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Living on automatic versus living from our heart

Living on automatic versus living from our heart

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Venerable Chodron walking outside with Abbey guest, Tanya.

We can make wise choices that lead to the happiness we seek.

Everyone wants to live a happy live, yet few of us take the time to reflect on what this means. Our societies and families teach us certain views and encourage us to go in particular directions. Conditioned by these influences, we comply, without pausing to examine what is important to us on a personal level. Let’s look at the roles of socialization and conformity in our lives, ask ourselves, “What is happiness?”, investigate alternative paths, question what we think, and examine our beautiful human potential so that we will be able to make wise choices that lead to the happiness we seek.

Socialization and conformity

Although we feel like independent entities that think for ourselves and are in control, in fact we are dependently arisen. We are the result of many causes and conditions and we continue to be conditioned by other factors. For example, we have been conditioned by years of socialization by our family, school system, workplace, and friends. Society—this collection of human beings of which we are a part—has conditioned what we do, how we think, and who we are. We seldom stop to question this conditioning. Rather, we just take it on and follow it.

For example, have we stopped to contemplate our priorities in life? Or have we just gone along with the flow, in which case our top priority is usually doing what we think other people think we should do. Often we try to be what we think other people think we should be and we want to have what we think other people think we should have. Without stopping to consider what is of value in life, we live in chaos from day to day: running here, running there, doing this, doing that. Never finding any actual peace of mind, we keep ourselves extraordinarily busy doing many things without considering why we are doing them. Like little mice that scamper around on treadmills or wild turkeys that run around in the forest, we flutter around feeling that what we’re doing is important and essential. But is it? We say, “I have to do this and that.” Do we have to or do we choose to? It’s as if we were on a merry-go-round that we never get off of because we’re afraid to get off. We don’t know what it’s like to stand still and thinking of it makes us edgy. Even though circling on the merry-go-round makes us sick to our stomach, it’s familiar and so we stay with it. It’s not getting us anywhere, but we’ve never stopped to question where we are and where we could be.

If we aren’t willing to challenge some fundamental views that we have about life, instead of liberation and enlightenment being our important aims, paying the bills and having a good social life become our important activities. To pay the bills we have to go to work. To go to work we have to buy particular clothes and drive a certain car because we have to project a certain image to get that kind of job. To get those clothes and that car we have more bills to pay, so we have to go to work to pay the bills to get the things so that we can go to work. Does doing this make any sense?

You are busy running around, taking your kids here and there. What are you trying to teach your children? To live a chaotic life like mom and dad? To be so continually busy that you never have time to look your dear ones in the eyes and appreciate their presence? Are you teaching your children to explore the world and love the people and environment? Or are you teaching them, through your behavior, to be too busy and constantly stressed?

I watch children, and they are shuffled from one lesson to another lesson, from one activity to the next. Everything is planned and they are under pressure to succeed at all these lessons and activities. So instead of learning to enjoy being with other people and enjoy the various activities for what they are, children feel pressured to be successful, to be the best, to be better than someone else. Forget about having fun doing the activity, forget about being creative, forget about enjoying being with people—children are taught to compete and come out on top. Only then will they be valued and loved. Something is wrong with this picture, don’t you think? When I was a child, we used to play in the dirt in the backyard. We didn’t need to have lots of colorful toys. We used sticks and stones and built things and had fun without our parents spending $1000 to clutter the house with toys that we got bored with.

So, what exactly are you teaching your kids? Are you letting them access their own creativity? Or are you encouraging them to be conscious of what they wear so that they look like all the other kids with their designer clothes? Then, since they want to be like everyone else, they want to have body piercings and tattoos. Are you teaching your children to conform to what society thinks they should be at this moment? Or are you teaching your children how to be happy individuals? Those are two different things. Is conforming to what we think society thinks we should be actual happiness?

We have the idea that if we conform just the right amount, but also be an individual to the right degree, we’ll be happy. Thus we all try to be individuals in a conforming way. Or we all try to conform in our own individual way. This is a fertile field for breeding anxiety. We strain to have the right balance, vacillating between worrying, “I’m too much like people. I’ve got to be more of an individual,” and “I don’t fit in with everybody else. I want to fit in, but I don’t like who I am when I try to fit in.” Caught between conformity and individuality, we model this self-doubt and teach it to children. From the time they are in preschool, children are taught to try to look like everybody else, have the same toys as everybody else, watch the same TV programs as everybody else, and yet be an individual in a conforming way. No wonder we have such little internal peace when such uncontrolled and unreasonable thoughts fill our minds.

