With gratitude to FCM member Tammy Klein for sharing these reflections on the FCM winter/spring 2016 Dharma Path Intensive, "Training the Mind Utilizing Key Buddhist Slogans"
"You're not going to wash that?!" My neighbor Ross* asked me incredulously at the end of a dinner party my husband and I hosted for them and some other neighbors. I had been cleaning up and preparing food for everyone to take home when Ross approached me with a combination of irritation and indignation. "When you came over for Easter we washed your dish and gave it back to you before you even left!" He waited for an answer, but I was speechless. Finally, after what seemed like two hours, I said slowly, "I thought you'd like to take home your leftovers, because you have quite a bit left." "Yeah," he said, "but you could have put it in a smaller dish!"
"Well, I still can if you like," I said. "It's really no problem." "Nevermind!" Ross said angrily. I was speechless again and I was deer-in-the-headlights stunned. Silently, I looked at Ross. Seriously, are we really doing this over a dish? We're really doing this? Seriously? Then, my thoughts turned defensive and a little irritated as well. I could've put put their leftovers in a small dish. But it's dumb! Dumb, I say! Then we're washing one of their dishes, they still have to wash one of ours and we're exchanging dishes. It just didn't seem efficient.
I next remembered that I was practicing Buddhism. Oh right. And that I was in an intensive. Right again. And that the intensive centered around developing bodichitta, wisdom and compassion. Right, right, right. But as Ross stood there expectantly and still annoyed, the mental fog rolled in. I clambered around in my mind trying to recall teachings that I had been studying every day for six months. I sputtered around mentally as jumbles of words burbled up. I couldn't think of what I was supposed to say and do and practice next. Tong-whaa?? Something about blames and victories? I had nothing. As I was mentally sputtering, Ross proceeded to complain to the wife of our other neighbors. My husband then walked into the kitchen unaware of what had transpired and helpfully (not!) added, "Yeah, why didn't you wash the dish?" I glared at him, giving him the wifely stink eye. Our guests left for the evening and I laughed with my husband about it. "Can you believe he got so upset over a dish?" We shook our heads.
But the next morning, I woke up irritated. I did metta for Ross in meditation but I came up short in both wisdom and compassion about the situation. I spent several days reflecting on the incident and my reaction to it. I could have just laughed it off and left it at that. True, I wouldn't have described my neighbor as the paragon of grace in that instant, but who cares? It was just a bowl. Wasn't it? There was more to it and it involved the self. This self did NOT like the fact that she put a lovely dinner party together and not only didn't receive an Academy Award for it, she got chastised over a dumb bowl on top of that. The proverbial turd in the punch bowl.
Any number of slogans would apply to this situation, but I went with "give up all hope for results":
"Give up the hope of subduing gods and demons by meditating on mind training, or the hope that you will be considered a good person when you try to help someone who has hurt you. These are hypocritical attitudes. In a word, give up all hope for any result that concerns your own welfare, such as the desire for fame, respect, happieness and comfort in this life, the happieness experienced in the human or god realms in future lives, or the attainment of nirvana for yourself."
As I reflected further, I realized I expect results in just about everything in life but I especially expect results from myself. I watched it for a week when Fred assigned this slogan for practice and reflection and I could hardly list a thing I did in a day that did not have some kind of result attached to it! As a matter of fact, I could say I was born and bred to get results. Getting results was how I shined in life until recently. I was very, very good at it. Having been raised in an abusive and chaotic environment, that was the stability I could create for myself, and I excelled it. Sad and painful, but all true.
And thus I won the spelling bee(s), hit the home runs, made the dean's list, won the debate championship, got the scholarships, graduated at the top of my class, etc., etc. I got this and did that and went here and there in the world meeting this and that person and doing this and that. Some of it was pretty awesome. If I couldn't achieve an expected result, I mostly didn't bother with whatever the activity was unless I had to, hence my graveyard of barely-started or half-done projects. Not important, I told myself. Even my attitude to Buddhism in the beginning was..."Look, I got stuff to do, so let's get this Enlightenment thing done so I can be on my way. Let's do this people, snippity snap!" I could not be bothered to break even for the Buddha!
It was helpful to see and become aware of how deep my need for results runs and how it is connected to the self. The intensive really gave me an opportunity to work on this. There's no way to break free of this kind of deep conditioning until one becomes aware of it and sees it for what it is. Fred challenged during one of our group calls, can you simply do the things in front of you with excellence but without expecting a result? I committed to try my best and to begin detangling myself from this conditioning. I was able to do tonglen (the alchemical exchange) for myself. And then I was able to consider my neighbor more compassionately. For me, that's key. When I withhold compassion from myself, I notice I am less compassionate to others.
A few days later, I was walking toward my house with my dog. Ross was in his front yard. My first thought was to turn around and sprint the other way before he saw me! And then I thought, is my practice really not strong enough for Ross? Is that what I'm saying here? So I kept walking and greeted him. He proceeded to tell me how this wasn't right, that wasn't working, this was wrong. It was all negative. His negativity was well known in the neighborhood and drove our other neighbors nuts, causing them to dive for an escape hatch whenever they saw him ("I'm sick, the dog is sick, I need to wash my hair..."). I considered the same strategy for a second - after all, it was dinnertime and I could come up with something legit, but the dog and I ultimately stood there and listened to him quietly for some time.
As he talked, I considered "the bowl incident" it from Ross' perspective. His life was changing. He was chronically and seriously ill, having battled cancer several times already. I looked at him and he was thin and very frail. He was much taller than me, but I was sure I could bench press him. He was hanging on to life by a thread. His dream was to retire on Marco Island, and now he and his wife were having to sell the house. They simply couldn't maintain it with Ross' shaky health. He had recently retired, but had never really gotten a chance to enjoy the house. Their dream was not to be, and to add insult to injury, nothing else had in retirement had worked out the way they planned it. They had not gotten their result.
And now they were selling their house and traffic had been worrisomely slow, creating even more stress and anxiety. He was packing up and preparing to leave his dream behind. It was tough for him. I felt his deep suffering as he unloaded and I did tonglen for him while he talked and talked. Yet, he could not say, I am sad. I am scared. I am overwhelmed. I am sick. I am anxious. He couldn't name any of it. I could see that it was safer to shelter in negativity, and I Iet him, not saying a thing beyond an occasional head nod. As I stood there, I quickly forgot about the bowl incident and all defensiveness and irritation at Ross melted. I wished only for the bestest best for my neighbor and I silently gave him every bit of bodichitta I could scrape up. He needed it.
"The answer is that all our misery comes from mental fixation and viewing phenomena as dreamlike will help us to relinquish our fixation on the world. If we don’t put some effort into gradually weaning ourselves from this fixation on “self” and “other” as real, we will never succeed in being compassionate and will continue to invite pain and suffering into our lives." - Traleg Rinpoche, The Practice of Lojong: Cultivating Compassion through Training the Mind
*Name changed to protect identity.