Looking in the Mirror of Dharma: Understanding how negativity functions in our mind

Many people make New Year’s resolutions, but it is not long before their good intentions are forgotten or overwhelmed by their negative tendencies. On the surface, it may appear that our mind is relatively free from negativity and for the most part we lead a morally healthy life, but we should not fool ourselves. When we lift the surface rock, we discover underneath all sorts of mental cockroaches or other disgusting creatures bustling about. Our normal reaction is to quickly put the rock back down and run away, but this just leaves the negativity to fester. We cannot bring impurity with us into the pure land, and we must eventually leave all negativity behind. If we are to once and for all root out the negativity from our mind, we need to have the courage to stare into the abyss of our mind and understand clearly how our negativity functions.

The heart of the matter is we are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to do what we desire. At present, we still have negative desires, so it is inevitable we will eventually act upon them. The solution is not will power, because if we still desire negativity and simply use will power to hold ourselves back, eventually our defenses will be worn down and we will succumb. Someone once said, “it’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done so at least a dozen times.” The only lasting solution is to change our desires, where we genuinely do not want to engage in negativity and we want to engage in virtue. If this is our desire, our actions will naturally follow. The main function of the Lamrim is to change our desires from negative to positive, from ordinary to spiritual. But this takes time. The question is how do we manage the transition when we have mixed desires – some negative and some virtuous? To answer this, we must have a clear and honest understanding of how negativity functions in our mind. Only then can we dismantle the mechanisms of negativity within our mind.

Gaining the ability to look in the Mirror of Dharma

Why do we find it so hard to look objectively at our negativity? It seems there are three main reasons. First, we don’t think what we are doing is negative, so we don’t find a problem with our behavior. Second, our pride refuses to acknowledge our mistakes because doing so would challenge our exalted view of ourselves. And third, for a variety of cultural reasons, we have internalized an ethic of guilt that beats ourselves up when we make mistakes, and being beat up hurts (even when we do it to ourselves).

To overcome these three obstacles, we need to engage in this investigation like a scientist. We need to objectively investigate any discrepancies between what the Dharma explains as negative and what we think is negative. We need to check if we are right and under what circumstances we are wrong. If we don’t know a behavior as negative, we won’t abandon it. We also need to objectively examine our own behavior and see how it stacks up against what is prescribed in the Dharma. Sometimes our downfalls are obvious – even epic – sometimes, they are very subtle. We need to be honest with ourselves, not exaggerating our negativity, but also not rationalizing it away as nothing. Perhaps most importantly, we need to stop blaming ourselves or judging ourselves for our mistakes. When we beat ourselves up with guilt, we reduce our confidence berating ourselves as an idiot for having engaged in the negativity, etc., or we feed a self-perception of being a failure, which undermines our ability to succeed next time. Just because we are not perfect doesn’t mean that we are bad. In the Dharma there is no bad, there is only good and even better. Just because there is something even better doesn’t mean we are failing, it simply means we have further room to grow.

Pride and guilt in particular are a dangerous combination. Our pride causes us to expect perfection from ourselves, or at the very least, it expects us to already be better than we are; but our guilt then beats ourselves up for any deviation from these expectations for ourselves. Trapped between pride and guilt, we cannot win and are never good enough – we are not as good as our pride expects us to already be and then our guilt makes us feel like a horrible person for not living up to these unrealistic expectations. This can get so bad, even looking at the negative tendencies in our mind can trigger some sort of breakdown. Because all delusions exaggerate, our pride exaggerates how good we should already be, and our guilt exaggerates our departures from our self-imposed expectations. We then see the negativity, feel we “should” already not be like that, and our guilt then judges us as a total incompetent failure incapable of confronting, much less overcoming our negative tendencies. We then see only our total incapacity in front of a monumental problem, leaving us with the feeling we are hopelessly doomed.

The solution to this trap is we need to have compassion for ourselves (otherwise known as renunciation). We have inherited aeons worth of negative tendencies, and swimming upstream against them is not easy. We do not need to already be better than we are, rather we are where we are at and we simply take the next right step. Negative tendencies will arise in our mind and mistakes will be made, but we never give up, and with persistent effort, step by step, we will definitely get there in the end. This is the mind of definite emergence – a deep feeling of joy knowing we are definitively on our way out and all of our suffering will soon come to a final end. We will emerge on the other side into an infinite expanse of permanent inner freedom from all suffering. The mind of definite emergence knows if we never give up, we will inevitably succeed.

Renunciation, I believe, is one of the hardest minds for Westerners to generate because we instantly interpret it through the lens of aesthetic-style deprivation of any joy and self-flagellating judgment and guilt. In truth, renunciation means self-care or true self-love. The difference between the self-love of the narcissist and the self-love of renunciation is the former loves our non-existent self of our ignorance and the later loves our true self or our pure potential. My wife once got sick with pneumonia, and she was beating herself up over it because she wasn’t able to take care of her five children at home that needed her. We wrote Geshe-la requesting his prayers, and he wrote back telling her, “you should take care of your self so that you can get better.” What a perfect description of the balanced mind of renunciation.

Stages of the path to negative actions

Having hopefully gained the ability to look honestly (and happily) at the negative tendencies in our mind, we can now examine how they function.

Downfalls almost always begin with an impulse to engage in negativity. We have within our mind countless negative tendencies from our past lives to think, speak, or act in negative ways. We have spent the vast majority of our eternity in the lower realms where we engaged in almost exclusively negative actions. It is said it is easier to attain enlightenment once born human than to be born human once we have taken rebirth in the lower realms. Why? Because while we are there, virtually all of our actions are negative. These tendencies tempt us now to once again engage in negativity. If left unchecked, these desires grow and grow until they become unstoppable.

As they grow, we first rationalize why our negative desire isn’t really that negative. We might come up with some sort of justification for why we “deserve” to engage in the negativity, as if it was some sort of reward for our good behavior or as compensation for some past injustice we have experienced. To paraphrase Shantideva, we run towards negativity as if it were a pleasure garden and avoid virtue as if it were the plague. Why? Because we are still fundamentally confused about what are the causes of our happiness and suffering. In Request to the Lord of All Lineages, Geshe-la says, “the cause of suffering is non-virtuous actions and the cause of happiness is virtuous actions. Since this is completely true, I will definitely abandon the first and practice the second.”

While the negative desire is building in our mind, we will also find ways of minimizing the consequences of the negativity. “It’s not really that bad,” we convince ourself. Typically, we will only consider the immediate consequences, such as the contaminated happiness we might get from engaging in the negativity against the likelihood of getting caught or others finding out what we have done. There will definitely be times when we can “get away with” our negativity and nobody will ever know, so we think, “why not?” But we can never escape our karma – its laws are definite. We might think to ourselves, “who am I hurting?” Finding nobody, we then think it is OK, but we are forgetting about how it is hurting ourselves. Is the short-lived pleasure or benefit we are likely to get from our negative action worth it when we consider the long-run karmic consequences? Surely not, but we don’t really believe in karma that much anyways, and besides, we wrongly think, we can always engage in purification afterwards, so once again, “why not?” If we don’t think our action was wrong, we can’t generate genuine regret; and without regret, we cannot actually purify. Purification is not complete without the power of the promise, but if we think we can always purify later so it doesn’t matter if we engage in negativity, our “promises” lack any power and no purification will actually take place.

As our negative desires continue to build, at some point, we make the decision that we will engage in the negativity, but we will then try find ways of minimizing how negative it will be. “I’ll just do it this once,” or “I’ll only do this, but not that.” We then start rationalizing how that would be OK and not so bad, and eventually we execute on our negative plan. Whether this process from the initial impulse to the final deed is a matter of weeks, hours, or mere seconds, we almost always go through these stages.

Post-negativity self-deceptions

Once we engage in the negative action, it almost never works out in the way we hoped. We didn’t get the reward or benefit we were hoping for. At this point, usually one of two things happens. Either, we start to beat ourselves up about what a terrible, stupid person we are for having engaged in the negativity, and we go down the path of guilt thinking our punishing ourselves will somehow deter us from engaging in negativity in the future. But guilt never works because it erodes our capacity and confidence. Or we start to identify why we didn’t get the reward we were hoping for, and we start to plot how we can be more skilled in our negativity next time so that we do. We think, “I have already started down this path and got nothing, I want to at least get something out of it,” so we double-down on our negativity and start planning for next time. In this way, we start to chase the rainbow of our negativity until we eventually fall off a cliff into the lower realms. This is actually the most dangerous aspect of engaging in negative actions – each time we do so, we create the tendencies to do so again. Our checks on our behavior grow weaker and weaker until eventually there are no checks at all.

After we have engaged in the negativity, we will start to get flashbacks recalling what we have done. Our negative actions are often like ghosts that haunt us by reminding us of our transgressions. At such times, we engage in all sorts of evasive tactics. For example, we will just look the other way and shove it back under the carpet pretending it isn’t there. Or we will rationalize to ourselves why the negative action wasn’t that bad and it is no big deal. Or we start to beat ourselves up with guilt. Or we give in to hopelessness, thinking we will never be able to get out of our negativity, so why bother trying anymore. We might as well enjoy ourselves with our negativity since we can’t escape it. Or we revert to “will power” trying to consolidate our iron-clad determination to not do that negative action again, even though we still “want” to do so. All of these tactics inevitably fail. The worst of these is giving in to hopelessness, because then, quite obviously, we have no hope.

Or perhaps we genuinely do feel regret for our negative action, realize it was a mistake, understand its karmic consequences, and really don’t want to engage in the negative action again. But we grasp at our negative actions and karma as being inherently existent and immune from purification. We think our actions are so bad and our purification practice so weak and insincere, that it won’t ever be purified. We have total faith in the laws of negative karma, but none in the power of purification. This can then quickly lead to despair, hopelessness, and guilt. Worse, it can lead to us not even trying to purify, because “what’s the point, it won’t work anyways.”

Seeing all of our negativity and how it functions in our mind can very easily lead to us feeling discouraged, thinking it is simply too hard to overcome our delusions and negative habits. We then can conclude the spiritual path is just too hard, and we settle for some vague self-commitment to generally be a good person. Or perhaps we give up on the path altogether or find another spiritual path which seems less demanding. When we are at this stage, it is easy to develop negative views towards the three jewels, thinking they are judging us or punishing us or rejecting us. At such times, all of the hypocrisies and shortcomings of our Sangha friends and teachers become quite vivid. They are judging me, but look at what they are doing! What they are doing is far worse, yet nothing ever happens to them. This whole tradition is a big sham full of spiritual phonies. It’s not enough for me to just leave this evil tradition, I need to tear it down to “protect” others from being ensnared by it.

