Training Our Attitudes in Daily Life: Nothing Special
Kiev, Ukraine, November 2012
Session three: Nothing Special about the Transitory Things in Life and the Conceptual Framework for "Nothing Special"
We were discussing the practical application of attitude training, and we saw that one of the big principles is that we don’t make anything big – nothing special – out of feeling happiness, unhappiness, or neutral that we’re feeling, and we don’t make anything big out of me, that I’m so special and it’s so important what I feel as opposed to what everybody else feels, so then this leads us to just get on with our life. If we make something special out of me facing my life, as if my life was something separate from me and now I have to live it, that’s really weird, isn’t it? And me and my feelings, which I’m afraid to actually feel (I have to shield myself from the ones that are unpleasant). The feelings are just part of the ongoing movie of our life, if we can use that type of image.
Now, there’s also the content of our life. And the content as well, we need to not make a big deal out of. One of the things that is emphasized in the teachings is this list of eight transitory things in life, and it follows this same principle of everything goes up and down.
So sometimes we have gains, sometimes we have losses. This can be financially, that sometimes we make money, sometimes we lose money. Sometimes we get something or buy something which is very good (it’s a gain), but sometimes it breaks (it’s a loss). And again the same principle: there’s nothing special about that. Of course sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. It’s like playing a game, a children’s game, playing cards – sometimes you’re going to win, sometimes you’re going to lose. So what? Nothing special.
So we need to remind ourselves not to be like a little child that cries when they lose and “I always have to win!” Why should you always have to win? It’s like the hope that everybody’s going to like me. There’s a very useful saying in Buddhism: “Not everybody liked the Buddha, so what do we expect for ourselves – everybody’s going to like us?” Obviously not everybody’s going to press the “like it” button on our Facebook page. When some people don’t like us, what to do? That’s normal.
So gains and losses. When we get into a relationship with somebody, eventually it’s going to end. Remember we used this image of the wild bird coming to our window? It’ll stay for a while, but the bird is free. It will fly off. So the same thing in a relationship. If we try to capture somebody and cling to them and: “Don’t ever leave me. I can’t live without you,” that’s the best way to chase them away, isn’t it? And even if you stay together for your entire life, one of you undoubtedly will die before the other. So we gain a friend, we lose a friend – nothing special about that. That’s the way that life is. Now, it doesn’t mean that we don’t feel happy to a certain extent when we have a friend or unhappy when somebody dies or leaves us, but we don’t go to extremes, and we don’t make a big deal out of it.
I mean, it’s interesting to watch ourselves in this whole phenomenon of gains and losses and how we respond. I look at myself as an example. I am quite obsessed about my website. It occupies my thought and my activity pretty much all day long. And we have a statistics program, and so I know every day – and I can watch it during the day – how many people visit the website. And so if there’s an increase, a certain number that is there, well, that’s really very nice. And if it doesn’t quite meet what it should be or what I think it should be, then it’s not so nice. So that’s a gain and a loss.
It’s quite interesting that, in a sense, I do feel a very low level of happiness. It’s not a dramatic thing. A few weeks ago we reached six thousand visits in one day, which was really, “Wow, six thousand. That’s a lot.” But the happiness from that is very trivial. I mean, it’s no big deal; it doesn’t do anything. You feel, “Oh, that’s good. Now what? What else is new?” And then another day it goes way down to, let’s say, four and a half thousand, and you say, “Oh, not so many people looked at it today,” so a little bit disappointed. But my experience is that that up and down is much, much less, and it certainly doesn’t last; it’s just very slight. And what seems to be more prominent is the self-preoccupation, which I confess to, of wanting to look at the statistic all the time. That seems to be stronger. And Buddhism says that, that the self-preoccupation is stronger than your preoccupation with other things because that’s so instinctive, thinking about me. And it doesn’t even manifest as: “Oh, I’m so great” – or “Nobody loves me” if not enough people look – but it’s still this self-preoccupation.