I don’t know who this “everybody else” is, but we all seem to want to be like them, although we never feel that we are enough like them. We never seem to feel like we fit in. Interestingly, when we get to know the people who seem to fit in, we’ll discover that they, too, don’t feel that they fit in. We need to slow down and question how we live our lives. What is important to us? What values are we modeling for children? You want your children to be happy. They look to you as the model of a happy life, but how much do you understand what happiness actually is? You want your children to be able to resolve conflicts in a productive way, but for them to do that, you, as their parents, have to model the appropriate behavior. How will your children learn to be kind? Who models kindness, satisfaction, and generosity for them? Since children learn by example, we have to investigate what kind of examples we are. In the areas where we are deficient, let’s put some energy into learning and transforming ourselves.

What is happiness?

What does happiness mean to you? Are you living in a way that brings you true happiness and peace? Or are you trying to live an image of what you think you should be happy doing? Does this bring fulfillment? What kind of an example are you for others?

In our contradictory American culture we’re supposed to be overwhelmingly happy because we’ve got the right kind of toothpaste and the best laundry soap. We have a car and a mortgage; we have almost everything that we’re conditioned to think we should have to be happy. But we’re not happy, and we don’t know what to do because we’ve done everything we’re supposed to do to be happy. It’s not very “in” to say you’re miserable.

On the other hand, what do we talk about when we get together with our friends? “I’m not happy about this. My kids do this, my spouse does that, the government … the politicians…” We complain to our friends all the time about what isn’t going right in our lives. So, we’re quite contradictory.

We want to say, “I’m a happy person,” but when other people look at our life, what do they see? This is an interesting topic to reflect on. What do your kids see when they look at your life? What do your friends see when they look at your life? Are we moving through life in a calm and pleasant way? Or are we constantly anxious, frenzied, irritated, complaining, and trying to do too many things in an attempt to be happy?

Do your kids ever see you being peaceful? Or are you always busy, running around doing something? When you say you’re relaxed, what do your friends and your kids see you doing for relaxation? This is really interesting. Are you sitting in front of the TV, surfing the web, sleeping fourteen hours a day, watching horror movies or sci-fi flicks? Are you drinking or drugging? What are you doing when you say you are relaxing? What message are you giving to people who watch when you’re supposedly relaxing? If you never take time to relax, what are you doing? Are you in front of the computer constantly sending e-mails or pounding out a report on the keyboard? When you’re relaxing, are you focused single-pointedly on your BlackBerry screen or exercising your thumbs by sending text messages? Is that the image of happiness you teach your children?

Are we living life? We say we want to be peaceful and happy. Are we doing what we need to do to be peaceful and happy? Or do we say, “Oh, yes, I’m doing things to be happy. I’m working overtime so that I can buy the car that I want, because that car’s going to make me happy.” Does that car really make you happy?

One day, while visiting Harvard, I spoke with Dr. Dan Gilbert, who conducts research on happiness. He observes how much happiness people expect to have from a material object, say a car, versus how much happiness they actually obtain from it. He found that there is a big discrepancy between how much happiness we think we’re going to get from something and how much happiness we actually receive from it. Somehow, we never learn and we keep working very hard to get those things we’ve been socialized to think give happiness. However, when we get them, they don’t really make us happy. If they did, there would be no need to buy anything else.

What is happiness, really? How do you know when you’re happy? Are we peaceful? Or are we just living on automatic, doing what we think we should do? Do we worry that the world will fall apart if we don’t do what we think others think we should do?

Observing how we live our life and the assumptions that lie behind it relates to the larger topic of cyclic existence. On a deeper level, what does it mean to be trapped in cyclic existence? How does this relate to our daily life and the choices we make? Why are we doing what we are doing? Is it to make our body happy? If so, what’s the nature of this body? Is it possible for this body ever to be happy? If the answer is “No,” then what am I going to do? What are alternatives to having a body like this and to living a life which is focused on running around trying to bring pleasure to this body?

An alternative path

Here is where the Noble Eightfold Path and the thirty-seven practices of a bodhisattva have something to offer. Both present alternatives to a frenzied life and a life lived on automatic. They describe the antidotes to this cycle of constantly recurring problems into which we are born again and again under the influence of ignorance, afflictions, and karma.

Even though we desperately want to be happy, we harbor fear of change. We’re so familiar with our habits that it’s scary to try and change. We fear, “Who am I going to be?” We worry, “If I don’t answer every e-mail that’s written to me, and people get upset with me, who am I going to be? If I don’t run around and keep myself the busiest of the busy, who am I going to be? If I’m not feeling overwhelmed by my life, I might have to sit down and meditate. If I sit down and meditate, I’ll have to look at how berserk my mind is. I don’t want to do that. I’m too busy to do that!” This is the cycle we get ourselves into. Even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s familiar. Thus, change seems threatening.

