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Verse 36: The slave owned by everyone in the world

Verse 36: The slave owned by everyone in the world

Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • There is a difference between arrogance and self-confidence
  • People who lack self-confidence make themselves slaves to others’ opinions
  • We need to learn to evaluate ourselves in realistic ways

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 36 (download)

Who willingly makes himself into a slave owned by everyone in the world?
The feeble-minded person who has no self-confidence.

Self-confidence is very different from arrogance. We have to be very clear on the difference. Arrogance is artificially pumping ourselves up with no foundation, and being very attached to presenting ourselves as being powerful. And arrogance usually comes from a lack of self-confidence. Because when we really believe in ourselves we don’t need to advertise. We advertise when we don’t really believe in ourselves.

On the other hand, when we are self-confident then we can be humble. And we can say we’re wrong. And we can say we don’t know. Because ego isn’t involved in all of that. There’s no threat to our ego in saying “I don’t know,” or whatever it is. Whereas for the arrogant person there’s a lot of threat, because they don’t really believe in themselves.

Then the question here comes: Somebody who lacks self-confidence—and in that way is feeble-minded—how do they become the slave of everyone in the world?

Well when we lack confidence in ourselves, when we lack confidence in our own views or our own actions or our own thoughts then we’re very susceptible to what other people think about us. Because having confidence in ourselves entails knowing ourselves. It entails a degree of honesty and an ability to evaluate our own actions in a realistic way.

When we lack self-confidence we don’t have that ability to evaluate ourselves in realistic ways because we’re always looking outside for other people to tell us we’re okay. So instead of knowing we’re okay because we check our own motivation, we check our own actions, we’re okay with apologizing and so forth. Or acknowledging our mistakes. When we aren’t in touch with ourselves in that way then we’re completely dependent on everybody else, “Tell me who I am, tell me if I’m good.” And so then whatever everybody else tells us, we believe. And it influences our actions. And since we always want people to like us and to think well of us then we go along with whatever we think they think we should be in order to please them.

Getting what I’m saying? It’s like, I don’t know who I am, or I’m out of touch with myself, or when I reach a conclusion I don’t really respect it, but I’m always doubting myself. So then somebody tells me, “Oh, what you believe isn’t right,” and all of a sudden I go, “Ahhh, they might be right!” And then that person wants me to do things a certain way so I make my three prostrations and do it their way because they must have more wisdom than I do and they’re telling me who to be so that they’ll like me. And I’m so dependent on other people liking me—to feel good about myself—that I will do ten back-flips in order to get their approval. So we lose ourselves. We become a slave to what other people want us to be. Or what we think they think we should be. Which is definitely crazy-making.

I guess in modern psychological terms you would call this being a “people-pleaser.” Or being co-dependent. Something like that. But the idea is not to think to confuse self-confidence with arrogance and then think, “Okay, I know what’s right, I’m not listening to anybody,” and become very stubborn and rigid and conceited. That’s not the solution. Because that’s still based on not believing in ourselves. What we need is a way to really assess our own motivations and actions so that when we’ve come to a conclusion or we’ve checked our beliefs, or whatever it is, we feel confident in them, and they have good reasons behind them, so we don’t just go into doubt when somebody disagrees with us. Yet, on the other hand, when somebody gives us feedback we don’t go, “I’m so sure of myself, don’t you don’t tell me anything.” Because that is kind of indicative of, again, not really believing in ourselves. So we need to be able to take in the feedback and assess it and see: Is it valid or not valid? Because some people give us feedback, and they see things about us that we can’t see, and what they say is really valid, and we have to say, “Thank you very much.” Other people give us feedback and it’s completely a projection of their own mind that has nothing to do with us. And in that case we still say, “Thank you very much,” but don’t pay any attention to it.

This involves a lot of introspection and checking inside to know what is a realistic view, what isn’t.

Otherwise we make ourselves into slaves because everybody knows me better than I know me, so whatever they want me to do or be I’ll do or be because they must be right. And they’ll like me if I do that. And the first law in my universe is everybody has to like me. Nobody is allowed not to like me. Because if somebody doesn’t like me it might mean I’m a bad person. And since I can’t assess myself, or evaluate myself accurately, if somebody doesn’t like me I get like, “Bleh, then I must be totally horrible. If they don’t like me.”

When, you know, it’s a free world. People can have their own opinions. They can like us. They can not like us. It’s not a disaster if they don’t like us.

You’re going, “Yes it is! It’s a disaster. Everybody has to like me!”

Can we give some people some space? And let them not like us if they don’t want to like us?

