Investigating anger

Part of a series of talks given during the annual Young Adult Week program at Sravasti Abbey in 2007.

  • Understanding the mind when anger arises
  • Creating animosity by exaggerating negative qualities
  • Catching anger as it happens

Anger (download)

Attachment and Anger

We began a few days ago talking about how self-grasping ignorance and self-centered thought are the two major culprits. How from them we developed attachment and anger and how attachment usually develops first as a solidly-existing me and a solidly-existing something else. Then the first thing we do because we want happiness, the first thing is we get attached to the external thing that looks like it will give us pleasure. And so that’s what attachment is, we exaggerate the positive qualities of something, holding on to it because we think it will bring us pleasure and happiness. And then of course what is frustrating is when we can’t get what we want, when we lose what we want, when we get what we want, but it isn’t as good as it was supposed to be and when we get problems that we don’t want. In all of those conditions, then again, we exaggerate the negative qualities of them, and animosity, hostility, arises.

Check the mind

It is interesting to think about those different situations, to really think about them in our life—like how many times each day we don’t get what we want and to check the mind and see how I respond when I don’t get what I want? Do I let it go? Do I harbor some kind of, hmm…, yes, at least for a little while, a little irritation, a little annoyance, something like that? What happens when I get what I want, but it’s not as good as I thought it was supposed to be? Yes. I am left disillusioned and disappointed and feeling let down. How do I react like that? How? Check the mind again. How do I react when I am trying so hard to get something and my desires are being frustrated? I want this or I want that. Nobody is realizing that my idea is the best one. Nobody is giving me the responsibility. Nobody is listening to me. When we have a goal and then it is being frustrated, how do we react? Do we get angry and blame somebody? Do we give up?

I was once talking to somebody and he was telling a story about a university professor. And he asked the professor how do you evaluate which students to admit into the PhD program, and he says, “I watch how they deal with failure. Because when you are doing research, it falls apart.” Yes, he watches how people deal with failure, when they are not working out. I thought that was quite something! And so, frustration—and when our aspirations and dreams don’t happen, what happens in our mind? How do we react when we’re expecting the day to go one way and then it goes another way? Or when problems come our way that we aren’t anticipating?

Investigating afflictions

It’s very interesting when we check the mind, because usually we have some negative feelings. We have some story behind it. Well, wait a minute, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. My view of the universe said it is supposed to be like this, and how come they are like that? And this happens every day! Doesn’t it? And then we think, oh only if I had more power, then I can get my way. Oh, but powerful people have the same thing. Because the people they have power over don’t listen to them, so they don’t get what they want, and they are always getting frustrated too.

So, wherever we look, whatever position, whatever status, whatever job we have, there is no way we can control everything around us and make it go the way we want. So often in situations like this, what we do is that we exaggerate the negative qualities of something and we respond with some degree of hostility or animosity. Sometimes it’s very subtle. We are getting a little irritated with somebody for this or that. And sometimes, we are downright outraged or enraged, and we are spiteful or rebellious or aggressive or wrathful, something like that. So, it is good to look at the whole spectrum of these kinds of emotions that are based on exaggerating the negative side, but as with attachment, it is especially important to look for the big ones. As we were saying yesterday, look for the big attachments that really mess up your life. Similarly, here look for the big kind of animosity and anger that you have.

And observe. Sometimes it is in regard to a specific person. We were talking the other day, with this brand of person, we put them in a category, and everything they say, we get mad at. To look at one person we are continually getting mad at and if we somehow put them in a category, you’ve imputed a certain quality on them, or exaggerated something, so that we hardly even listen to what they say, but as soon as they open their mouth we are all set to feel disgruntled. Overall set to feel that they are bossing us around or we are all set to feel that they are picking on us and putting us down. We are all set for that and they have just opened their mouths to say something.

