Introduction to "Integrating the Various Aspects of One's Life"
Moscow, Russia, October 2012
Session One: Theory
This evening and tomorrow I’ve been asked to speak about a particular type of practice that I developed called “Integrating the Various Aspects of Our Life.” This fits into a general picture of what His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes to present. He always speaks about how Buddhism has Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist religion:
- Buddhist psychology – or science, I should say – speaks about the psychological aspects, about how the mind works. It also talks about cosmology and many topics that are of interest to various scientists.
- Buddhist philosophy has a very highly developed system of logic and a very deep analysis of reality – of cause and effect, how the world works.
- Buddhist religion is talking about various ways to develop ourselves within the context of past and future lives, karma, and involves rituals, prayers, etc.
The Dalai Lama always says that in the fields of Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy, Buddhism has a great deal to offer to the world that can be of benefit to them totally separate from Buddhist religion. And so this system that I would like to present this evening falls into that category – a little bit of a mixture of Buddhist science and philosophy. As such, it is a system that can be used in a therapeutic context, either in groups or individually, but I don’t think that it needs to be restricted to people who are having emotional difficulties. I think it can be of help to everyone.
In psychology we speak about a healthy ego and an inflated ego, and I think that we would all agree that having a healthy ego is very important for being able to deal with the difficulties and realities of everyday life. With a healthy ego, we have a positive view of ourselves, we have a sense of self-confidence, and we are able to deal with whatever might come up in life; whereas with an inflated ego or an unhealthy ego, we have difficulties because our sense of self is not based on a realistic view. With an inflated ego, we think that we are more important than everyone else, that we are always right, we should always get our own way, and so on, and that of course brings conflict with others. But there are many unhealthy attitudes that we can have about ourselves that perhaps don’t fall in the category of an inflated ego, such as having a very negative self-image, and that also can cause us tremendous problems in dealing with life. It’s not a healthy ego.
Buddhism of course speaks a great deal about the self. We don’t quite use the word ego because that – I don’t know about in Russian, but in English that’s a term that is defined quite specifically by different philosophical and psychological systems, so best not to use it. We speak in Buddhism about the conventional self, or the conventional me, and the false me. When we have a healthy ego in the Buddhist sense, then we are thinking of ourselves in terms of what Buddhism would call the conventional me. When we have an inflated ego or low self-esteem, then we’re thinking in terms of a false me.
So how do we understand the self in Buddhism? We speak about how in our daily life we need to deconstruct each moment of our experience. So each moment of our experience is made up of many components:
- Usually we have some sort of sensory experience that’s happening. We’re seeing things, we’re hearing things, we’re feeling physical sensations (hot, cold, comfort, discomfort, etc.). All of that’s going on.
- We have basic mental factors that are always there, to some degree, in terms of paying attention, concentration, interest, these sorts of things, tiredness and being awake.
- And we have various emotions that are accompanying each moment. They can be positive emotions, like love, patience, compassion. They could be negative emotions, like anger, greed, jealousy, and so on.
- We also are always feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness. It might not be very strong, but that’s always there.
- And for most of us there’s a certain compulsiveness that is there as well, which leads us to act or speak in a certain way. Sometimes we act or speak in a very conscious way that we feel is under control, but even that is conditioned by our habits, our upbringing, our environment, and so on.
All these things are changing all the time at a different rate, and this is what’s happening in terms of our own subjective experience moment to moment to moment. And there’s a whole continuum of this that has been occurring from the time that we were born continuing until we die.
So how would we refer to this? How do we experience it? We experience it in terms of me. So what we say is that we label me in terms of this, this ever-changing basis. But it’s very interesting when we analyze this me. Is there anything about it that is always the same? If you think about it, if you look at yourself in terms of a picture of yourself when you were a baby and you say “That’s me,” and then you look at another picture when you were a teenager (“That’s me also”), and then you look at a picture of yourself when you are grown up and say “That’s me too” – well, what is there in common in terms of this me? What is it that you’re recognizing? So there’s nothing solid about that me that we’re identifying with each of these pictures. Nevertheless it’s me – it’s not you; it’s not somebody else. So, like that, that me can be labeled on each moment of the experience of this big long continuity, and it can be labeled on the whole thing.
