Note: The following are excerpts from I May Be Wrong by Björn Natthiko Lindeblad.
I. Thoughts are not a problem in and of themselves, of course. But automatically, uncritically identifying with every passing thought – that’s a huge problem. The untrained mind often does this. We feel that our identity and our thoughts are inextricably linked. I’m not here to encourage positive thinking. Absolutely not. Personally, I’m not convinced positive thinking is very powerful. I’ve always found it to be relatively superficial. What about trying not to think at all, then? Good luck with that one. I would go so far as to say that’s pretty much physically impossible. Try not to think about a pink elephant. Our brain is unable to comprehend the word ‘not’. But learning how to let go of a thought – that can be endlessly helpful.
So how do you let go of a train of thought that’s dragging you along with it? You turn your attention elsewhere. The only thing fuelling your thoughts is your attention. Imagine a fist unclenching into an open hand – it shows us how we can let go of things and thoughts and let them fly. That simple gesture, of briefly letting go of what we’re thinking about, goes a long way. Deliberately and consciously directing our attention towards something less complicated, such as a physical experience like breathing, can constitute a healing, soothing break from our inner chaos.
II. At first, it was a huge challenge for me. I had a tendency to compare myself too much to the other monks. I tormented myself with thoughts like: ‘You’re not as intelligent as Sujato. You’re not as empathetic as Nyanarato. Not as patient as Tejapañño. Not as mindful as Chandako.’ At the same time, every single one of them irked me in one way or another. People can really get on your nerves, can’t they? They annoyed me; I was upset when they didn’t behave like I felt they should. But after a while, I recognised the pain in all that resistance I was creating inside myself. Slowly but surely, something inside me became a little more generous. I learned not to have so many opinions about others, to let them be the way they were. Our abbot encouraged us to think of it this way: All of us are like pebbles washed up on a beach. When we get there, we’re rough and jagged. Then the waves of life roll in. And if we can find it in us to stay there and let the other pebbles on the beach jostle us and rub against us and wear us down, our sharp edges will slowly but surely fade. We’ll become rounded and smooth, we’ll reflect the light and begin to shine. It’s only human to find other people annoying. It happens to all of us. But it’s a huge energy suck and can turn into an unnecessary drain on your resources. I’m happy to tell you there’s a solution to the problem. If you want someone to be easy to deal with, to behave in a way you find tolerable, there’s really only one way: learn to like them exactly as they are. Because when has anyone, in the entire history of the universe, ever become more like someone else thought they ought to be, simply because that person walked around judging them? And yet, we keep doing it. It’s astonishing to the point of almost being adorable. We think we’re so omnipotent. I know what everyone should be like and I’m going to make myself suffer psychologically if they refuse to comply. We really think a lot of ourselves!
On this particular night, Ajahn Jayasaro told us something that sounded a bit like a fairy tale, an old story from China. He described a small Chinese village in which lived a very wise man and his adult son. The two of them had a very chatty neighbour. The wise man and his son owned a small farm, consisting of a handful of rice paddies. To help with the farming, they had a draught horse. One day the horse escaped from its pasture and ran into the woods. The chatty neighbour stuck his nose over the fence and lamented: ‘Oh no! Yesterday, you had a horse, and now you don’t! How are you going to run your farm without a single draught animal? What bad luck!’ The wise farmer replied with an expression that in Thai takes the form Mai nae. It means something like ‘who is to say’. I like to translate it as ‘maybe, maybe not’. A few days later, the horse returned from the woods of its own accord and brought with it two wild horses. All three happily walked through the gate to the pasture. The farmer closed the gate behind them and noticed his chatty neighbour poking his nose in again: ‘Oh! Yesterday you had no draught animals at all and today you have three horses – how lucky!’ The wise farmer calmly replied: ‘Mai nae. Maybe, maybe not.’ After a while, it was time to tame the wild horses, to break them in. The farmer’s son set to the task. But before long, he fell off one of the horses and broke his leg. The chatty neighbour again: ‘Oh no! Your only son, the only person you have to help out on your farm. Now that his leg is broken he won’t be of any use in the fields any more. How unlucky!’ The farmer replied: ‘Maybe, maybe not.’ A short time later, the imperial army’s pennants were seen snapping in the wind beyond the crests of the surrounding hills. The army was marching towards the village. Conflict had broken out on the Mongolian border and all men of fighting age were press-ganged into joining the army to fight the Mongols. Except for the farmer’s son, of course, since he had a broken leg. He was allowed to stay in the village. Once again, the chatty neighbour popped up and said: ‘Imagine! Everyone else lost their sons, and many are surely destined never to return. But you got to keep your son. How lucky!’ The farmer: ‘Maybe, maybe not.’
