Training Our Attitudes in Daily Life: Nothing Special
Kiev, Ukraine, November 2012
Session Two: Addiction to Social Networks and Text Messaging
We’re continuing our discussion of how to train and improve our attitudes in daily life. This is a tradition that is very widespread in Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, and there are many texts that deal with the topic in great detail, and you can find quite a bit about that, lectures and translations and stuff, on my website. So in our seminar this weekend, I’m not really going into great detail about any of these particular texts – you can read about them (in Russian as well) – but rather it was suggested that I speak about how we apply this in our daily life.
Last night we began the discussion just in general about what we’re really dealing with here. And what we’re dealing with is our experience of everyday life. We’re living our lives, so we experience it, each moment; nobody else is experiencing it. Even if we broadcast everything that we do on Facebook and Twitter, still we’re the ones who are experiencing it, not anybody else.
Actually that’s a very interesting point, that nowadays so many people are almost – I think you would have to use the word addicted to text messaging (SMS) and posting on Facebook and Twitter everything that they are feeling and doing during the day. And so then we ask, “Well, what’s the difference between reading about this in terms of somebody else’s daily life and our own daily life?” And there’s a bit of a distance, isn’t there, between our own experience of our own life and what somebody else is experiencing in their life, especially when it is put into a very small amount of words.
Although we could empathize with somebody else and what’s going on in their life, it’s not quite the same as the happiness or unhappiness or neutral feelings that we have in terms of what we are experiencing ourselves. And this is what we have to deal with in daily life, the most fundamental level. Sometimes we feel well, sometimes we don’t feel so well. Sometimes we feel happy, sometimes we don’t feel so happy. Sometimes it seems as though we’re not feeling terribly much of anything, just neutral. And although we want to be happy, our moods are going up and down all the time, and it doesn’t seem to be synchronous or in accord with what we’re doing. Even while we’re doing one thing, our mood goes up and down, and we don’t seem to have very much control over that, do we? So when we talk about attitude training, we’re talking about how to make the best out of that situation as we go through each moment of our life and experience what is happening and what we’re doing.
And we discussed two main points that are very important in terms of how we can deal with our life. One is this attitude of exaggerating the importance of what we’re feeling. We make such a big thing, a big deal, out of feeling unhappy that we just make it worse. And because we feel so insecure about feeling happy, we destroy it. And when we’re feeling neutral, we freak out at that, imagining that we’re actually feeling nothing, and so then we get a bit worried, and so that also brings us to an unhappy state. We’re not satisfied with just feeling very calm and at ease; something has to be going on all the time – this type of feeling that leads us to want constant entertainment, constant music, and so on. Or these people who turn the television on the moment that they wake up and have the television on in the background all day long because they’re afraid of silence. They need some sort of stimulation. It gives them some sense of life, in a sense.
I have an aunt who sleeps with the television on. She has the television on twenty-four hours a day. And she likes to have the television on while she’s sleeping because if she rolls over or her sleep gets a little bit light, or something like that, during the night, she still has the television on. So she’s totally frightened of quiet. It’s really strange, isn’t it, and it’s not just strange – it’s sad.
So the first principle to deal with our attitude and try to improve our attitude about this up and down of life is to not make anything special about it: “There’s nothing special about sometimes I don’t feel very happy. I have other times where I feel okay. Sometimes it’s just calm and quiet. There’s nothing special about that.” It’s like the waves on the ocean. Sometimes the wave is high, sometimes you’re in the trough in between waves, sometimes the ocean is calm – no big deal about that. That’s the nature of the ocean, isn’t it? Sometimes there’s a storm, of course, and there’s big, big waves, and it’s very turbulent, but if we think in terms of the whole ocean, from its depths to the surface, it’s not really disturbed in the depths, is it? It’s just something that’s happening on the surface as a result of many causes and circumstances with the weather and all factors that affect the weather, and so on. It’s no big deal. It’s not a surprise, is it?
So our minds are like this ocean, and that’s a very helpful attitude to have, that on the surface we might have the up-and-down waves of happy, unhappy, this emotion, that emotion, but in the depths we’re not disturbed by that. Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t try to have a more calm and happier state of mind. It certainly is preferable to the storm, isn’t it? But when the storm happens of extreme emotions and extreme feeling, and so on, we don’t make it into some sort of monster. We just deal with it in terms of what it actually is.
