Friday, April 17, 2009

You're An Idiot Buddhist!

Someone calls you an idiot. Then you start thinking, “How can they call me an idiot? They’ve got no right to call me an idiot! How rude to call me an idiot! I’ll get them back for calling me an idiot.” And you suddenly realize that you have just let them call you an idiot another four times.

Every time you remember what they said, you allow them to call you an idiot yet again. Therein lies the problem.

If someone calls you an idiot and you immediately let it go, then it doesn’t bother you. There is the solution.

Why allow other people to control your inner happiness?

(Ajahn Brahm, ‘Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?’ p.226)

Ajahn Brahmavamso – ‘Brahm’ for short – has a lovely down-to-earth way of presenting the Dharma. The above is typical of his method of teaching, with a simple, direct story, organized into a neat framework. (Note how, as an ex-scientist, he first illustrates the problem, clinging to an insult, and then shows us the solution, letting go of it. And what’s the result of this simple formula? We retain our inner happiness.)

How to put the above into practice may not be quite so simple, however. If insulted, the natural human response is not to say, “Oh well, never mind,” and immediately forget all about it. That’s not the way most minds work, anyway. Elsewhere in his books and collected talks, Ajahn Brahm discusses various ways that we can counter this normal reaction to other’s criticisms of us. Indeed, Buddhism at large is full of techniques to assist in the letting go of such negative feelings. Let’s explore some here.

Okay, so your neighbor has called you an idiot, or a work colleague said that you’re really useless – what are you going to do? Slug them? Gush out a torrent of abuse? Nah – you’re Buddhist for heathen’s sake! So, what’s your first option, from the Buddhist perspective? You could try some metta-bhavana (goodwill meditation), generating positive, warm feelings towards them. Here’s a brief description of how to cultivate a bit of ‘loving-kindness’ as it’s called:

This can be done sitting in meditation position, or just in a comfy chair. Picture a cuddly, helpless puppy or kitten, or some similar creature that evokes sympathy in you. Really focus your attention on the little being, maybe it’s hungry or in pain, perhaps it’s missing its mother, with tears rolling down its cute face. Aaahhh! When feelings of goodwill have built up towards your small companion, turn your attention to those emotions themselves. Really dive into that metta/goodwill. Swim in it, and feel it fill your mind. Next, pick someone that you respect, perhaps a spiritual teacher such as…Ajahn Brahm! Generate goodwill towards this person, really wishing them all the best. Spend a few minutes doing this. Now, think of a friend, sending loving-kindness in their direction, taking the time to really feel positive emotions for them. Following on from this, do the same with someone you know a bit, like the guy who drives the bus, or the women that lives opposite. Wish them only good things, sending positive feelings to them, just as you did previously. Next, pick the person that called you something horrible. Picture their face, their humanity. Think of them as a vulnerable and imperfect being, just like that helpless little dog or cat, like Ajahn Brahm, the good friend, and the vague acquaintance. This person that insulted you is a suffering being just like any other. Maybe their bad attitude is due to their own particular problems and is something that they really can’t help right now. Whatever the reason for their rudeness, they’re deserving of your goodwill, and your sympathy. Give them some now, as you reflect on them.

Now, did that hurt? It certainly won’t have hurt the person that insulted you, and it won’t have done you any harm in the long run, either. Perhaps next time you meet them, this feeling of metta will rise in you again, and, if it’s strong enough, lighting up your face, that person might just pay you a compliment rather than call you an idiot!

The above cultivation of goodwill is really a long term answer to dealing with negative reactions to other people’s faults and insults. If you haven’t had the time for it, or someone else calls you dumb, you’re stuck! (Not unless you’ve become so good at meta-production that you can generate such emotions on demand, or are in a constant state of metta-production.) So, with that in mind, here’s an alternative strategy to dealing with a potential hate figure:

Really observe them. Notice the little things about them: the shape of their fingers, the color of their skin, their hair, and their eyes. See the wrinkles – or lack of – lining their face, the shape of their torso. What are their shoes like, and do their clothes fit nicely, or are they too loose or tight? Listen to that voice as it insinuates you’re the lowest of the low: is it a deep, resonate sound, or is it lighter in tone, perhaps even wavering in a kind of vulnerable way? Using acute observation skills this way – a form of mindfulness – can take your focus away from what they’re saying to who they are, what they’re like. It can also lead to becoming more aware of the person’s humanity, and their imperfect state that produces such impolite words. Awareness is a liberating force; it’s the heart of the Buddha Way. Becoming aware of the whole person in front of you can move your focus away from the bad things they’re doing or saying, and perhaps lead you to see the troubled being that produces negative speech.