So, it’s very good to do some reflection on this, to see if they are particular people, individuals, or if there are particular kinds of people. Like maybe people who have some habitual personality characteristics that we react against. It may not be the same individual, but people of similar characteristics or it may be people who have similar positions or roles. Maybe we get angry at everybody whom we consider to be in a position of authority, or maybe we get angry at everybody whom we put in the category of being stupid, or we get angry at everybody whom we put in some other category. It is more a thing of a role. Anybody who is in a certain position in relation to us. It may be that you get mad at the people whom you consider to be under you, or you get mad at the people you consider over you, or whatever. These are just societal roles, but sometimes the role alone, we react a lot to the role, so it is good to check that out as well.

And it is interesting to see too if there are specific kinds of issues that are objects that we get angry in relation to. For example, are we somebody, when other people borrow money and they don’t return it within a certain amount of time—is that the thing we get angry about? Or it is not necessarily money, they borrow books or whatever, and they don’t return them. Is that the thing that sets us off? Or is the thing that sets us off, when we think somebody is telling us what to do? Or is the thing that sets us off when we think somebody isn’t listening to our instructions? Or is the thing that sets us off when we think somebody is commenting about our appearance? Are we very sensitive about our appearance? Or are we sensitive about some other quality that we have, physical quality or emotional quality and whenever a certain topic, a conversation about that quality emerges, we are all ready to feel hurt and angry?

Gaining insight

It’s quite interesting to spend some time and really think about these different areas. It gives us a lot of insight because it shows us our patterns, and when we are aware of our patterns then it becomes easier to catch the anger and catch the exaggeration when it’s happening. So, let’s say we are somebody who is very sensitive about how we look, and we can be sensitive about the way we look in so many ways. We are too tall, we are too short, we are too fat, we are too thin. We have brown hair and we want blond hair. We have blond hair and we want brown. We have curly hair and we want straight hair. We have straight hair and we want curly hair. Maybe we have big feet, or maybe we walk [inaudible] or maybe we have a high waistline and no waist, or maybe we have pimples, or maybe we have a scar. We can be sensitive about so many things. It is interesting to notice when people are talking about appearance or they are talking about cosmetic things or whatever it is, are we kind of sitting there just already feeling a little bit ill at ease. Do you know what I mean, yes?

The story I tell a lot in this regard is when a friend of mine was having a baby, and when you have babies, you are supposed to put on weight. I mean if you don’t put on weight, something is wrong, so of course she puts on weight. She had the baby. She was nursing the baby. You are supposed to have extra weight when you are nursing. So, she was going to take the baby back to see her family for the holidays, and she was telling me, “I know when I get off that plane my sister is going to look at me and say oh you’ve put on weight” and as she was telling me, you could see her getting really angry. She was kind of angry, irritated,”you know my sister is going to make this negative remark about my weight.” Her sister wasn’t in the room, this situation hasn’t even happened, but she was getting mad about it! Yes, why? Because there was a lot of attachment regarding her weight and her appearance. And it was completely coming from her own mind. It had nothing to do with her sister.

Yes, so we might see that there are certain things like this in our life. Or we might be sensitive about our level of education, or our class, or about who knows what? About our glass frames! Our mind can make up anything that it can feel picked on about. We are very creative about it. So just to be aware of that. What kind of stories is my mind making up and what am I holding onto here? I am holding onto something. I am clinging onto something, and it’s being jeopardized. So, it might be that we want somebody’s approval, and we feel that they aren’t approving of us. Yes? It might be that they notice a fault and we want to have a good reputation and pretend we don’t have any faults.

How the mind exaggerates

Like she was saying last night, what that person said about her room is true, it is a mess. Why do I hate somebody telling me my room is a mess, even though it is true? So why? What is going on with us? And you might wonder, what is the exaggeration here, that we are getting angry? Well, that kind of thing. Somebody says your room is a mess, and then we are exaggerating the negative impact of that statement. I mean really, what is the negative impact of the statement, somebody saying that your room is a mess? I mean if it is true, your room is a mess, it is just a factual statement. But what does our mind do? They are saying my room is a mess, so they are saying I am a bad person. And I am attached to my reputation, and I don’t want to be considered a bad person. And I want people to praise me, and they are blaming me.