A lot of people are trying to improve themselves with Buddhist methods, and they work with them for many years, and they seem to be making some progress in terms of not getting angry so much, not getting jealous or mean to others, and then after so many years of trying to build up these more beneficial habits, they have an episode of getting very angry again or they fall in love with somebody and then are all clinging and attached and go through emotional turmoil once more. And the problem here is that they get discouraged. And what is the source of that discouragement is that they forget this whole approach of “nothing special.” Our tendencies and habits are very, very deep, very engrained, and it really takes an enormous amount of time and effort to overcome them. And we may provisionally take care of it, but unless we really get down to the root of why we get angry and so on, from time to time it will recur. But when it does recur, the principle is to not make a big deal out of it: “It’s nothing special. I’m not a liberated being yet, I’m not a Buddha yet, so of course sometimes the anger and attachment are going to come up again. And sometimes I’m not going to feel happy, and sometimes I’m not going to be in a good mood, sometimes I’m not going to want to do any work or go out and help people. Sure, that’s natural. It’s no big deal, nothing special.” When we exaggerate its importance and make it into something really special and horrible, then we get stuck, don’t we?
So the idea here is that when we understand and are really convinced that there’s nothing special about what I’m experiencing or what I’m feeling, even if it’s an extraordinary insight or something like that, then we just deal with it. It’s like let’s say you bang your toe against the table when you walk into the room and it’s dark, or something like that, and it hurts. Well, what do we expect? Of course it’s going to hurt when you bang your toe. So sure, we need to check to see we didn’t break a bone or something like that. So you check, but then you just go on. It’s no big deal. Don’t make a big deal out of it – jump up and down and expect our mommy to come and kiss it and make it all better. So this is how we try to lead our lives in a way that’s more comfortable, not so turbulent. It allows us to be more calm no matter what happens and no matter what we feel.
Besides overemphasizing and making into something special the feeling of happy or unhappy that we’re experiencing, the other side of that is exaggerating the importance of me, and that actually is the main topic of the attitude-training teachings. The main emphasis in it is that our problems, our difficulties in life, come from what I mentioned yesterday: self-cherishing. That means that we are obsessed with and always focusing on just me, and we are the only ones that we are concerned about. So it has an aspect of egoism or egotism, whatever the difference is between those two, and selfishness and self-preoccupation. There are many, many different ways to describe this attitude and things that come along with it.
So the thing is that when we make ourselves into something special and someone special, then this is really the source of our problems. We think, “I’m so important. Therefore it’s really important what I feel.” So if we are so concerned about “me, me, me,” then of course we’re worried about: “Now I’m feeling unhappy,” “Now I’m feeling happy, but I’m insecure about it,” “Now I’m feeling calm and neutral.” That’s because of that obsession with ourselves.
You know, in Buddhism we always talk about avoiding two extremes, to have a middle way. So one extreme is making a big deal out of everything – “me, me, me,” and so on, and what I feel, and I have to broadcast it to the world because everybody really cares. Actually nobody cares what I had for breakfast this morning or that I liked it or I didn’t like it. Somehow we think that it’s really important. You press the “I like it” button on Facebook and so on. It’s really very artificial, isn’t it? Actually it’s a very interesting thing to analyze. Why do I press the “I like it” button? And why do I care how many people like what I had for breakfast this morning? And what does it prove? That’s an interesting thing to think about. Why don’t you think about it for a moment?
Participant: I think it’s maybe because people have a lack of conversations, and so maybe they just want to share with others.
Alex: Well, it’s a sense of loneliness, I suppose, that they want to share with others. But in many ways it isolates you from others because rather than actually having a personal interaction, you do it in what you think is a more protected environment of the internet or the cell phone.
But what I’m suggesting that we look into is: why do we feel that we have to share how we feel? On the one hand, it’s thinking that everybody really cares and it’s important that other people know what I had for breakfast and that I liked it or didn’t like it – I’m using a silly example, of course – and if not enough people like it, then I feel very unhappy. So it’s making it overly important, isn’t it, me and what I’m feeling, and also making it overly important what other people think of what I feel, rather than just feeling self-confident – “Okay, I’m feeling this. So what?” – and getting on with life rather than having to SMS it to all our friends, thinking that we’re so important that they really will drop everything to read our SMS and to look on Facebook about what we had for breakfast. Isn’t that an overexaggeration of our importance? And it’s insecurity, so that’s not a very peaceful state of mind, is it? And then we’re constantly checking: “Well, I don’t want to miss something. What am I missing?” So it’s a very interesting phenomenon and one that has its positive points but also brings about quite a few problems.
