179 - Inadequacy to Abundance: Rewriting Our Self-Narrative

When we can’t – or don’t want to – avoid facing challenges (our own or those of others), what does the Dharma offer us in terms of preventing anxiety, fear, overwhelm, burnout, depression, or despair? I talk about what is really means to stay calm, the value of staying calm, and some practices that can help us do this.

 

 

Links to Outline Headings:
The Buddha Stays Calm When Faced with Death by Elephant
Responses That Are Not Calm
What Does It Mean to Stay Calm, and Why Is Calm a Good Thing?
Small Self Against the World Vs. Boundless Self with the World
Treating Symptoms and Source/Disease
Practices for Cultivating Calm

 

The Buddha Stays Calm When Faced with Death by Elephant

I’ll start off with a Buddhist story about the value of staying calm.

calm

Buddha with the Elephant Nalagiri (via Wikimedia, a painting from a Laotian temple)

According to a story in the Theravada Vinaya (Khandhaka [Cūḷavagga] 17. Schism in an Order [Saṅghabheda]), the Buddha had a cousin named Devadatta who was very ambitious and jealous. Devadatta thought he should become the leader of the monks instead of his cousin, so he conspired to undermine and even kill the Buddha.

One day Devadatta arranged to have a wild bull elephant released into the Buddha’s path when he was out walking with his monks. The elephant was named called Nālāgiri and was known to have killed people before. As the elephant could be seen in the distance, the monks pleaded with the Buddha to turn back, but he refused, saying those who have attained nirvana have nothing to fear from such a threat. Three times the monks asked, but the Buddha kept going. Imagine this scene: A huge, enraged bull elephant twice your height and forty times your weight, barreling toward you, trumpeting, ears flapping, with huge tusks with which to toss you into the air if you don’t simply get trampled first.

People gathered along the road, watching from the safety of their rooftops, anticipating that the Buddha would be hurt or killed by the elephant. However, the Buddha stood still as Nalagiri charged with trunk and ears and tail raised, and he suffused the elephant with loving kindness. Nalagiri stopped, approached the Buddha, and allowed the man to stroke his forehead. The Buddha gave the elephant a little Dharma lesson about behavior to ensure a good rebirth, and thereafter the elephant was tame.

You don’t need to believe this story is literally true, of course. However, it’s a vivid story that raises the question of what allows someone to remain calm in scary or challenging situations, and the effect that state of calm can have.

 

Responses That Are Not Calm

We are talking about the “Dharma of” staying calm. “The Dharma” = the teaching[s] about… the teaching of… the truth of…

First: Why do we want to stay calm? Let’s explore the opposite of calm: (antonyms) agitated; nervous; troubled; upset; excitable; excessive; immoderate

Of course, there are natural, appropriate responses that may not appear or feel “calm:” anger (protect), worry (plan), agitation (prepare for quick reaction)

Evolved: fight, flight, freeze…

However, as Robert Wright discusses in Why Buddhism Is True, natural selection led to certain things, but those things aren’t necessarily adaptive or helpful in our modern circumstances

Especially – complicated lives, intelligence; we can be upset by something happening on the other side of the world; by things that might happen; by complex interpretations of and narratives about what’s happening and our relationship to it; by what a certain situation says about who we are; by how we should have responded to a situation in the past; by worries about our capacity to meet challenges in the future; by our sense of how our current life compares to what it should have been…

The stresses never end

And if our fight, flight, freeze responses last more than a few moments (Run! There’s a tiger!), they actually negatively impact our decision making, the clarity of our perceptions, our ability to respond, our emotional well-being, and our physical health.

Because of these negative impacts, people seek diversions: Entertainments, distractions, whatever takes their mind off of their concerns (personal, or about the greater world). There is a time and a place for this, of course. Taking a break, enjoying ourselves…

But this is temporary solution because the sources of our stress remain. We have to keep occupied all the time or the anxiety, fear, overwhelm, burnout, depression, or despair creeps in again. This is a large part of why, for most people in our society, sitting quietly with nothing but their own mind and body for company for 30 minutes sounds like torture.

Unfortunately, there is also a cost to distraction. When we avoid bearing witness to the situations causing stress or suffering to ourselves, our loved ones, or other beings, we also avoid intimacy. Grief is love when it meets loss; if we cut off our grief, we have to also cut off our love.

 

What Does It Mean to Stay Calm, and Why Is Calm a Good Thing?