Now, when you think of your own examples, and obviously you might not have the same situation as I have, but there’s a similar thing if you are very involved with Facebook or with text messages: How many SMS’s did I get today? How many “I like it”s did I get? How often do I want to check my Facebook? How often do you take the cell phone out of your pocket and look to see if anything came in? In previous times, when we didn’t have this type of internet communication, then it was the same thing with the postman. “Do you have any letters for me today?” And there are no letters: “Aw, nobody likes me.” Or it’s only advertisements, and you don’t want that. So this attitude of “nothing special” can help with that as well. And from my own experience, it fits in with the Buddhist teachings as well, that the up and down of feeling happy (“Wow! I’m really excited. I got twenty ‘I like it’s today for what I had for breakfast”) or unhappy (“Aw. Someone said ‘I don’t like it’”), that emotional up and down, gets less and less extreme. There’s more equanimity about it. But what’s more difficult is this preoccupation of always wanting to check and see what came in.
What I’m trying to illustrate here is that when we work on changing our attitudes, trying to improve our attitudes, it’s a very slow and long process. It’s not going to change things so quickly, and the way that it changes things is gradual, less of an emotional roller coaster. But what will take much longer is this feeling of self-importance, that it really is important how many messages I get on Facebook or how many SMS’s I get today. That takes longer. It’s more difficult to overcome the preoccupation.
And it’s very interesting when you start to view yourself in a more realistic way, which is that: “I’ve become a slave to the computer and to my cell phone, and I’m a slave that I’m always having to look at it. I’m always having to check how people are responding to me. Why have I become a slave?” It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? I see people on the metro – the subway – or on the bus who always have to have their cell phone in their hand, so they’re always holding it. Why? And if you think about it, it’s really this self-importance, this self-cherishing. Insecurity is underneath it, isn’t it, the mentality of: “I don’t want to miss something.” Why? What’s so important? Some things may be important – we’re not saying that nothing is important – but we overexaggerate the importance of constantly being in touch, constantly being online. That’s a very interesting thing to analyze in terms of our own emotional well-being, isn’t it?
So these eight transitory things that go up and down in life: sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. That’s one, one set.
The second set is that sometimes things go well, sometimes things go badly. Now, this can be understood on many, many different levels, but again “nothing special.” Sometimes the day is going well, and sometimes there are a lot of obstacles and people can give us a difficult time, and so on. It’s normal. What do we expect? Sometimes our energy is high, sometimes the energy is low. Sometimes we feel healthy, sometimes we catch a cold. So what? We just deal with it, not being afraid – “Ooh, I’m going to catch a cold” – and wanting to somehow shield yourself, and so you’re always with your shields up, and you push everything away. Then you’re very, very insecure, and that is a very unhappy state of mind.
And then the next set is praise and criticism. Sometimes people praise us, sometimes people criticize us. How do you deal with that? Again, not everybody liked the Buddha; not everybody praised the Buddha. Some people were very critical; his cousin was very critical
Now, again I’ll use my own example. I get emails in response to my website, and sometimes they are praise – and I would say probably the majority are praising (“Oh, how helpful it is,” and so on) – and occasionally there’ll be a criticism of something Now, of course you can go on an emotional roller coaster: you get an email which says, “Oh, this has changed my life, and it’s so wonderful,” and then you feel, “Wow, I’m really great!” and then somebody says, “This is terrible,” and so on, and then you feel really horrible. But actually what I find is that over time what is easier to deal with is the praise that doesn’t make you so excited and you don’t go to the extreme of, “Well, I don’t deserve it. If they really knew the true me, they wouldn’t like me,” going on that childish trip. Like they might say, “This is the best thing that I’ve ever read!” And what I find is that isn’t very disturbing. What is more disturbing is the criticism.
