Spiritual Self-Care

In Zen, “spiritual self-care” is an oxymoron.

A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is the concept of no-self. When the Buddha looked into the Nature of Everything he saw nothing there that was him. He realized that the perception that we are separate from each other and everything else is the primary source of our suffering.

In Zen, spiritual self-care is recognizing the nature of suffering and a way through. The practice involves focusing your attention and observing the nature of your mind. The hard part about observing your mind is that you do it with your mind. Your mind creates all kinds of distractions that suck you in and set your focus wandering. That is the nature of mind. That is what you observe as you practice bringing your attention back to your point of focus.

The ultimate point of focus is the present moment. The present moment is where you live. As long as you are alive, you have your breath. When you focus your attention on your breath, it is grounded in your body in the present moment. Doing that, with a compassionate attitude, recognizing that there is suffering and seeking a way to ease that suffering is the basis of spiritual self-care. It is not so much the self taking care of the spirit, but the spirit taking care of the self.

Spiritual self-care involves taking care of your body and mind with a spiritual sense of caring. It involves eating well, sleeping enough, getting exercise, bathing, and brushing your teeth. It involves connecting with others, practicing compassion toward them and opening yourself to their compassion. It involves slowing down and being present right where you are with things just as they are, even if it hurts. When things hurt, be present with the pain and practice compassion for yourself. See what could be wrong and do what you can to help yourself feel better.

Two reliable ways to practice spiritual self-care and help yourself feel better are practicing generosity and gratitude. Those practices help us abide in our interconnected nature, which tends to feel good.


Seeing Ego, Being Ego

The ego is mostly who we are. Everything about us that is us is based on our ego. Even seeing ourselves as something separate from the ego is our egoistic outlook. The ego is both a misguided friend and dangerous adversary as well as wise counsel and staunch advocate. To only see the ego as bad is only seeing half the picture.

The ego has its use in society. Our society is built on a collection of individuals. We get a birth certificate at birth and a death certificate when we die. We acquire possessions, things that belong to us, we register to vote and are responsible for our crimes. All of these activities of quantifying the individual stem from an ego based outlook. Our ego is that part of us that is us.

Buddhism is based on the idea of no-self. It teaches that when we look into what it is that is uniquely us, there is nothing there. Every bit of us is interconnected with the rest of the universe. Because no-self is a radical and counterintuitive idea, the idea of ego was born to represent what we perceive as self.

Buddhism also claims that the root of suffering is ignorance, which is believing in the ego, believing in a separate self. That gives ego its bad reputation. We live in a world of egos, so it is helpful to be able to live as an ego, but keep looking for the truth of interconnectedness. When interconnectedness makes more sense than separate selves then we get a good look at ego.


Same Difference

There is a big difference between ignorance in the common sense of the word and the Buddhist sense of the word. In the common sense of the word, ignorance is being unaware, lacking in general knowledge or understanding. This common kind of ignorance when applied to people who seem different from us, different races, different cultures, different sexual orientations, different abilities can lead to division, derision, hate and violence.  People, ignorant of our ignorance imagine that the problem and threat rests in those we perceive as different, rather than in our own faulty perception.

In the Buddhist sense of the word, rather than a general lack of understanding, ignorance is a specific false awareness, a false sense of self. We wrongly imagine that we are something separate from everything else. Buddhism teaches that this sense of a separate self, this ignorance, causes our suffering. It is one of the three poisons, along with anger and desire, that afflict us. It is the source of distance between ourselves and people we perceive as different from us.

In my college intro psych class we were asked to a simple psychological experiment on ourselves. The professor told us to be aware of the saliva in our mouths and then to swallow it. No problem. Then we were asked to imagine spitting that saliva into a sterile glass and drinking it. Disgusting. The spit that was part of us, became spit that was separate from us and suddenly became repulsive. Like the spit experiment demonstrates, we can have dramatically different reactions to the same thing depending on our sense of separation from it.  Setting ourselves apart from the world and those different from us leads to all the hate, intolerance and violence in the world.

People are different from each other like we are different from the rocks and trees of the planet. Unlike the rocks and trees, as people, we suffer. We suffer from our general ignorance and specific ignorance. We don’t have to be Buddhist to practice awareness of our suffering and the suffering of others and to practice compassion for ourselves and each other by identifying the source of our suffering and trying to make things better. With enough awareness we could uproot our ignorance, see the world from each other’s point of view and create peace. We are one in our desire for peace, personal, interpersonal, and world peace.