Let me spare everyone the surprise: we are all the same. We are all hypocrites and we are all making one mistake after another. But that is not a reason to abandon the path, that is a valid reason for redoubling our efforts to practice it purely and skillfully. The teachings themselves are flawless, it is our ability to practice them that is flawed. But that is entirely normal! We are practitioners, not Buddhas. Of course we are making mistakes. It doesn’t matter what mistakes others are making, it doesn’t even matter what mistakes we are making. All that matters is that we are learning from every mistake that appears to our mind. If we do, then no matter what appears, we will learn and grow. Our job is not to change others or expose their hypocrisies, our job is to change ourselves and overcome our own. But we need to be patient with ourselves, understanding this will take time. When we are patient with ourselves, then we will learn to be patient with others’ imperfections as well. But here too lies a potential trap. We think, “slowly, slowly, try my best,” but we understand this to mean I don’t really have to change, I can just keep telling myself I am trying my best when in reality I’m not really doing anything.

Cutting the power of negativity in our mind

So how do we escape all of the above? What is the solution to all of this? In the end, each wrong turn described above comes from believing our delusions. Our delusions tempt us, rationalize, beat us up, or leave us discouraged. But they are all lies. The solution here is simple: see through the lies of our deluded tendencies. We need to make a clear distinction between the arising of a deluded tendency in our mind and the mental action of a delusion. A deluded tendency is the ripening of a past karma in our mind that causes us to think in a particular way. A new mental action of a delusion only occurs when we assent to or believe the lies of the deluded tendency. In other words, deluded tendency + belief = delusion. If instead when our deluded tendencies arise we use our wisdom to see through their lies and we identify clearly their deception, then the power of that deluded tendency over us is cut. The deluded tendency is still there, but it has no power. In other words, deluded tendency + disbelief = moral discipline. Slowly but surely we break the hold our deluded tendencies have over us until eventually we are no longer their puppet. They flail about, but we remain not just unmoved, but un-fooled. Christians say the “devil” works through deception. He tricks us into believing that following him will lead to some happiness. We break his hold over us by no longer being fooled by his deceptions. This is exactly correct, we merely need to replace “devil” with “delusion” and the meaning is the same.

When we find ourselves being haunted by our negative actions in the way explained above, view it as an opportunity to once again engage in purification for the negative action. We generate a sincere regret, we rely upon the three jewels, we engage in some virtuous action as an antidote, and we renew our promise to not go down that road again recognizing it as – quite literally – the highway to hell. Our particularly strong negative actions may haunt us for many years, but that’s OK, each time they do, we again engage in purification practice. Eventually, they will haunt us no more.

It takes great courage to honestly admit our negativity. We don’t have to go around and publicly declare everything we have ever done wrong, but we do have to be honest with ourselves and with our spiritual guide in our heart. Purification practice is sometimes called confession practice. Confession is not just stating (even internally) our negative actions, rather it is done with a wisdom acknowledgement that they are indeed negative conjoined with a sincere promise to not repeat such actions. Again, the Christians are very close, they just sometimes get side-tracked in guilt or thinking some external God is determining their fate, when it simply comes down to the internal laws of physics, otherwise known as the laws of karma.

Staring into the abyss of our own negativity can be daunting, but it is worth the effort. We need to work gradually to dismantle the obstacles of ignorance, pride, and guilt which prevent us from doing so. We need to request wisdom blessings to be able to see how negativity functions in our own mind in a way that we can gradually disarm and deconstruct it. Our negativity is not an intrinsic part of our mind, it is rather merely a current of bad habits and their karmic waste. Ultimately, it is just a question of changing our desires, and Lamrim is the tried and tested method for doing so. With persistent effort, we can eventually clean up our mind completely. Then, we will know a freedom and happiness beyond all others.

Accepting our limits

It’s very easy to become neurotic. It’s even easier to disappoint others. We want to be a good person and our heart is bursting with compassion wanting to help in every way we can, but we are still incredibly limited in what we can actually do. Our attachment, pride, guilt, and misplaced sense of responsibility prevent us from patiently accepting our current limitations. The result is anxiety, burnout, and depression for ourselves and dependency, disappointment, and resentment for others. If we can learn how to accept our limits and communicate them to others, we can avoid all of these problems and transform our good heart into a qualified bodhichitta.

All of us want to be a good person. We want to help. We see those we love suffer and we want to rescue them. Our meditations on the faults of selfishness, the benefits of selflessness, and compassion drive us to want to commit our lives to serving others. We may even fashion ourselves as a bodhisattva dedicated to freeing all living beings from the ocean of samsara and leading them all to the everlasting joy of the Buddha lands. We read time and again that virtuous intentions such as these are supposed to lead to inner peace and happiness, but if we are honest we are miserable on the inside, useless on the outside and we seem inexorably headed towards some sort of dramatic crash. Perhaps that reckoning has already come. I would say much of this comes from an inability to accept and to communicate our current limitations.

Why do we struggle to accept our limitations?

First, we fail to make the distinction between attachment to others not suffering and compassion wishing others are free from their suffering. Attachment to others not suffering mistakenly thinks our happiness depends upon others not suffering, so when they go down, we go down with them. Our own well-being then depends on them doing well, and so we then feel others need to change or their problems need to stop for us to be happy. We then push ourselves to solve their problems out of personal necessity. Because we feel our happiness depends upon theirs, to accept we can’t solve their problems is to condemn ourselves to misery.

Second, our pride convinces us we are better than we actually are. We think we are this amazing high bodhisattva who can save everyone and we don’t want to admit – even to ourselves – that we are still just a beginner and are still quite limited in what we can do. This is especially a problem for teachers and parents and caregivers. Others are looking up to us and relying upon us, we don’t want to let them down (or have them realize we are a fraud), so we pretend we are more capable than we really are. Perhaps we have a unique opportunity to help others and make a difference, and so we keep taking on more and more responsibility, not considering whether we have the capacity to handle it all. Perhaps our own sense of self-worth is very much tied up with being the stable one who is there for others, and we feel if we admitted our limitations we would come crashing down.

Third, our guilt pushes us unhealthily beyond our limits. We know we are not supposed to be selfish, and we think we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others. They are suffering, they are struggling, and we can make a difference. To not do so is to be selfish, and so we beat ourselves up to push beyond what is sustainable. How can we just let them suffer when there is one more thing we can do? We generate this long list of things we “should be doing” if we were perfect, and then we judge ourselves against this, viewing ourselves as a failure if we don’t do it all.

Fourth, we have a misplaced sense of responsibility that it is up to us to solve others problems for them. Doesn’t superior intention tell us that we need to assume personal responsibility for the welfare of all? Doesn’t emptiness explain that ultimately we are responsible for everything that happens in our karmically created dream? Surely, it is up to us. If we don’t do it, who will? Because we think we are responsible for relieving others from their suffering, they then start to think the same thing about us, so they look to us to solve their problems for them, and then get mad at us when we don’t. They then make us feel guilty for not being there for them, setting in motion vicious spirals within our mind.

What is the result of all of this non-acceptance of our limitations?

In the beginning it leads to great stress and anxiety. There is so much we need to do, and we don’t have time or the capacity to do it all, so we become stressed. We fear the consequences of what will happen if we don’t do it all, and so we become anxious. Others place enormous demands on us that we feel it is our responsibility to fulfill, and so we become pulled in ten directions at once but find ourselves falling short on every front. We then push harder and harder to try meet all of these demands. The sustained stress on our system eventually leads to some form of burnout. Our system simply can’t take anymore and we crash. The slightest thing seems like an insurmountable challenge to our fried system. As our capacity to do things declines, the list of our perceived failures grows as we are no longer able to do things that before we could. Our pride tells us we “should” be able to do these things and can’t admit that we are burned out. Our guilt beats us up for being so incapable and supposedly letting down everyone around us. Eventually, we start to fall into a depression about our reduced capacity, which lowers our capacity further in a vicious spiral. We then think we need to push ourselves to get out of our depression, but our burned out system can’t handle that, feeding our sense of hopelessness, failure, and guilt.

And what happens to others when we fail to accept our limitations? In the beginning, it creates a dependency of others on us. Because we have constructed ourselves as responsible for solving their problems, they think it is up to us to solve their problems for them. We don’t want to let them down and we want (need!) them to be happy, so we make all sorts of promises that we will do things for them. They then think their happiness depends on us doing these things for us. We have in effect disempowered them to assume responsibility for their own experience. Their dependency on us creates a terrible dilemma for us. If we solve their problems for them or do their work for them, then we feed their dependency. If we don’t do these things for them, then they will sink or fail, which is something we can’t tolerate or accept. But inevitably, we commit to more than we can actually do, leaving others feeling disappointed by us. We didn’t live up to our promises to them, and now they are suffering the consequences. Their disappointment then feeds our guilt, and perhaps they even manipulate us through our guilt to get us to do more for them. Since they think their happiness and well-being depends upon us doing things for them, when we fail to do so, they feel like their suffering is our fault, so they become resentful that we didn’t do what they think we should have. This resentment then poisons our relationship with the person we so dearly love. They think we are not doing enough, and we alternate between feeling guilty or resentful ourselves at their lack of gratitude for all that we did do for them.

Genuine acceptance of our limitations is the answer

What does it mean to accept our limitations? To accept something in a Dharma context does not mean to simply acknowledge something as a fact. We could acknowledge our limitations, and still be miserable about them. Likewise, it does not mean we don’t try do anything about them, thinking it is somehow a fault to grow beyond them. To accept something means to be at peace with it. We can humbly acknowledge the fact of our current limitations without falling into the extremes of either guilt or complacency. Our mind, quite simply, is not disturbed, but is rather energized. What enables us to accept anything is our ability to transform it into the spiritual path. A difficult situation, for example, gives us an opportunity to train in patience. A needy person give us an opportunity to train in giving, and so forth. Helping other’s through their suffering gives us an opportunity to train in skillful means. Accepting our limitations gives us an opportunity to train in bodhichitta.

Like with so many things, Yoda said it best when he told Luke, “Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” Seeing our limitations is our greatest teacher because it shows us what we must work on to take the next step on the spiritual path. We would want to do more, but we accept that we currently can’t. We don’t expect ourselves to already be able to be perfect and do everything perfectly. We don’t beat ourselves up for not already being better than we are or for having limitations. Rather, we use this awareness to encourage us to improve our wisdom, skills, and capacity so that we can eventually not be constrained in these ways. Superior intention is beyond compassion because it takes personal responsibility for freeing all beings from their suffering, but it is only humbly accepting our limitations that transforms our superior intention into a qualified bodhichitta. A failure to do so causes Dharma teachings to make us neurotic in all the ways explained above; but doing so is the last major step to becoming a bodhisattva. Then there is no contradiction whatsoever between complete humility and soaring spiritual aspiration. Accepting our limitations is the difference between developing a Jesus complex and becoming a qualified bodhisattva. It is the difference between the miserable path of self-flagellation and the Joyful Path of good fortune.

We can accept we can’t save others now because we know their present suffering is fuel for our eventual becoming of a Buddha for their sake. One day, we will lead them to freedom. We don’t need to pretend to be better than we are because that blocks spiritual growth and prevents us from being the best possible teacher for them. Long before Yoda said “we are what they grow beyond,” Kadam Morten said the best teacher is not the one who shows the example of being perfect, but rather the one who shows the example of happily improving. The best parent is the one who helps their kids learn from the parents’ failures. We don’t need to feel guilty about our limitations because they are normal. Dharma doesn’t tell us how we should already be, but rather explains the methods for how we can do better. While ultimately, our mind is the creator of all, the same is true for everybody else and the laws of karma are definite, so no matter how much we might wish others not suffer, fundamentally it is up to them to assume responsibility for their own future. We can’t do it for them. A genuine acceptance of our limitations is the answer to attachment to them not suffering, pride, guilt, and misplaced responsibility. In short, accepting our limitations helps protect us from pushing too far beyond them.