So what I’m saying is that when you’re training yourself, from my experience it’s easier to deal with the praise than it is with the criticism. And when I’m talking about not overreacting to the praise, I’m not talking about going to this extreme of: “Well, I don’t deserve it. If they really knew the true me, they wouldn’t like me. This is just some artificial thing that they are praising.” So we’re not going to that extreme either. But the criticism is more difficult to deal with, and so try to analyze that. Why is that more difficult? And I think if you’re working on this attitude training, it’s not so much that they don’t like me – it’s not the overemphasis on the “me” – but what’s left is that I caused them unhappiness, and you think more of their unhappiness and their dissatisfaction that caused them to write. So then one has to try to avoid going to the extreme of feeling guilty that I caused them to be unhappy – “I’m no good. I’m bad” – but to think more in terms of them. If I can do something to help in that situation, even if it’s just an apology, saying, “I acknowledge that this maybe gave you a difficult time. I’m really sorry. That wasn’t my intention,” even that is enough. And that’s not in terms of “I’m so bad” and feeling guilty; it’s thinking in terms of others. So in terms of changing your focus from self-cherishing to cherishing others, it’s not a 100% shift, but slowly the emphasis is going toward the others. And where it comes most strongly is when it seems as though you’ve caused suffering to others.
So we don’t have to think of this in terms of a website and emails coming in and stuff like that, but just in our normal, everyday interaction with others. Sometimes they’re going to be happy with us; sometimes they’re not. And it’s easier to deal with them being happy – but not going on the ego trip of: “Oh, I’m so wonderful” or “I don’t deserve it” – that’s a little bit easier than this other side, when they are criticizing and critical of us.
Now, of course there are some people that are very difficult to deal with who are always criticizing us, always being very negative with us. So again our attitude toward them: What are we recognizing in them? Are we recognizing that they are really a very difficult, unpleasant person? Or do you recognize that they are a very unhappy person? You probably have somebody, or a few people, like that in your life, where their whole mode of communication is complaining. I have somebody like that in my life. They call you, or they want to be with you, they want to go out to lunch with you, or something like that, and you know that it’s going to be 100% them talking about themselves and complaining. And you could be very, very unhappy and upset about that: “Ugh, it’s this person again.” And you can’t always say, “No, I’m busy” and so on.
So if that’s our response, we’re thinking just about me and how unpleasant it will be for me to be with this person and listen to their complaining. So again change our attitude and view: this person is complaining all the time because they’re really, really unhappy… which is correct. And people who complain all the time are usually very lonely as well, because nobody wants to be with them. So if we do need to be with them, spend some time with them, whether it’s a friend, whether it is an elderly person – very often elderly people, even relatives and so on, are complaining all the time – and nevertheless you develop a little bit more sympathy. It doesn’t become such a horrible experience to be with them because you’re thinking in terms of them, not in terms of me.
So that’s this thing of praise and criticism.
And then the fourth set is hearing good news and hearing bad news. So it’s the same thing: everything goes up and down. These four sets actually overlap with each other, and our principle of “nothing special” applies to each of these eight. There’s nothing special about hearing good news, nothing special about hearing bad news. That’s just what’s going to happen in our life. It’s going to go up and down. Not so easy, but it’s something that we can train ourselves in. And the way that we train ourselves to be able to deal with these things is, as I said, understanding this principle of “nothing special.” So think about that for a moment.
Okay. Some people object to this type of training. They say that they like being on an emotional roller coaster because if you don’t have these ups and downs, you’re not really alive. And so we have to examine: is that a helpful attitude to have? First of all, whether we’re on the emotional roller coaster or not, we’re still alive. So that’s a bit silly, isn’t it? But what happens when we are on this emotional roller coaster? The emotional roller coaster – when we’re on that, we’re not really thinking rationally, are we, because we’re just overwhelmed by the emotions, so you don’t think clearly. But if we’re more calm, although our life is not more dramatic – dramatic in the sense that: “Ooh, this is happening, and that’s happening,” and so on – we’re able to think more clearly and deal with situations in a much better way. When you’re really unhappy and angry with somebody, you say things that later you might regret. So being more even-minded and even in terms of our emotions and so on doesn’t mean having no emotions, but it means having feeling and so on that allows for clear thinking as well. And in terms of everybody wanting to be happy, this sort of calm, peaceful happiness is much more stable than the dramatic “Ooh, whoopee!” happiness.
