Loving and Accepting: Good Medicine for Blame

Lotus with honey bee

Lotus and honey bee. Photo by Celia

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”

 ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Blaming is a way that we discharge anger.”

Brenè Brown

                                 “I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame.                  I simply follow my own feelings.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Dear Friends,

Are you a blamer, or do you know a blamer? For most of us being in the company of a blamer for extended periods of time leads to some difficult moments. I am a recovering blamer. Over a decade ago, I first tried a practice of having a blame-free day. I made it all the way to 10:00 am when a friend commented that a task I agreed to do was undone. Not only did I defend myself, but I got down off my metaphorical high horse and cut off someone else’s head with my sword of blame. It was intolerable to be perceived as unreliable and I had to let my friend know—it was not my fault. After the blaming massacre, I was shocked at how automatic my response was and how I was willing to malign another person to save myself.  But save me from what? What would happen if I simply forgot to do what I said? What would be so wrong with making a mistake? For blamers, and recovering blamers, being seen as wrong or less than perfect can be excruciating.

Blaming others is a powerful tool which absolves us of responsibility and shame and allows us to remain as an innocent victim of the situation. Our egoic self remains pure and intact; there’s no risk of looking bad or feeling inferior. Shame researcher Brenè Brown points out that blame does not lead to accountability. Blame hijacks the mind into a frenzy of evidence seeking and does not go any further. Blame cannot consider reasons, understanding, or empathy. Blame seeks only to condemn and punish. It is the opposite of healing.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.” Blame is nothing new. Over 2,600 years ago the Buddha is reported to have listed the qualities that make a monk difficult to be with and the qualities that make a monk welcome in the community:

“he does not accuse one who has corrected him; he does not disparage one who has corrected him; he does not correct in turn one who has corrected him; he does not evade the criticism by asking another question; he does not change the subject…he succeeds in explaining his behavior when corrected; he is not jealous and greedy; he is not hypocritical and deceitful; he is not stubborn and arrogant; he is not worldly nor does he cling to things that belong to this world and he does not find it difficult to let go. These, my friends, are the qualities that make it easy to approach and talk to him” (Nhat Hanh, Trans. Anumana Sutta, MN 15). The first time I read this, I was surprised that monks would evade the question and blame the one who points out a fault, all lawyerly tactics, and apparently not new.

At the heart of blame is a frightened small self and the belief that seeing one’s imperfections is unacceptable. There is a fierce impulse beneath the blame to keep the egoic image free from stains and we are willing to sacrifice another to maintain our own purity. This type of egoic fury does not care about relationships, justice, or truth, all it seeks is its own survival and status. Buddhist nun, Sister Khema, describes the rationale behind blame in a 1994 dharma talk titled Meditating on No-Self, “Now the blame that is levied at us is not the problem. The problem is our reaction. The problem is that we feel smaller. The ego has a hard time reasserting itself. So, what we usually do is we blame back, making the other’s ego a bit smaller too…So we are constantly in a quandary, and in constant fear.” Blaming is a habit that took time to root in oneself. It also takes time to uproot.

When something goes wrong, we have an opportunity to ask a different question. Instead of “who did this?” We can shift and consider, “how am I with this?” What is happening in the body and the mind? Is there a visceral feeling of agitation and intolerance? Where is it in the body and what is its story? What would happen if we didn’t blame, but made a vow to love and accept ourselves no matter what—even if we made a mistake? At the root of blame is a very young desire to keep safe and accepted, the way every child needs to feel they are safe and loved. This old way of adaptive thinking still believes that is we are in the right and righteous, our place in the group is secure. But blaming does the opposite. It creates division and bad feelings within families and communities and blocks the transformation of our own fear and intolerance beneath the blame/shame response.

There’s always time to change behavior and the first step is always to notice what we are doing, to stop and consider what would happen to us if we made a mistake? Can we stand beside ourselves even if we are imperfect, forgetful, we drop things, get lost, are late, are human? We can move from blaming others to accepting the full range of our experience with kindness, curiosity, and the confidence that comes from loving and welcoming all of ourselves without discrimination

May we all trust our light,

Celia

This is a link to a story about the habit of blaming from Mindful Magazine by Dr. Brenè Brown.

https://www.mindful.org/two-lessons-on-blame-from-brene-brown/

Be Still and heal

 

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Kindness and Gratitude go Together

Dancing Lady Orchid

Dancing Lady Orchid. Photo by Celia

“I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother & father.” ~ The Buddha, Kataññu Sutta

“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.”