Learning to communicate effectively our current limitations to others likewise avoids dependency, disappointment, and resentment for others. If we are at peace with our own limitations, then we will be able to communicate them to others in a way where they are at peace with them too. And even if they are not at peace with them, we will be at peace with that, and so our mind will remain undisturbed. We can tell people, “I would want to help, but currently I can’t because of this limitation. But once this constraint is lifted, I can help.” Or we can say, “it doesn’t help you for me to solve your problems for you or to protect you from the consequences of your bad choices.” They may protest, but because we see it is best for them for us to not help, we will have the inner strength to compassionately say no. Being honest with others about our limitations also helps break down their attachment, pride, guilt, and misplaced responsibility, thus setting a helpful example. Because we are not over-promising, they are not left disappointed. Because we are empowering them to solve their own problems, there is no basis for resentment. And again, even if there is, it is a short-term problem until eventually they accept our role and their own responsibilities. And even if they don’t, we recognize that is not our responsibility, and all we can do is find within ourself how we are making the same mistake and stop doing so.

It is not easy to dedicate one’s life to helping others. Sometimes we may miss the old days when we could be selfish without guilt. But such nostalgia is a dead end. As Shantideva says, “the childish are concerned only for themselves, and the Buddhas work for others. Just look at the difference between them.” Once we see this difference, the final hurdle for transforming our compassion into a qualified bodhichitta is learning to accept our own limitations. I pray that all those who read this may one day be able to do so.

Helping Others Who Struggle with Addiction

We live in an age of addiction. Porn, vaping, alcohol, marijuana, Facebook, video games, our phones, hard drugs, not to mention opioids which kill more than 30,000 people every year. Addiction devastates lives, but on a much more widespread level, it saps regular people of confidence and deprives us of any ability to gain control over our lives. More fundamentally, at a spiritual level, we can say all of us are addicted to samsaric life, and it is only this addiction which keeps us bound up in its endless sufferings. Virtually all of us know personally somebody struggling with addiction. The question is, how can we help? To answer this, I will first explain how addiction works and then offer some things we can do to help.

How does Addiction Work?

If we don’t understand addiction, we won’t be able to help those struggling with it. The best way to understand addiction is to identify it within ourselves. Addiction is a mental sickness, like depression, PTSD, burnout, bipolar disorder, etc. Addiction is fundamentally nothing more than a self-destructive habit of mind enforced, often, by physiological discomfort. It arises from a toxic combination of the delusions of strong attachment, pride, and lack of self-worth. Delusions are distorted ways of seeing things that we nonetheless believe to be true. Addiction persists because of an inability to keep the promises we make to ourselves, which then reinforces our sense of being a failure and of hopelessness. Let’s try unpack this.

Strong attachment. From a Buddhist perspective, attachment is a mind which mistakenly believes some external object is a cause of our happiness. We believe the object of our addiction – pick your poison – has the power from its side to make us happy. Attachment exaggerates this power and induces in us a desire to partake. We are “desire realm beings,” which means we actually have no choice but to pursue whatever we desire. If we desire to indulge in our our object of attachment more than to not, we will do so. Addiction is a particularly strong form of attachment that has reached uncontrolled proportions – in other words, even if we want to stop, and often part of us does want to – we feel like we can’t.

Pride. Practically speaking, pride is an exaggerated sense of ourself. Pride makes us feel like we are better than our lot in life, and makes us feel like we deserve better than what we have; but then feels slighted that we don’t have it. This sets us up for wanting a high. Our pride tells us we won’t get addicted, that we are better than others who have gotten addicted and we will be able to keep it under control. Then our pride prevents us from admitting we are addicted, telling ourselves all sorts of rationalizations and that we could quit if we wanted to, we just don’t really want to. Then our pride prevents us from seeking help when we need it. We have told everyone we don’t have a problem, and we don’t want to admit to them that we need help – we think we can break our addiction on our own. Then our pride feels attacked when others are just trying to help us by staging an intervention. At some point, our loved ones step in to try help us, but we then feel they don’t get it (we know better…), or that they are unfairly attacking us and we get defensive, thus grasping even more tightly to the rationalizations we have been telling ourself.

Lack of self-worth. The underbelly of pride is insecurity. Deep down, part of us knows we are not as good as our pride makes us out to be. But our sense of self-worth is bound up in our inflated view of ourself, so when it gets threatened, we feel attacked. Part of us knows we are addicted and that we have a problem. Part of us wants to stop, and perhaps we have tried many times, but we don’t feel we are strong enough. Knowing we have a problem we can’t fix makes us feel like a loser, and this grows into a feeling of hopelessness, which in turn makes us say, “screw it, my life sucks anyways, I might as well have at least some happiness from my addiction,” causing us to give in despite our earlier promise to not. Our indulging then fails to give us the joy we were after, and then we feel like a total loser and we beat ourselves up about how bad we are, thus feeding our lack of self-worth in a vicious spiral. The end of this path is a death of despair, either metaphorically by giving up on our life and ambitions or physically through overdose or suicide.

Inability to keep promises to ourself. The great Buddhist master Shantideva said fundamentally our ability to become a better person depends upon keeping the promises we make to ourself. Moral discipline is not something imposed from the outside, but something chosen from our own side. We decide for ourselves what behavior we want, and then make promises or vows to act in certain ways. Keeping those promises is how we grow internally. But, he cautions, if we make promises to ourself that we then break, we will lose confidence in ourself and our ability to keep our promises, and then they will become internally meaningless to us. Someone once famously said, “it’s easy to quit smoking. I have done so at least a dozen times.” When people start to try quit, they realize just how addicted they are. When they quit, but subsequently “fall off the wagon” and give in to their addiction, they lose confidence in themselves and make breaking their promises to themselves a habit. This makes it even harder to successfully quit next time because we know when we make the promise to ourself, we are likely to break it. Eventually, we don’t even try anymore, knowing our addiction is stronger than us until it eventually takes over our life.

Enforced by discomfort. Virtually all addictions are enforced by some form of discomfort, either mental or physical. In Buddhist terms, we call this “changing suffering.” We say there are three types of suffering – manifest suffering, changing suffering, and pervasive suffering. Manifest suffering is actual pain, such as a broken leg, cancer, or mental grief, etc. Pervasive suffering is suffering that is the nature of the body and mind we have taken rebirth into. For example, an animal experiences animal suffering because it has taken rebirth in the body and mind of an animal. The same is true for humans, hungry ghosts, hell beings, and everyone else in samsara. Changing suffering is what we normally think of as happiness. Drinking a cool glass of water is a temporary reduction in our suffering of being thirsty. The relief of sitting is a temporary reduction of our suffering of standing for too long. Indulging in our object of addiction is a temporary reduction in our suffering of withdrawal. We think indulging brings us happiness, but in truth it is just temporarily reducing some other suffering in our life – be it loneliness, helplessness, dissatisfaction, or even physical withdrawal symptoms because our body has grown dependent. Our inability to patiently accept these sufferings and discomforts makes us chase after some form of relief.

How to Help Those we Love

Ultimately, we can’t help those who don’t want to be helped. We need to accept this, and know it is not our fault. There is a fundamental difference between compassion, wishing others were free from their suffering, and attachment to others not suffering, thinking our own happiness depends upon them making the right choices. Making this distinction is one of the hardest parts of helping others, but it is vital. Why? If we are attached to others making the right choices, then when they don’t, we fall with them, rendering us useless. Further, the other person senses that we have a selfish desire for them to quit, and so they don’t trust our intentions trying to help them. This causes them to reject our advice, even if it is exactly what they need to hear. When we are attached to them making the right choices, we will begin all sorts of manipulation tactics to get them to change, which will just cause them to resist us and grasp even more tightly onto their wrong views because nobody likes being manipulated and we all know when we are being manipulated. Ultimately, they need to make the right choices from their own side or it won’t stick. As long as our pressure is in place, they might make the right choice; but then as soon as our pressure is no longer present, they will let loose. That’s not sustainable. Us thinking it is our responsibility to get them to break their addiction actually serves to disempower them to take responsibility for themselves, thus denying them of agency and causing them to become dependent upon us to get better. Then, when they don’t, they will blame us, feeding our guilt and misplaced sense of responsibility. This will then create a vicious spiral of dysfunction between us and the person we are trying to help adding yet another obstacle to the person getting better. We need to accept we can’t control the choices they make. We need to accept that they will make wrong choices and suffer the consequences of those wrong choices. We need to accept that they might need to hit “rock bottom” before they decide to dig themselves out. We need to accept we are not responsible for the choices they make. We need to accept that we might not ourselves be capable of helping them navigate out of their addiction, and perhaps they need professional help. We also have to accept we can’t make them admit they have a problem or to want to get help. Accepting all of these things is a prerequisite for our ability to help them. It is also a prerequisite for our own sanity and emotional balance in dealing with the situation.

One of the first things we need to do is stop enabling their wrong choices. Sometimes we are so attached to preserving a relationship with the person that we don’t tell them what they need to hear, and so we go along with their addiction, pretending that nothing is wrong. This can especially happen in the context of parents with their children or between spouses. There is no contradiction between speaking hard truths and wanting a good relationship. In fact, a lasting relationship can only be built on a healthy foundation, and a failure to speak truth inevitably dooms the relationship anyways. It is because we love them and want the relationship to work that we can’t enable them any longer. Along the same lines, we need to draw a clear line in the sand that we will not accept them making us involuntarily complicit in their wrong choices. This takes many forms, such as us protecting them from the consequences of their wrong choices or them doing things we don’t approve of with our money or in our house, or them asking us to lie or cover for them, etc. We can tell them, “I can’t control what choices you make, but I can control whether I am complicit.” We are under no obligation to make their addiction easier for them.

At the same time, we need to make it clear we are always there for them if and when they need help. Because we understand addiction is a sickness, not a failure, we don’t judge them for their addiction any more than we judge somebody who gets cancer. We need to communicate clearly we stand ready to help with open arms anytime. But we need to often wait until they ask for help, because if they don’t want our help and we “offer it,” they will just push it away, creating even more obstacles. It is possible that they want our help, but are afraid to ask. At such times, we can try skillfully just be there for them and show we are open to listening. Sometimes, they just need somebody who will listen, and them talking helps them come to some conclusions within themselves. If they see we listen with an open heart and without judgment, they might ask us for help or advice. Then, we can offer it. If they storm off on their own to go make wrong choices, as they go out the door, tell them, “Just know, I’m always here for you if you need me.” It may take many years before they come back, but knowing we are there for them provides a constant reassurance, and when they are in the dark parts of their addiction, they will remember us.

