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Living an authentic life

Part of a series of talks given during the annual Young Adult Week program at Sravasti Abbey in 2006.

Overcoming attachment

  • The healthy way to handle strong attachment
  • Overcoming negative habits

Young adults 06: Attachments (download)

Living an authentic life

  • Avoiding living life on automatic
  • Weighing options in one’s life

Young adults 06: Living an authentic life (download)

Questions and answers

  • Making honest aspirations
  • The meaning of not entrusting oneself to non-Buddhist teachers
  • How prostrations help us counteract arrogance

Young adults 06: Q&A (download)

Excerpt: “I have to” vs “I choose to”

Let’s take an extreme situation. Your baby is crying and you say, “I have to feed the baby.” If I say, “No, you don’t have to feed the baby,” you’re going to reply, “I have to feed the baby, otherwise the baby will die from starvation.” Well, it’s true that if you don’t feed the baby for a long time, the baby will die from starvation. But you don’t have to feed it. You’re choosing to feed it.

Do you get what I’m saying? Do you see the difference between “I have to do this” and “I’m choosing to do this”? We often say “I have to,” but in actual fact we’re choosing to.

…In reality, the only thing that is certain in our life is that we will die. That’s the only thing we have to do. Everything else is a choice.

An example of a person who promised to help her friend move but decided at the last minute to attend her nephew’s basketball game instead

If you feel that going to the basketball game is the most important thing for you to do, then don’t feel guilty and don’t make up an excuse about not helping your friend. It’s better to just be honest about the situation.

What happens very often is that when we see that our motivation is less than magnanimous, we feel guilty. We want to do what our attachment is telling us to do, but we don’t want to feel guilty over it.

So in this example, I really love basketball, I really love my nephew, I really want to be there. But I’ve told my friend that I was going to help her move. I want to be at the basketball game, but I also want to be guilt-free, so what do I do? I say I have to go, as if I don’t have a choice. In this way we avoid the guilt.

But sometimes we will still feel rotten inside, because at a deeper level, we know that it’s really our attachment at work.

Admit our attachment and practice within that

So I think it’s important to face things honestly in our life. If we have a very strong attachment for something that we’re not ready to give up yet—even though intellectually we know attachment is not desirable—then it’s better to say, “I recognize that I have a strong attachment. I’m not able to let go of it yet, but I will still try and practice the Dharma within that. And I’m not going to feel guilty. I’m not going to beat myself up. I’m not going to make myself miserable about it. But I’m also not going to sit on the fence and not admit that I have this attachment.”

We don’t want to die with regret

I think it’s important, before we make a decision, to be very honest with ourselves about why we’re making the decision that we’re making instead of just saying “I have to” or doing it because we feel obliged. If we live our whole life trying to do what we think other people think we should do because we need their approval, our motivation becomes foggy and clouded and we may wind up feeling trapped, but we’re not able to leave the situation because we’ve gotten so attached to being in it.

Acknowledge where we’re at, make wise decisions, and be content. If we try and live our life the way we think other people want us to, then at the end of our life, we will die with a lot of regret. We die with regret because our motivations were not sincere Dharma motivations. Our motivation was just to please other people, and we please them not because we really care about them, but because we need their approval or because we don’t want them to disapprove of us.

That’s the bottom line actually—it took me a long time to say that.

Excerpt: Living our lives in an authentic way

I was at a conference recently and somebody in the group that I was in said, “You have to be really sure that when the Lord of Death comes, you’re truly alive.”

A lot of people aren’t truly alive; they’re just living their lives “on automatic,” completely on automatic.

“Everybody else is doing this; I’ll do it.”

“My parents and society want me to do this; I’ll do it.”

Or you want to directly rebel against the authority, “My parents and society want me to do this; no way I’m going to do it!”

That is being just as controlled by attachment as doing what you think other people want you to do, because in neither situation are we making our decisions based on our own clarity of mind and our wisdom.… We’re not living in an authentic way. We’re not living what we think is the best, most meaningful way to live our own life.

Isn’t it selfish?

You might say, “Isn’t that a license to be selfish—doing what you want to do in life without caring about what other people think?”