Now, if we keep that in a very fluid type of way – that each moment “Now I’m doing this. Now I’m doing that. Now I’m experiencing this, experiencing that” – then there’s no big problem. Right? That’s what we would call the conventional me. It’s on this basis that we can have a healthy sense of self. But the problem is when we have a fixed idea of a solid me and we identify with one picture in this long series of experiences over a lifetime. It’s like in a sense we freeze the movie of a lifetime and just identify with one frame or even just one part of a frame, and of course at different times the frame that we identify with can be different. That happens of course.
In ordinary language we would say that we are fixing ourselves into a certain identity of who it is we think we are. It could be “I am a young person with a strong, attractive body,” and then of course that might not fit with what we’re experiencing, so there’s a lot of dissatisfaction. You look at yourself in the mirror or you weigh yourself, and “That’s not me. My self-image is that I can’t possibly weigh that much.” Or we could identify with our intelligence, we could identify with our money, we could identify with our occupation – there are many things that we could identify with.
I think one of the best examples of this is: When we are in a relationship with someone, we base our identity as being a member of a couple. That’s one scene in the movie of our life. But then that relationship ends – the person breaks up with us – and then we suffer tremendously. Why do we suffer tremendously? Because we still have the identity of being a member of a couple, but we aren’t. And the only way to really get over that is when you have more and more experiences after breaking up that then you can identify with and say “Now this is who I am.” And until we have a certain amount of experience post-relationship that we can think of in terms of me and my life, we’re still going to be stuck on thinking of ourselves in terms of being a member of a couple.
What is necessary for a healthy ego or a healthy sense of me is to be able to work with – or what we would call “designate” – me in terms of what’s happening now and not get stuck in the past or stuck in some vision of the future. Okay, so that’s a general principle. It has to do with… the technical terms are the “self” and “a basis for designating or labeling me.” That basis is the moments of our experience.
Now, if we look over the whole continuum of our lifetime, we have experienced and been influenced by everything that has occurred in that continuum, whether we remember it or not. And so we have been influenced by all the various members of our family, our friends, our relatives. We have been influenced by our schooling – all the teachers, all the various things that we learned. We’ve been influenced by all the jobs that we’ve had. We’ve been influenced by all the media and entertainment that we’ve seen. And we’ve been influenced by all the different places that we’ve lived in and all the different places that we’ve traveled to. So our life – everybody’s life – is filled with a tremendous amount of experience and a tremendous amount of influences, and all of those influences affect what we are feeling now, what we think now, how we behave now, how we speak. All of that exerts an influence – maybe not all of it every moment, but there is this whole vast expanse of experiences that comes together and shapes the way that we are.
Now, one of the main sources of problems is when, first of all, we’re not aware of all these influences that affect how we think and speak and behave, or there are the ones that we are aware of that we identify strongly with to the exclusion of other factors. There are unconscious influences happening that we don’t acknowledge, or we are in active denial of certain influences.
So this whole process that I want to introduce here of integrating the various aspects of our life deals with a holistic approach to life. What we try to do is to be aware of all these influences that we’ve had and try to integrate them into a holistic picture. That way, as more and more experiences happen in life, that basis on which we call me in terms of our experience will continue to grow. So although all that’s happening is one moment at a time – so we are labeling me on that moment – nevertheless, within that moment the influence from our whole life is going to be present.
Now, there are some therapies that I have become aware of in which one tries to identify the negative aspects, the negative influences, that we have had from, let’s say, our parents. You make a whole list of what are the habits and things that I do that are like my mother and what are the ones that are like my father, these sort of things, to try to become aware of it. And usually the focus is on the negative things. Or they could be just neutral things, like I like to keep my house neat or I like to throw things away or I like to keep things. Right? I like to eat at a certain time. These are neutral things, aren’t they?
But the negative things or the neutral things are only part of the picture. What is very important is also to become aware of the positive things that we have learned or been influenced by from our parents – and not to restrict this just to our parents, but as I was saying, since we’ve been influenced by so many other things, there are similar types of lists in terms of our brothers and sisters, other relatives, friends, school, occupation, etc.