When we do ask for our help, we should begin by addressing whatever it is they perceive to be the problem, not what we think is the deeper problem. Oftentimes, they won’t be seeking our help on the addiction directly, but likely the consequences of some wrong choice they have made. Help them ethically navigate through those consequences while making it clear that they own them, but use these times to also address the deeper issue of why they got themselves into trouble to begin with. Don’t focus on the act of indulging in their addiction, dig deeper into the why they are addicted in the first place and what habits of mind lead them down such roads. If we address the deeper issues without directly saying “stop using XYZ,” then we are helping address the root causes while still leaving it up to them to make the choice to quit or not.

On addressing the addiction itself, help them identify for themselves how addiction works per the above. Fundamentally, all delusions are by nature deceptive. They promise one thing, but deliver the opposite. As explained, we are desire realm beings so overcoming addiction is NOT an issue of “will power,” rather it is an issue of changing our desires. If in our heart, we still want the object of our addiction, we might be able to use will power to stop for a little while, but we will just be repressing our attachment until eventually it grows in strength and overwhelms our will power. That is not a sustainable solution. Instead, we need to change our desires. There are two levels to this: not wanting the object of our addiction and not wanting to be addicted to anything. Both levels are addressed by “seeing through the deception of our delusions.” If we receive an email from a Nigerian Prince who wants to transfer $10 million to our bank account for safe keeping if only we send him our account numbers, it is dangerous only if we believe the lie. If we know it is a scam, we will correctly recognize the email as spam, and it will have no power over us. We simply hit delete and move on with our day. We can’t control whether the email arrives in our inbox, but we can completely cut its power over us by realizing it is deceptive. In exactly the same way, our delusions are the spam of our mind. These deceptive thoughts of attachment, pride, lack of self-worth, etc., arise in our mind, but they only have power over us if we believe their lies. We need to help the other person realize how their delusions are deceiving them. Mostly, you should just ask them questions which make them check their own experience to realize they have been burned by these lies again and again in the past, and they will continue to be burned for as long as they believe them. If they see them as deceptive, the thoughts will lose their power. In particular, all delusions exaggerate, so helping the other person break down the exaggeration in their mind will also reduce the power.

Oftentimes, reframing the choice of use or don’t use is helpful. If we are bored and think it is no big deal, indulging in our object of addiction seems like a good idea. But if we see that doing so strengthens the habits in our mind that sends us down the road of addiction, saps our self-confidence, causes us to eventually lose everything we hold dear, and makes us a puppet of their desires then it is a different choice. This is especially true when they are trying to quit. Let’s say they successfully go 10 days, but then are struggling. The pain of withdrawal seems so much more miserable than the relief they can get by indulging again. At such times help them realize that if they indulge now, all of the pain and misery they have accepted for the last 10 days will have been for nothing, and next time they quit they will have to go through all of this misery again to get to the other side. Help them realize if they make promises to quit, but then give in, then their inner promises will start to be meaningless, and if that happens, change becomes almost impossible – at a minimum, they will have to first reestablish the credibility of their inner promises before they start to get traction, and that will definitely mean they will need to go longer than 10 days next time. Help them see how these same habits of giving up show up in other aspects of their life, but if they learn to overcome it here, they will receive great benefit on many dimensions of their life. If they are spiritual, help them see the longer-term consequences of their choices. Help them understand it is not a question of will power, but of changing desires, and help them generate a larger, stronger desire that says no than the impulse to say yes.

One of the most important things is to stress the importance of keeping the promises we make to ourselves. First, help them realize that they have to decide from their own side to stop, not because of some pressure we apply. It is up to them. But that when they make a promise to themselves, they should keep it, come hell or high water. If we keep our promises, we can rejoice and our self-confidence grows. If we break our promises, we lose self-confidence as described above, until eventually our promises become meaningless and change impossible. Help them realize it is better to make small promises that they know they can keep than large promises that they know they will break. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say, “one day at a time.” We make a promise to ourself, “I will not drink today.” And then they keep it. And then they repeat that promise tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that, until eventually they are sustainably sober. Making promises is easy, keeping them is the practice. While we have made a promise, thoughts and impulses will arise encouraging us to break our promises. When these arise, we need to “see the deception” to cut their power. We need to remind ourselves of our wisdom desires to quit, knowing real freedom and confidence waits on the other side. We need to rejoice when we succeed in keeping our promise, and then make the promise again.

When those we love do fall off the wagon, help them not become plagued by guilt and beating themselves up. Instead, help them view it like learning to walk. You identify what mistakes you made, learn your lesson, then get back up and try again. If we want to quit, we can if we are willing to persevere and keep trying again and again until we eventually succeed. Sometimes people can succeed on the first try, for others, it may take years. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, we remain determined to one day win the war. One of the main reasons why we fall off the wagon is our inability to patiently accept the discomfort associated with withdrawal. What enables us to patiently accept our suffering is our ability to transform it into the path of personal growth. When we see working through our suffering helps us become a better person, then we have a valid reason to accept it. It is fuel for our spiritual development. Accepting this short term pain will result in long-term freedom, so it’s worth it.

Ultimately, from a Buddhist perspective, the world we inhabit and all the beings within it are nothing more than mere karmic appearances to mind, like a dream. If last night, we dreamt of somebody in a wheelchair, who put them there? Ultimately we did because they are part of our dream. In exactly the same way, if we are surrounded by appearances of people who are addicted, it is because our mind is dreaming them that way. They are a reflection of the addiction within our own mind. Venerable Tharchin once told me, “when you see faults in others, find them within yourself, and then purge them like bad blood. When you do, like magic, they will gradually disappear from those around you because ultimately they are projections of your own mind.” If we look at the world through an orange balloon, we might mistakenly think the world actually is orange. But when we remove the balloon, we then understand where the orange was coming from. In the same way, when we look at the world through the lens of our own addiction, we will see a world filled with addicts and think that they are actually there. When we remove the addiction from our own mind, then eventually people who are addicted will gradually disappear. This may take some time as the karma giving rise to these appearances gradually exhausts itself, but it will come. This may be hard for us to understand if we don’t have a lot of prior experience or understanding of the wisdom realizing emptiness, but fundamentally, as Geshe-la says, an impure mind experiences an impure world, and a pure mind experiences a pure world.

At a minimum, if we want to help others overcome their own addiction, we need to take the time to identify the addictions we ourselves have and overcome those within us. When we do, we will set a good example of somebody overcoming their addictions, and in the process we will gain the wisdom others need to be able to help them overcome their own addictions. Venerable Tharchin also says that when we gain wisdom realization, those who need that wisdom will begin to appear in our life so that we can share it with them. It is not a coincidence that the most effective addiction counselors were themselves once addicts. They know how addiction works, and they are sharing their experience with others who similarly suffer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, never underestimate the power of prayer. Buddhas accomplish almost all of their virtuous deeds through the power of their prayer. We often lack the ability to resist our delusions on our own, but the blessings of holy beings can fill our mind with the compassion, strength, and wisdom we need. The effectiveness of our prayers for others depends upon the purity of our compassion for them free from attachment, the closeness of our karmic connection to them, the strength of our faith in the Buddhas, and the depth of our realization of emptiness understanding they are not separate from us. Prayer works if done for long enough. Don’t expect immediate results, just keep improving how qualified your prayers are and keep praying. Results may not even come in this lifetime, but as Buddhist, we have a long-term view. Eventually, we will become a Buddha, and eventually we will guide all those we love out of their suffering and to everlasting peace and happiness.

I pray that all those who read this are able to help those they love, and that all beings eventually become free from all addiction.

Met with Geshe-la in my dreams last night

It has been a very long time since I had a dream with Geshe-la.  I met with him in my dreams last night and wanted to write it down before I forget (which I have done before and regretted).

It was some time in the future and I was able to go to a festival (something I haven’t been able to do in awhile). I was arriving late for some sort of big meeting with lots of people.  Geshe-la was not heading the meeting but was in the audience in the back row on the side and had been speaking with people before the meeting started.  When I walked in he saw me and I saw him and I very much wanted to meet with him but didn’t expect to be able to.  He nonetheless left his chair and went into the walkway behind the back row so he could speak with me.  I then got down and tried to do a mandala offering, but couldn’t remember the words nor get my fingers to do the right mudra.  I started becoming flustered.  He then tried to patiently explain to me how to do my fingers and say the words as if I was some beginner who didn’t know and who had never done it before.  I then became very attached to what he thinks of me and bothered by him thinking I was a beginner, like my pride had been wounded.  Wanting to make sure he knew I knew what I was doing, I then said, “I know how to do it, I am just very nervous.”

He then said,  “come with me” and we went back into a study/office that in the building which I understood to be where he normally works.  There was a little sign on the desk that said “20 minutes” which I understood was how long he was going to meet with me (something I have never had the karma to do).  He then started to get tea ready, but said, “actually, let’s go for a walk.”  We then went out, but even though he was very old he was like a tri-athlete.  He was running really fast in a park/track area and there was no way I nor anyone else could keep up with him, he was also climbing through trees like a seasoned climber.  I could basically just watch and I remember thinking, “it is important to exercise and stay physically in shape.”  I then knew I was about to wake up but thought I was going to fall back asleep and continue with the meeting when I did so I thought to myself, “I should remember what happened.”  I then woke up, it was still the middle of the night, so I tried to fall back asleep to get back in the dream.  I debated with myself whether I should just get up and write what happened or try fall back asleep.  I eventually fell back asleep, didn’t go back in the dream, but work up periodically between then and now each time trying to remember what happened and thinking I have to write it down when I get up.

It happens that people have dreams with Geshe-la.  I believe any dream we have with Geshe-la in it he is actually there and he is giving us a message.  Sometimes people ask others, “what do you think this dream means?” as if there is an objective meaning or code to interpreting dreams.  I personally think a dream means whatever we understand it to mean.  Nobody else can tell us what our dreams mean, rather they “mean” what Geshe-la blesses our mind to understand them to mean.  However, I don’t think there is any fault in sharing our dreams with others because then when they hear about our dream perhaps Geshe-la will bless their mind and they too will receive some message that they need to hear.  Perhaps not, but perhaps so.  For this reason, I share my dreams unless I understand I am not supposed to for some reason.

So what does my dream mean to me?  It seems there are several lessons.  First, it has been too long since I have been able to make it to some big event.  Second, we should always want to meet with Geshe-la, but not have any expectation of being able to do so.  These are the conditions in which the karma for a meeting can ripen.  Third, even though he is always busy helping many people, he nonetheless goes out of his way to take time to be with each one of us.  Fourth, we should not get flustered when we are with our spiritual father, rather we should relax and be happy.  Fifth, we shouldn’t feel threatened by our teachers considering us to be a beginner, rather we should embrace this attitude even if we have been practicing for a very long time.  Sixth, we should not be attached to what our teachers think of us nor develop pride in our Dharma knowledge or experience.  Seventh, even if Geshe-la is not leading the event, he is always there working for us in the background.  Eighth, we should not narrowly think of our Dharma training as just teachings or formal practice, but that it also includes seemingly mundane things like making tea and going for walks.  Ninth, appearances are deceptive, even though Geshe-la appeared to be very old he was full of vitality and energy and was running laps around everybody.  Tenth, as we get older it becomes increasingly important that we remain physically active and to stay in good shape.  Eleventh, our time with Geshe-la can end at any moment and we need to have a strong wish to meet with him again.  Twelfth, we never know when will be our last encounter with Geshe-la and we will never see him again.  I thought I was going to go back into the dream and see him again but I never did.  Lastly, I did, however, keep remembering that I have to remember all the messages he had given me, which I think in a broader sense is the most important meaning of my dream of them all.