Now, one more thing that I wanted to discuss with you is what is the basis for an attitude. And the basis for an attitude toward something is basically having a conceptual framework. What is conceptual thought? This is very important to understand. Conceptual thought is viewing things or experiencing things through a category, and the category could be like “something special.” It’s like having some sort of mental box, and I am experiencing something, and I put it into that mental box of “something special.”
Now, we do that all the time. It’s how we’re able to understand and process things. All right? There’s a mental box of “woman.” I see this person and put it in the mental box of “woman.” So, like that, we’re able to put things together, and various things that we experience could be put into different mental boxes. For instance, the same people that we’re putting in the mental boxes of “man” or “woman” we could also put into the mental boxes of “young person” and “older person” or “blond hair” or “dark hair.” I mean, there are many different boxes, aren’t there?
Now, in actuality, things don’t exist in boxes, do they? And that’s a very difficult thing to really understand and to digest. For instance, we could put somebody in the box of a “terrible person,” but nobody exists as just a terrible person and nothing else, because if they were only in that box and if they really existed in that box, then everybody would view them as a terrible person, and they would have been like that from the time they were a baby.
So these categories, these mental boxes, help us to make sense of things. And our attitude toward others is very much determined by the type of mental box that we put things in. But we have to keep in mind that these mental boxes are really only a mental construct. Out there in reality, as it were – if I can speak in these types of terms – there are no boxes, are there? These are mental boxes through which we perceive things.
Now, how do we identify and place things in this type of mental box as opposed to that type of mental box? And this is on the basis of a certain feature of the item that we think is really distinguishing it from other things. This can be called the defining characteristic. That’s sort of the technical term for it. But it’s a certain feature. Like, for instance, what is the feature for putting things into the box of being a square? Well, it’s having four equal sides. So things that have four equal sides, that’s the defining feature or characteristic, and so we put it in the mental box of “square.” We have words that we associate with these boxes.
It’s quite simple with the category of a “square,” but what about the category of “annoying person”? What is the feature on the side of the person that makes us view them in this box of “you’re an annoying person”? It’s a very interesting question, isn’t it? What is it that is annoying? Think about it. What do the fly buzzing around your face and this person have in common that you would view them both as annoying and you’d put them in the box of “annoying”?
Participant: They both bring me out of my balance and my balanced state.
Alex: Exactly. That’s also the answer that I would give. So there’s something about what they do which causes me to lose my balance or my peace of mind, my calm state of mind. So actually it’s being defined in terms of me, not really in terms of them, because what I find annoying you might not find annoying. And if you think in terms of causing me to lose my peace of mind, well, that could also be something that I’m totally attracted to as well, and that makes me go crazy. So this is very interesting with being annoyed and so on. How we’re defining it and putting it into the box really is all concerned about ourselves.
We have many, many different feelings. Now it starts to become interesting (maybe it was already interesting). So we have the mental box of “happy.” How do you put things into that box of “happy”? I’m happy. Can you really say that? I mean, it’s very difficult. Are you happy? Somebody asks, “Are you happy?” and you don’t even know what to answer. If you ask yourself, “Am I happy?” – well, I don’t even know really what that means, do I? So what’s the defining characteristic of being happy? We want so much to be happy, but we don’t even know what happy is. Odd, isn’t it? The definition is it’s something that when you experience it, you don’t want to be parted from it; you’d like it to continue. At least in the Buddhist literature you find the definition, so that helps us a little bit.