Calm can mean peaceful and serene. Certainly, we wouldn’t mind more of that in our lives. But the calm we’re looking for can’t be limited to times we can be (using other synonyms) placid, slow, tranquil, at a standstill. Another meaning of calm is composed, which includes synonyms like levelheaded, relaxed, unflappable, collected, patient, and poised.

There are also rather negative connotations of calm, which we are not looking for in our practice, because these are outcomes of turning away from our interdependence and connection with life so we’ll feel less troubled by suffering: Impassive, quiescent (inactive), disinterested, unconcerned. From a Buddhist point of view, if this is the flavor of our calm, we have achieved it through a denial of reality (interdependence, intimacy, love, connection) and our calm is not a real refuge.

The calm we’re looking for is not a static, removed, or conditional thing. It doesn’t require us to avoid life or be sitting quietly on a lake shore (or in a Zendo), although these things are nice. It doesn’t require us to stay carefully absorbed in only the pleasant aspects of our lives, or to deny suffering.

If one synonym captures what we’re looking for, I think, it’s composed. Ideally, we want to be able to maintain some sense of stability, centeredness, and perspective when facing difficulty or the unknown, or when experiencing the reality of impermanence. Even if we are momentarily buffeted by things that make us feel angry, worried, or anxious… we are able to stay composed because we maintain a connection to our spiritual (and physical) “center of gravity” – we have a sense we’ll regain our composure, that we’ll be okay again soon.

This sense of being able to rely on our center of gravity is like being one of those weighted dolls with a rounded bottom that pops back up when you push it over… Being centered or composed  doesn’t mean we don’t experience emotions, it doesn’t mean we never get upset, but we don’t completely lose it or get knocked out of the boxing ring (to throw in another metaphor!). It’s not easy to define exactly what we mean by being able to remain calm or centered, but this is something we definitely know from our direct experience.

For example, in Ki society Aikido it is said we aim for the coordination of mind and body, and don’t allow our minds to be “led” by what is happening. When we let our mind be led, we anticipate, tense up, and create a sense of opposition, and through direct experience we can see that this rarely has ideal results (and comes with a high cost even if it works). When we keep mind and body coordinated – when we keep our center of gravity, when we trust ourselves and the universe in a deep way – there are real, tangible, observable results! We physically remain immovable, powerful, and capable of things we could never achieve through sheer force of will or physical skill, strength, or size. Can we stop an elephant in its tracks? I don’t think I have that kind of confidence, but who knows? Maybe if there were a child in the elephant’s path, I would be able to tap into the kind of profound calm required.

Another Ki Aikido image I love that applies here is that of stillness actually being the same thing as infinitely fast movement versus quiescence. The image used is that of a wire, vibrating so fast you can no longer detect movement.

When we are able to remain calm in the face of threat, challenge, or difficulty, things turn out better than when we freak out, stress out, get reactive, lose sleep, or go into avoidance mode. Things may or may not work out the way we hope they will, but generally speaking they’ll turn at least as well as they would have if we lost our cool about it all.

 

Small Self Against the World Vs. Boundless Self with the World

Another way to describe what’s going on here:

Operating with a sense of “small self against the world” compared to

Operating with a sense of “boundless self with the world”

Small self against the world: “Small self” means our usual, limited sense of ourselves: Our bodies, personal relationships, social position, possessions, capacities, plans, interests, activities, etc. Natural selection gave us this mode of operating. We naturally protect and look out for the interests of this individual and his or her significant others. This is an expedient mode, the one that narrows our perceptions to a source of potential threat or advantage and propels us to fight, flight, or freeze. Nature’s shortcut. As Robert Wright explains so beautifully in Why Buddhism Is True, natural selection doesn’t “care” if our perceptions are true, just that they led us, in the past, to maximize our ancestors’ survival and reproduction in the short term.

Small self against the world is only one way, and it’s a limited way, one that denies the reality of interdependence and emptiness. This mode of operating also leads easily and inevitably to anxiety, fear, overwhelm, burnout, depression, and/or despair. What’s the small self against the world, after all? We’re so tiny, so limited. Even if we’re energetic and capable, there is little we can do in the face of impermanence. We can’t control other individuals, let alone societies and nations. No matter how much planning we do, how cautious we are, everything can be undone in moment. Living only in “small self against the world” mode is a recipe for stress.

There is another way, fortunately: Operating in “boundless self with the world” mode. While there is reality to the perception of small self, it is limited. The boundless self is a bigger perspective which does not exclude the aspects of small self.