Maybe the person has no idea to blame at all. Maybe the person is not giving us a bad reputation. But we interpret it that way and then we think, “Oh, this is terrible, a bad reputation is horrible. It is going to destroy me. Somebody not approving of what I am doing. Something is wrong. Something is wrong with me. I don’t fit in this world. This is a disaster.” Do you see how our mind is exaggerating? Yes, do you see how it is exaggerating. But we don’t see, we usually don’t see that we are exaggerating. We think that what we are telling ourselves is completely true. Somebody doesn’t approve of me. Oh, something must be wrong with me. We believe that. We believe that. We’re totally hooked on that. Yes, because somebody doesn’t approve of us, does that mean something is wrong with us? No. No. We have to look inside ourselves and look at what our actions are and what our motivation is. We have to decide if something needs altering or not. Just because somebody says something, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with us.

Self-centered thought

And we take everything so personally. Yes. Your room is a mess. Oh! They are criticizing me. They don’t like me. Or you talk too loud. Oh! Something is wrong. They don’t approve of me. They say I talk too loud, or I talk too much or I don’t talk enough. And we take everything so personally. So, you can see how it is really a function of a self-centered thought, isn’t it? Somebody else says, oh, you talk too loud, and yes, I do talk too loud. We don’t get bummed out when somebody says Joe over here talks too loud. But when they say that we talk too loud, oh! So, you see it’s an exaggeration, isn’t it, and taking everything so personally that isn’t meant personally at all. So, we can see so clearly how the self-centered thought makes us very over-sensitive, and how attachment to very petty things sets the stage for being over-sensitive. And then we just spin off on something. And then we are just upset the whole day and depressed the whole day. And then we develop a whole self-image, everybody is always picking on me, nobody understands me. The whole world is against me. You see how exaggeration comes in here? Yes. We take a small thing, and then we just exaggerate, like this huge, enormous star. And it is all so totally unnecessary. Totally unnecessary.

Sense of humor

So, it is good to notice these things in ourselves, and then not again do the same thing and exaggerate the importance of that and then say, oh I am so terrible because I am so super-sensitive. I am terrible, because I get mad at myself, because I am so super-sensitive. Yes? Call it cyclic existence. [laughter] It’s like we’re on this merry-go-round and we just changed horses. We keep getting stuck on the same merry-go-round. It is really very important to have a sense of humor about ourselves. And when we see ourselves doing this, just to be able to laugh, instead of taking ourselves so seriously all the time.

I remember once in retreat, getting there, of course you are doing retreat, you would like to think that you are a fantastic meditator, you are almost close to getting somewhere. So here I am meditating and I am doing my sessions very regularly and ok there are some distractions, but I catch it and I am sure my teacher has clairvoyant powers, he knows that I am in retreat doing this wonderful meditation. Keeping very strict discipline. I must be a very good disciple. I am sure he knows that. This kind of thought goes through your mind. Yes. I remember that happening in my retreat and when I realized what was going on, I just cracked up in the middle of my meditation. [laughter] I just started laughing. It was like, my goodness! This is hilarious. Look at what my mind is doing. It is just making up this thing and it’s really pretty funny. Isn’t it funny? I thought it was hilarious. And so, we just have to learn to laugh at ourselves, when we see our mind spinning out like this. Yes. We have to laugh at ourselves, at how silly we are and how stupid we are. We are sentient beings. We are funny, don’t you think? I mean we have to laugh at ourselves. So especially what we are laughing at is all of this kind of exaggeration going on in our mind. Look at our exaggeration and how we get ourselves so tied up. And so, hostility and confusion really come in, in all of this.