Now, turn to Facebook. Why do you put certain things into the category, the box, of “I like it”? What is the characteristic of something that would inspire you to put it in the box of “I like it” and press the button? Think about that. That’s quite difficult to put into words, isn’t it? Why do I like it? Well, maybe it makes me smile or it makes me feel good. But if we had to look at it and nothing else for a whole day, we wouldn’t like it anymore, would we? So it’s very strange, isn’t it? It makes me happy. Well, we saw that that was a difficult thing to define as well.
And when you talk about conceptual thought, what’s also interesting is that we have a mental image of what represents the category. The example that I always use is the category “dog.” When you think of a dog, you have some sort of mental picture of a dog, don’t you, and I’m sure everybody represents what a dog is with a different mental picture. So the same thing with what represents to us a pretty person, a sexy person (we had that with the example earlier of who does the pig find sexy and who do we find sexy). So obviously everybody has a mental picture that represents the category.
So what represents “I like it,” something that I like? That’s more difficult. Sometimes we have that way of talking, don’t we? “This is the type of thing that I like. This is the type of style that I like. This is the type of food that I like. This is the type of movie that I like.” We talk like that, don’t we? “She’s not my type” or “He’s not my type.” What represents what I like? And do we compare what we experience, let’s say what you see on Facebook, with some image of what you like, and then if it matches that, you accept it into the box of “something that I like”? But all of that is coming from the side of our minds. It’s not coming from the object. If it was coming from the object, if there was something in the object that made it likeable, everybody should like it, right? So it’s all subjective. Digest that for a moment.
So now we go to the next step, and the next step is the box of “something special.” What makes something special? Is it something on the side of the object? Or do we have a mental box of “something special,” which we’ve defined ourselves and it’s on the basis of that box and what represents it that we consider something special? What makes something special? You see, this is the theoretical basis of “nothing special.” There’s nothing special on the side of the object. It’s my idea, my mental box of “special.” It’s like the filter that I’m perceiving things with: this is special or that’s special.
You start to think, “How am I defining special?” Well, one answer could be that it’s unique: “This is really a special painting” or “This is a special meal.” But isn’t everything unique? No two things are exactly the same. No two things are the same thing, are they? Each cabbage in the pile of cabbages is a unique cabbage. This cabbage isn’t that cabbage. They’re similar, aren’t they?
And then we think, “Well, but things have to be different. To be special, they have to be different.” Well, how different do they have to be? We have ordinary and we have special, so how do you draw the line between: “This is ordinary” and “This is special”? Is it more unique, more special than that? And where do you draw the line? How do you decide? There are many answers that we could come up with.
Well, we could say it has to be new. Well, new to me, or new to the universe? Well, usually we’re defining everything in terms of me, and every experience that we have is new, isn’t it? I’m not experiencing the same thing that I experienced yesterday as today. Today isn’t yesterday. So, in a sense, everything is special, which means that nothing’s special. Everything is unique, everything is different, everything is individual, so there’s nothing special. And if we say that it’s special because we like it, well, what we like changes all the time, and if we have too much of it, we don’t like it anymore, and if we have it for too long, we get bored.
So these are the things that we work on, that we consider, to help us to overcome our addiction to putting things in the box of “special.” “What I’m feeling now is so important.” Why is it so important? Why do you put it in that box of “important”? So what we try to do is to not view things in mental boxes that are unnecessary.
Some mental boxes are useful even though we know that things don’t exist in mental boxes. For instance, we couldn’t understand language without mental boxes. People make different sounds, and the sound of one person saying a word and the sound of somebody else with a different voice and different volume saying the same word – how do we understand that they’re saying the same word? You can only understand it because you have a mental box of the word. You couldn’t understand different people speaking if you didn’t have these mental boxes of words, could you? All these different sounds actually fit in the same box of a word.