Another technique that helps not clinging to the nasty things people sometimes throw at you is more radical than the previous two examples. Put simply, it is to see that the other person is you, that there’s nothing separating the two of you, and that whatever insults they’re coming up with are directed as much at themselves as they are you. This might seem somewhat odd at first, but give it a try: its results can be startling effective:

Looking at the person opposite you, really look – are they opposite you, or do they (and ‘you’ as an ego) exist in the awareness that’s at the center of your being? This awareness is impersonal, it’s neither belongs to you nor to anyone else, and it’s the same awareness in us all. The details that occur in it can differ immensely, but if they are seen in the context of this knowing, they are revealed to be interconnected processes arising in this spacious awareness. Your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations all exist as an expression of this naked heart, as does everything and everyone else that you are aware of. Even the harsh words that can occur in this emptiness-full-of-the-world are seen as the way things are right now, neither good or bad in themselves, just phenomena arising and falling away in the knowing. Despite the detachment that can come out of this kind of observation, there’s a touching connectedness to everything experienced. So, although you may discover a certain detached attitude to your egotistical self and all that happens to it, a sense of the underlying unity of all separate things is also known. You are liberated from the self-identity that causes the clinging to insults that come may your way.

Lastly, you might want to try this one. It involves something called compassion:

The person with you has just told you that you’re an idiot. Rather than responding to these unfriendly words, reflect on the suffering state of the person before you. And, be assured that they are suffering. For, unless they’re enlightened, that is, they’ve let go of the causes of suffering, they do experience an underlying unsatisfactory quality to existence, even if they’re not conscious of the fact. And the offending words that spew forth from their lips are the direct result of their suffering state. They are subject to the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal conditions of the universe that we all are. Identifying with the person that they think themselves to be, they react against the world in the only way that they know how, which at the present time takes the shape of distasteful diction. They are truly a pitiable being, and feeling compassion for them will result in immediate forgiveness for anything done that wasn’t nice. The compassionate one simply wants to help others escape their self-made, self-perpetuating prisons. Seeing them in this light, it’s hard to hang on to the stuff that they said to you, since you are more concerned with their well being than what they say.

There you have it: four ways to counter that natural, but ultimately unwise and uncompassionate, response to being called an idiot that results in suffering. They all involve a certain level of mindfulness, meditation, and time. Cultivate them at home, when the going’s good, and then, when next someone implies that you’re the dumbest of the dumb, you can respond with wisdom, goodwill, and compassion. What a wonderful way to put Ajahn Brahm’s advice into practice.


Jeremy said...

Awesome! Thank you for posting this! I think i really needed to hear this. Bloggers rock!

JD said...

Interesting you should post this Gary. I listened to one of Ajahn Brahms loving Kindness vassa talks just yesterday and he did mention a kitten as a means to get started.

Since I am a huge fan of cats and have a kitten I decided to take his advice and send loving kindness to her while at work. The results were immediate for me because I genuinely wish good things for this kitten of mine.

Ajahn Brahm is quite a skillful teacher of meditation and is a joy to listen to. I get the impression he really knows what he is talking about from firsthand experience. His confidence comes through in his words.

Thanks for the post Gary. Be well.

G said...

First of all, an apology for the belated response to your comments, Zazen Lover & Justin. My ISP has had problems this weekend & I couldn't access several sites, including Blogger; so, if I go quiet again in the future, it may well be due to a similar problem.

Zazen Lover, I'm glad the post had something relevant for you. Buddhism rocks!

Justin, Ajahn Brahm is indeed a great orator for Buddhism; we are fortunate to have him.