I remember another situation. It was probably about 20 years ago I was at Tushita in India and I was asked to co-teach a course, I don’t know, for two weeks or something. I was teaching every morning and Lama Zopa was there to teach something at the time and every morning like at four, four-thirty or something, he would call some of us into the room and we would do the Lama Chopa Puja together and then after that I would go and teach the course. So already I was kind of short on sleep, going into Rinpoche’s room at four-thirty in the morning and then teaching. And then one night there is one practice, it’s called the self-initiation practice and Rinpoche was going to start doing it at eight o’clock and he invited us to come. So, Rinpoche’s eight o’clock is like ten o’clock, which means you finish at six o’clock. That’s if it’s on time. And you know, “Oh, I really want to go to this, but if I stay up all night, I won’t be able to teach the next day.” So I am already short of sleep and I have to teach this course, but he invited me and I am just wanting to sleep. I am really bad because I want to sleep. If I had more compassion for sentient beings, then I would just readily go through the difficulties of staying up all night and I wouldn’t get tired the next day and I would go into the meditation hall the next day completely beaming, even though I hadn’t slept and it’s all because I am so selfish and have no compassion for sentient beings. And I want to sleep instead of going to this puja. Here are my opportunities to renew my tantric vows and all I want to do is go to bed. What a horrible person I am and a horrible disciple. So selfish and no wisdom. I have this great opportunity and I am blowing it because I want to go to sleep. But if I stay up all night, the teaching I give these people won’t be very clear and then I will be really an awful person and I will be letting all these people down, because I will be so exhausted and I will give an unclear teaching.

Then it was like if I go to the puja, I am doing it wrong and if I don’t go to the puja, I am also doing it wrong. Because if I go, then I am going to be tired and I will let the students down. I will give an awful teaching and my reputation will be trashed and I will let Rinpoche down. But if I don’t go to the puja and sleep, then I am an awful student. I am letting him down. I am so selfish. So, I got myself really tangled up. If I do this, I am bad. If I do that, I am bad. And whatever I do, I am bad. Yes, it’s incredible! And so, I spun around this. I was just worried about this. I don’t know how many hours, I just spent worrying about it and beating myself up because I am too selfish and too this and too that. Beating myself up and so finally, you know everybody was going in to do the puja and I just said I have to go to bed, because otherwise I am not going to function tomorrow morning. I am just going to be wiped out. So, I went to bed and I felt guilty the whole night sleeping and then woke up feeling guilty. I was such a bad person.


Later that day I went to see Rinpoche and here I am talking about self-anger. Not just hostility towards others, but anger towards oneself. I was so upset with myself and feeling so bad and I went to Rinpoche. “Rinpoche, I am so sorry, I didn’t come to the puja last night” and he says, “then.” “Oh, I was so selfish and uncompassionate. I just had to go to sleep.” “Then.” Meanwhile, while he is doing this, while I am saying all this, he is busy doing something. He is just writing something. I will kind of pour stuff out and he will look up at me and go, “Then” and then go back to whatever he was doing, arranging or writing something or whatever and I was going, “Hmm, I am so bad, oh, but if I stayed up all night, I wouldn’t be able to teach.” “Then.” “Oh, I didn’t go to the puja and didn’t renew my tantric vows and I missed it and have so much negative karma.” “Then.” All he would do was to occasionally look up and go “then.” It took a while for me to realize that Rinpoche was completely bored. He was completely bored! He was just looking at me, saying “then” and he went back to what he was doing. Because my drama, “Oh, my aching heart and my self-hatred.” You know it was totally irrelevant. He was bored. He was like, oh Chodron be quiet and stop.

Because what was I doing and why was I going on and on about it? I wanted absolution. Yes. I wanted him to take it and say “Oh little girl, you made the right decision and it was a good decision after all, and even if it wasn’t, I forgive you.” And he was not buying into my little trip. He was not buying into my trip for absolution and approval, and he was just, “figure it out yourself and look at your own mind.” It was so interesting, because this thing that I thought was so important, that I had to confess to him immediately, he didn’t care. And what he wanted me to do was to look at my own self and figure it out myself. And eventually I figured out, well, yes, I needed to go to sleep. I am not the Buddha yet. It has nothing to do with me being too selfish. Yes, I am not a Buddha. I have a human body. My human body needs to rest and my first responsibility is to the people in this course and so I have to take care of what my first responsibility is, and if that means giving up something else, then that’s ok. I don’t have to beat myself up about it because my body needs to rest. It was a really good experience and it was really good that he turned it right back on me. He didn’t give me absolution.

