Sunday, February 21, 2010

Always Maintain Only a Joyful Mind

This article is part of a series of short commentaries on proverbs or slogans from the Lojong ("mind-training") teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Several other such commentaries will be offered soon, in addition to the ones that have already appeared here in previous months. To see the whole series of commentaries on Lojong slogans, click here.

Always Maintain Only a Joyful Mind

Look at the lives of the great spiritual beings who are now walking or have walked among us: the Karmapa, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others like them. These people are not gritting their teeth and just flatly enduring the hardships and challenges that come their way. They do not slog through their work as spiritual leaders with a sense of weariness or a chip on their shoulders. They do not cop resentments about the burdens they have to carry and the things they are asked to do for others. Quite the opposite: they bring boundless joy and cheerfulness and relaxation into everything they do, even in the midst of very difficult circumstances. They are always smiling and laughing, taking delight and finding humor in the situations and people around them — not in a Pollyannaish or frivolous way, but in a way that is united with their tremendous heart of compassion. They bring a constant sense of joy to their 24-hour-a-day practice of helping others.

For the rest of us, back on planet Earth, this slogan may sound naïve and pie-in-the-sky. Always maintain only a joyful mind? You’ve got to be kidding. How is that possible? And why would you even want to do that?

Often, the difficult circumstances we encounter in life land in our laps with a great thud, and no prior warning. We didn’t ask for our lover to leave us, or for our children to rebel against us, or for the stock we own to crash, or for the doctor to give us the diagnosis we didn’t want to hear. But there it is. We have no choice in the matter. The question is: how do we react? How do we work with it? How do we hold our minds in response to what life throws at us?

There is no situation that cannot be made better by infusing it with joy. Not Pollyanna joy, which is a kind of stupid, plastic cheerfulness that masks a total denial of the realities of ugly situations and negativity and suffering in our lives — but authentic joy, which sees these realities clearly but sees every situation as workable and as fuel for spiritual awakening.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the most beloved Catholic saints. She lived at the end of the 19th century and died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 24. When she was 15, she entered a Carmelite nunnery in which she was secluded for the rest of her life. Among the other nuns she encountered there was one particular nun who pushed all her buttons. Everything this nun did stuck in Thérèse’s craw: even the way she walked and talked and smelled was irritating. The Carmelites were a contemplative order and would spend many hours sitting in silent prayer in a chapel that echoed. This nun happened to sit near Thérèse, and all through the prayers she would make little clicking noises with her mouth that drove Thérèse up the wall. Thérèse sat there unable to focus her mind in prayer, consumed with annoyance and loathing for this clicking nun.

At some point, Thérèse concluded, to her dismay, that there was nothing she could do to make this nun change: she was stuck with her, and they were both committed to being there for life. Thérèse realized that the only way to change the situation would be to change herself, her whole way of relating to the other nun. Rather than avoiding the nun, as she had been doing, Thérèse began to go out of her way to find her and spend time with her. She always greeted her with the most genuine smile she could find within herself, and made little friendship gifts to give her. Finally, one day the nun said to Thérèse, “Sister Thérèse, I just don’t understand why you love me so much.” Thérèse thought: Well, if only you knew.*

Thérèse’s relationship to the other nun utterly changed, not because she succeeded in changing the other nun, but because she committed herself to changing her own mind. No doubt the other nun continued for the rest of her life with her clicking and all the other behaviors that annoyed Thérèse, but for Thérèse these things were no longer a problem. Thérèse had a boundless commitment to the practice of maintaining only a joyful mind; this commitment shines through in her autobiography. It is one of the reasons she is so beloved, and why she was one of the saints most quickly canonized after death. Thérèse didn’t have stigmata or perform any parlor-trick miracles: she performed the ultimate miracle of transforming her own mind. When she saw the blood on her handkerchief and pillowcase that signaled the presence of fatal tuberculosis and realized she would soon die, Thérèse “thought immediately of the joyful thing that I had to learn, and so I went over to the window.” How many of us would be able to hear our doctor give us a fatal diagnosis and “think immediately of the joyful thing” that we could learn from it? On her deathbed, Thérèse is reported to have said: “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer anymore, because all suffering is sweet to me.”

When we adopt the commitment to maintaining a joyful mind even in the face of challenging and difficult circumstances, then everything that happens in our lives is fuel for awakening. But if we take ourselves and our life situations too seriously and make too big a deal of them, then that very same fuel stokes the flames that burn us. Our habit is to get locked into a heavy, oppressive sense of how fixed and stuck things are — whether it’s outer circumstances, or other people and their neuroses, or just our own minds, our neuroses and our seeming inability to change. When we infuse our lives with a sense of lightness and joy and not taking things too seriously, it transforms our experience. Everything becomes much more workable, and we are able to relax right in the midst of chaos.

Our spiritual practice, too, should be a practice of maintaining a joyful mind. How often do we sit down to meditate as if we were going under the surgeon’s knife, as if meditation were a terrible and unpleasant chore that must be accomplished? With such an attitude, it’s little wonder we often lack enthusiasm for practice. Imagine, says Pema Chodron, what it might be like if we could bring to our spiritual practices the same sense of joy and delight and enthusiasm that we bring to, say, going for a swim, or eating popcorn and watching movies. We would probably be enlightened already!

When we find ourselves getting “too serious” about our spiritual practice, it might be helpful to turn down the flame on the stove a little bit, and let our practice simmer at a more reasonable pace rather than boiling over. Our challenge is often in knowing and respecting our own limits, and working at the level where we can maintain enthusiasm and joy.

We tend to think that our biggest obstacles and enemies are on the outside, in the shape of people and circumstances that challenge us. For instance, we might get very worked up thinking about the corrupt politicians, and the greedy Wall Street fatcats, and the lords of the military-industrial complex. We might get very enthusiastic about pointing the finger of blame at those people for many of the problems we see in the world today.

But in terms of what hinders our practice on the spiritual path, what stymies our awakening, it’s not the politicians or the fatcats or the five-star generals, or any other external figure — no matter how corrupt or misguided or galling they might be. In fact, no one outside of ourselves really has the power to hinder our awakening in the slightest. What hinders our awakening is the enemy within: our own mournful weariness, our laziness, discouragement, despair, depression and fatigue — all the internal enemies that deprive us of joyful exertion and make us withdraw fearfully into our protective shell.

The irony is that we devote ourselves whole-heartedly and enthusiastically to the pursuit and acquisition of external things that promise to make us comfortable and happy: money, possessions, relationships, careers, hobbies and so on. We don’t seem to have any shortage of joyful exertion for grasping at shiny baubles and emotional highs. Yet we seem unwilling to pursue the causes of true and lasting happiness — enlightenment itself — with the same zeal and enthusiasm. At bottom, it’s a question of understanding what really leads us to awakening and freedom, and what further ensnares us in suffering and delusion. When we hold the answer to that question deep in our bones, then our priorities become clear, and mournful weariness evaporates. With that kind of wind at our backs, we will not find it so difficult to always maintain only a joyful mind.

* I'm indebted to Tenzin Palmo for sharing, in one of her Dharma teachings, this beautiful story about St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

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