Learning to Swim

A brave and reckless parent may throw their baby into a pool to teach it to swim (please don’t try this at home). The baby would likely be scared entering the water but would instinctively hold its breath, float, and begin crawling back through the water to the safety of its parent, swimming because it is in the water and that’s how to move in the water.

If you throw an older child or an adult, who doesn’t know how to swim, into deep water (also, please don’t try this), they would not have the presence of the baby to see what happens as they fill with fear. They would never notice that brief moment where they were floating, so they wouldn’t float. They would panic and flail and drown. Water is dangerous and unforgiving that way.

Learning to swim, is learning to trust the idea that you can float. It is embracing the buoyant nature of your body and putting it to the test. Once the trust is there, in yourself and your nature, water is no longer frightening, and swimming can be fun and relaxing. Floating in the water, you are weightless.

Fear has that tendency to drag us down. Not only do we not trust in our own nature, we doubt that it is there. In all kinds of situations in life, we doubt our ability to float. We panic and flail within our life circumstances, and we forget to take that moment to recognize that we are floating. We are floating on a planet, hurtling through vast, empty space. The planet gives us air to breath, food to eat, water to drink, and people to keep us company. When we have the presence of mind to think about the great marvel of all of that, in that moment, we are floating. We can test our buoyant nature by taking a deep breath and noticing that this improbable planet is sustaining us. Then we can start crawling through the water to the safety of our parent.


Living the Li(f)e

We all share in the desire to live a good life. We don’t all want to be saints or heroines, rich and powerful, or daring adventurers. We want a basic level of happiness for ourselves, our friends and our families. The world has provided us with infinite avenues to happiness. It also provides us with an equal number of disruptors and inhibitors to that happiness. We spend our lives trying to create conditions where openings for happiness are plentiful and disruptors are few. Yet for each of us those conditions are something different. Around the world, each culture has its own particular prescriptions and descriptions for a good life. Many of the beliefs that we carry and pass on through our cultures are wrong, but we need to believe something, so we try to create a good life, on good lies.

Between cultures and individuals reality is different. What is true for one person or group is not true for another, yet we live in a shared reality. We perceive a common experience, which involves vastly different interpretations of what is real, true and important. To create a good life, we try to rely on what we believe is true. We need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat. We need love. Then we have more beliefs, some of those beliefs may be true, some may be contextually true, some may be dead wrong. As we live with our beliefs, we create ideas of what more we need for the good life, and if our lives don’t measure up to what we think a good life should be, our happiness can be compromised.

Reality is as we perceive it, and not. If we want basic happiness for ourselves, our friends and our families, we have to work with what we perceive and what we believe. Some wrong beliefs help us feel good. Some wrong beliefs are terribly destructive. It is surprisingly difficult to tell which is which. To live the good life and find a basic level of happiness for ourselves, our friends and our families, we must try to create the best lie that we can. It should be built on whatever truth we can discern, and we need each other to figure out what is true to each of us. Then we do our best to make sure everybody has enough air, water, food and love so that we can work together toward creating that good life.


Reluctant Arsonist and Compassionate Firefighter

Anger is like fire. Fire hurts if you touch it in the wrong way and the more you let it burn the more damage it does. If you suffer from anger, think of yourself as both a reluctant arsonist and a compassionate firefighter. The arsonist part of you keeps setting fires by accident. The firefighter part of you notices fires and puts them out.

Whether you get angry at some petty nonsense, or great injustice, you set a fire. To break the arson habit, to stop anger from arising, you have get good at putting out the fires. When you get good at putting out fires, eventually you will skip the step of starting them.

It is harder to put out fires when they have spread. Think of that first moment of anger as lighting a match. You can blow out a burning match or you can touch it to something to set the house on fire. The trick is to use your breath as soon as the match is struck. When you notice the first impulse of anger, breathe out all of the air in you lungs. Be careful what you do, say and think. If you indulge your anger, you set the house ablaze.

That happens. Once the house is on fire, then it takes time with focused attention and compassionate breathing to stand in the flames. Your thoughts feed the fire. Your long steady breaths protect the house by dousing it with water. Steady breathing in the face of anger brings your body back to a state of rest.