It’s important to take some time and think about this situation. Gaining clarity concerning what is truly important in life is essential. We need to be courageous enough to question what we do so that we can shine light into the corner of our mind that is afraid of changing. This is an area to research in your meditation: What would I like to change about myself and how I’m living? Does change prompt anxiety? How do I respond to feelings of anxiety? Perhaps we become anxious about being anxious. Perhaps we become anxious about not being anxious: “If I take steps to remedy my anxiety and stop being such an anxious person, who am I going to be?” Our self-preoccupied mind is so creative in the ways it gets caught up in its own thoughts.

Sometimes we really have to laugh at ourselves. The mind that is under the influence of ignorance and afflictions thinks in hilarious ways. For example, we may worry about not being worried: “If I don’t worry about this person, it means I don’t love them. What’s wrong with me that I’m not worried?” Is that true? If you love someone, is it imperative that you worry about them? If you don’t worry about them, does it mean that you’re hard-hearted and don’t love them? Is that true?

We believe it’s true, but it’s not true at all. It is scary to question, “Who will I be if I don’t worry about this person? Who am I going to be if I don’t try to rescue everybody? I’ve got to fix everyone’s lives and make sure they’re okay.” Then we wonder, “Maybe I’m meddling in their business,” but we quickly counteract that with, “It’s not meddling in their business. I just know what’s best for them. Since they can’t manage their lives, it’s good that I give them advice even if they didn’t ask for it.” Do you see why the self-preoccupied mind is said to be our enemy? It will twist anything around to make itself the center of attention, to make itself important.

Can we laugh at our mind when it does this? I hope so. Taking ourselves too seriously will only make the situation worse. When we think about it, it’s pretty funny that we think being a “people pleaser” or everyone’s “savior” or the “One in Control” or “Mr. or Ms. Popularity” will make us happy.

It’s very helpful to examine the behaviors we’re hooked into and see if they create the causes for peace and happiness. Let’s look at our own experience and investigate if our behaviors bring good results either now or in the future. If they don’t, then let’s let them go.

Sit quietly and do some reflection to uncover the assumptions that your life is based upon. Think about what is meaningful in life considering that one day you will die. Try to get a sense of your great human potential and how it can be developed.

Questioning what we think

Examining our thoughts and asking ourselves if they are accurate is crucial for our well-being and the well-being of those around us. If we don’t do this, unquestioned thoughts, assumptions, and emotions, which are potentially erroneous, run our life. When examining these, being kind and truthful with ourselves is important. We accept that these thoughts, assumptions, and emotions are in our mind. We don’t scold ourselves, “I shouldn’t think this. I shouldn’t feel that way.” If we “should” on ourselves, we won’t be able to do an accurate investigation because we’ll be too busy suppressing or repressing those thoughts and feelings. We’ll just paste another thought or emotion on top of the old one without really believing the new one in our hearts. Clearly that doesn’t work.

The first thing to do is to discriminate a thought from an emotion. We say things such as, “I feel like they don’t accept me.” Actually, that is a thought. We may feel hurt or frustrated, but it’s because we’re thinking others don’t accept us. How do we know they don’t accept us? We don’t. We haven’t asked them. Instead, on the basis of how they looked at us or a comment they made, our mind constructs a story that we believe. As soon as you hear yourself saying, “I feel like…” stop and recognize that you can’t “feel like” something. You are thinking. Similarly, we say, “I feel rejected.” Actually, rejected isn’t a feeling; it’s a thought—we’re thinking someone is rejecting us.

After we have isolated the thought we’re thinking, the next step is to ask ourselves, “Is that true? How do I know it’s true?” Ask yourself what evidence you have to prove the validity of that thought. It’s really startling at this time to see that we really don’t know something is true; we’re assuming it based on some flimsy evidence.

Some of the thoughts that we often get stuck on are, “I’m a bad person,” “I’m inadequate,” “I’m a failure,” “I’m not good enough.” These self-deprecating thoughts are some of the most ingrained and the most harmful ones we have. When we think them, depression, despair, and anger overwhelm us and it’s difficult to see clearly. Such thoughts impact all aspects of our lives—our health, our relationships, our work, our spiritual practice. Sometimes it is hard to discern that these thoughts are present because we are so habituated to thinking them that they form the stage on which our life takes place.

When we notice these thoughts are present behind our unpleasant emotions, we have to stop and question them: “Is it true that I’m a bad person? Prove it to me!” We may start listing all sorts of mistakes we have made, but we keep questioning, “Does that mistake make me a bad person?”

In Tibetan Buddhism we learn debating, and now we apply this same technique to test the validity of the thoughts that lie behind our low self-esteem. In debate we use syllogisms consisting of a subject, a predicate, and a reason. For example, in the syllogism “sound is impermanent because it’s a product of causes,” “sound” is the subject (A), “impermanent” is the predicate (B), and “because it’s a product of causes” is the reason (C). For this syllogism to be true, three criteria need to be true. First, the subject is present in the reason; in other words sound is a product of causes. Second, if it’s the reason, it has to be the predicate. That is, if something is a product of causes, it must be impermanent. Third, if it’s not the predicate, it isn’t the reason. If it’s not impermanent, it isn’t a product of causes. To put it more simply:

  • A is C.
  • If it’s C, it must be B.
  • If it’s not B, it can’t be C.