Am off to Laos today, so may not be able to reply to anyone's comments for a few days again. :-)

Be well in the Dharma, everyone.

ZenDotStudio said...

great post, so many wonderful practical ideas for training, showing us how to work with what comes to us and how not to be reactive idiots!

G said...

Zen Dot Studio, working with what comes to us is where theory becomes practice, isn't it? This is when there's real work to be done, living with the way-things-are rather than the way we would like them to be.

Nice to read your words,

JD said...

What's the sate of Buddhism in Laos Gary? I heard the communists have control over the sangha, is that true? Politics of any kind should remain out of the sangha.

G said...

As I understand it, all monks are required to study Buddhism in the light of communist teachings, so that the two do not contradict one another. This is a clever way for the authorities to allow the people to retain their traditional beliefs & practices whilst making sure that Buddhism does not question anything that the communist state does in Laos.

Previously, Laotian Buddhism was much the same as Thai Buddhism, even having the same two main sects (called Mahanikai & Thammayut in the local languages). This were merged into a single entity under government control after the communist revolution back in the Seventies. From personal observations, it appears that there are many, many monks engaged in Laotian society, but, like neighboring Thailand, many of those may well be somewhat lax in their practice of the Buddhadharma.

Compared to some other places in the world, however, the Laotian Sangha does appear less directly involved in politics. Subsequently, despite the official monitoring of the Sangha, they may actually have more freedom than their counterparts in places like Tibet & Burma. Similarly, when contrasted with some other nations ruled by dictatorships, the streets of Laos do seem content & happy places, again rather like Thailand.

Be well in 'the Land of the Free,' Justin.

Anonymous said...

Very good post, but I have been in an abusive relationship where someone often called me names such as idiot and worse. I used to get hurt then angry, and then finally moved myself to not responding at all or sending out loving thoughts and compassion, but the person's behavior did not change. I finally came to the place where I would say "I love you, (the person's name)" and feel and mean it when he name called.

It, however, actually seemed to just become a habit for that person to use verbal abuse towards me on a daily basis. That he perceived of me as weak perhaps. Also, it seemed that other people lost respect for me because I put up with it.

G said...

Yes, 'Anonymous', sometimes walking away can be the answer, too. This sounds like an abusive relationship, in which case outside intervention or even a suspension of the friendship would be in order. Important lessons were learned in this situation, by the sounds of things. You wrote about it in the past tense - how was it resolved?

Anonymous said...

An method based on no-self and impermanence works well for me at times:

Focus on the feeling itself, not the external object of the feeling.

View the feeling as a feeling, not me or mine.

Examine the feeling (to death).

Thanks for presenting a loving kindness solution. LK and generosity are two areas of practice I'm working on improving.

G said...

To view feelings as feelings is part of the satipatthana practices as presented in the Pali Tripitaka, isn't it, 'Anonymous'. This is another excellent way to understand & transcend the emotions that constantly arise in our lives. Thanks for the input.

Anonymous said...

Wow...this really does make perfect sense but I find a lot of the time, if someone insults me - my response is almost 'knee jerk' and before I know where I am, I've reacted badly. I then reflect on it later and wish I had handled it differently - as suggested here in this article - but it seems I would have to undergo some serious personality changes before that could happen. Do you think it is possible for people to fundamentally change to this extent or is it that you have to just supress your natural feelings the whole time...? This is where I get confused with a lot of what Buddhism teaches. Sorry if I sound ignorant - but I really do struggle with this stuff but am genuinely interested to read about it as I do think the teachings are a good thing to aspire to.

G said...

Anonymous - absolutely we can change. We change all the time; are you exactly the same person you were at the age of ten or twenty? Moreover, if we work with our feelings and reactions, we can consciously change the way we interact with the world. Ask any Buddhist that's been practicing meditation or metta-bhavana for many years and they'll tell you the same.

It's not fundamentally about the suppression of negative emotions, for they will surface en masse later on. And such explosions of suppressed emotions can be...lethal!! In the short term, not acting on negative emotions is at least a beginning, but over time we need to do something more radical with them. This is where meditation and mindfulness and goodwill (metta) development come in. Through such practices, we can transform negativity to something less harmful to ourselves and others.