From Pema Chodron, on the excellence of Bodhichitta (loving kindness):
. . . The insight meditation teacher Jack Kornfield tells of witnessing this in Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Fifty thousand people had become communists at gunpoint, threatened with death if they continued their Buddhist practices. In spite of the danger, a temple was established in the refugee camp, and twenty thousand people attended the opening ceremony. There were no lectures or prayers but simply continuous chanting of one of the central teachings of the Buddha:
Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law.
Thousands of people chanted and wept, knowing that the truth in these words was even greater than their suffering. (The Places That Scare You, page 7)
Bodhichitta is something we are nearly all capable of, obviously, but what I’m thinking of this morning is loving kindness toward ourselves. A lack of self-judgment, one way or the other. We live in this largely Judeo-Christian culture where we’re taught to see things in terms of opposites: this is good, that’s not good, this is black, that is white. While historically this kind of thinking may have been helpful to keep this old world wobbling along in space, I think it has its drawbacks, particularly in the individual. On a planetary level, it is obvious that what black-and-white thinking leads to is war, because there is no room for grey. But what about its effects in the individual psyche?
Like many people, I was born into a family typical of this kind of thinking, one in which great harm had been done to its individual psyches, and loving kindness was at a premium. I learned, early, that the way to stay safe (literally) was to take care of myself (as opposed to waiting for someone older to do so), particularly in terms of doing the hitting before it could be done to me. In other words, if I judged, condemned and punished myself, that tended to make it a little less painful when the other person’s blow fell. If I said “I’m a terrible person” before my mother or father could assure me that I was, something that tended to happen a lot, it had the effect of both preparing me for the terrible judgment to come, but also allowed me some control over it.
There was just one problem: I was very young when I made this discovery. I can still remember the exact moment when it occurred to me, in fact. And since I hadn’t had much of an example of appropriate parenting, and since I was, essentially, making the decision to take on my own parenting, I wasn’t entirely prepared for the responsibility. Thus, I kept myself alive and safe by developing an inner judge who was merciless, so all the bases would be covered. And because the world I lived in was a frightening and dangerous place, it was necessary to have this judge on duty at all times and in all places.
I was probably in my twenties when it dawned on me why I was so exhausted all the time. It wasn’t as if I worked so hard or spent so much energy–not outwardly, anyway–but that I used up all my energy in self-judgment. The internal battle being carried out in my being at all times rivaled the worst world war. And I had to have something to heal the wounds, so I used the usual things people use when they do this: food, substances, escape of various kinds, relationships, etc., etc., etc. And then, in the few intervals between beating myself up, I wondered why I could not give up my various addictions (asking myself these questions in my parents’ voices; did I mention that my inner judge spoke in their voices?). In fact, I have thus far managed to keep my parents alive long past their deaths because I immortalized their pain-filled, hateful, raging voices.
I hate to sound like–for instance–Freud, who blamed the poor parents of this world for just about everything, but I can’t deny that, as the parents are the first God to a soul on this earth, they have the power of whatever deity they themselves have internalized, and all too often, it was the cruel, punishing one of this culture. It is not difficult to see how the inner war constantly reflects itself in the larger world, and my own inner war exhausted me and kept me torn apart, unable to stop the judgments long enough to allow the perfection to come through.
Perfection. Whatever that is. I remember someone saying to me that it’s impossible to be perfect, but not impossible to be whole. Damned near impossible, of course, but not entirely. I got a lot of mileage out of this idea, and lived with it for a number of years, until I began to see that perfection may actually manifest in wholeness, and so this brings me back to the central idea here: if I am keeping myself fragmented by my self-judgment, not only does what wants to come through get blocked, so does wholeness, and the battle continues, waged both within and without. It occurs to me–and I am not the first, I know–that this is what the whole Garden of Eden idea was all about: at the moment that I make the decision that some things are good and others are bad, I have created a dichotomy that leaves me–and my world–changed forever.
The problem is, of course, that if there is no dichotomy–of some sort–there will be no change, and hence neither me nor my world will progress. What a conundrum! A more stereotypically Eastern way of looking at this idea would be to acknowledge the dichotomy, notice it, and move on without resistance. Instead, I–a million ‘I’s–tend to allow it to paralyze me. What if, instead of endlessly searching for the footprints of my mistakes, I were to simply inquire into the reality of my process, and be as kind to myself as I try to be to others? My own particular “for instance” is my relationships with my students and clients: I am very, very good at this process with them. I see them beating themselves up over something they’ve done–or said–or thought–and I can suggest an alternative viewpoint, and the possibility of being kind to the self rather than punishing it. This is an excellent idea with regard to my own psyche as well as theirs, but I find it very hard, as the methodology I internalized as a child is so deeply ingrained, and I have a strong feeling that it has, finally, taken its toll in my current health problems, all of which relate to carrying the weight of my own self-criticism. It is not even logical to think that it is okay to be this kind to others and this cruel to myself. And to do so not only holds me back personally, but acts itself out in my relationship with the planet: my world, my community, my relationships. I imagine that none of this is new for many of you who might be reading it. Not all, but many. And even though these ideas would seem to lend themselves to the process of release–of one kind or another–there seems to be a developmental aspect to it that makes this particular change one that comes slowly. For me, it is only in my fifties that I am beginning to be comfortable with myself, and becoming comfortable with my imperfections is an even slower process. But it is an attractive idea. It is life-giving. It uncovers energy and inspiration and connectedness. It banishes fear.
Bodhichitta has this kind of power. It will inspire and support us in good times and bad. It is like discovering a wisdom and courage we do not even know we have. Just as alchemy changes any metal into gold, Bodhichitta can, if we let it, transform any activity, word, or thought into a vehicle for awakening our compassion. (Chodron, page 7)
The Creator is hidden in His own Creation. (Inayat Khan)
Ultimately, if I fulfill myself in regard to my own ideals, it is my privilege to acknowledge the source of them within..and to honor the creation of That.
You can live in love, or you can live in pain. Take your pick. (S.A.M. Lewis, as related in personal conversation by his student Wali Ali)