So we can’t just throw away all mental boxes. But certain mental boxes are really not very helpful, like “something special,” because it’s such a subjective thing. And when you really start to analyze it, it’s all in our attitude, isn’t it, what we think is special, and we can’t even really define what is special. What makes it special? Nothing makes it special really.
So in this way, we’re not just using self-control and discipline to say, “Well, I’m not going to view things as anything special” because that’s very difficult to implement. But through understanding, we can see that really nothing is special. It’s just a mental construct. Okay.
There’s one more topic that I wanted to discuss a little bit. Another way in which we regard our feelings as something special is that we think others have to know about them; others have to share it in our social network. And if we start to analyze that, why we have this attitude that: “What I’m feeling is special, and everybody has to know it,” it becomes very interesting. Do you really think that everybody is really interested in how we feel? Are we so important that everybody’s interested?
It’s really weird, isn’t it, this phenomenon with these movie stars and pop stars and millions of people following their tweets just to know how they feel about this or that. Why? Do you really care? It’s a very strange phenomenon actually. Somehow, maybe vicariously, we feel that we are as important as this other person, Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber or somebody like that. We want to share somehow the attention that they get in the world. But do we really think that everybody is so interested in what I feel? And yet compulsively we have to announce it to the world on Facebook, and we’re really interested in how many people like it. It’s really too much of an ego trip to say we’re posting it because we really believe that everybody in the world is interested. So we could say, “Well, I want to share it because maybe it will make them happy,” but really who are we fooling?
The deeper and deeper you start to analyze, what you find is that we feel that if we could post it on our social network, somehow it makes it real; and if we didn’t communicate it, if we didn’t post it, it wasn’t really real. Think of that. “If I tweet it or I SMS it or I post it on Facebook, it’s real. If I didn’t do that, it would disappear in a moment; it wasn’t really real.” But how does that make it real? It doesn’t make it real. It doesn’t make it more real to tweet it, does it? It’s as if we want to hold on to it and make it solid, but we can’t – the moment’s gone, isn’t it? Basic insecurity, isn’t it? “Ah, I have to hold on to it, so I have to tweet it; I have to post it.”
And then you start to analyze more deeply. And when you analyze more deeply, it’s as if we’re trying to establish our existence. We live in this world in which everything is changing so quickly, and it’s seems as though what we do is so insignificant compared to all the things that are going on. So how do I establish that I exist? From the point of view of the world, I’m totally unimportant, one of seven billion people. So to establish that I’m important, that I actually exist, I have to post everything that I feel, and so on, on a social network. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” So now it’s “I tweet or I SMS, and therefore I am.” Now, of course not everybody is into this and has this type of mentality, but if you look at the trend in the world, it’s getting larger and larger and larger, the percentage of people that become addicted to this networking and this text messaging.
So then you have to analyze, especially if you become addicted to this, which means changing our attitude about this. We’re talking about cleansing attitudes, remember. So change your attitude about this. “No way can this prove or establish that I exist. Of course I exist. I don’t have to tweet it in order to say, ‘Hey, I’m here. I exist.’” You do exist. So there’s nothing to feel insecure about. You don’t have to prove anything. That’s a really deep insight to get. “I don’t have to prove anything. I’m here. I exist. I function.” You don’t have to prove it to the world, because actually that’s just a distraction from getting on with our lives, and it becomes a big interference because then we become slave to our cell phone. All right? Not only do I exist, but the more “I like it”s that I have, the more worthwhile I am. And yet I doubt it: “Well, do they really like it, or are they just pressing the button?” So the whole thing is filled with insecurity, and that is unhappiness, isn’t it? So the more productive attitude is to just get on with our life and try to be as helpful to others as we can, try not to harm others as much as we’re able to avoid that. Just get on with it.