Healing the (subtle) division between monastic and lay communities

Venerable Tharchin once said, “a Dharma center is the collection of inner realizations of its members bound together by their mutual love and appreciation for one another.”  It seems to me the same is true at the level of a spiritual tradition.  Creating division within the Sangha is considered one of the five heinous actions of immediate retribution (translation:  one of the most negative things we can do), so it follows that healing such divisions is one of the most virtuous things we can do.  For hundreds, arguably thousands of years, the Kadampa tradition has primarily been a monastic one.  Geshe-la’s goal now is for the Kadam Dharma to penetrate into every aspect of human life.  The mission he has given us is “to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.”  He has given us the Dharma, we all have modern lives, our job is to attain the union of these two.  To accomplish this, the false duality between monastic (read center) life and lay life needs to be dissolved away.

All Kadampas agree there is no point doing anything with our life other than practice Dharma.  We are all trapped in a hallucinogenic karmic dream from which there is no escape other than to wake up.  We have a precious human life that we may lose at any moment, and we are in grave danger of falling into the lower realms from which it is nearly impossible to escape.  Our only enemies are delusions and we all have assumed the task of developing our realizations, skills and abilities (up to and including full enlightenment) so that we can, together, lead all beings in a great exodus out of samsaric realms and deliver them all to the eternal bliss of the pure lands.  This is our common project.  In short, our job is to gain realizations to be able to free others from the bondage of delusions.  Towards this end, our kind Spiritual Guide has organized for us festivals, retreats, temples, Dharma centers and study programs and he has inspired for us a worldwide Sangha of lay and ordained practitioners alike practicing a common path.  Geshe-la has encouraged us to deeply cherish these things as “the main gateways for those seeking liberation.”  Gen-la Losang calls Dharma centers “the Embassies of the pure lands” in this world.  Venerable Tharchin calls Dharma centers “beacons of light in a world of spiritual darkness.”

Historically, the Dharma community was divided into the monastic and lay communities.  While the Kadampa tradition no longer has monasteries per se, we do have their modern equivalents, namely our Dharma centers.  The spectrum of Kadampas is quite vast, but we can loosely make a distinction between those who primarily live in and work for Dharma centers, attend every teaching and festival, and those who don’t.  For simplicity, let’s call these center people and non-center people – the modern equivalent of the distinction between the monastic and lay communities.  We can no longer make a lay/ordained distinction because we have lay people living a modern monastic way of life in Dharma centers and we have ordained people living modern lay ways of life out in the world of work and family.

There exists, quite naturally in fact, a current of thought within the tradition that values participating in centers, retreats, teachings, festivals and the like as the most important priorities in our life.  We should organize our life around being able to participate in these things as opposed to participate in these things when our life allows it.  There is, however, a literal grasping at what this means.  There is a grasping at there being a highest way of participating in the tradition, namely living in and working for a center, attending every teaching and festival, keeping all the commitments of the study programs perfectly, and so forth.  Those who fail to be able to do these things are somehow “lesser” Kadampas – less committed, less realized, less Buddhist.

This type of grasping leads to a good deal of mental pain and unnecessary, albeit subtle, division within the Sangha.  This grasping also is one of the main impediments to the accomplishment of Geshe-la’s wish for the Dharma to flourish into every aspect of human life.  Some center people can develop deluded pride thinking their way of practicing is better than everyone else’s.  They sometimes then look down upon those who are not able to attend every teaching and festival as somehow being more enmeshed in samsara.  They sometimes can develop resentment towards those who do not work as much for the flourishing of the center as somehow being less committed and more selfish.  When family or work considerations interfere with being able to participate in everything, some center people judge others as having misplaced priorities.  Whether ordained or not, some center people think those who focus their energies on their spouses or kids somehow have less equanimity, self-righteously declaring “relationships are deceptive.”  Some center people believe their job is to get non-center people to be more externally like them, and steer all of their advice towards this end.

Since center people are supposedly closer to the sources of Dharma, non-center people can sometimes assent to the view that grasps at center life being inherently supreme.  As a result, they start to view their families, jobs and responsibilities in this world as somehow being obstacles to their Dharma practice.  This introduces conflict in the home over participation in Dharma activities, guilt at work feeling like one is wasting their precious human life, and resentment about having to meet responsibilities outside the center.  Viewing their daily life as somehow being inherently ordinary and worldly, they fail to bring the Dharma into every aspect of their modern lives.  When non-center people feel judged by center people for their supposedly non-Dharma activities, non-center people can become defensive and view center people as belonging to some “clique” or, worse, “cult.”  Non-center people can become resentful about the lack of understanding and pervasive judgment of center people, causing them to lose faith in their teachers, center managers, and fellow Sangha.  Thinking there is only one way of practicing the Kadampa path and being karmically incapable of doing so, people move on to other things and sometimes spend the rest of their life criticizing the family they felt forced to leave.  Some non-center people can likewise develop pride thinking their way of practice is supreme since they are having to deal with real problems in the real world, but this is less common.  Usually they develop some sort of inferiority complex about how they live their life, feeling the need to hide their going to the movies or make excuses for going on vacation with their families.

Grasping at center life being supreme is a serious impediment to the accomplishment of Geshe-la’s vision for the Dharma in this world.  If the tradition is to gain the realizations the people of this world need, it is incumbent upon us to learn how to transform any life – center or otherwise – into a Kadampa quick path to enlightenment.  Our inability to conceive how to transform a non-center life into a quick path does not mean it is not possible, it just means we haven’t invested what it takes to realize how it can be.  The reality is this, there are far more people in this world who lead non-center lives than center ones.  This does not mean non-center life is more important than or superior to center life.  Both are equally good and precious, just in different ways.  Venerable Tharchin says, “we must each assume our place in the mandala.”  Rather, it means if the Dharma is to penetrate into every aspect of modern life, we must learn how to do this.  It is up to each of us to do what we can to heal these divisions and wrong understandings.

The question is how?  The answer is non-center people need to live their life as “their center life.”  And center people need to live their life as “their non-center life.”  How can this be done?  Fortunately, every life is equally empty, therefore every life is equally transformable.  Non-center people should impute “center” on their home, “retreat” on their work, “teachings” on their daily life, and “Sangha” on their loved ones.  Center people should impute “home” on their center, “work” on their retreat, “daily life” on their teachings, and “loved ones” on their Sangha.  Everyone needs to impute “festival” on whatever happens during festival time, whether we are in attendance or not.  If we each do our part, there is no doubt we can heal this subtle division within the Sangha, relieve the mental pain associated with this form of grasping, and unleash Kadampa wisdom into every aspect of human life, thereby fulfilling Geshe-la’s vision for the Dharma in this world.

A Dharma center is where we practice Dharma in this world.  Home is the base from which we go out to engage in activities and the place we return to to recharge.  Non-center people need to make their home their “center” for practicing Dharma in their life.  We can correctly view everything that happens in a Dharma center as being emanated by the Buddhas for our spiritual training.  There is no reason why we cannot do the same with our homes, viewing them as the principal place where we put the Dharma into practice.  The home of any Dharma center is the gompa, the center of any Kadampa home is our meditation corner.  Every member of a Dharma center has a responsibility to the other members of the community, every member of a home has a responsibility to the other members of the home.  Whether in a home or a center, we have no control over whether others put the Dharma into practice, but we can choose to put the Dharma into practice ourselves with those we encounter.  Living with people is hard, accepting people who are deluded but not cooperating with their delusions is harder still.  Viewed in this way, those who live in a home can come to understand what it is like to live in a center, and those who live in a center can come to understand what it is like to live in a home.  Dharma centers can become more like homes, and homes can become more like Dharma centers.

Retreat is a time when we set aside our worldly activities to focus on our spiritual practice.  Work is when we do our jobs, fulfilling our responsibilities to the people in this world.  Normally we mistakenly grasp at our work as somehow being an inherently worldly activity and retreat as somehow being inherently spiritual.  As a result, we grasp at a duality between our work and our retreat.  Just as it is possible to be on retreat but never forget our worldly activities, so too it is possible to be at work and never forget our “retreat.”  Being on retreat is a state of mind.  If we have a mind of retreat, we can be on retreat no matter what we are doing externally, including our normal work.  The situations we encounter at work are our opportunities to put the Dharma into practice with an aim of gaining the realizations necessary to transform our jobs into the quick path.  If our primary objective is to gain Dharma realizations at work, that is what we will do while simultaneously fulfilling our responsibilities to our employers and customers.  Work, for us, will be “retreat time.”  Doing our jobs, or “working”, is also a state of mind.  It is the mental assuming of responsibility for what we need to do in this world.  When we are on retreat, our “job” is to gain deep experience and insight into the Dharma.  As Bodhisattva’s, our job is to gain the realizations the people of this world need so that we may lead them to enlightenment.  Retreat time is not vacation time, it is time to really get to work.  Work does not have to be a burden.  It is said if you enjoy what you do, you will never “work” a day in your life.  Effort is “taking delight” in virtue, in other words, enjoying engaging in virtue.  Viewed in this way, those who are working can better understand what it is like to be on retreat and those who are on retreat can come to understand what it is like to go to work.  Retreat can become more like work, work can become more like retreat.

A Dharma teaching occurs when the meaning of Dharma is transmitted from the teacher to the student.  Daily life is where we gain experience of how the world works.  When a teacher gives a teaching they should strive to explain everything in the context of applying it to the “daily lives” of the students.  They can only do this if they both understand the daily trials and tribulations of their students and they apply the Dharma themselves in their own daily lives.  Likewise, receiving a Dharma teaching depends upon listening in a particular way where we view what is being a taught as personal advice for how to overcome the sickness of delusions plaguing our daily life.  But there is no reason why we can only receive Dharma teachings in a Dharma center.  Milarepa said all of life teaches the truth of Dharma.  When we receive teachings we are advised to believe the living Lama Tsongkhapa enters into the heart of our teacher and through that teacher we receive Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings.  There is no reason why we cannot believe Lama Tsongkhapa has entered into the heart of everyone we encounter in daily life and through them he is giving us pure Dharma teachings.  Not everyone can attend every teaching, nor keep every commitment of every study program.  People shouldn’t be judged for this, rather reasonable accommodations should be made understanding that attending some teachings is better than attending none.  At the same time, not being able to attend the teachings at a center does not preclude Kadampas from receiving teachings every single day through their daily life.  Viewed in this way, teachings become advice for how to live daily life and daily life becomes our Dharma teaching.  Teachings can become more like daily life and daily life can become more like a teaching.