But that wasn’t the point that I started to make. The point was avoiding the two extremes. So one extreme is that I make too big a deal out of me and what I’m feeling, that then everybody has to know, whether they care or not, because we think they should care because I’m so important. And the other extreme is totally ignoring what we feel: “I’m a nothing.”
There are situations in which it is important to communicate to others what we’re feeling, like when we’re in a relationship with somebody and we’re unhappy in it. And so it’s necessary to say that and to not just keep it inside in an interpersonal relationship when there is a certain need for the other person, if they’re not very sensitive, to know how we’re feeling: “What you said really hurt me,” and so on. But do that in a balanced way in which again we’re not overexaggerating it, but we’re not denying it either. And we try to understand in that type of situation, particularly I’m talking about an interpersonal relationship, that we’re not the only person in the relationship – there’s also the other person – and so it’s just as important (and just not such a big deal as well) what the other person is feeling.
So when we talk about attitude training, one aspect of that is it’s not just my attitude – it’s everybody’s attitude that is involved in the situation. In other words, my point of view isn’t the only point of view, is it? That’s one of the main principles used in family therapy. You get a family together, and each person in the family relates what they’re experiencing in the situation at home. So if the parents are fighting with each other, they learn from the child how it’s affecting the child and how the child is experiencing this. Otherwise they might not be aware of that. So their own point of view is not the only thing that is happening in this configuration within the family.
So the main emphasis in the traditional attitude training presentations is to try to overcome this self-cherishing, this self-preoccupation, and to open ourselves up to thinking of others. I was suggesting yesterday some ways in which we can start to do that. And one way is to imagine the situation with us on one side, everybody else on the other side, and think, “Well, is this one person more important than everybody else?” And we used the example of being stuck in traffic. “Am I more important than everybody else stuck in the traffic that I have to get to where I’m going and I don’t care about the other people?”
And the important thing here is that when we open up to thinking about everybody stuck in the traffic, that’s based on the reality. The reality is that everybody is stuck in the traffic. The reality is not that I’m the only one stuck, is it? So when we talk about improving our attitude, we’re talking about improving it based on reality – seeing what is reality and having our attitude be in accord with that. It’s very interesting that one of my friends, a Buddhist teacher, said that you could sum up the Buddhist approach with one word, and that word is realism.
Because of the way that some people present Buddhism, some people think that it’s all involved with fantastic visualizations and ritual, and these sorts of things, in which basically it’s like going to a Buddhist Disneyland. But that’s not the main thrust of Buddhism at all. Those are there – it’s not that one is denying that those are a part of the Buddhist training – but they are a method for trying to be more in accord with realism. In using these types of methods, one understands what the difference is between reality and fantasy, and one starts to understand the power of the imagination.
We’re human beings. So what distinguishes us from animals? Well, there are many things that we can point to, but what is really significant is that we have the power of intelligence and we have the power of imagination. We can use both of them if we learn how, if we appreciate the value of it and then learn how to use them. Just a simple example: For instance, we have a great deal of attachment and sexual desire for somebody. There are many ways of dealing with that, because that can be very, very disturbing. So our attitude here is what we can change, and we can change it using both intelligence and imagination.
So when we think of using the imagination, don’t just imagine that we’re dealing here with: “I am some sort of Buddhist deity with all these arms and faces and legs, and so is the other person.” That’s only one way of looking at the deeper level of others. All the faces and arms and legs, and so on, represent different aspects of the mind and potentials that people have. You’re not just literally thinking in terms of these fantastic figures.
But on another level, we can use our intelligence and imagination. One great Indian Buddhist master, Aryadeva, put it very nicely. He said, “If a pig finds its sexual partner so attractive, what makes ours so special?” In other words, the quality of being sexually attractive is totally coming from the minds of the individual – it’s not something which is inherent in the object of the attraction – because otherwise a pig should find our partner really beautiful and attractive, and we should find the pig’s partner attractive. So intellectually that’s correct. And with our imagination, we imagine the pig and so on, and that also makes sense. So there’s nothing special about somebody that we find attractive. I find this type of person attractive, and this person finds that type of person attractive. It’s like at the restaurant: some person wants this from the menu, some person wants that from the menu. So what? Nothing special.