No, never.

[In response to audience] You’re saying when you doubt yourself then you doubt other people’s motivations as well. And then if they tell you that they did something with a kind motivation, you’re saying kind of like you have to just give them the benefit of the doubt and believe it is.

It is true. Sometimes we are unaware of our motivation. Or sometimes we think our motivation is X, but there’s a whole bunch of other stuff behind it that we aren’t aware of that’s influencing it. And so I think that’s why it’s helpful to live close to a teacher and live close to a Sangha community because those people point things out to us, or ask us questions that help us check our own motivation.

No, but really…. And I’ve noticed myself that sometimes I think my motivation is X, and it’s like three or four years later I’ll go “Oh my gosh, what was I thinking? I was so out to lunch then.” You know? “I thought I was doing it with this motivation, but boy, my motivation was kind of rotten.”

When I see that, then I actually say, “Well, that’s good.” It’s very good because it means I can see things more clearly.

When I have a clear motivation but underneath I sense something isn’t so good, then I usually stop, and I usually say, “Okay, what’s going on inside? What is this feeling that I’m sensing? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it anger? What is it that I’m sensing?” And then if I can see what that emotion is, it’s easier to see how that emotion might be influencing my motivation. It’s like, okay, I’m going this way, but something inside feels uncomfortable, and then I discover, oh, I’m kind of anxious because maybe this and that and the other thing will happen. Then I can use the Dharma to handle that emotion. You know, reflecting on why am I already assuming the other person’s going to say this. Or even if they did say this, why would it be so awful? And work on that whole scene and clear that out. And then be able to come back to my motivation and look at the present situation more clearly. And more accurately.

So I think this is something that’s really helpful in our meditation practice to do. And to develop that internal sensitivity to when something doesn’t feel quite right in our own motivation.

[In response to audience] Good point. When we lack confidence in something then it’s important to give ourselves some empathy and be kind to ourselves. And I think also have a little bit of a playful attitude. I mean, you were speaking about feeling uncomfortable speaking in English, you know, maybe you’ll make a mistake. When I went to Italy I didn’t know any Italian. So all I did was say an English word with -o or -a at the end, and wave my hands, and people understood. And you can kind of assume in a way that people are going to be kind. Instead of assuming they’re going to sit there and say “you know, you should have learned English when you were three months old.” You know? I mean, people understand not knowing the language. So give other people a break, you know? Everybody’s not going to be standing there all primed to judge you.

[In response to audience] That’s quite a good point, that sometimes when we need something it takes some confidence to ask. Because maybe the other person is going to say no. And then we just go into “Oh, I was so bad for asking, and they don’t like me, they don’t love me, I’m not worthy. I’m never going to get what I want. The whole world is against me. Wah!” And we dig ourselves a hole and, you know, what she was dong the other day. [Mimes sucking thumb] [laughter]

Sometimes, I know for myself, if I feel really insecure, I’m so afraid to ask because if the person says no then my mind is going to make up a huge story out of this. That it means they don’t care about me, and I’m not worthwhile, and the whole world does this, and blah blah blah…..

To be able to say, Okay. I’m just asking for this thing. I’m not asking for all the things that that thing symbolizes to me. I’m just asking, you know, “Please help me take out the garbage.” And take off everything that I’m imputing: “If you say yes to helping me take out the garbage it means you like me and you love me. And if you say no, it means that I’m lazy and you don’t care about me….” You know? That’s other stuff that I’m projecting onto the action of carrying out the garbage. And it’s like, okay, let’s talk about this and not all that other rubbish that I’m putting on it. And then give the person a chance. They can say yes, they can say no. If they can’t help me carry out the garbage then I can find somebody else who will help me carry it out. And it doesn’t mean that blah blah blah blah all these stories that I’m making up in my mind.

Because I think it’s important to be able to ask for help when we need it. Otherwise we wind up stuck because we aren’t able to finish something because we’re too proud, in a way, to ask for help. This kind of insecurity and pride go together. Don’t they? I feel so insecure so, “I’m all together. I don’t need any help.”

And also, when we ask for help it gives other people a chance to participate. It gives an opportunity for connection. Whereas if we have this idea “I can do everything by myself” then we can’t invite others in to join us and develop a connection with them.

[In response to audience] Sometimes we are confident, and then somebody needs a volunteer and we’re “me me me, here I am, I’ll do it.” And sometimes we need to hang back a little bit and see if somebody else wants to do it. And also to hang back and encourage somebody, maybe who needs some encouragement, but who is fully capable of doing it.

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.