Sangha are those who inspire us to put the Dharma into practice.  Our loved ones are those we live and spend the most time with, usually our family and friends.  Our Sangha are our spiritual companions who we reunite with in life after life in pursuit of our common path and spiritual goals.  Geshe-la ends every festival telling us he prays for our families and friends, and he encourages us to love them first and foremost.  Venerable Tharchin says with every step we take towards enlightenment we bring all living beings with us in proportion to our karmic connection with them.  Dharma only finds its meaning when it is applied to the delusions that arise in our lives; and no one provokes our delusions more than our loved ones.  Put all of this together and it means for a Bodhisattva, the duality between their Sangha and their loved ones is false.  Sangha are not just the people who practice the same path as us, they are those who inspire us to put the teachings into practice.  Our loved ones do this, either through their good example or through their annoying quirks.  Our loved ones are not just our family and friends of this life, but also our vajra family (brothers, sisters, father and mother) who share with us the same lineage and view.  We do not have to be with our vajra family to be with “Sangha” and we do not have to be with our family and friends to be with our “loved ones.”  Viewed in this way, being with Sangha becomes more like being with family and friends, and being with our family and friends becomes more like being with our Sangha.  Sangha becomes more like family and family becomes more like Sangha.

Our Spiritual Guide, our Spiritual Father, has put in place a tradition of large spiritual gatherings, such as the various festivals and Dharma celebrations, where members from different centers come together as a large spiritual family to receive teachings and build spiritual bonds with one another.  Geshe-la calls these festivals our “spiritual holiday.”  They often feel like Kadampa “family reunions.”  Some people have the karma to attend ever festival and Dharma celebration, some only maybe one per year, others maybe only once in a lifetime.  Regardless of whether we are able to physically attend or not, all of us can “mentally” attend every festival.  How?  Anybody who has been to a festival can attest that there is a certain “magic” to them, where everything that happens seems “emanated” as part of our festival.  From the conversations we overhear to the cold water in the shower, it all somehow fits together in exactly the way we need it to.  It is a very special and blessed time.  But sometimes, for whatever karmic reason, we are not able to make it.  Those who are able to make it sometimes judge those who can’t.  Those who can’t make it sometimes become jealous (or even judgmental in a different way) of those who can.  This is completely unnecessary.  Those who can attend the festivals should make a point of “bringing along” those who can’t by carrying them around in their hearts as they go about the festival, attend the teachings and receive the empowerments.  In this way, those who can’t physically come are able to “be there” anyways.  Those who can’t make it to the festivals can adopt “the mind of a festival” during festival time, and view everything that happens to them during festival time as their personalized teachings emanated through whatever happens.  Buddhas pervade all things, so there is no reason why they cannot enter into our lives and transform whatever happens during this time into our own individualized festival.  People who can’t attend can also make a point of “tuning in” during the teachings and empowerments, mentally imagining they are receiving them at a distance through their meditation practices during teaching time.  They can also deeply rejoice in those who are able to make it, thereby creating the causes to perhaps one day be able to go back.  Whether we attend festivals or not, all of us from time to time will go on vacation (or “holiday” as the Brits call it).  Whether we are on holiday at Manjushri or on the beaches of Bali, there is no reason why we cannot impute “spiritual holiday” on this time.  Viewed in this way, while we still try make it if we can, it doesn’t matter whether we are physically present at the festival or not, we can attend anyways.  While we still encourage people to come, it doesn’t matter if our Sangha friends make it to the festival or not, we bring them along anyways.  It doesn’t matter whether we are at a festival or on a regular vacation, both can equally be viewed as our “spiritual holidays.”

It is true “centers,” “retreats,” “teachings,” “Sangha” and “festivals” are the main gateways for those seeking liberation, and we should cherish these things as our Guru’s greatest gifts to us.  But we need the wisdom to know there are many different ways we can integrate these things into our lives.  Likewise non-center life is not an object of abandonment.  It is not something we need fear nor feel guilty about participating in.  If we are to fulfill Geshe-la’s vision of bringing the Dharma into every aspect of human life we all need to work on eliminating the false duality between “center” and “non-center” life, between “home” and “center,” between “retreat” and “work,” between “teachings” and “daily life,” between “Sangha” and our “loved ones,” and between “physically attending festivals” and “not.”  In reality, whether we are a center person or a non-center person, we all have center and non-center aspects of our lives.  When we are engaging in center activities, we should never forget our non-center life; and when we are engaging in non-center activities, we should never forget our center life.  If we all in this way practice inclusion instead of exclusion we can “bind together in mutual love and appreciation” these two aspects of our spiritual community into one larger spiritual family.

 

 

My father never wants to speak with me again

As some of you may have gathered from my recent postings and tweets, I have been trying to navigate through a family conflict, in particular with my father.  Sadly, he told me (on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, no less) that he never wants to speak with me again.  I am not very good at discussing my personal problems (funny how much easier it is to discuss the Dharma when it is abstracted from daily life), but as a dear Sangha friend recently told me, “the raw emotion of real life is where the mind moves the most.”  So I am going to try share my feelings and thoughts about how I am trying to work through all of this in the hopes that it might prove helpful to others who may one day face a similar situation.  It’s probably all wrong, but it’s my honest best.  At the very least, I hope clarifying my own thinking by writing it down will prove therapeutic in bringing a little peace.

I don’t even know where to begin.  I am sure my explanation is biased in a number of ways, but I will try explain things as “objectively” as I can.  Please forgive me in advance for that.  This is also unfortunately a bit of a long story, but the spiritual lessons I have learned from all of this lie at the end and for me it has been worth the trouble.

My parents got divorced when I was one year old.  My father is (was) a Doctor and made a ton of money.  My mother was a beauty queen.  If truth be told, my mother left my father because she thought she could “do better,” and if she didn’t do so soon, she would lose her beauty and it would be too late.  My mother later started dating this high-powered lawyer, and he eventually proposed to her but said he didn’t want my brother and I around.  My mother couldn’t bring herself to do that, so she said no.  She then had to get a job as a secretary and basically spent the rest of her life deeply scarred by the whole experience.

My mother’s actions, quite understandably, upset my father quite a bit – that’s an understatement, he hated her for it.  As a result, he refused to pay anything more than the absolute, absolute minimum in child support.  He had good lawyers who made sure he didn’t have to.  Sometimes we didn’t have enough money even for heat.  Meanwhile, he is flying around in his private plane and cruising on his private yacht.  My mother hated him for that.  She was part jealous of all his money, part bitter that she found herself a poor, single mother working as a secretary (when she could have had it all), part guilty knowing it was her own mistakes that led her to this fate.  I spent my entire childhood with my parents hating each other, taking each other back to court fighting about money, and being made to feel like I had to choose between my two parents – my love of one viewed as a betrayal of the other.  For whatever reason, my brother always had a very close and loving relationship with my father (first son, and all that).  I looked like my mother, and thought more like her too.  The legacy of this has echoed throughout my life.

The big problems in my relationship with my father began over payment for my undergraduate studies.  The last time my mother took my father back to court was when I had just started high school.  Part of the settlement was my father would have to pay for our college expenses.  My father had only allocated enough money to send me to a middle of the road public university.  His logic was “I put myself through school and I went to a State college.  If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.”  But I managed to get into a very expensive (but very good) private college.  The money ran out after two years.  The problem was in the United States the financial aid rules are such that if your parents make money, you are not eligible for financial aid.  To get around this, my father had to write to the financial aid office basically saying he was disowning me (so I could take out student loans) and I had to graduate in three years instead of four.  None of my other classmates were going through similar problems.  The families that had money, paid; the families that didn’t, got financial aid.  I had to cut school short and, to be honest, I felt cheated.  My father could have easily paid, he just chose not to.  He said it was to teach me responsibility.  I was a straight-A student, succeeding in my every venture.

Like all recent graduates, I struggled financially at first.  My now wife’s family was there for us, and largely picked up the slack helping us stay on our feet.  They were incredibly generous.  But when my father sent her family a bill for some minor dental work he did on my wife, I blew a fuse.  I basically told him everything I thought about how I thought his behavior was wrong – what he did in terms of child support and his not paying for college.  My words had echoes of my mother’s, and basically ever since this time our relationship has been strained.  He never forgave me, I never changed my stand that what he did was wrong, but I regret many of my word choices which were bitter and sometimes spiteful.

We spent the next 20 years trying to rebuild.  While I still think he made a mistake when we were growing up, I forgave him and made the best of it.  I tried to learn the lessons about self-sufficiency and personal responsibility that he wanted me to learn.  During this time, he basically disagreed with every career choice I made – leaving law school, working in investment banking, leaving banking to get a degree in economic policy, working for several years at a job beneath my educational attainment so that I had more time available to be Resident Teacher of a Dharma center, then becoming a Professor of economics.  He always felt I was making the wrong career choices and that I was irresponsible with money.

Seven years ago, there was a landslide at our house in Geneva, and as a result we had to use all of our savings for repairs, experts and lawyers.  I also had to borrow a substantial sum of money from my brother (who had taken over my Dad’s practice when he retired) to cover expenses until we received compensation from the insurance companies for our damages (the lawsuit continues to this day).  Five years ago, Dorje Shugden “arranged” for us to have twins when we weren’t planning on having any more children (we already had three at the time, bringing us up to a family with five kids).  This was yet another example to my father of our irresponsibility.  Shortly after the twins were born, while they were in the hospital with a bad infection that could have gone either way, he sent me an email accusing my wife and I of being “vagabonds” in life who are “living high on the hog on other people’s money (meaning my brother’s, who lent us the money to deal with the landslide lawsuit).”  He has since consistently expressed dismay about us “living beyond our means” (we’re not), and making us feel guilty anytime we spend money on anything, such as going on a family vacation.  Throughout all of this time, when he would make such accusations, I would spend many hours drafting respectful and carefully worded replies to try help him understand why his view of us was mistaken.  As his son, it hurt me greatly to have my father think all of these things about us when we were doing the best we could to get by.  In reality, I see now, I was very attached to both his approval and his understanding.  I mistakenly felt my happiness depended upon him approving of us and understanding our life choices.

Every year for the last eight years my wife has brought our kids back to my home town for the summer.  We would stay at my father’s place while he would go on his annual boating trip to Alaska.  He would then usually see us for a few days at either the beginning or end of the summer, depending on the timing of his trip.  We never once failed to express our sincere gratitude for him making his house available to us in the summer, explaining if he hadn’t done so we wouldn’t be able to come home and make connections with all of the family (I have about 40 members of my family – aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, etc. – in my home town).  My father also owns a lake cabin which we enjoyed tremendously as kids growing up, and my father generously kept the cabin so that my brothers and I (and our kids) can continue to enjoy it.  Unbeknownst to me, my brother had several years earlier began assuming the annual expenses of the cabin (maintenance, taxes, etc.) which ran into tens of thousands of dollars every year.  When I became a diplomat, and my salary improved considerably, my brother explained what he had been doing and asked if we could also contribute since our kids were enjoying it throughout the summer as well.  I explained that between the on-going lawsuit and the price of tickets to bring the family back every year we could only afford to contribute about 15% of the annual expenses.  It was simply all we could reasonably afford.  My brother said that was fine and he appreciated whatever we could do.