The farmer doesn’t believe it’s possible to know whether things that happen in life are good or bad. Loosening our grip on those types of convictions is both liberating and a sign of wisdom. There’s a lot to be gained from remembering just how little we really know about the future, from objectively separating what we believe from what we know. I’ve rarely heard anyone say: ‘Everything turned out exactly the way I thought it would.’ On the contrary, for my part at least, I would have to concede that most of the things I’ve worried about in my life, never happened. And most of the things that did happen, I could never have seen coming.
Love is one of the hardest subjects to talk about with sincerity. Love for others and love for oneself. It’s a sensitive subject because it is so closely linked to what’s most vulnerable in us humans. But that’s also why it’s so important. The Buddha singled out four emotions he considered divine. They’re called Brahmavihāra – dwelling of gods – because it’s in these feelings the gods are found. It’s also where the divinity in us humans is found. The beauty in us. One of the divine emotions is loving-kindness. One is compassion. One is something we don’t really have a good word for in the West: Muditā – humanity’s inherent capacity to feel joy at our own and others’ success. That feeling we have when someone we like is doing well, when they’re happy. The closest translation might be empathetic joy. The fourth is a bit out of left field: Upekkha. Equanimity is a common English translation. It’s an emotion that contains a large measure of wisdom. Often, it’s the basic emotional chord of awareness. Something tender. Wide-eyed. Awake. Something inside us that is capable of taking everything in and understanding that in this moment, things are the way they’re meant to be. In his instructions for how to grow in these divine virtues, these beautiful resting places in the human heart, the Buddha put it very plainly and simply: ‘You always have to start with yourself.’ Your compassion for others will always fall short and remain fragile, so long as you’re unable to extend it to yourself first. In order to grow in our love, we need to be able to direct our tenderness inwards. Unfortunately, I think a lot of us overlook that, fail to make it a priority. We’re often critical and hard on ourselves, failing to see that we, too, deserve compassion. Especially when we’re not feeling well.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could approach the things that hurt inside us with a bit more sensitivity, patience and empathy? Wouldn’t it be valuable if we could meet our pain by genuinely and honestly asking ourselves the question: ‘Is there any way I can help myself in this moment, so that I don’t have to feel like this needlessly, and for too long? Is there anything I can do for myself to make it a little bit easier to be me?’ We often find this challenging on an intellectual plane. It’s far too easy to miss the quiet voice of our hearts when our heads are bellowing: ‘I shouldn’t feel this bad. I shouldn’t react to this thing. I shouldn’t be so easily riled, so easily hurt, so envious, so resentful.’ But one thing’s for sure – that kind of rebuke won’t help anyone who’s dealing with difficult emotions. Instead, we need to go to that place where it hurts and try to see it with as much compassion and understanding as we can muster. See if we can find a way to counter the dark thoughts and drag them out into the light, without believing their content.
If we can begin to see ourselves in a more forgiving, tolerant light, treating the people around us the same way follows naturally. But as long as we continue to view ourselves from a harsh and demanding perspective, we can’t give others absolute love either. We don’t even have to use the word love if that feels too grand. One of my big monastic role models back in the day was Ajahn Sumedho – a large American, born the same year as my dad. He eventually settled on using the word non-aversion instead of love. It’s not exactly gushing, but maybe it’s a more realistic goal. Can I strengthen my capacity for non-aversion? To not dislike things. Things in myself and in others. I know a lot of people whose compassion is hampered because they consider themselves deficient and inadequate. They don’t consider themselves worthy of that emotional care. But if we’re waiting until we feel worthy of love, until that feeling just magically appears, we risk having to wait forever. What does it take for us to feel we deserve human warmth from ourselves? How good, beautiful and successful do we have to become? How long do we have to atone for our tiny mistakes? How immaculately do we have to do everything we put our hands to? Will we ever get there?