~ The Buddha, AN 2.118

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

Happy Father’s Day to all the father’s in our lives. Today we celebrate the contributions of our fathers, their remembered kindness, and thoughts of how our ancestors contributed to our creation. We are all in debt, that is the undeniable fact of living. We are indebted to our parents for having us and for their or others’ care in raising, feeding, and educating us. We are tribal creatures and our lives are enhanced by many other beings who contributed time, money, and attention to our lives.

The family we were born into may not be what we would have ordered if we had a choice. Perhaps we wanted more communication, better food, our own room, or more attention—or maybe we didn’t want what we got, too many siblings, or no siblings, harsh discipline and violence, or no discipline, and the belief that no one cared. Whatever our family contained, we are the people we became in response to our conditioning and we are indebted to those who did show us kindness along the way. Scholar monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes about the parents who were not kind and what is expected from the children of abusive parents, “Not only are they abusive to their children, but …[t]hey may demand an unreasonable level of repayment, involving actions that are downright harmful for you, themselves, and others. And yet this doesn’t cancel the debt you owe them for the simple fact that they’ve enabled you to live.” This is tricky stuff. This type of indebtedness does not mean we condone abuse or subject ourselves to further abuse because of the debt of our birth. In the Kataññu Sutta, the Buddha advises those who have parents who are unbelieving, immoral, stingy, and foolish to develop their own wisdom and goodness. By doing so we give the gifts of conviction, virtue, generosity, and discernment to parents who lack these traits through our own purity of consciousness.

Perhaps the most consistent predictor of family harmony is the intention of kindness in thoughts, speech, and actions which are met with gratitude. The Buddha is reported to have said, “Now what is the level of a person of no integrity? A person of no integrity is ungrateful and unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. It is entirely on the level of people of no integrity. A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity” (AN 2.31-32).  As the Buddha points out, those who practice kindness and those who give thanks for kindness received are rare and worth celebrating. When we encounter someone, who has gone out of their way to be kind to us, whether they are a parent, friend, or a teacher we are able to give them a gift in return, our gratitude.

It’s much easier to be grateful to non-humans, to the earth, the sky, the flowers and animals that make our lives more wonderful. It is much harder to be grateful to people who are kind and then act like people and say something unkind and harsh. We all make mistakes and we all need reminders. One of the most helpful rubrics is the Buddhist Five Factors of Right Speech. This is a checklist that can help us stay with the intention of kindness and non-harming. It is very beneficial to ask ourselves these questions before speaking: “Do I speak at the right time, or not? Do I speak of facts, or not? Do I speak gently or harshly? Do I speak profitable words or not? Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious” AN V (From The Patimokkha, Ñanamoli Thera, trans.). When we can answer these questions with the open-hearted intention of kindness, that is a tremendous gift of gentleness and wisdom for our family and all those we come in contact with.

Today is a good day to take inventory of those who we are grateful for and make an offering towards them. It may be a verbal acknowledgment of their efforts or the gift of non-reactive speech, it may be cultivating our own faith, virtue, generosity, and wise judgment to share with our parents and with the world. Becoming our best selves, being an asset to the planet and bringing healing to the injustices and brokenness in the world, is one of the best repayments of indebtedness. It is this fullness of gratitude that receives, spills over, and keeps giving, receiving, and giving.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

 

Click on this link to celebrate Father’s Day with a Dad joining his daughter’s ballet rehearsal because she had stage fright. From Joanne Friday

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Liberate Your Happiness

June Peonies

June Peonies. Photo by Celia

“Equanimity means to let go, not to abandon.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

 “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

“If I did not think this path and its fruition were possible for you, I would not ask it of you. Because I know the path of immeasurable freedom is possible for you, therefore I ask it of you.” ~ The Buddha

Dear Friends,

This week I spoke with a woman was going through a very difficult time with her young adult daughter. She said that her happiness was wholly dependent upon her daughter’s wellbeing. If her daughter was in crisis, her day was shattered. Realistically, we cannot expect that our children won’t have difficulties or real crises in their lifetimes. We all face the pain of being present with loved ones who suffer. If we do not have children, we have parents, partners, and assorted pets that all will suffer, get sick, and one day be separated from us, but as practitioners we have a secret weapon to keep us balanced and resilient in the midst of change, distress, and uncontrollable outcomes, it’s the practice of equanimity.

Equanimity is one of the Brahmavihāras, the highest abodes, or as meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg calls them, “our best homes.”  Equanimity is often translated as balance or a spacious stillness of the mind and heart. With practice, equanimity can help soften the heart that contracts in fear and pain. It can lead to peace in the midst of the world unfolding in the way it does, not in the way we would like. It can help us stop struggling against what is and in acceptance, enable us to take actions that are rooted in wise and loving intention. Equanimity is the raft that can save us from sinking in the turbulent water of stress and hopelessness.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1998) describes equanimity as “nonattachment, non-discrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go” (p. 174). Nonattachment means that the openhearted caring and compassion is not reserved for times of success, or when things are easy and free from struggle. Equanimity does not discriminate between the self and the other. It creates a base of stability from which we can include all beings, all emotions, and all moments into our conservation of care, leaving nothing out. Equanimity increases our capacity to tolerate what is difficult and painful without letting conditions we cannot control overwhelm us.