There is a natural tendency of people to want to be loyal – loyal to their family, loyal to their occupation, loyal to their gender, loyal to so many different things. And often what happens is that unconsciously we are loyal to negative aspects. So if our parents are always telling us we’re no good, then sure enough we act in a terrible way to be accepted, in a sense – that yes, we are no good. But this is not very helpful, to be loyal to negative aspects, is it? It’s important of course not to deny these influences, but it doesn’t help to complain about it. It doesn’t help to put the blame on parents or school or society, and so on, for these things that I have, in a sense, inherited from them, these negative things. But of course it needs to be acknowledged. “Okay, I have had this negative influence.”
So we acknowledge it, understand it. Okay, but then what? And the point is to not dwell on it. “Okay, I have been influenced by these negative aspects, but that’s not something that I want to perpetuate and continue. Instead I would like to emphasize the positive aspects that I have inherited.” And if we do that, then we have a very positive attitude, don’t we, one of gratitude rather than blame – “You were so horrible when you raised me. You’re a terrible mother and father” – we’re grateful for the things that we learned from them; we appreciate it. If we think our parents were no good, well, what do no-good parents give birth to? They give birth to no-good children. That’s what we think. That may be unconscious, but that’s what we think. And so I’m no good as well: “My parents were no good. I’m no good.” So there tends to be quite low self-confidence.
Now, of course there are exceptions of those who can rise above this, but I’m speaking about what often happens. Whereas if you think of the positive things that we have inherited from our parents, our friends, our school, our society, and so on, it give us a much more positive view of ourselves, which then gives us a sense of self-confidence. And with that sense of self-confidence, as long as we don’t inflate that me into “I’m so wonderful,” like that, as long as we keep a realistic view of ourselves, then this is a healthy ego, a healthy sense of self.
This sense of respect for ourselves, self-confidence, and so on, is a very important factor. We can learn to develop that sense by integrating the various aspects of our life, particularly the positive ones. A way to train to do this is to look at various factors, various spheres, that have influenced us over our life:
- We look at our family and friends, and each of the individual members of our family and our friends, from childhood up to the present.
- Then we can also look at our native country, our native region of it that we belong to, the culture that we grew up in. And if we grew up in a religion or no religion, that.
- And then we can look at the major fields of study that we have learned in our life and the sports we have played (for many people this has played a large role in their lives).
- Then our teachers, those that we have learned something significant from in our lives, whether spiritual or nonspiritual.
- Then the various partners that we’ve been in relationships with. And if we’re married, our children (or maybe you’re not married and have children).
- And as I said before, relatives, family that we grew up in, and now the present family, but then also the close friends that we’ve had, especially those that have loved us.
- There can also be significant incidents that have happened in your life. Maybe you had an accident. Maybe you had a serious illness. These also have left a big imprint on the way that you deal with life.
- And the different jobs we’ve held, the different offices that we’ve worked in, or people we’ve worked with, and the economic situation that we’ve had (sometimes it was good, sometimes it was difficult).
So there’s a whole long list of things, if we really think about it, that have made up our experience during our lifetime and that have influenced the way that we are now, the way that we deal with things now.
Then we take each of them one at a time, and we think of the negative things that have been influenced by them. We don’t want to deny that. But then we decide that “There’s no point complaining about that. It’s not going to help me in any way.” So then we look at the positive things that we’ve gained, and we view them with the attitude that “These are things that are important and can be very helpful to me in life, so these are the things that I would like to be loyal to and to stress in my behavior and not just unconsciously be loyal to the negative aspects.”
We can do this process within the context of a larger type of training, which is basically: First, when we work on a session like this or hold a session like this, to quiet down. It’s very important to quiet our minds so that we can think about these things. And for that we need to train ourselves with a technique that is, to put in simple words, called “letting go” – letting go of compulsive thoughts, compulsive feelings, particularly negative ones. Because when we bring up the negative things that have influenced us from others, then it’s very easy to get stuck with negative thoughts about that – “That was so terrible,” “This person was so terrible. They hurt me so much” – and then this internal dialogue has a very compelling force to it. So it is necessary – I mean eventually, of course – to stop that dialogue, that internal dialogue, but at least to have temporary quiet from that in order to be able to then focus on the positive things. If you get stuck on compulsive thinking of how horrible it was from these negative things, you’ll never be able to go on to the positive ones.
