Thursday, April 05, 2007

DAily Dharma: The Ground of Practice

Today's Daily Dharma from Tricycle features wisdom from Pema Chodron, one of my favorite teachers.

The Ground of Practice

When people start to mediate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, the often think that somehow they're going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It's a bit like saying, "If I jog, I'll be a much better person." "If I could only get a nicer house, I'd be a better person." If I could meditate and calm down, I'd be a better person."... But loving-kindness--maitri--toward ourselves doesn't mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That's the ground, that's what we study, that's what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest.

~ Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness

The lesson in this quote is one of the most profound things I have ever learned in my Buddhist studies. I am a perfectionist, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to do everything as perfectly as possible. So naturally, when I began a serious Buddhist practice, I wanted to be perfect -- I wanted to always be kind and compassionate, to always be honest, and so on.

But damn -- I am a flawed human being. I am not perfect. And putting all that pressure on myself was just plain crazy-making. I was trying, without really being aware of it, to discard all the things I didn't like about myself through my practice. But as Chodron points out, that isn't the point of practice, of maitri.

When I read this passage in her very fine book, a little light went on in my head. At about the same time, my therapist was asking me annoying questions, such as, "Isn't it exhausting having to be perfect all the time?" Or, "So, if you reject all the things about yourself you do not like, who will be left?"

She used to really piss me off.

But she was right. We can't just surgically remove our faults or our shadows. We can befriend them however, and learn whatever lessons they might have to teach us. I believe that human beings are inherently good and that most of our negative qualities and behaviors are the result of self-protection on the part of our psyches, wounds we have endured, or faulty teaching from family and peers.

But if we can learn about why we adopted those qualities we so dislike, we can go a long way toward healing the wounds. And it takes an attitude of loving-kindness and acceptance to do this. We have to befriend ourselves and not treat the parts of us we dislike as the enemy.

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