“I want to be more patient, more mindful, less angry, less sad. I’ve been a Buddhist for years but I’ve always struggled to maintain a regular practice, to commit to a Sangha. I want to change, to be a better version of myself. I think this will help.”
Something like these words spilled out of me a few years back when I was on the phone rapidly talking to the senior teacher of the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center, trying to explain why I wanted to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings at the upcoming transmission ceremony. He listened quietly before gently asking me to consider that while taking the trainings would no doubt be of benefit to me, was it possible that I was fine just as I was, that I could even accept myself the way I was? I revolted internally against the idea. I didn’t like myself the way I was. I hated my anger, my fear, my anxiety, my depression. I saw them as shrouds suffocating the qualities I did value – patience, joy, compassion, attentiveness. I wanted to push the negatives away, reject them, punish them even. I desperately wanted to be different than I was.
In the book Being Peace, Thay writes:
If I have a feeling of anger, how would I meditate on that? How would I deal with it, as a Buddhist, or as an intelligent person? I would not look upon anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight, to have surgery in order to remove it. I know that anger is me, and I am anger. Nonduality, not two. I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence. Because anger is me, I have to tend my anger as I would tend a younger brother or sister, with love, with care, because I myself am anger. I am in it, I am it. In Buddhism we do not consider anger, hatred, greed as enemies we have to fight, to destroy, to annihilate. If we annihilate anger, we annihilate ourselves. Dealing with anger in that way would be like transforming yourself into a battlefield, tearing yourself into parts, one part taking the side of Buddha, and one part taking the side of Mara. If you struggle in that way, you do violence to yourself. If you cannot be compassionate to yourself, you will not be able to be compassionate to others. When we get angry, we have to produce awareness: “I am angry. Anger is in me. I am anger.” That is the first thing to do.
Thay frequently speaks about how each of us contains seeds of everything in ourselves – it’s the seeds we water that grow and flower. If we dwell on fear and anger, we water those seeds, strengthening those unhelpful emotions. However, if we try to repress them, we commit violence against ourselves. We must instead acknowledge them, bringing up the loving energy of mindfulness to care for them. We must accept that they are there and that we are them.
“I want to have less fear.” That was my response on January 1st this year, when answering a fellow Sangha member who’d asked me what my aspiration was for the new year. He smiled at me and asked a second question, “What will you replace it with?”
I hadn’t considered this. I’d written in my children’s book about how to calm our breathing and recognize the beautiful flowers in the gardens of our minds – flowers that have blossomed due to our virtuous actions, such as helping others and being a positive presence in the world. Yet here I had forgotten that it’s not enough to stop watering the seeds of unhelpful emotions. There is a second step. We must repeatedly water the seeds that we want to flourish instead. “Joy,” I told him after some reflection. “Courage.”
In Being Peace, Thay continues:
In the case of a minor irritation, the recognition of the presence of the irritation, along with a smile and a few breaths will usually be enough to transform the irritation into something more positive, like forgiveness, understanding, and love. Irritation is a destructive energy. We cannot destroy the energy; we can only convert it into a more constructive energy. Forgiveness is a constructive energy. Understanding is a constructive energy. Suppose you are in the desert, and you only have one glass of muddy water. You have to transform the muddy water into clear water to drink, you cannot just throw it away. So you let it settle for a while, and clear water will appear. In the same way, we have to convert anger into some kind of energy that is more constructive, because anger is you. Without anger you have nothing left. That is the work of meditation.
Writing this, I realize how subtle the difference is between 1) desperately wanting to change myself and 2) accepting myself as I am as the first step to making positive change. The best way I can explain it is that the latter approach works and the former doesn’t. In my experience, desperately wanting to change can lead to spinning in a morass of guilt and misery – why can’t I change, why can’t I change, why don’t I have the willpower, the skills, the ability to change? Interestingly, when I was spinning in this way, I was so intently focused on my negative qualities, I was unable to perceive the positive, helpful seeds that also lay within me. When I couldn’t perceive them, I couldn’t water them. Without being able to water them, they were never able to grow.
For true change to be possible, the first step is to calm down enough to accept all parts of myself. I once feared that seeing myself as I actually am would only lead to disillusionment and loathing. Instead, I’ve seen that, as Walt Whitman said, I am large, I contain multitudes. I do, in fact, contradict myself – containing both fear and courage, envy and joy, anger and patience. If I deny the negative, I also deny the positive. By accepting the full range of seeds that actually are within me, I can choose which ones to water.
The Way It is
Over and over we break
open, we break and
we break and we open.
For a while, we try to fix
the vessel—as if
to be broken is bad.
As if with glue and tape
and a steady hand we
might bring things to perfect
again. As if they were ever
perfect. As if to be broken is not
also perfect. As if to be open
is not the path toward joy.
The vase that’s been shattered
and cracked will never
hold water. Eventually
it will leak. And at some
point, perhaps, we decide
that we’re done with picking
our flowers anyway, and no
longer need a place to contain them
We watch them grow just
as wildflowers do—unfenced,
unmanaged, blossoming only
when they’re ready—and mygod,
how beautiful they are amidst
the mounting pile of shards.
Accepting ourselves is something we can all aspire to . . . and something I suspect most of us struggle with.