Here, we are talking about a situation where we get mad at ourselves. We have a lot of self-hatred and self-blame and we spin around that one. It is very interesting to see how we look. How is it that we make up all these stories and then spin around them and get stuck in them and hate ourselves about them. I mean if my friend had that same situation and the same quandary, I would have said go to sleep. Yes. I would have said your responsibility is to these people, you have a human body, so go to sleep. But for myself, I couldn’t do that, because I have to be perfect, something, something, something. It’s totally unnecessary. So really looking at sometimes how we beat ourselves up, and I think what [inaudible] mentioned last night, about controlling the world, it’s really really exhausting controlling the world, and when we try to manage others, we are also doing the same thing. We are being very hard on others, and we are also being very hard on ourselves at the same time that very often we are so used to this negative self-talk and this self-hatred, that we don’t even realize it as a defilement. We just think it’s normal, and we just think it’s the way we are supposed to feel, because we really are so bad, yes, and so we completely spaced-out and don’t realize all this self-hatred and guilt is a defilement. Isn’t that amazing!

I mean sometimes when we are angry at other people, we can kind of realize that’s a defilement, because we are unhappy when we are angry at them. When we are unhappy, we can say “Oh, maybe I need to change my mind.” But then if we’ve been beating up on ourselves for so long, well, that’s just normal. That’s just how I relate to myself. Is there any other way to relate to myself besides hating myself? It’s like we’re at a total loss. Completely without any skill. If I don’t hate myself, what am I going to do? Yes. What am I going to think about myself? Who am I going to be? How dare I be so arrogant, and think something kind about myself? How dare I think that I have any good qualities and something to offer? That’s really selfish and bad and you know what, it’s also attachment to reputation. I am fully immersed in the eight worldly dharmas, so we continue to take the Dharma and then we use the Dharma to beat up ourselves. How dare I think I have any good qualities. How selfish! How arrogant! I am going to hell realms for that. How awful I am. We just take the Dharma and then hate ourselves because we fall short in certain aspects of the Dharma in our mind. This is all just exaggeration, isn’t it? They are all complete mind-making stories and exaggerations. And that’s why sometimes I am able to catch this in myself and see how we are melodramatic.

Many of you have heard that my parents when I was a kid, used to call me Sarah Bernhardt. Yes. Sarah Bernhardt was in those silent movies, who was always,”Oh!” melodramatic. Everything,”Oh!” They called me Sarah Bernhardt. They don’t understand my emotions. Meanwhile, like everything that happens, I had gotten journals and journals, I don’t know what grade, and “Oh!” My sixth-grade friends are picking on me. They kicked me out of the group. They don’t love me, and my parents did this and my brother did that! “Oh,” it was so melodramatic. That was just when I was a kid. My whole teenage years I was melodramatic. In my twenties, I was melodramatic. Maybe a little bit now. I am hoping I have improved a little bit. But especially when I was nineteen, early twenties, I was just like, whoa, I couldn’t see it at all. I couldn’t see it at all that I was being melodramatic. And meanwhile my parents would say I was like Sarah Bernhardt. These are my feelings! Nobody wants to hear my feelings, and they change from one minute ago!

And finally, I got to a point where I could laugh at myself. And look back at myself and just laugh and not take myself so seriously for having so many thoughts of melodrama in my life, because that was where I was at, at that time. I was really into it. And I was into this, how come nobody loves me! All I want is for somebody to love me and nobody loves me. All these guys I date, they like me, but they don’t love me unconditionally. Why can’t they love me unconditionally and accept me for everything I am? I open myself up and share everything with them! No wonder the guys ran away. [laughter] My goodness, no wonder! This is what you would call high maintenance. Yes, and oh boy. Anyway, you see at least now I can look back at it and I have some compassion for that person I was. She was really stuck in a lot of suffering, but I can also laugh at what was going on in my mind. It’s pretty funny what was going on in my mind.

Questions and answers

Question: Has this got to do with karma?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It probably has got something to do with karma, but it probably had something to do with the way I was thinking in this life too. It probably had to do, because I was more selfish than everybody else. Nobody else was as self-centered as I was. Most definitely not.

