A student asks:
“How do we strike a balance between not letting people walk all over us and responding from the position of letting go of our mentally constructed selves and worlds?”
Lama Shenpen replies:
This is what I am trying to teach all the time really. It’s a long training but it is already better once one has got a sense of what one is trying to do here. As you say it is a matter of striking a balance which means we have to honour both sides of the matter all the time.
The answer isn’t ‘Oh yes, if there is conflict, then it’s obviously your fault, so give in to the other person’. How would parents ever rear children or anyone manage anything in human affairs, if that were the only approach? The aggressor would win every time and the meek would not inherit the earth – far from it!
We have to be strong and stand up for ourselves, but not in the sense of trying to prove anything. We have to learn to respond to forces that come to us from outside in an open, clear and sensitive manner and that doesn’t mean caving in all the time.
It often means really allowing that force to express itself as we open to it and then taking the energy of the force itself into the spaciousness of our being.
There we will find an appropriate response – even if not at first. We may not find it at first because we are not skilled enough at letting the force touch us – it comes at us sideways and sends us flying. It is all rather undignified this learning process – but we don’t have to lose our sense of humour (although it’s very hard not to).
This aspect of our practice is expressed in terms of mandala principle*. Our being is a mandala of body, speech, mind/heart and environment and we have to be aware of the whole of that as one system somehow.
It has to be integrated, otherwise the Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity of the whole thing cannot express itself properly and you get inappropriate responses.
We might kind of try to harden our hearts, stiffen our body and cut ourselves off from our environment – but this doesn’t have the desired effect. It’s an inappropriate response. It makes us more fragile, vulnerable and unhappy – it’s the sure way to lose one’s sense of humour for a long time.
Instead we need to realise we are robust – made of rubber. We can be knocked down again and again but there is something in us that will always bounce back (because we are made of nothing less than Openness Clarity and Sensitivity – we are indestructible).
Interestingly, it’s when we try to retreat from the environment, stiffen and harden our hearts and try to cut off, that we become more easy to walk over. So sometimes it helps just to deliberately remember to not shrink, not harden, but keep our hearts open and keep in touch with the aggressor somehow.
It helps to keep your feet on the ground at the same time. It’s good to maintain strong body awareness because that helps you to not cave in, stiffen or fall over. It feels so much more dignified if you don’t fall over, but never mind if you do. It doesn’t matter. Down is a good place to get up from – there is only way then and that is up. Never forget that!
So there are some tips. You may find some sort of therapy or counselling helps sometimes. It can help you spot the false moves you habitually make which are often hard to spot. Even when spotted though they are hard to give up, so you have to learn not to mind too much when you get knocked over.
The important thing is to learn to trust your own innate responsiveness to gradually teach you the difference between appropriate responsiveness and just reactive counter-aggression.
It is important not to forget that it can sometimes be that you are inadvertently the aggressor without realising it. Your fear of being walked over may lead you to take a position that provokes a reaction in the other person that comes to you out of the blue as aggression, which you feel you need to protect yourself from.
So maybe with more attention you could preempt the whole battle by noticing your own unskilful communication. It’s just a thought. We all have to keep open to such possibilities without being so terrified of the possibility that we do not dare speak up in case it turns out we are in the wrong. Speak up and be heard – that is the best way to find out if you are wrong or not – well often it is.
This is a more sophisticated approach than traditional Buddhist teachings on good actions to adopt and bad ones to give up. It is questioning whether a reaction is in fact coming from anger and hatred at all.
It is suggesting that actually anger and hatred come from not really opening to situations properly and so our responses are confused and inappropriate. It is a much more direct way of talking and covers all situations from the gross to the subtle. So it’s elegant I think and effective.
Instead of asking someone else or a rule book to tell us what is an appropriate response, we look into our own hearts and chose for ourselves. In the end this is a much surer path to Awakening than following rules and judgments laid down for us by others or through our own unquestioned conditioned responses.
Lama Shenpen Hookham
*Mandala Principle is taught as part of the Living the Awakened Heart Training. Mandala is kyilkor in Tibetan and literally means a centre and a periphery – every experience has this structure. Mandala Principle is about the pattern and structure of everything that happens. Read an article introducing Mandala Principle here.