Friday, April 8, 2011

Practicing Dharma Without Becoming a Doormat

Recently someone wrote to me with the following question:

How does one who is on the path practice love, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, etc. without becoming a doormat? Our culture is so plagued with fear greed, ignorance and anger that I find it difficult to rise above it all and work from a higher spiritual plane. When people violate me, I want to fight back instead of sort of "stepping off the playing field."

Over the years, I've found that this is a frequently asked question -- especially among people who are new to the path of meditation and Dharma practice. That is not to say that it's a naive question. It's a fundamental one, for it goes right to the heart of the matter. And there is no easy answer for it. The path of Dharma does not provide us with easy, prefabricated answers to living questions; we must find our answers in each moment, and then find them again in the next.

But I've observed that this is one of those questions that ceases to plague people as they continue going deeper into their practice and spiritual path. It's not that it ever really goes away; but we begin to understand that the question hinges on a perceived separation between life and spiritual practice that doesn't truly exist.

Practicing love, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness and so on does not, of course, mean that we should make ourselves into a doormat for other people's abuse. For starters, we should extend the same friendliness and compassion to ourselves that we aspire to extend to others. The Buddha said that we could search the entire universe and we would not find anyone more worthy of our love than we ourselves are. So putting ourselves in a position of being repeatedly violated by another is not practicing compassion or love towards ourselves.

The Buddhist path is often misunderstood (and mis-applied) as a practice of passivity -- dis-engaging from the world and retreating into oneself. Certainly, retreat (in the literal sense) has its purpose and value for a practitioner, in terms of deepening and stabilizing one's own experience of truth. But real Dharma practice is not navel-gazing, or fiddling while Rome burns -- it's being fully engaged in one's life and world and relationships, with no separation and no prefabricated rules.

In the Sadhana of Mahamudra, Chogyam Trungpa described -- in poetic language -- the wisdom of a fully realized being:

He is dark red in color, symbolizing the oneness of everything within compassion. He is inseparable from peacefulness and yet he acts whenever action is required. He subdues what needs to be subdued, he destroys what needs to be destroyed and he cares for whatever needs his care.

If being inseparable from peacefulness and yet acting whenever action is required seems paradoxical, that's good -- because it is. As Zen master Suzuki Roshi said, if something isn't paradoxical, it isn't true.

As we grow on our path, we begin to see that we can act whenever action is required, but that action can come from a different motivation. It's no longer "fighting back" in the usual sense, which comes from aggression and fear, a sense of closing down and tightening. Rather, our action can come from a place of compassion and staying open to other people's basic goodness (even when they're behaving atrociously).

Sometimes that means retreating from the situation and giving it space. Sometimes it means sitting down and having a frank conversation, and sharing your perspective. Sometimes it means protesting. Sometimes it means walking away entirely, and never looking back. Sometimes it means giving someone a gift to show that you care. Sometimes it means calling the police and pressing charges. You get the idea.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, no predetermined course of action. We meet each situation that arises with fresh awareness and open heart, and we respond in whatever way is most beneficial. Making ourselves into a doormat is rarely the appropriate response.


NellaLou said...

"The Buddha said that we could search the entire universe and we would not find anyone more worthy of our love than we ourselves are."

I have seen this quote numerous times but can find no reference for its origin in Buddhist doctrines or works. Can you tell me where its from?


Dennis Hunter said...

NellaLou, good question. I haven't tracked down the original source of that quote, either. It appears in Sharon Salzberg's book Lovingkindness, and in several thousand other places offline and on. Mine was a paraphrase, BTW.

wayfarer said...

Very good post. The salient point is that it 'stops plaguing people when they have actually embarked on the practice.' This is because, perhaps, the idea itself is really the ego saying 'doesn't this mean I will be defenceless? If I give myself up, who is going to look after me?' Then later, of course, the answer to that question becomes embarrasingly obvious.

But try explaining that....... Some things just have to happen in their own good time, I guess.

Tanner Jessel said...

"You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection"