous, and if a thought is incorrect, I drop it. It doesn’t make any sense to continue to believe something we have just proven is incorrect.

It’s helpful to question our emotions in a similar way. For example, let’s say we’re upset because we’re thinking, “That person criticized me.” Here the syllogism is “I am mad because he criticized me.” Yes, he criticized me, but do I have to be mad because someone criticized me? No, I have a choice of how to feel. I don’t have to be mad. When I’m really mad, I have to keep questioning myself, “Why am I mad?” My mind answers, “Because he criticized me.” I reply, “Yes, he said those words, but why are you mad.” My mind says, “Because he said I’m stupid.” I reply, “Yes, he said that, but why are you mad?” In other words, to all the reasons my mind puts forth why I should be mad, I question, “But why do I need to be mad at that?” When I do this long enough, I usually see that I’m mad because I want something from that person that she’s not giving me, or I’m afraid of that person, or I’m jealous. Then I question that as well. If I am open- minded and creative enough, I can reach a resolution and let go of the anger. Sometimes I ask a friend to help me untangle the thoughts and feelings in my mind.

In this process of questioning our thoughts and feelings, it is very important to be kind to ourselves. Criticizing ourselves because we are upset isn’t productive. Many people find it much easier to be kinder to others than to themselves. Being kind to ourselves, forgiving ourselves, and extending compassion to ourselves is a skill we need to learn. This needs to replace the other “skill” we know all too well-the skill of putting ourselves down, telling ourselves we are worthless or inferior, and so on. Being kind to ourselves is like any other skill; it is something we need to practice repeatedly. It’s not selfish to be kind to ourselves. Being kind to ourselves is very different from being self-indulgent. We are a sentient being, and in Buddhism we try to have love and compassion for all sentient beings and to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. We can’t leave one sentient being out, saying, “I’ll extend kindness to all sentient beings except myself!”

Our Human Potential

Each of us has within ourselves great potential. Since we are not inherently this or that, we don’t need to be locked into any rigid conceptualizations of ourselves or of the world. Instead, we can access our love, compassion, friendliness, joy, concentration, and wisdom and expand them limitlessly. When we eliminate ignorance completely from our mindstream and attain liberation (nirvana), we are truly free. Our good qualities can function without being impeded by fear, conceit, and other disturbing emotions.

But our real goal is not simply our own personal liberation, it is to be of the greatest benefit to everyone. Think about it-if you were drowning, your immediate goal would be to save yourself, but you would also want others to be rescued as well. We wouldn’t feel right about swimming to shore ourselves and then relaxing while others drown. We feel too connected to others to do this, and so, too, in our spiritual path, while accomplishing our own liberation would be wonderful, it wouldn’t be totally fulfilling.

Thus we want to attain the full enlightenment of a Buddha-that is, to become a Buddha ourselves-so that we can be of the greatest benefit to ourselves and all others. While a description of Buddhahood contains many lofty and marvelous qualities, a good way to begin to get a sense of the state of a Buddha is to imagine what it would be like never to get angry at anyone, no matter what they said or did to you. Think about it for a while: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be totally free from fear, anger, defensiveness, arrogance, the need to be right or to win? People could say or do whatever they wished, and our mind would remain peaceful and undisturbed. There would be no anger to repress; it would have all evaporated.

Similarly, what would it be like to look upon any living being and spontaneously feel affection and wish the best for them? This includes ourselves; in other words, genuinely caring for ourselves, as well as all others, in a healthy way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel connected to everyone and to wish them well?

These are some simple things to imagine in order to get an idea of where we are going on the path. It is possible for us to actually become like that. While we don’t want to believe everything our disturbing emotions think, we do want to believe in our human potential. And we can believe it because many other people have attained enlightenment before us, and they can show us the path.

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