The release of self-forgiveness

Followers of the Jain religion believe the universe is shaped like a human body. Likewise, Taoists think society at large functions the same as a single person. Thus, when you understand yourself, you can supposedly understand the workings of the entire universe.

Similarly, I’ve noticed I reflect my inner state of mind onto the outside world. If I love and accept who I am, other people tend to pick up on my positive, carefree vibes and treat me more benevolently than if I despise myself. Like most others, I go through periods where I am less than happy with who I am. But I’ve realized this isn’t healthy for me or for anyone I come into contact with. Thus, personal growth is no selfish act. When you shine with joy, you contagiously spread beams of radiance while negativity simply dissipates into the air.

Once I worked with someone who made my blood boil a little. Although he was just a server in an average restaurant, he sauntered around the place reeking of arrogance. He wouldn’t do anybody a favor unless it made him look good. I hardly could have a conversation with him without consciously restraining myself because his stories of womanizing offended my feminist sensibilities.

On the flip side, I know my attitude toward him was just as immature as his cockiness. Seething about the guy only made me look down on him, just like he probably looked down on me.

Someone once told me that hate only hurts yourself. So true. When hatred – or any negative emotion – invades, it swiftly immerses me in a little bubble of red-hot fury. I become irrational. My nemesis appears subhuman in my eyes, and I stop treating him with dignity and respect. Anger never solves a thing. Hating him never made him a more compassionate person – it only transformed me into an immature little kid filled with an exaggerated sense of pride and entitlement. This uncontrollable anger always gripped me when I talked to him. A critical, judgmental coldness overtook any natural sense of goodwill.

Intuitively, my conscience says I should stop looking down on him. Countless religious and spiritual seekers have proven that happiness isn’t becoming superior to everyone – it’s letting go of your big, cumbersome ego and embracing a sense of humility.

Truly strong people don’t spend all their time sabotaging others or thinking about how much other people suck because they don’t need such petty compensation for their insecurities. Strength is kindness in the face of cruelty, not domination and superiority. The Dalai Lama said, “If the love within your mind is lost, and you see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education or material comfort you have, only suffering and confusion will ensue.” Any guru or priest probably will tell you the emotional and spiritual benefits of humility and love hugely outweigh the small and selfish satisfactions of hatred. I’ve noticed that when I am filled with love, I physically feel expanded. I am more connected and receptive to other people, and people sense and reflect my positive energy. Suddenly, the little things don’t seem so irritating. I am a lot happier when that screaming little ego isn’t getting in my way.

I’d love to claim that I am one of those untouchably positive souls who emits beams of radiance and loves everyone. But alas, I have a lot of work to do. And I can’t just tell myself, “Start unconditionally loving humanity, dang it!” You can’t just force yourself to love, like you make yourself get out of bed to get to class in the morning. Your efforts at compassion will seem just as groggy and reluctant as your weary face. Love is a strenuous and nearly impossible task when you feel about as compassionate as a block of concrete – when you’re locked in the haze of frustration, fear or defense. We’ve spent our entire lives programmed to look out for No. 1 and that won’t change overnight. The only thing that works for me is simply watching myself without judgment. When I’m angry and critical I watch my responses. Amazingly enough, when I simply observe my actions without constant critique, my flaws don’t seem to bother me as much. Then, these flaws are no longer despicable parts of myself – they are something separate from me that I detachedly observe from a distance, like watching a lion in a zoo cage.

You see, my co-worker embodies such an enormous threat to me only because I deeply fear becoming like him: arrogant, selfish and uninteresting. This guy probably makes me mad because he represents something I dread and repress within myself. Otherwise, he wouldn’t challenge me so much. Sometimes I feel selfish, which makes me so ashamed that I have spent my entire life running in the polar opposite direction, dabbling in spirituality, activism and volunteer work the entire way. Meanwhile, he shamelessly flaunts the very things I’ve spent my life running from. No wonder I can’t stand him. But here’s the irony: When I see him as a selfish bundle of pettiness, don’t I begin to engage in that very same pettiness?