Two years ago, due to the timing of the school year, my wife and kids had to leave Spokane in mid-August.  In order for my father to see them, he had to cut his boat trip short.  He wanted to see them, but he also didn’t want to cut his trip short, and he wanted to make sure we knew how much he had to sacrifice “battling the elements to make it back quickly” to see us.  There were, unfortunately, three incidents that my father misunderstood to be us avoiding him.  He was quite upset (inside), asking himself, “why did I go through all that to come back, only to be avoided when I get here?”  When I saw my father last June, he confronted me about all of this (before I knew nothing, except some murmurings from my brother).  I found this difficult to accept.  Basically, for the last five to seven years, my father has been “absent.”  He has consistently forgotten our kids’ birthdays, never made any effort to invest in their lives and was often standing in judgment when he did engage with us.  Nothing we could ever do was good enough for him.  We had sacrificed tremendously, both financially and stress-wise, to come back every summer to invest in family.  To spend 48 weeks in town over the span of several years to see family and then be accused of avoiding my father when in fact he was the one who was never in town was a bit much to swallow.  I explained as such saying essentially he has been completely neglecting his role as a grandfather and we have said nothing about it, choosing to accept you as you are and to instead focus on the positive, but for you to then get upset at us for avoiding you is a bit hard to comprehend.

This summer, when it was time to make plans, he asked when we were coming.  Due to changing countries and school systems, this summer we only have three weeks available right in the middle of when he is usually on his boat trip.  When we explained our timing, he started getting upset again basically saying we should try come earlier if we can.  I then sent him an email saying, “please don’t get upset, given the timing of the school year and movers, this is all we can do.”  He then sent an email titled “here it comes” in which he lambasted us for our lack of gratitude and appreciation for all that he does for us, accused us of having a “perverted sense of entitlement” and “misguided sense of my birthright” in my use of his house and lake cabin.  He accused us of being ungrateful, disrespectful and inconsiderate.  He completely fabricated out of thin air some story about us showing disrespect for his wife when she got cancer (never happened).  He said we were “mooching” off of him and my brother with our “token contributions” to the expenses of the lake.  He belittled my wife for what she does, and then concluded by threatening if we don’t start showing him “the respect he is due” there will be negative consequences (meaning we won’t be able to use his house, etc., any more.

This was emotionally devastating for both me and my wife to read, much less deal with given that we are currently on opposite sides of the planet (she is in France this year while I am in China).  Despite this, I really took my time to craft a reply in which I did not retaliate – at all – saying hurtful things in return.  I once again tried to clarify we weren’t avoiding him this was just his mis-reading of the situation, we were extremely grateful for everything he had done, we were sorry if he saw things in this way, we were financially contributing all that we could to the expenses of the lake, and that all of this was quite hard to take against the backdrop of him being the one who has been completely absent from our kids’ lives for the last five to seven years.  He then replied completely ignoring all of my clarifications, saying he was still “pissed” at us for mistreating him for the last 20 years.  He said all of the emails that I had previously sent during this 20 year period were just “meaningless words,” because our wrong behavior remained the same.  I felt like he had thrown away all of the work I had put in over the last 20 years to try rebuild our relationship after the college incident.  It was gone, out the window.  Again, I replied without retaliation, clarifying.  He replied he didn’t know how I could be so “dense” and engage in such “idiocy.”  I then sent a timeline, showing how things could have been different.  Once again, he responded with spite saying he gives up.

A week goes by and then he sent an email in which he communicated the exact same message saying he was angry at us for our mistreatment of him, expecting a change in our behavior.  But he did so with a decided change of tone, using nicer words.  This was a revelatory moment for me.  Every single example he had given us about our supposed mistreatment of him had been thoroughly refuted as being factually wrong, wildly exaggerated, completely misunderstood, etc.  None of our supposed wrong actions “objectively” (or should I say conventionally) could survive the scrutiny of a little light being shone on them.  Yet despite all of these clarifications, he simply couldn’t let go.  In his mind we had wronged him even though he couldn’t explain how or why, and by my constantly relating to his accusations as if they had a basis in truth I was actually feeding a dysfunctional dynamic.  I realized – quite vividly – that for the last 42 years of my life I have been chasing after his approval and understanding, and that my doing so was the source of all of my own mental pain with regards to this.  I also realized I wasn’t helping him by assenting to his simply wrong view of us nor trying to chase the rainbow of living up to his expectations when he couldn’t even articulate what needed to change.

So I sent back an email in which I essentially said, “what are you talking about?  None of what you are accusing me of actually happened, this is all your misperception of things.”  I then held up the mirror of what he had done and said that if he has a problem with me, it is his problem, not mine.  I will no longer chase after his approval or understanding.  Either he accepts me or he doesn’t.  I concluded by saying the solution here is simple – we both need to be happy with what does happen, not upset about what doesn’t happen.  This is what I am going to do, and I invite him to do the same.  But if he doesn’t, it is his choice.  His reply was “have a good life, I will no longer be a part of it.  Because of the way you mistreat me, I never want to hear from you again.”

When I received this, I quite clearly was struck with the understanding that his anger towards me is actually just, deep down inside far beyond any place he is emotionally or spiritually equipped to confront, his own guilt about his own failings and shortcomings as a father and grandfather.  His obsession with money and his attachment to the fulfillment of his own wishes have caused him to neglect his responsibilities to his family, and deep down inside he knows it – and feels guilty about it, but he can’t bring himself to change his own behavior.  When I refuse to assent to his narrative of what has supposedly happened between us, it forces him to confront this within himself.  Since he is incapable of doing so, he lashes out at me.  But what he is really lashing out at is his own reflection in the mirror which he is incapable of confronting.  I realized I no longer need to chase.  This actually has little to nothing to do with me (except, of course, it all being my karma).  These are his own inner demons he is wrestling with, and I can’t do it for him.  All I can do is understand what is going on, stop feeding the problem by assenting to his distorted view, explain to him that I love him anyways and leave the door open for him to come back once he has done this work within himself.  But to enter into this dynamic with him of trying to prove myself to him and conceding that there is some cosmic injustice I have inflicted upon him when I have done no such thing doesn’t actually help him.  And it certainly doesn’t help me, my wife or my kids to have to be subject to all of this unnecessary drama.

We sometimes take the Dharma teachings of “accepting defeat and offering the victory” or “not disturbing others” or “working to fulfill their wishes” too far, where in effect we are just feeding others’ delusions and wrong behavior.  If we love them and we care for them, sometimes we have to say “no, enough is enough.  I am not going to play this game anymore.”  Gen Lhamo explains that we often sacrifice inner peace on the altar of outer peace, and we do so driven by our own attachment to not wanting to lose something in our relationship with the other person.  Of course we shouldn’t unnecessarily antagonize others and we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, but when dynamics become fundamentally unhealthy and continuing with them is leading to an emotional black hole for all involved, we need to take a step back and take a stand.  Doing so is an act of compassion.  It is sometimes the only way to break the cycle of unhealthy dynamics.  Compassion without wisdom is not helpful.  Cooperating with and assenting to delusions – our own or others – always makes the situation worse.

It is hard when this happens with figures as important to us as our parents.  Of course we need to focus on the good, and appreciate our parents for all that they have done and not be upset about them for falling short of our expectations.  If I had a perfect realization of the kindness of my parents, this is what I would see.  I shouldn’t fault my father for what he didn’t do, I should just be grateful for what he did do.  We can always want and expect more, but when has that ever helped anything?  But at the same time, loving and respecting our parents does not mean we need to cooperate with their deluded behavior, nor does it mean we need to be attached to their approval and understanding.  Of course we need to be respectful, but ultimately our happiness does not depend upon what others think of us, including them.  The story of Buddha Shakyamuni also poignantly reveals this.  It is my attachment to his approval and understanding that prevented me for the last 20 years from realizing I had been trapped in an unhealthy dynamic with my father and I wasn’t willing to say, “Stop!  I am doing the best I can, if you have a problem with it, there is nothing I can do about it.  It is up to you to assume responsibility for your own feelings in the situation, as I have to assume responsibility for mine.”  He thinks his happiness depends upon me changing my behavior.  If I assent to that, then I disempower him from being happy on his own.  I don’t help him by agreeing with this premise.  While it can seem harsh, sometimes the best way to help somebody else is to tell them, “your feelings and your reactions are your responsibility.”

I don’t know where things go from here.  But I am grateful that all of this has happened.  I now understand his anger at me is actually coming from his own unacknowledged guilt and conflicting desires.  I can’t do his internal work for him, but I can do mine.  I can get myself to the mental space where I feel no animosity towards him at all, where I feel completely grateful for what he has done, not resentment for what he hasn’t.  I can forgive him, love him, but still not cooperate anymore with his wrong narrative.  I can also finally let go of my attachment to what he thinks of me and realize there is no contradiction between being a Dharma practitioner and saying, “if you have a problem with me, it is your problem, not mine.”  Sometimes, not often, this is the kindest thing we can do.  Even if saying so might mean the end of a treasured relationship.

Love someone unconditionally while not cooperating with their delusions.  Finding the middle way is never easy.

How to resolve conflict with your loved ones

Geshe-la said at a meeting with teachers at Manjushri once that we need people sharing on-line their positive experiences of using the Dharma to solve their daily problems.  He said this will help counter some of the false narratives against us.  I also think implicit in this is by sharing our experiences we can all learn from one another.  It is in this light that I share the following.  I hope my failures and struggles might in some way prove helpful to others who one day find themselves in similar situations.  At the very least, writing this will help me clarify my own thoughts and hopefully bring a little inner peace.

I am in the middle of the biggest fight I have ever had with my father.  It started over something trivial, namely making our plans for the summer, but it somehow tapped into deep-seated resentments that had been building up for years on both sides.  My job now, it seems, is to work through my own delusions and to use the Dharma to lay the foundation for what can in the future be some sort of honest reconciliation and stable resolution.  It seems to me all of us will one day encounter conflict with those closest to us.

In all conflict situations, there are two problems, an internal one of the delusions flaring up within our own mind and an external one of the actual conflict with the other person.  Since there are two different problems, we need two different solutions – an internal one and an external one.  While ideally, we should pursue our internal and external solutions in parallel, the reality is usually our external efforts will fail if internally we have not yet re-found peace within our mind.  As Geshe-la says, without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.

Internally, we need to work through all the delusions within our own mind and replace them with wisdom about the situation and compassion towards all affected by it.  Dharma practice is, for all practical purposes, a process of abandoning our habitual deluded reactions and replacing them with new and positive habits.  It seems to me, there are five deluded habits we often fall into during conflict with others.

The first is we lose our refuge and instead rely upon our own instincts.  It’s relatively easy to practice Dharma when the problems we face are not too bad, but when our problems become extreme we tend to forget our refuge and instead try solve our problems on our own.  Gen Lhamo once said we are spiritual people, so our first reaction should be to pray.  We need to pray for wisdom to know what to do and how to think about it.  We need to pray for love and compassion to fill our hearts towards the other person.  We need to pray that Dorje Shugden take control of the situation and arrange whatever is best for all concerned.  Finally, we pray that our conflicts become a powerful cause of enlightenment for all involved.

