Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

May 3, 2007—May 21, 2007

May 3, 2007
It’s not uncommon for women and, much more rarely, for men to put the feelings of others ahead of our own. Often this arises, not as we may believe, from a deeply caring recognition of the suffering of others and of our connection to them. Often our haste to meet others’ needs is about our meeting our own need to stop instantly the pain or discomfort their pain or discomfort triggers in us. We can recognize this self-absorption by observing that, at such moments, we don’t pause to ask ourselves how we might be helpful in some larger, more genuinely helpful, sense—whether, for instance, we might work, not just to ease their suffering in an immediate and shallow way, but to create conditions so that they might see that suffering differently, might use it to grow. Instead what rises up is an exaggerated fear, as though we must rush forward to make sure that nobody ever has an unpleasant feeling, especially one that we may have triggered.

That protectiveness is empathy rather than compassion, which is another way of saying it is about ourselves rather than the person we are so eager to spare or heal. Bettina remarked that “helping” others can serve as a way of not having to look our own pain in the eyes— a distraction from facing our own demons. At the same time, it can reassure us that we are indeed good people.

Sometimes the urgency of our need to spare others stems from a childhood fear that if we trigger unhappiness for another even for a moment, they will hate us, reject us altogether, abandon us. Or perhaps in our own daily lives, when we encounter even minor rejections or refusals or criticism, some unresolved childhood anguish triggers for us an exaggerated pain and panic. We then assume others must live with this same intensity of suffering. We can’t help ourselves, we think, but at least we can spare others this knife in the belly.

And so we try to anticipate or remove the slightest cause of pain for those around us. But of course, because there is that self-absorption in our concern, our “connection” with the pain of others is actually a one-way street. It is not that others don’t suffer, feel discomfort, annoyance, anguish. It is that they do so in their way, according to the ecology of their own causes and conditions. It’s arrogant for me to believe that your ecology must be identical to mine. We might go back to someone after years to apologize for an incredibly hurtful thing we said to her, the guilt of which we’ve been carrying, only to have her say, Oh that didn’t bother me, I knew you were just pissed, what really hurt me was that time you...and she mentions something you never took seriously at all. What’s more, suffering is often the dark tunnel we need to stumble through in order to get to a clearer place, not be turned back with early comfort to the dimmer light we came from. The more we know that for ourselves, the more we can trust it for others.

Guessing at the nature or cause of suffering in others is rarely the help we may imagine it is. To work to end others’ suffering and our own requires the discernment of compassion rather than the rush to judgment of empathy. It is why compassionate people are deep listeners—they do not assume that their hurt is yours.

May 11, 2007
Bettina has been using the ideas of Cheri Huber, learning to distinguish the voices of the “egocentric karmic conditioning” from the “authentic self” or the core self. It occurs to me that one way we can see the difference between the two is that conditioning has no core. It is restless—it wants to drive us, push us here and there with blame and praise. It does everything it knows how to distract us from settling into the peace of our true nature, which is our home. The voices of our conditioning are like empty winds that beat on our windows, sometimes violently, sometimes just enough to remind us that they are there.

When Bettina spoke to her friend Rusty about the “authentic self”, he resisted the phrase, saying it too much suggests a fixed entity, and he is right. We decided instead that what we’ve been calling the “authentic self” is who we are when we are in the moment, not fixed but able to flow—even in and out of other “selves” or birds or trees or toasters. So the juxtaposition is between our egocentric karmic conditioning and our authentic life.

Bettina has found Cheri’s idea of the “voices” of our conditioning immensely helpful, as well as the idea that they are not “her.” I realized that I have played into the idea that the voices have become part of “oneself” by saying things like, “Can you hear how cruel you are to yourself?” “It’s no longer your mother, it’s you.” Making a clear separation between our authentic life and the voices of conditioning seems much more useful than my earlier notion that “we” have “incorporated” the voices.

Cheri helpfully gives to the voices of “egocentric karmic conditioning” a kind of belligerent persona, like Mara, whose passionate mission is to prevent us from experiencing our authentic life. That pleases me. Carrying on that image, we can see our ordinary distractibility—what we should have for dinner, the plot of last night’s movie, what color pillows would go well with the sofa, those apparently innocent diversions that we call “monkey mind”, remembering, anticipating—as a kind of outsourcing hired by EKC. Monkey mind is not in the front ranks, as the voices are, informing us who we are, dictating our opinions and reactions and how we behave, but in its apparent harmless neutrality, it can be just as effective in keeping us away from our lives.

May 21, 2007
If we practice tonglen, the taking in of the pain of others, the giving out of our happiness or well-being, one effect is that it erases a principal cause of separation. One reason we pull back from others can be an instinctive apprehension that we will be drawn into their kleshas—their insecurities, their insatiable appetites, their self-hatred, their ignorance, their arrogance. Often that uneasiness for ourselves hides behind our feelings of dislike and judgment: “Stay clear of her, she’s so controlling. Stay away from him, he’s so anxious.” If our practice includes consciously breathing into ourselves those supposedly toxic fumes of self-pity, close-mindedness, envy, impatience, we can begin to neutralize our unconscious fear of contamination and we will become more comfortable in the presence of difficult kleshas. When we meet someone whom we might wish to turn away from, we will have already in our practice chosen to absorb those qualities we would otherwise try to distance ourselves from. Since we have breathed the feelings in with an ever more profound acceptance, it becomes easier to accept, without self-protection, the person who seems to carry those feelings.