That becomes very interesting, actually, as you extend this way of thinking. Why should everybody like to do things the way that I like to do them? And it’s this self-preoccupation and self-cherishing which is behind this feeling that: “The way that I do it is the correct way, and it’s right” and then we get annoyed with somebody who organizes their desk or their computer folders, or things like that, in a different way: “That’s wrong. It’s terrible.” So then we become a control freak – we have to control how everybody does things, and it has to be done our way – and that makes us very, very insecure, doesn’t it? We’re always tense: “Oh, you’re doing it wrong!” That doesn’t mean that we allow absolute chaos if somebody is working for us and so on, but you acknowledge that there are many different ways in which things can be done, just as there are many different objects of sexual attraction. It doesn’t mean that ours is the only one.
When we read about or hear about this attitude training in which the main emphasis is to stop having self-cherishing and to always cherish others, I don’t think that we have to take this to the full extent of: “Now I am working for the benefit of every being in the universe.” Of course we can take it to that extent, as in the example I was using yesterday: “I’m one of seven billion humans on this planet and countless animals and insects. Everybody is feeling either happy or unhappy or neutral, so there’s nothing special about me.” So we think of what we’re feeling within the context of everybody, and then our mind is much more open, not this closed “me, me, me.” So for instance with global warming, we’re considering how it’s going to affect everybody; it’s not just going to affect me. So our scope is much wider, and there’s more energy actually involved with that, if we’re thinking in terms of everybody now and in the future.
But as I said, we don’t have to think on that full level in order to execute a change, a beneficial change, from self-cherishing to cherishing others. We can do this on a more modest scale in terms of what I was explaining, that our attitude toward things, how we’re experiencing it – “I’m not the only one in a relationship. I’m not the only one in a family,” and so on. And be concerned with a larger group. Maybe not everybody in the universe, but start on a larger scale, not on the superficial level of Facebook “I like its” or a few characters in an SMS, but actual encounters with others personally.
Now, of course this is limited. We can reach so many more people on a social network than we do in our daily life, that’s true. But the problem comes when the virtual social network replaces any sort of personal – interpersonal I should say – contact and relations, and then you’re with somebody, but you’re not really with then because you’re constantly texting somebody else. It’s a very common phenomenon now, and it’s not just affecting young people or teenagers, but now it’s being recorded that children feel very, very neglected because their parents are constantly texting and not paying attention to them.
So there are many levels on which we can practice this attitude training. And it doesn’t need to involve a very exotic type of practice, but we use our intelligence in terms of what is realistic. And what is realistic is that we are not the only person in this universe, and we’re not the most important one in the universe, but we are one of the many people and many beings in the universe (it’s not that we’re nothing). And we use our imagination in terms of empathy. How do you understand other people’s situations? How do you understand how other people are experiencing things? It’s using the imagination, isn’t it?
And so these two aspects, the intelligence and imagination, are great tools that we have that we can train. We train our intelligence with logic, and we train our imagination with things like visualization. And you need both of those, both sides, and you need to understand what is the aim of training both of them. The aim is not to make ourselves into a computer in terms of the intelligence side, and on the other side it’s not that we’re aiming to get the Olympic gold medal in being able to visualize all sorts of fantastic little details. But from the Buddhist point of view, we want to train these things, on one level, to overcome difficulties and problems in our own life and, on a wider scope, to be able to help others to do the same. And for that we need to have a very, very wide, wide scope of our minds with which we can understand and empathize with everybody in terms of everything that has happened to them and is presently happening to them and could potentially happen in the future. So that involves both intelligence and imagination, doesn’t it?
So attitude training has many, many different levels, and it can be brought into our daily life in many different ways. And the simplest level, at least the way that I understand it, is this level of “nothing special.” There’s nothing special about what’s happening. Every time throughout history, people complain, “This is the worst of times, and the younger generation is completely horrible and corrupt.” If you look at literature over time, everybody has said this. So nothing special about our time. (I had a literature course at university that focused on tracing in the history of literature this theme of “This is the worst of times, and the younger generation is completely degenerate or horrible.” From the ancient Greeks all the way up, everybody has said that.) And there’s nothing special about what’s happening, nothing special about me, and nothing special about what I’m feeling. It’s just flowing on and on and on, driven by innumerable causes and conditions interacting with each other. We just need to deal with it in as beneficial a way as we can, using our intelligence and our imagination, imagination to empathize with others.
So why don’t we take a short break, and then we’ll continue.
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