There are many methods that are suggested from Buddhist training. But as I said, the easiest one is called “letting go.” And for that you just imagine… I mean, the way that I train people for this is to use your hand. You have your hand in a fist, and then you open it up and let go. Then try to do that with your mind – see that your mind is like this fist (it’s holding tightly to this compulsive thought or this compulsive emotion), and try to relax and let it go. Now, of course that disturbing thought or feeling might come back immediately, so you have to repeat this.
There are other methods, a little bit more difficult to apply, which is to view your mind – and by mind we mean the whole sphere of our thoughts and emotions – view that like a big ocean, and these negative thoughts are like waves on the surface of the ocean. But we are the whole ocean, and those waves are not disturbing the depths of the ocean. We don’t want to be like a boat that’s on the surface of the ocean being tossed by the waves. And it’s not like being a submarine that goes down into the depths to avoid the waves, but the image is to be the whole ocean, and the whole ocean is not disturbed by this little thing on the surface. Thinking like that, you can quiet down.
So anyway, this is the context that I think is quite important for starting any type of session and also to be able to utilize when we think of the negative things that we have inherited, and then you let go.
“I’m going to try to be aware of these negative influences that I’ve had but not be under their control” – basically that’s the idea – “because I see and I understand that if I’m under the control of these negative influences, it just will make me unhappy.”
The next thought that we need to have is that “I want to be happy. Everybody wants to be happy. Nobody wants to be unhappy. And I have feelings, I have emotions, like everybody else. And just as the way that other people treat me affects how I feel, the way that I treat myself affects how I feel. So why be self-destructive? It’s not that I’m bad and I have to punish myself. This is silly. Who suffers from that other than myself? And so if I want to be happy, then I need to act in a positive way that will bring about happiness.”
And so we think of the positive things that we have gained from whoever is the topic of our particular session – let’s say our mother or our father or whoever – and think of that with great appreciation and gratitude. This could be in terms of how that person directly treated us – our parents took care of us or showed us how to do things or taught us how to read, or whatever it was. And try to identify not just these good qualities in the other, but also whether we have these in ourselves. What have I gained from them? And is there more that I could gain? Because also there may have been many facets about our parents, for example, that didn’t directly impinge on their way of treating us as children – for instance, the way that our parents were with their friends or the way that they were in their profession. But they were human beings. They had a whole life, not just the part of their life that was involved with interacting with me. What were the aspects of the entirety of their life that gave a good influence on me? So we have appreciation; we have respect toward these good qualities. And it needs to be realistic – I mean, they weren’t saints, probably, most of our parents or friends – based on reality of who they were. So have a realistic attitude of them.
As we do this process, it can be helpful to have a picture of the person; or just think of them, imagine them. And then we adopt a Buddhist practice into this of visualization: you could imagine some yellow light emanates from them and comes into us and fills us with inspiration to develop these good qualities further. A visualization helps to make it more easy to develop as a state of mind. If you want to go further with this, you can also imagine then that yellow light emanates from you and inspires others to have these good qualities as well – your children, your colleagues, you friends, or the whole world if you really have a big scope. Because especially if we have children, we certainly don’t want to pass onto them negative things that influenced us from our parents or our past. We’d like to pass onto them positive things. So feel these good qualities go out to them as well.
When we have gone through this process with each of these categories of influences – the family that we grew up with, our education, our present family and friends and occupation, all these things, our country, our religion, etc. – then what you want to do is to integrate them all together in a holistic view. So what you do is you imagine now two of these, your mother and your father. After doing each of them individually, you imagine the combination of that comes into you, and you try to feel a holistic feeling of the positive influence from both of them together.
Work through your life like this – your brothers and sisters that you grew up with, your friends (as in childhood friends), your schooling, everything as your life evolved. What positive things did we gain from learning mathematics in school? I mean, was there anything positive about that? “I might not use it in my present occupation, but is there a way of thinking that perhaps has helped me in life?” In other words, what we try to cultivate is to get rid of a feeling that anything in our life has been wasted, that it was a waste of time. Nothing was a waste of time. There was always something that we could have benefited from, that we did benefit from. So even the most difficult happenings in our life, we learn some lesson from them. We grew, we got through it, and it gave us more strength to be able to deal with other difficulties that came later in life. So that’s a positive thing we learned.
