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Lions Roar : September 2013
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2013 43 Everything we do will eventually come to an end. We can’t step away from our death. We can’t contrive not to be there when a bomb goes off. By definition we are walking in the dark and feeling our way and can’t control the outcomes. We can’t always do it right. Self-improvement transcends itself when we pay attention for its own sake Like our purchases on Amazon, self-improvement is moving us both toward and away from happiness. When we meditate for a purpose—to be calm, to gain insight—we are striving, not meditat- ing. If we spend our time assessing how we are doing, we are defend- ing ourselves against the intimacy of life, not letting it get hold of us. There is something else, too. The problem with having a known goal is that it is a purchase from the store of things we already know, when what we truly want is something glimpsed dimly and imagined in a haze. We assume that the self is more or less fixed and just needs cleaning up around the edges—maybe we stop procrastinating or calm down. When I set off on a spiritual quest, I had not imagined what I wanted. My goals were provisional and stood in for my deep- est desire, which was something like to join the world, to forget about who I thought I was, and to enter each moment utterly. But I didn’t know that; it was secret even from me. I just knew that I was outside of my life, impermeable and lonely. The view changes as we walk along the path and we abandon the goals that, at first, we had in mind. It’s painful to let go of our origi- nal intentions but, eventually, they are in the way because we have been changed, we are no longer the person who set off. Our intentions gave us the journey and that is enough. Self-improvement transcends itself when we pay attention for its own sake. We don’t pay attention in order to be happy or to fix the problem or to improve ourselves. Attention is a kind of love and our way of showing up, and when we do that, life unfolds by itself. Love is fundamentally modest. It doesn’t try for an out- come; it doesn’t wish it had a different moment from the now it has now or different people from the ones it is with. Love trusts that it is not separate from the world because it is the world. Forgetting the self is fun An attorney friend of mine saw his job as making his adversaries fear him. This stance encouraged the other side to dodge a trial and was useful, too, if the trial went ahead. He was always angry and it seemed to be effective. His family often told him that he was impossible, but he brushed it off as the price of success. One day the Dalai Lama arrived in Tucson, where my friend lived, and for reasons not obvious, the attorney went to hear him. It was four days of lectures and, to him, incredibly boring. It occurred to him that in spite of all that had happened to the Dalai Lama and to his country, the Dalai Lama wasn’t enraged. The attorney walked out of the seminar thinking, “He’s a nice guy, but he must be crazy if he thinks I’m going to give up being angry.” The next night a man cut him off on the freeway, and my friend leaned on the horn. The other driver gave him the finger and shouted at him. The attorney considered ramming the other car and was about to start shouting, too, when he thought, “Wait, I paid for this Buddhist course. I’ve sat—no—wriggled through it for four miserable days. Why not try it once?” He imagined the guy in the other car was a nice person, and the attorney began laughing. His mind exploded with happiness. His previous way of feeling was so silly. His idea about who he was fell off him. My friend had a real estate client who hated paying taxes and had ignored messages from the city. With penalties and fines, this client had turned a manageable tax bill into something large and unwieldy. The attorney’s old strategy would have been to go into the city and threaten and yell and make an offer to settle. Then the city might accept the settlement and close the case. This time, as an experiment, he behaved like a fellow human. It wasn’t hard; he just imagined the city worker’s life, what it must be like to deal with dissatisfied and unreasonable people day after day. He asked her if it was hard dealing with angry people. She said, “Everyone who comes here is angry.” She was astonished that he was interested. The attorney explained his case and the confusion and the fees being run up, and wondered if the city could come to terms. He didn’t feel obliged to lie about whose fault it was. They chatted for a bit, and he walked out with an unusually favorable reduction in the bill. That wasn’t the main discovery, though. The attorney was hap- pier. Anger was a coat that was difficult to take off at the end of the day. Other emotions now appeared. He appreciated the city employee, he enjoyed the beauty of the great saguaros in the desert. He was embarrassed by the thought of what his wife and chil- dren had put up with. It was true that he had been confused—he had thought he needed to be angry to feed his family. But his family was grateful when he stopped helping them in that way. We work hard to keep our idea of ourselves, but that idea is just made up and we are better off without it. My friend became a different person. He wrote a book about anger and began teach- ing other attorneys what he had noticed. Helping others turned out to be a natural feature of who he was. Change doesn’t have to be slow It doesn’t have to take very long for change to get set in motion. Once upon a time I was working as a copy editor and I noticed that my mind was itself a tangled manuscript and that attempts to untangle made it more tangled. and you could use a little improvement...