Our second habitual reaction is usually we wish these problems weren’t happening.  But actually, I think, we need to be grateful that there are these problems, because without big problems we quickly become lazy and fail to actually change our mind with the Dharma we have received.  It is very easy for our Dharma studies to become abstract, academic or philosophical.  For me at least, it is only when I am really smacked down by major problems in my life that I am actually forced to change the way I think.  It is when we are confronted with the truth of the sufferings of samsara that the Dharma finds its greatest utility.

Our third habitual reaction is to blame the other person for our troubles.  But actually we need to recognize all of this is the ripening of our own negative karma of having acted in harmful ways towards others in the past.  We need to accept all of the difficulties as purification for our own past wrong actions, actively purify whatever negative karma remains and resolve to not repeat ourselves again in the future whatever mistakes we perceive.  If we have a “problem” with something, it is our problem because we are relating to the situation in a deluded way.  We need to do the internal work to replace whatever delusions we may have with wisdom, love, patience and compassion.  If we don’t do this, even if the external situation changes, we will remain with our internal problem and it is just a question of time before it comes back to haunt us.

Our fourth habitual reaction is to retaliate in some way to the harm we have received.  No matter how much the other person hurts us, we should try find a way to forgive them.  We shouldn’t stop this internal work until we get to the point where we have no animosity or anger towards them at all.  This will take time, depending on the hurt, sometimes even decades.  It doesn’t matter how long it takes and it doesn’t matter whether the other person ever admits their own harmful acts.  If we want inner peace ourselves, we can’t escape this work.

Our fifth habitual reaction is to jump from the extreme of anger to the other extreme of cooperating once again with the other person’s unhealthy behavior.  This one requires some additional explanation.  Many Dharma practitioners hear the teachings on the ripening of negative karma, how we are responsible for all of our problems and the need to fulfill others’ wishes and then misunderstand these instruction to mean we need to become a doormat and cooperate with the delusions of others.  Again, Gen Lhamo shows the way by pointing out that we are not helping others by cooperating with their delusions.  She says we need to recognize that it is our own attachment to outer peace and our own self-cherishing not wanting to lose what the other person might take away from us that causes us to allow others to abuse or mistreat us.  It doesn’t help them to allow them to mistreat us and it is soul-sapping to ourselves to remain in an avoidable unhealthy dynamic.  We should avoid the misguided view that we must suffer through unhealthy dynamics as atonement for our past sins.  Geshe-la says in the teachings on patient acceptance if we have a headache, we should take an aspirin, but then accept the pain until the aspirin takes effect.  In other words, we only accept the suffering we cannot avoid; we simply avoid the suffering we can avoid.  In the context of conflict with our loved ones, if we can get out and/or change the dynamic, we should do so.  We shouldn’t remain in an unhealthy dynamic if we can avoid or change it.

As with all situations which provoke delusions, as a dear Sangha friend recently reminded me, we need to remember none of it is real. There is no one there thinking anything about or doing anything against us.  The person we are fighting with that we normally see does not exist at all, they are just a construction of our own deluded mind. There are, in the final analysis, just various karmic appearances and how we respond to them, like a karmic video game.  None of it really matters because nothing is actually happening.  Our job is to respond to whatever arises with wisdom and compassion.  The more experience we have with remembering emptiness when conflict arises, the more powerful such wisdom will be at taking all of the sting out of such problems.

But we need to be careful.  Part of what causes us to cooperate with other’s delusions is misunderstanding the teachings on ultimate truth to mean conventionally everything that happens is all our fault so only we need to change for things to conventionally get better.  We need the wisdom to know the difference between what is conventionally “our” problem and what is conventionally “their” problem.  Our problem is our delusions, their problem is their delusions.  We need to do the internal work necessary to always stand ready to make peace (in other words work through whatever delusions we might have towards the other person), but we also need to accept that we can’t do others internal work for them.  If they are not willing to do their internal work, we can continue to pray for them but sometimes we may need to disengage from them, or at a minimum circumscribe our relationship to those situations in which conflict is unlikely to flare.

Having established a degree of inner peace towards the situation, we can then begin to think about how to solve our external problem of the conflict with the other person.  It seems there are four questions we need to answer:  When should we act?  How should we approach the other person?  What should we say?  And what are we aiming for?

When seeking to resolve a conflict with somebody else, the first thing we need to do is get our timing right. First, we need to get our own mind back to a space of wisdom, compassion and calm.  If we are still agitated and under the influence of delusion, we will no doubt make things worse if we approach the other person.  It is much better to wait until calm and clarity have returned to our mind.  Second, we should be patient and not rush others to a resolution before they are internally ready to embrace it.  We are fortunate to have the Dharma and so mentally we might be able to bounce back to a non-deluded space more quickly than the other person (or not!).  But just because we are mentally ready to make peace does not mean others are.  In the same way, those affected by our conflicts with our loved ones (such as our other family members or close friends) might also have a wide variety of different delusions troubling their minds.  If we impose our internal solution on others before they are ready to embrace it, one of two things will happen:  they will either reject it, thus we burn the opportunity for this solution to work; or they will feel like they have to repress their delusions before they have actually resolved them.  Repression doesn’t work, it just sows the seeds for future problems while leaving others miserable in the interim.  Instead, we need to give all those around us affected by the conflict the time they need to get to a mental space where they are ready to positively receive our overtures.

The second question we need to answer is how do we approach the other person to make peace?  Sometimes people can get into a juvenile dynamic of “who will make the first move towards peace,” as if making such a move somehow concedes that the other person is right and they win.  Everybody loses from conflict, everybody wins from peace.  The longer we take to make peace, the more entrenched the other’s hateful views become, making it harder later.  So, unless there is some overriding reason, we shouldn’t wait for the other person to make the first move, even if they are the one primarily at fault for the conflict.  Rather it is best for us to make the first move.  We should approach them with respect and appreciation for all that they do, and make clear to them that our intention is to come to an honest resolution of our differences.  We then begin by apologizing for whatever mistakes we may have made and harm we may have caused.  We then, without attacking the other person, explain to them how their actions have made us feel, but we have moved past those feelings by realizing XYZ.  Then, we can ask the person whether they are ready to work towards a solution?  It is entirely possible that the other person may reject our efforts, but it doesn’t matter if they do.  We will have done the right thing by trying.  We can tell them, “I see you are not yet ready to move beyond this.  When you are ready, let me know.  I am not going anywhere.”  Then, the ball will be firmly in the other person’s court, and you practice patience until they are ready.

Once they are ready to work towards a solution, when it comes to the substance of the discussions, I recommend proceeding in two stages.  First, agree on common principles for resolving the dispute that apply equally to both sides, then, once those principles are agreed to, get into the substance of applying those principles to the situation at hand.  You shouldn’t discuss the application of the principles to the situation until the other person has agreed to a common framework for resolving the dispute (namely the principles).  Make sure that whatever principles you propose apply more or less equally to both sides, otherwise the person will think you are trying to set them up.  When you do get to the stage of discussing the application of the principles to the present conflict, you should apply them fairly explaining how both sides are guilty of violating the principle and how everything would be better if both sides adhered to the principle.

What follows are some principles which are generally useful in any conflict situation and only the most unreasonable of people would disagree with:

  • We should each make an effort to understand the other’s perspective. We each feel justified in our view of the situation, so there must be some truth to each of our perspectives.  It is only our pride, anger and attachment to our own view that blind us to our own faults and mistakes, but make us keenly aware of others’ faults and mistakes.
  • Our differences are not so great as to make it worth it to throw away all the good in our relationship. It’s worth it to work towards a solution.
  • Small things we should treat like “water off a duck’s back” (falls right off without leaving a trace). Big things have to be addressed.  It’s not healthy to shove big things under the carpet and pretend they didn’t happen.  If there is to be a reconciliation, it has to be an honest one that takes both our perspectives into account.
  • Exaggeration makes everything worse. Both sides need to not exaggerate the supposed actions or negative thoughts of the other, relate to those exaggerations as if they were actually true, and then feel justified in being upset at the other person for something they did not in fact say or do.
  • We should recall that hurtful things said out of anger are not what we really think, whereas constructive things said out of love are what we really think. So we should dismiss the hurtful things as just the other person’s anger talking and embrace the constructive things as their love talking.
  • We each need to assume ownership and responsibility for our own problem. If we have a problem with something, it is our problem; if the other person has a problem with something, it is their problem.  We both need to get over our own problem by changing our view and letting go.
  • We need to avoid inappropriate attention. If we focus 99% of our attention on the 1% bad of the relationship, it will seem like 99% of the relationship is bad.  Instead we should focus on the good and forgive the bad.
  • We both need to accept the other as they are, not be upset at them for not living up to our expectations.  In fact, it is best to have no expectations of the other person at all.  We need to be grateful for what others do do, not resentful for what they don’t.

The final question is what are we aiming for as the final resolution of the conflict?  Once again, the resolution has to be fair and balanced, applying more or less equally to both sides.  It should take the legitimate views and interests of both sides fully into account.  The foundation of any lasting solution is both sides need to genuinely appreciate what the other person does do, not get upset about what they don’t do.  Each side should respect and be appreciative of the constraints the other is operating under, and not judge them for it.  To avoid future problems, both sides should agree if they make a mistake, they should honestly admit it and change.  If they harm the other person, they should apologize and make sincere amends. When apologies are offered, they should graciously be accepted and reciprocated in kind. If the other person does not apologize, they should be forgiven anyways.  Likewise, both sides should agree if the other person is not asking for our advice or perspective, we shouldn’t give it; but if unsolicited advice is given it should be received graciously.  In this light, both sides should agree to not be hyper-sensitive, where providing constructive feedback on how the other person can do better is blown completely out of proportion and is responded to with unhelpful defensiveness.  Finally, when we are with the other person, we should be vigilant to not create problems ourselves and to be forgiving if the other person is falling short of our expectations (with the mutual understanding that it is best to have zero expectations so we never become upset).  And when we are not with the other person, we should be mindful to not dwell on the supposed faults of the other person, instead we should try recollect their many qualities and develop appreciation for them.  In short, both sides should avoid inappropriate attention on the bad and instead focus on the good.  A solution grounded in these impossible to argue with principles is manifestly fair and can produce a lasting solution.

Conflict, even extreme conflict, between loved ones is inevitable, but it does not need to be a problem.  With Dharma wisdom, we can transform such conflicts into opportunities to identify and overcome our delusions and to learn how to apply wisdom to our daily circumstances.  Doing so will enable us to gain the realizations that the people of this world need.  Kadam Bjorn said the only things we can effectively pass on to others are those things we have personal experience of.  Life will give us challenges, our job is to apply the Dharma.  When we do, we gain direct experience of their truth.  Finally, we can share our experience with others in the hope that they might find something useful.  In this way, the inner lineage of realization gets passed down from generation to generation until eventually we all are permanently free.