Audience: [Inaudible] The story with Rinpoche, not just the quality of [Inaudible] Was this poignant ignorance also related to being all tangled up? Would you say that?

VTC: Well, in one way.

Audience: Is it important…[Inaudible]

VTC: Yes, it was definitely of import, but he was talking about wrong views and not understanding the cause and effect. So, I think that’s more what we are referring to.

Audience: [Inaudible]

VTC: Where ignorance came in: there was thinking that it was good to beat myself up so much. Yes. That’s where the ignorance was. I thought it was good to beat myself up. Yes. Like if I wasn’t hard on myself then somehow, I wasn’t sincerely trying to practice the Dharma. I was just brushing it off.

Audience: That you didn’t suffer enough.

VTC: Yes.

Audience: [Inaudible] Were you attached to the idea of practicing the Dharma? What importance [Inaudible]

VTC: Oh, all of them. I was very attached to my reputation. I was attached to approval. Yes, and the ignorance of thinking that it was good to be hard on myself, that means I am really practicing. Yes. And then the hostility because I was just sitting there blaming myself so much.

Audience: [inaudible] I am sorry I do that kind of thinking so often, such that my mind gets so clouded that making decisions becomes difficult [Inaudible] …as a precaution, so I don’t really have a question but I will notice it later [Inaudible] that it becomes so clouded [inaudible] taking action.

VTC: You are saying that you had your own rendition of my Sarah Bernhardt and how much it clouds the mind and keeps you from making a decision and that’s really true, isn’t it? The mind becomes so clouded because if I do this, I am bad and if I do that, I am bad. And the mind is actually so narrow, because it is only seeing, doing this and blaming myself and doing that and blaming myself, and those are the only two alternatives of seeing. And in fact, there are actually a bunch of other alternatives, like accepting myself for who I am and giving myself space and being kind to myself. I don’t see that alternative. Yes? I am totally immune to that one. Or I don’t see the alternative of just accepting and you know I am sure my teacher understands and the other people understand. And all my Dharma friends, they are not going to spend the whole day thinking about me and how bad I was because I didn’t go. Yes, so it’s like the mind cannot think of any other alternative, and that’s where we really get stuck and so I think when we get into that kind of state. At least I know, when I get in a confused state about a decision, I just say I don’t need to make a decision right now. Yes, I am not making a decision right now. My mind is too confused. I am putting this down because my mind is too confused right now. So put it down, go and do something else. Air out the mind. Think about some other things. Yes, read a Dharma book. Because at least at that point when we are spinning so much, at least if we can recognize, hey, my mind is so confused, I can’t make a decision. So, the wise thing to do now is to put it aside and not decide now. I don’t have to decide now.

Audience: [inaudible] I don’t understand why therapists or counseling groups [Inaudible ] or whatever counseling groups [Inaudible] they say so many people want [Inaudible] I am not sure this is supposed to be comforting to people, when so many people want to be the only one [Inaudible ]. I am the only one with the issue. Like I am the only one. I am all alone. I am the only one with my problem. Like no one understands where I am coming from. She doesn’t understand why people need that approach [Inaudible] so I find it sort of interesting that people do that.

I also have a question about a lot of people who have a lot of those, just like what you are pointing to, but they are totally within themselves. There is no [Inaudible] they spend all their time not showing it, so ok they can take failure, they cannot have approval. [inaudible] means that they are beating themselves inside and have trouble with struggling with whatever I do. I am bad, so what do you do if you are struggling with the fact that you don’t show your melodrama? You have it, but you just don’t show it. [Inaudible] … and so much time is spent on not showing it [Inaudible ].

VTC: Yes, so you are saying somebody might have a lot of melodrama but is keeping it inside and presenting a good face to the world. Ok, but you were saying something like they are not attached to approval?

Audience: Well, I am sure they are attached to approval of course, but they don’t want to show it.