The world is made of innumerable changing situations and we may understand intellectually that very little is in our control, yet there is resistance and struggle when we encounter events and experiences that make us and others suffer. Witnessing those we love in distress can be excruciating when we believe we are responsible for their happiness and suffering. We may believe if we exert ourselves, or find that just right combination of ingredients, we have the power to make someone else change, to stop being depressed, to seek medical treatment, or to stop engaging in harmful acts. We are attached to the outcome, to the health and wellbeing of another. When we are enmeshed in the belief that we can only be happy when others are free from pain, we give away our power to create our own happiness and peace.

Letting go of control and not taking responsibility for the thoughts, and actions of others and not accepting the responsibility for the consequences of these thoughts and actions may seem cold and indifferent, especially for a parent who is supposed to be loving and continually sacrifice for their children. Sacrifice that comes from a spacious calm heart contains the intention of love, but grasping onto fixing and changing another is rooted in fear and aversion. It is running from what is so painful to tolerate. True equanimity leads with the heart, includes the self and the other without discriminating between the two.

Resignation and the coldness of not caring are shallow stand-ins for real equanimity. Indifference or numbing to pain is the near enemy of equanimity, while the far enemy is clinging and attachment. Equanimity gives space and a wide perspective. It understands impermanence and that nothing stays the same. Equanimity knows the nature of suffering and that no one is immune. I describe equanimity as loving and allowing. We stay with the intention of care and love, but we open to the way things are and the uncontrollable reality of living in a vulnerable human body.

Equanimity gives us balance and evenness when we encounter the loka dhamma, The Eight Worldly Winds, or The Vicissitudes. These are four pairs of conditions we meet repeatedly during our lifetime: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame. When we can let go of attachment to wanting only the pleasure, gain, fame, and praise and learn to stay still when we encounter the unwanted pain, loss, disrepute, and blame, we liberate our happiness from dependence upon the wildly fluctuating conditions of the world.

Practicing equanimity creates boundaries. We understand that our jurisdiction does not extend to others, no matter how much we want it too. We remain present, loving, and open hearted, but we are not bound to the success or failure, the health, and happiness of another. To practice equanimity meditation we come into stillness and find the place of wholeness and limitless capacity that resides in us all. From the ground of mindful, loving presence we envision our loved one who suffers. Holding both ourselves and the other with tenderness, we may repeat the traditional equanimity phrase from Sharon Salzburg’s (1995) book, Loving Kindness: The Revolution Art of Happiness: “All beings are the owners of their kamma. There happiness and unhappiness depend upon their actions, not upon my wishes for them” (p. 152). More modern phrases include “May we all accept things as they are. May we be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events. I will care for you, but I cannot keep you from suffering. I wish you happiness, but cannot make your choices for you” (Salzberg, p. 152). And an insightful phrase from Buddhist monk, Ajahn Sumedho is, “Right now, it’s like this for me” (or for you).

Meditation teacher Christina Feldman (2017) offers some beautiful equanimity phrases in her book, Boundless Heart: The Buddhist Path of Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity. “May I embrace change with stillness and calm. May I deeply accept this moment as it is. May my home be a balance of wisdom and spaciousness” (Feldman, p. 117). “You are the parent of the choices you make and their outcomes and I cannot make those choices for you. May I rest in care and stillness in the midst of sorrow” (Feldman, p. 126-127).

Spirit Rock founder Jack Kornfield offers, “May I be balanced. May I be at peace. May I learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance. May I be open and balanced and peaceful.” An 18th Century Singhalese blessing translated by Buddhist scholar John Peacock guides readers to a place of understanding of what is ours and what is not:

“Life is but a play of joy and sorrow

May I remain unshaken by life’s rise and fall

I care for you deeply

But you are the parent of your acts and their fruit

And sadly I cannot protect you from distress” ( Feldman, p.125).

You may consider spending the week with one phrase that resonates with you or create your own equanimity phrase.

Remaining equanimous, rooted in kindness and the intention to relieve suffering while another is in pain, is an advanced practice. Make no mistake, this is the heavy lifting we train for. Making our home in equanimity we can learn to unclench our expectations and release ourselves from the imprisonment of suffering, theirs and ours. Cultivating equanimity is the way to stay present with the one who is suffering without becoming overwhelmed and turning away. This is what stretches our capacity and gives us the solidity of a mountain to meet all of our joy and all of our sorrow with an easy heart.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Click on this link for an update on Thay’s health from Sister Chan Khong’s interview in Lion’s Roar. He’s Getting Stronger Every Day.