The aim of this training, then, is to have a holistic view of ourselves and to then, as I was saying in the beginning, think of labeling me in terms of that whole thing. We want to have as broad a basis for thinking in terms of me as is possible. And on that basis, although there are negative things that have influenced me, those aren’t the ones that I want to emphasize, just the positive ones.
We can do this in a very formal way. So you make a list:
- Now I’m going to think in terms of what I inherited from my mother or what I learned from my father.
- Or the influence of growing up – for those of you who are old enough – in the Soviet Union. What was the influence of that on my life?
- What is the influence of the present economic situation?
All these things you specify. And if it helps you to be a little bit more organized, you make a list, like homework. This is part of the whole process of what in simple language is called “getting to know yourself.” Well, really know yourself, and then you are able to distinguish between what’s positive, what’s negative. What do I want to emphasize? What do I want to diminish? So a holistic view.
Well, maybe that’s enough of an introduction for this evening. Tomorrow we can try some of these exercises. But perhaps you have some questions about the general theory. And I must totally confess I’m not a clinical psychologist. I don’t deal with others in that type of therapeutic setting, but I think that this type of system could be beneficially used in that type of setting.
Any questions or comments?
Participant: As one of the axioms, you stated that each being wants to attain happiness, and then you further developed all of your logic based on that. Where do you take this axiom from?
Alex: This axiom that “everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy” is a basic axiom within the Buddhist teachings. But if you think about it, it does make a certain amount of sense. The definition of happiness in the Buddhist texts is “that feeling which, when it happens, you don’t want to be parted from it; you want it to continue.” And unhappiness is “that feeling that, when you experience it, you want it to end; you want to be parted from it.” So the whole survival instinct – the instinct to continue, preservation of the species, self-preservation – is based on that. You want to continue. What do you want to continue? You want to continue to be happy. The fact that you want to continue is a demonstration that what you want is happiness, because happiness is to continue. So this is very much the whole direction of growth, for example. You see that in plants – you see that in everything – to continue, to grow. So it’s taken as a basic axiom from biology.
It’s interesting. You might want to punish yourself and make yourself unhappy. So you might stick your hand into fire because you want to punish yourself and make yourself unhappy, but the instinct is to take your hand out, and you really have to fight to overcome that instinct – or fight the instinct in order to keep your head under water to drown yourself.
Participant: Do I get it right that you perceive these methods of integrating one’s life as one of the stages of working on oneself, or can they be used in critical life situations?
Alex: I think it can be used in both. This is the general way in which we train in Buddhism, as perhaps you know. We train in controlled situations to deal with situations. That’s called meditation. But then we want to apply it in critical situations in life.
For instance, if some difficult situation comes up and we start to just identify and label the me on that and nothing else – and so now we get into this “Poor me!” and we feel depressed – at that time, if we’ve trained like this, then we think “Well, but there’s this whole sphere of my entire life, this whole continuum of my entire life. This is just one particular episode that has happened.” So if we think in terms of the entire sphere of our life, then this one episode isn’t so big. We don’t inflate it. We realize that sometimes things go well, sometimes things go not so well. Nothing special about that. There’s nothing special about any particular event when it’s not going well and when it is going well. So we don’t inflate it. We don’t take the picture of that and then identify just with this one thing.
This is very helpful not only in terms of ourselves, but in terms of others. We tend to think that if we have a close friend or a lover or a family member, “I’m the only one in their life, and so they should always be available for me. They should always be fresh when they come and when we interact,” and we lose sight of the fact that they have other friends as well and they have other things that are happening to them in their life, not just me. So when they don’t call us, we don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that they don’t love us, because we’re so self-centered, but maybe they’re busy with somebody else because something else is going on in their life. So we need to expand the basis of labeling – to use the Buddhist terminology – of not only ourselves but of others, not just limit it to one little thing and freeze it on that panel.
Participant: The question is in terms of the self. Is there some sort of core that remains stable throughout our entire life, or is the self something that is changing from moment to moment?