When you are angry, you experience narrow vision and can only see things from one perspective. When you become calmer, your mind opens up and you can see the problem from other perspectives. That is like bringing in help to fight the flames. When you bring in different thought perspectives, the thoughts that were feeding the fire diminish and the thoughts that extinguish the fire take over. Your steady breathing brings you back to calm as the anger passes.

The thoughts that extinguish the fire are not about the right and wrong of whatever made you angry, they are about working with anger and regaining your mind to better approach the right and wrong. They are the thoughts of the firefighter, compassionately observing the fire, isolating it, and putting it out.

The firefighter is filled with compassion. They do not blame the arsonist for starting the fire. They feel their pain as their own and use their available tools, their breath and their thoughts to stop the fire and soothe the pain.

As you learn to inhabit the firefighter you can also fight fires in other people’s anger. When you see anger anywhere, you respond with calm, compassionate breathing rather than by lighting more matches. You notice anger in others as pain and discomfort and you practice isolating and containing the anger rather than blaming the arsonist. The more time you spend inhabiting the firefighter, the better you get at it, and with enough practice, eventually, you can save the arsonist the trouble off all that fire setting.


The King and I


I had the great fortune to see the Broadway revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The show I saw featured incredible performances by Marin Mazzie as Anna Leonowens, the English missionary and royal tutor and Daniel Dae Kim as the King of Siam (now Thailand). It tells the story of a Buddhist monarch and Christian scholar in the 1860’s facing issues of western imperialism, slavery, and women’s liberation. In the play, Anna represents scientific and social enlightenment and the King represents the struggle to overcome ego and pride in order to be the best person he can be. The story is a musical based on a book, based on the memoirs of a missionary and so the historical accuracy is many degrees removed. Buddhism in 1950 when the play was written did not have the prominence in the West that it has today and it was depicted in the play more as a monotheistic religion with Buddha sitting as a Lord in Heaven to whom people prayed, who favored the good and punished the wicked, rather than an Awakened Nature to be sought and realized to ease the suffering of the world.

I was impressed with what elements of Buddhism survived the interpretation, but curious about how a devout, Buddhist king could struggle so greatly with his ego. I found that the fictional king, portrayed (with great comic effect in this production) as a polygamous womanizer, full of pride in his station was based on King Mongkut, who was a celibate monk for 27 years before assuming the throne and taking 32 wives, fathering 82 children. As a monk, Mongkut crossed social barriers of class to create a form of practice and lineage (Thammayut sect) that followed Buddha’s teaching more strictly than was widely practiced in monasteries of the time. The play tells the story of the king saving his country from British imperialism by working his way around his pride to take advice from a woman and hosting an English style dinner and ball to demonstrate that his country is not barbaric. The historical King Mongkut saved his county from British domination by demonstrating his country’s civility through his mastery of science and astronomy and with skilled diplomacy, which opened his country to free trade.

A great element of Buddhism and King Mongkut’s outlook that survived the fictional interpretation can be found in the song, A Puzzlement, where the king sings about his great uncertainty on many matters. From a Zen perspective the song beautifully represents “Don’t Know Mind” the understanding that knowledge is subjective and relative, which helps ease attachment to ideas that may interfere with seeing things as they are. He sings:

There are times I almost think
Nobody sure of what he absolutely know
Everybody find confusion
In conclusion, he concluded long ago

And it puzzle me to learn
That tho’ a man may be in doubt of what he know
Very quickly he will fight
He’ll fight to prove that what he does not know is so

This song shows the king grappling with the necessity to act in the face of great confusion while recognizing the violence and suffering that comes from those who defend wrong beliefs rather than recognize their own confusion. This knowing about not knowing is fundamental to Buddhism and acknowledging it represents the open mindedness and potential for growth of the fictional king. The historical king and former monk, was probably quite comfortable knowing how he didn’t know and that knowledge allowed him to drop ancient beliefs and recognize observable facts such as the world being round. The not knowing contained in this song represents the historical King Mongkut’s enlightenment. It is a central element of Buddhism that Rogers and Hammerstein captured despite generally overlooking the Dharma in the drama.