Well, some people might have that idea and they might think like that, “Who cares what everybody else thinks; I’ll live my life the way I want to!”

I’m not talking about that kind of attitude, because that motivation is completely selfish and completely fueled by attachment. What I’m talking about is what we know, in our heart of hearts, is right for us to do in our life.

We all have our unique talents, so what is a good way for one person to use their talents may not be the right way for somebody else.

Take time to figure out what’s valuable to do

We all have our own unique talents; we have our own unique ability to give and to help, and that’s for us to figure out. And it’s not always immediately apparent. And so for a period of time, you might live in a state of confusion.

Experiences during her late teens

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was tremendously confused. Unbelievably confused! [Laughter] “What do I want to do with my life? Do I want to study this? Do I want to study that? Do I want to major in this? Do I want to major in that? Do I want to live here? Do I want to live there?” Changing my mind every five minutes [Laughter]—just tremendous confusion!

I think it’s quite natural to have to go through that; there’s nothing wrong with it. Sometimes it takes us a while to figure out what in our hearts we think is a valuable thing to do, or many valuable things to do.

This is my theory—you can check it up and see if it holds true for you or not—but I think living a meaningful life has something to do with being of service to others. I came to that conclusion even before I met the Dharma, when I was totally confused about what career to choose.

Ethical values

When we die and we look back at our life, what are we going to rejoice at having done and what are we going to have regret over?

If you look in your own life, you’ll see that when you’ve done things that went against your own ethical values, there’s a sense of regret, isn’t there? Everybody else might tell us, “Oh it’s fine, you did the right thing,” but unless we have really made peace with what we did, there’s that sense of emotional and spiritual heaviness. So if you find yourself on the verge of making a bad decision, stop yourself and try and make good decisions.

Purify and let go

If you’ve done something that you regret, do purification practice, lay it to rest and let it go so that it doesn’t hang over you. Then you will be able to go forward in your life and do things with an honest and kind motivation, without having so much guilt, regret, self-hatred and all those other emotions that are not beneficial, that our ego torments ourselves with.

No dying person will regret not having worked more overtime

Can you imagine somebody dying and their regret on their deathbed is, “I should have worked more overtime?”

Nobody thinks like that.

But how many people, by the force of their attachment and lack of clarity, get themselves into living lives where they work so much overtime because they have to?

In actual fact, they don’t have to; they’re choosing to. They will say, “If I don’t do all that overtime work, I will not be able to support the lifestyle that I’m living.”

Be honest about our attachment if we cannot give it up

Okay, if that lifestyle is so important to you and you don’t want to give it up, then be honest about it and say, “I’m choosing to work overtime so that I can have that lifestyle.”

Don’t say, “I have to work overtime.” Say, “I’m choosing to work overtime because I like that lifestyle.”

On the other hand, if you really don’t want to be working overtime and you really want to be doing something else, then give up your attachment to living that lifestyle.

A lot of times, to do what in your heart you know you want to do involves giving up things that we’re attached to.

Do not “should” yourself

But you’ve got to feel it in your own heart what is best for you to do. You can’t use a bunch of shoulds and ought tos.

And don’t use the Dharma as a “should” and an “ought-to.” Because if you use the Dharma in that way, you’re also going to be miserable, “I should practice the Dharma.” “I should ordain.” “I should do this.” “I should do that.” “I should…” “I should…” “I should….”

No! You can’t make an honest decision when you’re should-ing yourself. [Laughter] We have to let go of the “shoulds” and the “ought-tos” and the “supposed tos” and the “I’m-going-to-disappoint-somebody-if-I-don’t-dos,” and really figure out in your own heart what contribution you want to make to the world. And take the time that you need to do that.

Response to a participant who expressed appreciation for these teachings

I was really talking from my heart. You can’t always talk this directly. For example, the man whom I was telling you about, it would be hard to talk this directly to him, because it would be too threatening. So I have to talk to him in a different way. But you’re young and you haven’t made a lot of mistakes in your life, so you can really get it, I think. You’re not so involved in defending things that you’ve done in the past. You’re open and receptive to looking at your life and making changes and things like that, so therefore I can talk like that.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.