So attitude training, attitude cleansing, has many, many different levels with which we can work. We can perceive things through different mental categories, different mental boxes – just shift the box that we’re viewing things in. So instead of the mental box of “annoying complaining person,” we view this person in the mental box of “unhappy, lonely person,” and then that changes our whole way of dealing with the person because we realize that there’s nothing inherent on the side of the person that makes them either annoying or this or that. It’s just our attitude of how we perceive them that affects how we experience them and how we deal with them.
And some mental categories are just not very helpful, like “special.” “This is a special person. This is a special occasion.” Do you ever think how arbitrary it is when we think in terms of New Year or a holiday or a birthday or anything like that? “This is so special.” What makes it special? People decided that it was special. There’s nothing special particularly in January 1st. It doesn’t even correspond to anything astronomically. The earth is circling around the sun. There’s no beginning, that: “Ah, this is the first day of the year.” It’s totally arbitrary which one you say is first. There is no first. Every culture has a different New Year, so what’s so special? There’s nothing special. So if you’re in a culture and everybody is celebrating it, okay. You don’t have to be the grouch – “Oh, this is stupid,” and so on – but you don’t have to get so overexcited and make a big deal out of it.
So if we understand this basic nature of how conceptual thought works and categories and mental boxes and these defining characteristics or features – if we understand all of that, then we can use it, use it when it’s helpful, and drop it when it’s not helpful. These are some of the principles that are there with attitude training.
We have a little time for some questions, but perhaps we can take a moment of silence to just digest a little bit what we’ve been speaking about. It’s not so easy to understand.
Okay. And remember to change our attitudes, to improve our attitudes, requires a motivation (why do we want to do that?) and requires a great deal of practice. In what’s called meditation, we have to consciously try to view things with a different attitude, a more beneficial attitude. And the more familiar we become with this through repeated practice, then the more naturally it will come in our daily life. We just need then to remind ourselves in daily life when we’re feeling unhappy, and so on, that: “Hey, I’m just thinking about me, me, me.”
Somebody invites us for a meal, and we go there, and it’s food that we don’t particularly like, and so we’re very unhappy: “Aw, I don’t like this.” But we think of the other person, the person who made the meal. They didn’t make it with the intention to make something that we don’t like. Their intention was to make a nice meal for us. And so, thinking of the other person, even if we don’t like the food, you can take a little bit, and so on, but you don’t make a big deal out of it, and you’re not miserable.
Attitude training is a long process, but a very worthwhile one.
So what questions might you have?
Participant: Is there any end point in this process? Do we want to gain some result? And if there is no such result, then why should we do it?
Alex: Well, the end result of it, the aim, can be on various levels. One aim would be to gain what’s called liberation from our disturbing emotions. So that’s thinking just in terms of ourselves. Or the actual intended aim is to better able to help others. So if I’m constantly with negative attitudes and my emotions are going up and down, and so on, that makes a big obstacle in dealing with others and trying to help others.
Even on a very worldly level, if we are a doctor or just a waiter or a salesperson in a store trying to serve others, somebody trying to help others, you can’t be crippled by disturbing emotions or “I’m in a bad mood” or these sorts of things. So it’s the last client of the day, and instead of feeling miserable – “Oh, I’m tired. I don’t really feel like dealing with them,” and so on – you think, “The first client of the day and the last client of the day, they both want to be helped. There’s no difference in that.” So by thinking of others, try to deal with them as best as you can. Or you put yourself in the position of the other: “If I was the last client of the day with the doctor, wouldn’t I want to have the same attention and concern as the first client of the day? Of course I would.”
Of course if we look at this in a complete Buddhist way, well, the end point would be being a Buddha so that you’re able to help everybody as much as is possible. But even on our ordinary level, there are many types of benefits that we can gain. But what’s important is to not make a big deal out of the goal and not make a big deal out of me who’s down here trying to reach this goal and “I’m not good enough” or all these trips that we could go on. So again don’t make a big deal out of it. If you think, “Oh, this goal is hard, and it’s impossible, and I could never reach it,” and so on, then it really does make it difficult.
Any other questions?