A cultural practice of Buddhism that was unfortunately misinterpreted at the conclusion of the play is the practice of bowing. In the play’s climactic final scene, as his father, the king, reclines on his deathbed, the Crown Prince decrees an end to the practice of bowing to the king. Although it was meant to depict cultural progress, recognizing the equality of men and women, kings and commoners, it represents bowing as a shameful act of subjugation. In Buddhism, the practice of bowing is a practice of shared humility. Bowing is an act of lowering your ego and becoming Buddha. Bowing to another person is a sign of deep respect and a recognition of their Buddha Nature. Bowing to a statue of the Buddha or to another person is a practice of Buddha bowing to Buddha. It was comforting in the production I saw that within minutes of that decree banning bowing being issued on the stage,  the cast came out for their curtain calls and humbly bowed in gratitude to all the Buddhas in the audience standing and applauding a magnificent theatrical performance.

Despite the fiction inspired by his life, the historical King Mongkut likely died with great awareness and little fear, not distracting himself by whistling a happy tune. His life bears comparison to the Dalai Lama who compassionately practices both Buddhism and scientific inquiry, not to know, but to help ease the suffering of humanity and all beings. The theatrical story has also eased the suffering of many through the years with its delightful rendering of the values of love, learning, freedom and equality with beautiful music throughout.


Life Advice for a Child: Be Good, Learn Compassion, Breathe


Judging Habit

We judge others because that is our habit. Judgement is part of thinking and acting in the world. We continually have to make choices about what to do and we rely on our judgement to make those choices. Our judgement informs our choices so we cannot live with out judgement. If we see a lion, our survival depends our our judgement that tells us we are facing a dangerous predator. We do the same with other people. We pass judgements on them about whether they are friendly or ferocious. It is natural to pass judgements on people. However, our habit takes this natural tendency and turns it back on us. We end up using our judgements to prop up our egos.

Judging others and ourselves is how we reinforce our egos by identifying ways we are the same and different and better better worse than each other. Those comparisons give us a solid identity, which is more comfortable than wondering what we are. Even if that identity makes us feel horrible about ourselves at least we are sure we exist.

How we judge others is how we judge ourselves. We create or adopt a set of values and then judge how we measure up to those values. It is an insidious habit because even passing positive judgements implies the negative judgement. As we appreciate beauty, we fear ugliness. When we appreciate intelligence we fear stupidity. If we think we are better than some people, we fear we are worse than others. There is no end to the comparisons we can make.

If we find we are better than others, we falsely prop ourselves up. If we think we are worse than others we falsely put ourselves down. Eventually, when we find ourselves suffering, our judgements have turned on us. We can’t stop the habit, because we don’t see it as a problem with the judging, we only notice the results of the judgements.

If we notice our judgement habit, we can see what we are doing, become conscious of the habit and change it. If we can stop judging others and ourselves, we free ourselves from the trap of these judgements. Even if we can’t stop judging, by being aware of the dangers of habitual judging, we learn to doubt our judgements and reduce the power they have over us.


Time for Compassion

Now is a good time to practice compassion. If you are hurting a lot or a little, you can practice compassion for yourself. If somebody you love is hurting, you can practice compassion for them. If somebody you don’t like is hurting, you can challenge yourself to practice compassion for them. If you can imagine all the suffering in the world, you can practice compassion for the world. When you practice compassion for the world, you complete the circle and practice for yourself again.

If you are suffering right now, now is a good time to practice with your suffering. If you are not suffering right now, now is a good time to practice connecting with your wider perspective, your wisdom, that part of you that can see beyond suffering. Whenever you take time to practice compassion, you build your capacity and skill for practice. If you can think of your suffering as part of the world’s suffering you gain perspective on both. If you are hurting a lot, imagine that multiplied by all the people in the world going through similar or vastly different experiences of physical, mental and emotional pain. Your experience connects you and gives you insight into all of their experiences. As you imagine all those other people feeling just as you do, you can wish for them to find peace and happiness in their lives. That wish or hope will bring a touch of peace to your life. In that way practicing compassion for others becomes a compassionate action for yourself again completing the circle.

When you imagine the world’s suffering, it can be overwhelming. When you feel your own suffering it can be overwhelming. Remembering that it is time for compassion can help, now. When it seems like there is nothing you can do, focus on being right where you are and opening yourself to compassion. Notice that you would rather not suffer. Notice that you don’t want others to suffer. That is the essence of compassion and noticing is the beginning of helping. When you practice being open to compassion and practicing compassion you will see it everywhere but also notice when it is absent which helps too. When you notice the absence of compassion, compassion appears.

The time to practice is now, because it is always now. No matter how we feel, we all benefit from small and large acts of compassion. The world and you need compassion. Practice now.