 

Breathe TNH

Resources:

Feldman, C. (2017). Boundless heart: The buddhist path of kindness, compassion, joy, and

equanimity. Boulder, CO: Shambala.

Hanh, T. N. (1998). The heart of the buddha’s teachings: Transforming suffering into peace, joy,

and liberation. New York, NY: Broadway.

Salzberg, S. (1995). Loving kindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston: Shambala.

 

 

Letting go Means Letting in

Backyard Buddha

Backyard Buddha, photo by Celia

“Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,

a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.

If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,

this is the best season of your life.”

 ~Wu Men Hui-k’ai

“Don’t affix labels to people. If you want to learn anything you have to stop your habit of labeling. Give yourself the freedom to be in touch with the human being”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Well, I guess you’ll have to change the story that you were never loved.”

 ~James Baraz

 

Dear Friends,

June is the month when the spring settles in and redecorates. Trees are leafy and full while the grass grows vigorous and green. All this beauty and growth come after the bareness, the winter that blasts away the foliage and the icy landscape that weans us from unexamined acceptance and boredom in the beautiful. We know that even loveliness gets boring if it’s permanent. But that’s not a problem, because we all know that nothing is permanent.

Impermanence, anicca, is one of the three characteristics of existence. All living and non-living phenomena are subject to change. There is birth/creation, old age/deterioration, and death, or transformation inherent in all creation. This simple but profound truth is a difficult one for the complex human mind which desires stability, predictability, and certainty to feel safe. As we move through life, we shed identities, forms, and ideas. No longer children, we changed from a small body into this more spacious model. We let go of our former ideas about ourselves, fixed identities, and titles, or did we? Despite the reality that our cells are changing constantly, our minds are rewired with each thought we think, we don’t move on. We can’t let go of who and what we were or our former status. This type of clinging can lead to suffering as we create a static impression of the self that no longer reflects the present moment.

We may cling to the idea that we are a star athlete even as our body changes and we find it difficult to bend to tie our own shoes or walk up a flight of stairs without resting. Holding onto an image of ourselves that no longer reflects the present may create expectation and dissatisfaction. We may have the habit of believing that we are yet again a victim, that we are unlovable, or intellectually superior. When we have a fixed identity pattern we respond in predictable ways. These responses, created from protecting and coping at a much earlier age, no longer represent who we are and can block out any curiosity, or opportunity for growth we may have. We may label ourselves as disorganized, fearful, or lonely. We can see that state in ourselves again and again and with each viewing, our assessment becomes more enmeshed with our identity and creates the story of ourself. How would we be different if we chose to believe we were capable of creating our own life, able to have difficult conversations with compassion, or that people like me?

When we let go of old ideas of ourselves we release the barriers that keep us from the possibility of joy and contentment. Insight teacher, James Baraz (2012) and co-creator of the Awakening Joy course asks us to consider four questions about the usefulness of holding onto our stories of ourselves and others:

“What story do you believe about yourself or others that keeps you from experiencing well-being and joy?  When you think of this story as being true, how do you experience it in your body and mind? Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you took it as just a story, didn’t believe it and let it go. How does it feel in your body and mind when you do that?” (p. 169).

Letting go of our labels and ideas of who we are can open up previously protected and defended space for new ways of being. If we are able to set down the story of ourselves we are carrying, what do we want to put in its place, trust in ourselves, or the willingness to risk a new way of thinking and being?

When we freeze ourselves, or others in time, we ignore the inescapable reality of impermanence. It is highly unlikely the angry friend we encountered three months ago is still angry, or angry in the same way, yet they remain in our mind as that perpetually angry person. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “[w]e give labels only in order to praise or destroy…And when we stick them onto people we cut ourselves off from those people and we can no longer know who they are” (p. 84). We stay caught in the past and do not see that just as we are changing and responding to the world, others are doing the same. No one stays the same.

This week, take some time to reflect on the story of “me.” What thoughts are looping as we find ourselves doing what we always do? Can we remember that we have options, even when it seems there are none? Holding onto the reminder of choice, we may find the truth of our victimhood slipping. Recognizing that we can express our displeasure at ill-treatment without yelling and anger, we may not fit into the hothead category we identify with. Letting go of our labels means we are free to let something else in. Who are we when we respond skillfully to whatever is arising without a preset plan? Might we be the heroes we imagine when we shed the labels we’ve outgrown and make room for the possibility of authentic presence in each moment.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

we are already what we want to become