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Lions Roar : March 2014
they receded, he would say to them, “Are you mad?” drawing out the last word to make me laugh. Blaming is like those waves hit- ting the shore over and over again. It hits a contradicting reality, disintegrates, and then gathers force again. There is a parable about blame first recorded by the Chinese mystic Huang Tzu more than three hundred years ago. Imagine you are in a rowboat on a lake. It is a beautiful calm day, and you are enjoying the peacefulness of the moment. But then you notice there is another boat heading straight toward you. You shout, “Look out!” and wave your arms, but the boat keeps com- ing. You try to steer out of the way, but it’s too late. You keep shouting, but the boat keeps coming. It rams into you, knocking you into the water. You are cold, wet, and your beautiful day— your serenity—is ruined. “What are you doing?” you yell at the driver of the other boat. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” Then you look into the other boat. It is empty. This story helps remind me that the bumps aren’t personal. We’re all just empty boats bumping up against each other. But even knowing no one’s inside, I usually find myself peering in, looking for a culprit. People should remember to tie up their empty rowboats or, if they are tied up, to tie tighter knots. How do I undo a lifetime of blaming habit? I’ve found there are only two effective antidotes: gratitude and co-responsibility. But gratitude is a tricky emotion. As soon as I think I’m supposed to feel it, as soon as I catch a whiff of even the slightest hint of obligation, any gratitude I might have felt is replaced immedi- ately with resentment. So I was taken off guard when, a couple of years ago, I came across the Kataññu Sutta, a Pali teaching on gratitude. It says: “Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder and your father on the other shoulder for a hundred years, and you were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, and rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate and urinate right there on your shoulders, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents.” This no-excuses, go-ahead-and-pee-on-my-shoulders type of gratitude is so counterintuitive to my well-worn and boring rut of blaming that I’ve made a conscious decision to move toward it. After all, what if it didn’t matter who locked the door or made the dinner? I am here, alive, and healthy, and I could not have gotten here on my own. Recently, when I was getting over the flu, my mother came over for dinner. In the morning, I’d set the table and prepped some food. After work, I picked up the kids, took them to an after-school class, and got groceries. When I arrived home, I tripped over my mother’s shoes. She was sitting on the couch, checking her email. Bob Marley was blaring from our stereo. Her jacket and half-eaten snacks were on the floor, and there was a trail of dirty dishes in each room. I carried in the grocery bags and started toward the kitchen. Putting the lettuce and cucumbers away, I thought, “How like my mother, to make a mess and not help with dinner. Can’t she see how tired I am?” It was an old thought and it sounded old in my head, coming out in a croaky whine. A few months earlier, my mother and her best friend had taken my older daughter for two whole weeks. My daughter had come back thrilled, full of stories, and without a scratch. I owe my mother a huge gaping shoulder-carrying debt of gratitude. And yet my critical mind kept rattling on. Then I put down the vegetables and I stopped. My father had arrived, and he and my mother and my partner and chil- dren were all talking at once, interrupting each other to show off various new skills and the day’s creations. If my mother weren’t so good at taking care of herself, she wouldn’t be able to be so generous or have the energy or physical ability to take my older daughter on a trip or hold my younger daughter upside down, as she was doing now. In that moment, I was flooded with grati- tude. There was my loving partner and my healthy, happy children. There was the delicious dinner I was about to eat and the fact that my parents were both alive, basically well, and—though long divorced—able to easily join together for a meal. I was so thankful I could not speak. I leaned against the kitchen counter. Then my mom waltzed in. “Anyone need help making a salad?” she asked. Blaming is neither true nor not true. It doesn’t take me even one tiny step closer to my or anyone else’s happiness or freedom. Lately, whenever someone is blaming or praising me, or when I’m blaming or praising myself, I practice this response from Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “You are partly right.” “You are partly right” means that there is some truth to the story, but it’s not the whole story. I love this because it acknowledges responsibility but also acknowledges that each story has more layers than one person can possibly see. While “fault” isn’t a particularly useful idea, “responsibility” is. We humans are intricately and necessarily connected to each other, not just for our happiness but also for our very existence. If this is the case, then it makes sense that we are responsible for what happens to each of us, both the good and the not so good. What about the really bad things? Those are someone’s fault, right? The person who hits his small child, the slave owner, the scientists who designed the gas chambers, the person who sees violence and does nothing, aren’t they—aren’t we—to blame? If we know who is at fault, maybe we can make sure that they don’t do it again. But blame doesn’t work that way. Assigning and tak- ing responsibility provides an opportunity to change. It gives us choice and power. Blame negates responsibility. It ends the sen- tence, closing off possibility. I just came back from my first trip to Germany. Soon after I arrived in Berlin, I visited the Holocaust memorial, a central city block of rectangular concrete slabs. A tour bus stopped and a Blaming is neither true nor not true. It doesn’t take me even one tiny step closer to my or anyone else’s happiness or freedom. SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2014 14