Participant: You mentioned in your talk this term conceptual thinking and then also another term, nonconceptual thinking. Can you please say a few words about that?
Alex: Well, the word thinking is a difficult word. Let’s just talk about mental activity. Conceptual thought or conceptual mental activity is perceiving things in terms of categories, mental boxes. And it’s not limited to verbal thinking. A lot of people think conceptual thought is just the voice going on in our head and that if you could quiet that voice, then you’re nonconceptual. That’s not the case. Even with animals, their minds work in terms of categories: “my baby” for the chicken, or “my barn” for the cow, “my master” for the dog. Nonconceptual is basically that we’re taking in the information and it’s not that you don’t know what things are, but that you don’t put it into a box. So this is very difficult actually to really understand. And when they talk about our sense perception, sense perception is nonconceptual, but it only lasts a microsecond.
You can think of this on a very gross level. So I see you. Just seeing you, I know that you’re a man, not a woman. And then it becomes interesting. What are the features that help me to identify what is a man and not a woman? But when we put it into a mental box, a mental box has a representation. If you think of a man or you think of a woman, you have some mental image that represents what a man or a woman should look like according to what you think it should look like. So in a sense, conceptually I’m comparing you with this mental image and seeing does it fit or not fit. Now, mind you, this is happening at the microsecond level, unconsciously.
One shouldn’t think that if it’s nonconceptual, that means that you don’t know anything, that you don’t recognize anything. (Recognize is not a good word, because recognize means it’s cognized again, so again it’s a comparison type of thing.) You know what things are. A Buddha’s nonconceptual. A Buddha knows what everything is, but doesn’t fit it into mental boxes. Think of that. When you view things through a mental box, there’s an expectation, isn’t there, that you’re going to stay in that box. For example, “nice dog,” and you expect that the dog is going to be nice and not bite you. It’s when you’re nonconceptual that you don’t have any expectation. I mean, you know that it’s a dog, the dog can bite, and the dog can do this and that, but you don’t freeze it into a box, a category, as if things existed corresponding to being in a box.
That’s a little bit in terms of at least my present understanding of it. I can’t say that that’s the deepest understanding. I’m sure it’s not.
Participant: We’ll be trying to digest all the information you’ve given us for about a year or half a year until your next visit. And in that time, probably someone will ask us for some advice. How should we relate to such a person, and what can we advise? Should we try to mention all those kinds of attitude training you were talking about – like “nothing special” and so on – or should we just let them go through their own way of life and gain their own experience?
Alex: I think everything depends on the level of interest that the person has and the ability that they have to be able to understand. What you would explain to a child and what you would explain to an adult would be quite different. The general principle that’s followed is that you explain things in a very general way first. And then if the person is really interested, they’ll ask again for a more detailed explanation. So you don’t flood them at the beginning with too much. That’s something I have to remember when I teach.
There’s a big difference, though, between doing something for one person, where you can customize it to accord with that person, and doing it for a group of people. With a group of people, then somehow… Like the way that the Dalai Lama teaches. In the beginning he’ll give something very general that the general audience will be able to understand. But he’ll also put in something really sophisticated and detailed as well for the more learned members of the audience. So if it’s a large group and it is a diverse group, then you try to give a little bit that will be helpful for each type of person there.
But most important is to not be pretentious, to not pretend that we understand more than we do or that we are on a higher level of attainment and accomplishment than we are. So you say, “This is my level of understanding. But if you want to go deeper, look at other sources.” And if you don’t know the answer and don’t know how to answer, admit that; don’t just make up something. And there are resources that you can direct people to: there’s my website, there are many books, there are many other teachers, and so on. And each of us have our limitations of course, but if one is sincere about it and not pretending, then you’re not fooling people. The principle is to have them investigate further to see, “Well, does what he said make sense or not?”
I think that this is an appropriate place to end our time together, so I want to thank you very much. Thank you.
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