VTC: Oh, they don’t want to show it. Ok. And that’s the thing. Somebody can be oh yes, totally cool with this, but usually you can see some cracks through the veneer because it comes out in some other way. And there is still the attachment to approval and beating themselves up and everything else, and maybe even more attachment to approval because they don’t want anybody to disapprove of them for being so melodramatic. And so, what’s your question about that?

Audience: So, I was just wondering, in general it seems like you are giving us tools, but it’s easier said than done. You know, it isn’t very normal behavior for one person. I mean, sure you can try to do whatever, but I just felt I am not able to grasp my mind around how you can change it. I have no idea how you can do that.

VTC: Oh ok. That’s more of the question like, you can see your mind doing this stuff, but how do you change it? They sound like good tools and they make sense. But what do I do with this berserk mess inside me? Everybody feel that way? You are not the only one![laughter]

I find that it is actually relieving for people to find out that they are not the only ones. Yes. Usually, people feel quite relieved. My experience with this is that I just take some of the teachings and look at: here I am stuck thinking in this pattern; ok, how about if I try thinking in this pattern? I consciously try to direct my mind to think in another way, to see if the other way makes more sense than the way I am already thinking. Or I might look sometimes before I do that, I may spend some time just asking myself is the way I am thinking reasonable?

Like in this example, is it reasonable to expect myself to stay up all night doing puja and teach a course the next day? Is that a reasonable thing to expect of a regular person? You know, would I expect that of somebody else? No! I wouldn’t expect that of somebody else. That is not a reasonable thing to expect of another person. And then I would ask myself, is it true that if you don’t go to the puja that the reason is that you lack compassion for sentient beings? Yes? Is that the reason? And what’s difficult about this one is my teacher hardly sleeps, and I think it’s because he has such great compassion that he doesn’t sleep, and he is always practicing.

I might say, well, it is true that if somebody is a bodhisattva and has great compassion, they may not sleep because of the power of their compassion. Ok, but I am not a bodhisattva, and nobody is expecting me to be one today. I mean, my teacher and everybody else knows I am not a bodhisattva. When you get to that point on the path when you are a bodhisattva, then staying up all night by the power of your compassion is easy. It’s not difficult. It’s easy. So, I’m not there yet, so does that mean I lack compassion? Well, you could say I don’t have the compassion of a bodhisattva, but does that mean I am a bad person because I don’t have a bodhisattva’s compassion? Does that mean I am a bad person? No. It doesn’t mean I am a bad person. It means I am what I am. I am not a bodhisattva, I don’t have that level of compassion, but how fortunate I am that I have met the teachings. Someday I am going to be like my teacher. Some lifetime I am going to be like that. So, I can go in that direction. But he is not expecting me to be like that right now. Why do I expect myself to be like that? That’s not reasonable at all.

You see questioning my thought processes and seeing if the way I am thinking is reasonable. Is it reasonable to think that I should be a bodhisattva? No. That’s not reasonable. Is it reasonable to blame an ordinary sentient being for not being compassionate? No. It’s like blaming a pig for not being able to talk. Or, forget using a pig, you know it’s like blaming one of the trees for not being able to talk. How can you blame a tree for not being able to talk? They don’t have that ability. I don’t have that ability to be a bodhisattva by tonight, and stay up all night, so let’s stop blaming myself, because it’s not reasonable to think in that way.

Our question will kind of pull out the logical arguments that I am giving my mind. I will check the reasoning in it and then I’ll start questioning that reasoning, and is that valid? Well, no. It’s not a logical, reasonable way to see the situation. So what is more logical and reasonable? Yes. Well, how would Chenrezig see me at this point? Chenrezig would say you have a precious human life. You have met the Dharma. You have the opportunity to practice. You are so fortunate you get to teach this course, because teaching helps you to learn better. And you have the ability to help these other people and that’s your responsibility. To do your best helping them right now. Yes. That’s what Chenrezig would say to me and that certainly makes a lot of sense. So, is that ok?

Audience: Yes. Thank you.

Audience: I think I might be able to apply that. What I was thinking would be how do you know when you are pushing yourself to a good place and not going too far?