Boundless self is not separate from the world, from what’s happening. It does not try to cut itself off, maintain fixed territory, or prevent change. Boundless self is ready to be changed, because change is inevitable. Boundless self relies on its natural capacity, which may or may not be able ensure particular outcomes in the future, but boundless self recognizes there’s nothing to be done about that besides calmly taking care of what we can right now. Boundless self doesn’t get caught in ideas about how such and such shouldn’t be happening, it faces what is and responds as skillfully as possible. Boundless self is not afraid of having its heart broken, because that’s the cost of being fully alive.

If we can operate with more of a sense of boundlessness of self in terms of space and time – if we can center ourselves along the independent dimension of reality while remaining open to the dependent dimension – everything flows a whole lot better, and with much less stress. No matter what comes at us, no matter what we’re facing, we don’t have to lose our sense of calm and composure. I like to think the Buddha, in the story of the elephant Nalagiri, was calm because of his sense of boundless self – he was not separate from the elephant, or from Devadatta who sent him, and his groundedness was unconditional and therefore unthreatened by the risk to his own life.

 

Treating Symptoms and Source/Disease

All this sounds great, right? Of course, operating with a sense of boundless self takes practice. Our instincts, bred into us by natural selection, tell us we had better not let go of our sense of small self against the world. If we do, terrible things will happen!

What do we do to cultivate more of a sense of “boundless self with the world?”

In Zen/Buddhism, to alleviate suffering, we treat symptoms and the source/disease. The symptoms of our limited sense of self are stress, anxiety, fear, overwhelm, burnout, depression, and despair (among other things). We have practices for alleviating these symptoms. The source/disease of our limited sense of self is a major misunderstanding about the nature of reality. We have practices and teachings for correcting this misunderstanding and thereby alleviating symptoms in lasting and permanent way.

All the way along in our practice, we treat both symptoms and the source of our symptoms. Ultimately, they are not really separate practices because we treat our symptoms by aligning ourselves with the truth in small, physical, immediate ways. We do practices like centering ourselves in our breath or body because in doing this, we act for a moment as if we are a boundless self with the world. Whether or not we’ve realized that boundlessness for ourselves at a deep level, we align ourselves with that reality and taste some of the calm we need so much.

For the remainder of this episode, I’ll focus on two practices to alleviate symptoms, viewing them as ways to operate, for a moment at least, as boundless self with the world. Other episodes have and will address how to wake up to the reality of boundlessness.

 

Practices for Cultivating Calm

Many practices, only time to discuss a couple! Keep in mind there are traditional/formal practices, but you can also create your own.

First, centering in breath/body/immediate sensations/here and now: Sends a message to our body-mind that things are okay, because ordinarily we wouldn’t do this unless they were! Our experience may be dominated at a particular time with a sense of small self against the world: Small self is telling us we need to worry, tense up, anticipate, lash out, prepare… but then we recognize we’re losing our cool and recognize it’s not helping.

Taking a few breaths and concentrating on the here and now is aligning ourselves with the reality of boundless self with the world. Your personal drama is not under assault, your personal drama is an interdependent part of an unfolding of the universe. You can only do what you can do in this moment. Sometimes this moment should be spent preparing for the future, but this can be done calmly. Sometimes this moment requires quick and decisive action, but the more centered you can stay in this moment, the more effective your action will be. Sometimes this moment means enduring a painful emotion or the discomfort of not knowing what to do, but tensing up against this reality will only impede the process leading to change or resolution.

We center ourselves like this in our zazen, our mindfulness, and in any moment we become aware.

It is valuable to recognize that doing this is treating a symptom, hopefully momentarily giving us a little relief, but this centering practice is also aligning ourselves with reality, a reality we can grow more and more familiar with over years of practice. We can learn to trust what happens when we do this, and feel less and less compelled by the narrative of the small self against the world.

Second, the Vajrayana practice of Tonglen, described here by Pema Chodron. Outwardly, perhaps, a strange practice. Small self against the world: Doesn’t work at all! Boundless self with the world: Then the flow feels natural and possible.

Next time you want to feel more calm, try one of these practices – centering yourself in the body, and in the here and now, or doing tonglen – and remind yourself that Buddhism teaches us we all have access to that same deep well of fearlessness and calm the Buddha manifested when he faced down a rampaging elephant. It’s not easy to stay calm when faced with challenges, but hopefully you’ll find it encouraging and inspiring to think about the fact that the strength and capacity you need tends to be limited when we operating as a small self against the world, but flows freely when we can operate as a boundless self with the world.

 


Photo Credit

myself, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

179 - Inadequacy to Abundance: Rewriting Our Self-Narrative
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