Tag Archives: Buddhist teachings

Awakening the Heart: Patience

011Part 3 in a series of posts about improving any type of relationship by practicing basic Buddhist teachings, based on a non-residential day retreat taught by the lamas at the Buddhist temple where I used to work. The six basic Paramitas (a word which means ‘going beyond’): generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom. For this series of posts, I have been writing about the first three Paramitas, which focus on our relationship with others (the second three Paramitas, equally important, have more to do with our inner selves). [Read Part 1, Generosity, here]

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If you thought the previous post, Ethics, was hard, brace yourself for patience. When we think of patience, the first thing that comes to mind is waiting in line at the grocery store or maintaining your composure when your young child asks “Why?” for the twenty-eighth time that day. But patience is much more than waiting or grinning and bearing.

It involves endurance and forbearance, and as such, is about strengthening ourselves. When I first heard this tenet, it resonated with me on a deep level. At the time, I was dealing with some very challenging behavior with my young adult son (who has autism, epilepsy, and bipolar), and I realized how important the concept of strengthening was for me. I wondered what on earth I could do to strengthen myself even further, since I figured I had already developed an excess amount of patience over the years. What more could I do? How could I continue to live with the emotional and verbal abuse?

I learned that I could start by “demilitarizing” myself on the inside. According to the Buddhist view, we are victims of our emotions unless we notice how we express them. We must be present, alert, and aware. And we should try not to aggravate the situation by thinking negatively.

For example, my son’s worst episodes of abuse (directed at me) occurred before his bipolar was diagnosed and managed by medication. Negative thinking caused me to lash out in my defense, and to take personally the ugly things he said. I wasn’t realizing that the malfunction of his neurotransmitters had caused it.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that we should just continue to take the abuse. We need to know when it is necessary to defend ourselves and to what degree. When we are in danger of being harmed physically, we should get out of the way. When we are at a point of lashing out, we should leave the room.

The hardest thing is to be patient with a being who causes hurt to ourselves or others. Patience is an antidote to anger, aggression, and aversion, which are obstacles to peace and harmony. Buddhism teaches that the anger is the enemy, not the person. We need to investigate the nature of the one causing harm before taking it personally. Perhaps a loved one had just died. Perhaps they just lost their job or their home. Perhaps they are in pain or have an untreated disorder. This doesn’t excuse or justify the behavior, but it could explain it and help us to find ways to alleviate it.

One of the central teachings of Buddhism is that suffering is a part of life – it’s a universal condition. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” (attributed to several different sources), is highly applicable here. In my case, my son’s behavior improved for a while, then became abusive again. It was a huge part of why I pursued having him receive supported living services while moving him into his own apartment. I was getting out of the way, strengthening myself. And it worked.

Awakening the Heart: Ethics

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Part 2 in a series of posts about improving any type of relationship by practicing basic Buddhist teachings, based on a retreat taught by the lamas at the Buddhist temple where I work. The six basic Paramitas (a word which means ‘going beyond’): generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom. For this series of posts, I will be writing about the first three Paramitas, which focus on our relationship with others (the second three Paramitas, equally important, have more to do with our inner selves). [Read Part 1, Generosity, here]

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Merriam-Webster defines “ethics” as such:

ethics: an area of study that deals with ideas about what is good and bad behavior | a branch of philosophy dealing with what is morally right or wrong

That’s a pretty general description. How, then, does the topic of ethics apply to interpersonal relationships? Buddhism has a few things to say about that.

Ethics in this context is not about judgment between right and wrong, good and bad, and whether someone is or isn’t. In Buddhism, ethics is more about refining, sort of like editing a piece of writing. We take a closer look at our conduct, how we relate to others, and noticing both of these things. After that, ethics refers to what we do about it.

In doing so, we develop a vigilance about our behavior. This does not mean that we nit-pick or brow-beat ourselves for every mistake. Mistakes are useful for us because we learn from them! A rather obvious concept, one I’m sure you’ve heard before, but so difficult for us to embrace.

Of course there are different levels of “mistakes.” One could say that consuming caffeine before bedtime is a mistake. One could also say that driving drunk and causing someone’s death is a mistake. In that case, “mistake” is a tremendous understatement, but one would hope that those responsible for such a tragedy would learn from it, at the very least. There are unfortunately those who don’t seem to learn from their mistakes. Perhaps it is because they have not developed a vigilance about their behavior. Learning from mistakes usually requires changing our behavior, and some people (of those who have the ability to do so) choose not to.