VTC: So how do you know when you are giving yourself an appropriate nudge versus when you are pushing yourself too much? If your mind is tight, you are pushing yourself too much. If your mind is confused, you are pushing yourself too much. If your mind is spinning around, telling yourself how awful you are, you are pushing yourself too much.

Audience: [Inaudible]

VTC: What if you’re all pushing yourselves too much. What you need to do is to look. It is like looking at your mind as you would look at a child. And you would talk to your mind, as you would talk to a little child. Ok here, we’re going to sit, we’re going to do this right now. You look at your mind. You know when you look at a child, you don’t expect somebody who is three to be an Olympic champion. They are three years old. They aren’t even ready for training wheels. They are still on a tricycle. So, you say come, let’s sit and ride the tricycle. And I am going to stand here with you and ride the tricycle. Oh! you fell off your tricycle? That’s ok. Get back on. You won’t always fall off your tricycle. It happened this time, but you are not hurt or mortally wounded, so just get back on the tricycle and keep on trying to master the tricycle, and after you’ve mastered the tricycle then you can try training wheels, then you can ride a bike, then you can do these other things. But you know you fell off your tricycle, that’s ok. Get back on. That’s the important thing. Being gentle with ourselves, as we are gentle with a child. We’ve got to stop being army drill sergeants.

Audience: This is a question I have been having in my mind, where on one hand I feel like I feel lazy and can push myself to a point, like I have really high expectations when I push myself, but I don’t know how to push myself too much without being too lazy. I don’t know how to get out of this cycle.

VTC: Ok. Anybody else have that problem? [laughter] Yes, and this is very much our problem. That on one hand we can get very lazy and not give ourselves that nudge and then when we try to give ourselves that nudge, we go to the other extreme, and we are pushing ourselves like a drill sergeant. And then when we let up being a drill sergeant then we go back to just lying in bed all day.

Audience: Well, then you can give yourself the excuse that you are not pushing yourself hard enough to get out of bed.

VTC: Yes. “Oh,” she said, “don’t push yourself so at 11 am I will get up.” I think what can be very helpful is, I think we need to figure out a structure that works for us. And of course, it will differ because we aren’t the same person all the time, so we have to adjust our structure from time to time. But we can get some kind of approximate structure on what we need to do, and just to know how much sleep do we need? And do I really need that much sleep? If I cut it down a little bit, can I function just as well? Because sometimes we think, “Well, I need to sleep until I wake up naturally.” I don’t think so. I am not an advocate of that. Ok. I don’t know about you, but if I did that, boy, yes. I need to use an alarm clock so approximately how much sleep do I need each night to be able to function the next day? Well, I try it this way and that way and kind of this much does it. Now I can go for a few days with getting less sleep and I am ok. But if I go for too many days getting less sleep, then it does not work. I have got to watch and if I go two or three days with less sleep that’s fine, but I have got to make sure that I get to bed by a certain time so that I sleep that amount. And sometimes you have to adjust it. I find that in the summer, I don’t need as much sleep. I keep my windown treatments open in the summer on the east side, so the sun shines in. I love waking up to the sun like that. I don’t need as much sleep. I am wide awake. That’s great! So, you kind of figure out what you need to work. So, it’s like that, it involves all these different kinds of things.

How much time do I need just to get in touch with what’s going on in my mind? Well, I better take that time to do that, and not push myself working so hard that I don’t have enough time to just sit and kind of process things that are going on in my mind. And so just to know what we require at any particular time.

Like I said, sometimes it changes. Sometimes we can do more, sometimes we can do less. I have also learned that I function very well when I keep my body in a particular structure. I go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time, and eat at the same time. My body functions much better when I do that. But when I travel, my body can’t always do that, so I just have to get used to doing that and for a few days when I travel, I don’t feel well, and that’s ok. And I don’t blow it up in my mind. “Oh, I didn’t get any sleep! It’s terrible! And my digestive system is all off. This is terrible!” Ok, I don’t need to blow this up into some stupendous thing. My body is just out of sync and I don’t feel well and that’s ok. I just keep on working and I don’t need to tell everybody about it and make it a big deal. It will go away. So, it’s something 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.