Alex: There is, from the Buddhist point of view, nothing solid and findable that endures going from moment to moment, like a piece of luggage moving on a conveyor belt through time. Nevertheless there’s individuality and continuity. But if you ask “What makes me me and not you?” it’s very difficult to find anything there inside that makes me me. All the cells of our body have changed over our lifetime. Our thoughts and emotions certainly have changed throughout our lifetime. What we’ve learned and our knowledge changes throughout our lifetime. Even the DNA – well, it’s made up of molecules, and molecules are made up of atoms, and everything in that is moving and changing, and what is there? But there’s continuity.
The analogy that I usually use is a movie. A movie – Star Wars – is not just one moment. There’s many, many moments. We’re not talking about the plastic film or the digital thing; we’re talking about what you actually see. It’s changing from moment to moment. There’s a plot, so there’s some continuity, but there’s nothing in each moment of what you see that stamps and says this is a moment of Star Wars. But each moment you could say, “I’m watching Star Wars. I’m not watching another movie.” But what is Star Wars? It’s not the title “Star Wars” – that’s just the title – but the title refers to this movie, which is happening moment to moment to moment. So, like that, there’s nothing findable and solid in each moment that’s making it Star Wars. But it has individuality and continuity; and if we want to refer to it, we would refer to it as Star Wars. It’s like that.
Participant: But Star Wars has a beginning.
Alex: Star Wars has a beginning and an end. But this is just an analogy. This is not precise. Also we’re talking just within the sphere of Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy – what I would normally call “Dharma-lite” – we’re not talking about past and future lives. But if you want to expand, then of course we could think in terms of past-life influences. As in my own case: absolutely no interest or information or anything coming from my family as a child, yet instinctively I was very interested in Buddhism and Asian culture. Where’s that coming from? So, that you can think of as “There’s no other explanation except a past-life influence.” You can bring in that as well if you want to do it in a more expanded Buddhist way. You can bring in astrology as well if you like, the difficult aspects in my horoscope and the harmonious aspects. Bring that in – why not? – as part of the picture.
Participant: In the beginning, you mentioned the concept of self and the concept of the basis for the designation of self. So when I’m working with events of my past life or with what’s happened to me in the past – for example, influences on my father or the influences upon myself – and I’m contemplating the negative and positive aspects of those influencing factors, do I have to take into consideration the basis for the designation of self that existed when I was a child (because at that time, I had a different picture of myself as compared to what I have now)? So which is more important, to contemplate the basis for the designation of self that I have now or to include the basis that I had at that time when I was a child influenced by someone?
Alex: The point is not to identify only with the basis for designation of one particular phase of your life but with the whole thing. Just as the movie Star Wars is the whole movie Star Wars, so we are the whole thing. When I was a baby, I didn’t know how to read or write. Now I know how to read and write. So we’re not identifying with not knowing how to read or write anymore. But the holistic view of that is that I learned and I am able to learn something. I learned how to read and write. And maybe we learned to speak very early, maybe we learned to speak quite late – that also is a certain pattern that is there throughout the lifetime. We can identify patterns, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be a slave to the patterns, especially when these are negative patterns.
Participant: We will try.
Alex: We will try. Good.
So then next time – tomorrow – we will try some of these exercises. And if you have further questions then, we can deal with them as well.
But I think that it’s very helpful for those of us who are involved with Buddhist practice – Buddhism as a religion, if we use that three-fold division – not to look down on these aspects of Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has started several institutes (there’s one in Austria, for example) that are devoted specifically to training people with the Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy, not the religion. And just as topics from this area can help with therapy, psychotherapy, they can also help, for example, with law. His Holiness was saying that, for instance, the system of debate and logic can be very helpful for lawyers. There are many aspects of Buddhist logic, but just the way that you analyze things in a logical way can then be very, very helpful in so many different situations outside of any sort of spiritual training. So there are many things from Buddhism that non-Buddhists can benefit from and, as His Holiness says, many things from outside the Buddhist sphere that Buddhism can learn from. So he’s introduced the study of science into the monasteries, and there have been efforts to learn from the Christian monasteries their social service that monks and nuns are involved with in terms of having schools or orphanages, these types of things. So, like that, we can all learn from each other.
Thank you very much.
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