Now let’s apply it to the syllogism “I’m a bad person because I lied.” That I lied is true. But is it true that everyone who lies is a bad person? Does one action make someone a bad person? Do thousands of harmful actions make someone a bad person? Since everyone has the potential to become a Buddha, how can anyone be a bad person?

What about the thought, “I’m a bad person because this person doesn’t like me.” Does someone not liking us make us a bad person? Does someone not loving us mean we are defective? Someone not liking us or not loving us has nothing to do with us. It is a thought in another person’s mind, and as we know, thoughts are not so reliable and they change frequently.

I find challenging my thoughts in this way extremely helpful. It shows me very clearly that my way of thinking is erroneous, and if a thought is incorrect, I drop it. It doesn’t make any sense to continue to believe something we have just proven is incorrect.

It’s helpful to question our emotions in a similar way. For example, let’s say we’re upset because we’re thinking, “That person criticized me.” Here the syllogism is “I am mad because he criticized me.” Yes, he criticized me, but do I have to be mad because someone criticized me? No, I have a choice of how to feel. I don’t have to be mad. When I’m really mad, I have to keep questioning myself, “Why am I mad?” My mind answers, “Because he criticized me.” I reply, “Yes, he said those words, but why are you mad.” My mind says, “Because he said I’m stupid.” I reply, “Yes, he said that, but why are you mad?” In other words, to all the reasons my mind puts forth why I should be mad, I question, “But why do I need to be mad at that?” When I do this long enough, I usually see that I’m mad because I want something from that person that she’s not giving me, or I’m afraid of that person, or I’m jealous. Then I question that as well. If I am open-minded and creative enough, I can reach a resolution and let go of the anger. Sometimes I ask a friend to help me untangle the thoughts and feelings in my mind.

In this process of questioning our thoughts and feelings, it is very important to be kind to ourselves. Criticizing ourselves because we are upset isn’t productive. Many people find it much easier to be kinder to others than to themselves. Being kind to ourselves, forgiving ourselves, and extending compassion to ourselves is a skill we need to learn. This needs to replace the other “skill” we know all too well—the skill of putting ourselves down, telling ourselves we are worthless or inferior, and so on. Being kind to ourselves is like any other skill; it is something we need to practice repeatedly. It’s not selfish to be kind to ourselves. Being kind to ourselves is very different from being self-indulgent. We are a sentient being, and in Buddhism we try to have love and compassion for all sentient beings and to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. We can’t leave one sentient being out, saying, “I’ll extend kindness to all sentient beings except myself!”

Our human potential

Each of us has within ourselves great potential. Since we are not inherently this or that, we don’t need to be locked into any rigid conceptualizations of ourselves or of the world. Instead, we can access our love, compassion, friendliness, joy, concentration, and wisdom and expand them limitlessly. When we eliminate ignorance completely from our mindstream and attain liberation (nirvana), we are truly free. Our good qualities can function without being impeded by fear, conceit, and other disturbing emotions.

But our real goal is not simply our own personal liberation, it is to be of the greatest benefit to everyone. Think about it—if you were drowning, your immediate goal would be to save yourself, but you would also want others to be rescued as well. We wouldn’t feel right about swimming to shore ourselves and then relaxing while others drown. We feel too connected to others to do this, and so, too, in our spiritual path, while accomplishing our own liberation would be wonderful, it wouldn’t be totally fulfilling.

Thus we want to attain the full enlightenment of a Buddha—that is, to become a Buddha ourselves—so that we can be of the greatest benefit to ourselves and all others. While a description of Buddhahood contains many lofty and marvelous qualities, a good way to begin to get a sense of the state of a Buddha is to imagine what it would be like never to get angry at anyone, no matter what they said or did to you. Think about it for a while: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be totally free from fear, anger, defensiveness, arrogance, the need to be right or to win? People could say or do whatever they wished, and our mind would remain peaceful and undisturbed. There would be no anger to repress; it would have all evaporated.

Similarly, what would it be like to look upon any living being and spontaneously feel affection and wish the best for them? This includes ourselves; in other words, genuinely caring for ourselves, as well as all others, in a healthy way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel connected to everyone and to wish them well?

These are some simple things to imagine in order to get an idea of where we are going on the path. It is possible for us to actually become like that. While we don’t want to believe everything our disturbing emotions think, we do want to believe in our human potential. And we can believe it because many other people have attained enlightenment before us, and they can show us the path.

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.