When we take a closer look at our behavior, the refining part of ethics also teaches us to adopt what is beneficial and reject what is harmful. We let go of what doesn’t serve ourselves or others. It sounds lofty – “what doesn’t serve ourselves or others” – but how does that translate in the real world?  Certain emotions spring to mind – jealousy, anger, resentment. Gossiping fits the bill. Excess TV-watching. These are not “bad” or “wrong” things, as the dictionary defines ethics. But if we are refining our behavior, we might question how these things are serving us.

On the flipside, beneficial behavior would be acceptance, forgiveness, and motivation. Don’t be jealous because your co-worker bought a new car. Look at your behavior (spending vs. saving, industriousness to increase your income vs. excess TV-watching) and be motivated. If she can afford something she really wants, you can too. Refine your behavior. Adopt what is beneficial.

As there are different levels of mistakes, there are different levels of difficulty in letting go of what does not serve you. For example, if you had been abused as a child, of course you have the right to be angry and resentful. You have every right to feel that way. But, ultimately, how do those feelings affect you? Does continuing to be angry make the pain go away? If anything, it only adds to your pain to hold onto it. Letting go of this level of pain requires much work and/or professional help, but it is worth it for your well-being. Reject what is harmful.

Everything we do affects the world around us, including ourselves. Our lives are interdependent, which is why refining our behavior, adopting what is beneficial, and rejecting what is harmful are decisions worth making. And actions worth taking.

Awakening the Heart: Generosity

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Part 1 in a series of posts about improving any type of relationship by practicing basic Buddhist teachings

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After almost 15 years of managing accounts in the fast-paced, demanding office of an order fulfillment company, I landed a job at the complete opposite end of the stress meter. For almost a year now, I have been the Office Coordinator of a Buddhist temple.  I work with wonderful, compassionate people in a peaceful environment with two wise, funny, and amazing Tibetan Lamas. Last year they conducted a non-residential day retreat to teach the six basic Paramitas (a word which means ‘going beyond’): generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom. For this series of posts, I will be writing about the first three Paramitas, which focus on our relationship with others (the second three Paramitas, equally important, have more to do with our inner selves).

Generosity, the first Paramita, is more about how we give than how much. One of my favorite quotes of the whole teaching retreat is “We have a fondness for imagining that we are poor and occupied at all times.” How true is that?! When the lamas said this, everyone laughed with the recognition that we all do exactly that. How many times do we talk about how busy we are, as if it’s a contest? How many times do we complain about not being able to afford something?

But knowing this about ourselves, that we believe we are poor and occupied at all times, makes generosity that much more meaningful. Being generous is more than giving a gift, donating to a cause, or volunteering at a soup kitchen. It’s about the attitude we bring to it, the hold that we have on whatever we’re giving – money, objects, or time – or the expectations of how our generosity should be received.

We probably all know someone who gives things to people with conditions attached, usually along the lines of “take care of this in case someday you no longer want it and I’ll take it back.” If we’re going to give something to someone, whether old or new, we must release the hold we have on what we view as ours. Practice letting go of the object and give fully, without attachment.

Perhaps the most difficult thing of all to accept and practice is to give without expectation of the results. That means giving teenagers $75 for their birthday and expecting them to buy a jacket or something else they might need, and you’re bothered by the fact that they decide they want to invite their friends to have a pizza party and race go-karts. Or they give some to a poor friend who needs new shoes. It means helping someone by loaning them money and not expecting them to do something for you, like helping them to move or fix their computer, as thanks. It even means not expecting thanks – some people might have disorders that make it difficult for them to say thank you, or remember to say it, or they’re embarrassed.

And it’s logical to think, “Well, if I give them something and they can’t even say thank you, they should be embarrassed.” But the word generous means “free in giving,” and even if someone should say thanks, which is the socially expected thing to do, we are not being truly free in giving if what we give comes with conditions and expectations. If someone doesn’t thank you or reciprocate and this bothers you, you can simply choose to stop giving to that person if you want to.

The lesson here is that no one should feel forced to do anything. No one’s saying they should keep giving if they don’t receive anything in return. This is just food for thought about what it really means to give without expecting anything – keeping the object in good condition in case they can give it back to you at some point, giving money saying that it can only be spent how you want it to be, even receiving a thank you – in return. I know, I’m there with you – it’s a concept that is difficult to understand, let alone embrace, but that’s why it’s a Paramita – it’s ‘going beyond’ what we know, and what we believe. No one’s saying we have to do this. But what if we did?