It’s that time of year again. The time when we participate in gatherings that may or may not inspire joy. Sometimes we do it just because we feel obligated. Or maybe it’s something we’ve always done so tradition (or, perhaps, inertia) is the motivator. Often these gatherings turn out to be better than we anticipated. Almost never does something turn out the way we expect it to. But sometimes dealing with certain relatives or other attendees at various functions can be a source of exasperation. We may be subjected to opinions we don’t share or rituals that annoy us. When confronted with situations like this it may help to remember that these are prime opportunities for practice.
First, we can practice gratitude. In an article in Tricycle magazine, Judy Lief, a Buddhist teacher, wrote about the “mind-training” teachings of Atisha, an Indian who lived in ancient times and proposed 59 slogans for preparing the mind for service to others, compassion and loving kindness. In connection with slogan 13: “Be grateful to everyone”, Ms. Lief writes:
“Instead of appreciating what we have, we keep focusing on what we do not have. We are filled with grudges and resentments and have strong opinions about what we deserve and what is our due. We may be taught to say “please” and “thank you,” but what have we been taught about appreciation?
In our commodified world, we see things as material for our consumption. We don’t ask, we just take. And in the blindness of our wealth and privilege, we don’t see how much we have to be grateful for. We take all that we have for granted and we live in a very ungrateful world.
This slogan assumes that we at least have basic gratitude for the good things that befall us. It then challenges us to extend that feeling of gratitude to include not just gratitude for what is positive, but gratitude for the negative also.
According to this slogan, we should be especially grateful for having to deal with annoying people and difficult situations, because without them we would have nothing to work with. Without them, how could we practice patience, exertion, mindfulness, loving-kindness or compassion? It is by dealing with such challenges that we grow and develop. So we should be very grateful to have them.”
It’s worth adding that we live in a pretty unforgiving and intolerant world as well. A little extra tolerance goes a long way at any time of year, but particularly now when we are celebrating peace on earth and good will towards all.
“If you have friends or relatives with whom you disagree about such things as the war in Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be painful. Practice deep listening: Listen without arguing, and try to hear what the other is really saying, remembering that . . . all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering. . . . If we human beings are going to stick around on this earth, we need to learn to get along not just with the people who share our views, but also, and more to the point, with the people who get our goat. And remember—we get their goat, too.”
We will probably never convince these people that we are right, just like they will probably never convince us that they are right either. And after all, who among us really knows what is “right” or what is “wrong”. The only thing we really know is that every choice has consequences. For me, the key point here is that “all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering”. We all have our own irrational fears. Once upon a time everyone was a baby. Each of us came into the world without expectations or knowledge. We may have genetic conditions that influence who we become, but much of our lives is a product of the environment in which we find ourselves. Our arrival on the planet is an accident of birth for which we have no responsibility and over which we had no choice. I reflect on this frequently. We all make choices, but we also have to play the hand we’re dealt. It might help to remember that when responding to difficult people.
But all of this is solemn stuff at a time when we are supposed to feel joy. Of course, we shouldn’t need a special time of year for joy. Every day is an opportunity for gratitude. So maybe just for today, count your blessings and forget about your perceived shortcomings. We’ve now passed the Winter Solstice so every day will have just a little bit more daylight. Here is one more quote from another Tricycle article to inspire us to celebrate the light, this one from Zen Master Sheng Yen:
“When a candle is lit in a dark room, it illuminates the room to some extent, but its power is limited. But if you use the same candle to light another candle, the total brightness increases. If you continue to do this, you can fill the room with brilliant illumination. The idea of transferring merit to others is like this. If we keep our own light selfishly hidden, it will only provide a limited amount of illumination.”
Let us all shine our lights! Happy Holidays to all!