Thus, when I unconditionally accept myself, flaws and all, I suddenly can tolerate my co-worker. Once I am in touch with my darker motives, they instantly loosen their iron grip on my actions. So what if he’s arrogant and rude? It doesn’t have to make my life any worse. And after all, he has good points I overlook when I’m seething mad. He makes conversation with me when I’m bored. He can be funny. He apologizes when he knows he has offended me.

So don’t waste your good intentions by suppressing your darker side. Accept yourself simply and fully because you can’t magically become someone you’re not. Only when we stop giving so much power to our darkest nature can it truly disappear.

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Embracing Imperfection

Sometimes the hardest part of spiritual growth is overcoming the expectation that my problems will disappear once I’m “good” enough.

I often assume that I must fix myself: I am acting too disorganized, emotional, insecure, stressed. Then, I seek answers. (Enter this blog, spiritual efforts, and personal growth.) During the process of searching, I uncover some epiphany: perhaps a lesson or a quote that awakens me a little. Maybe I learn that I’ve been too self-absorbed, or that I haven’t been living in the present. Maybe this time, if I really let go in meditation, or maintain the right frame of mind, or if I stop straying from my chosen spiritual path, essentially if I do it right, then I will reach some plateau of infinite fearlessness, calm, confidence, ambition…all my issues will disappear, and I will become effortlessly loving and accepting toward all humankind.

One important piece of wisdom I’ve recently uncovered is this: a lot of my life has consisted of my searching for something I’ve thought to be missing inside myself. While perhaps my goal is to come to terms with the fact that there is nothing missing. I am a process, a work in progress, and I always will be. There is no perfection, only the beautiful acceptance of imperfection.

Goal: to embrace the natural incompleteness of existence!

When I think about it, perfection is one of the most unrealistic expectations anyone could put upon themselves. I’m learning that life is usually an uphill battle. We don’t work hard all our lives just to get to a stopping point, where we can sit and bask forevermore. The turmoil is what shapes us. You will always make mistakes. Sometimes, you will be unreasonable. Angry. Confused. Hurt. You’ll hurt others. You’ll hate people, or even yourself. But over time, we learn and gradually see through our shallow shields of defense. They will slowly subside.

But one quick-fix solution is highly unlikely.

And yet, I keep assuming that if I can find that one thing to change my perspective, then I will be cured of the human experience? No. The principles I uncover in my spiritual path help me gradually, but not immediately. Not at once. And that’s okay.

There are only a few principles I can cling to, which I know will never fail: choosing love over fear, hope over despair, and letting go over a false sense of control.

Maybe the most I, or anyone, can do is to accept our beautifully flawed selves the way we are but to never give up trying to become better.

The Seduction of Pride

An old Buddhist story:

A devoted meditator, after years concentrating on a particular mantra, had attained enough insight to begin teaching. The student’s humility was far from perfect, but the teachers at the monastery were not worried.

A few years of successful teaching left the meditator with no thoughts about learning from anyone; but upon hearing about a famous hermit living nearby, the opportunity was too exciting to be passed up.

The hermit lived alone on an island at the middle of a lake, so the meditator hired a man with a boat to row across to the island. The meditator was very respectful of the old hermit. As they shared some tea made with herbs the meditator asked him about his spiritual practice. The old man said he had no spiritual practice, except for a mantra which he repeated all the time to himself. The meditator was pleased: the hermit was using the same mantra he used himself — but when the hermit spoke the mantra aloud, the meditator was horrified!

“What’s wrong?” asked the hermit.

“I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid you’ve wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!”

“Oh, Dear! That is terrible. How should I say it?”

The meditator gave the correct pronunciation, and the old hermit was very grateful, asking to be left alone so he could get started right away. On the way back across the lake the meditator, now confirmed as an accomplished teacher, was pondering the sad fate of the hermit.

“It’s so fortunate that I came along. At least he will have a little time to practice correctly before he dies.” Just then, the meditator noticed that the boatman was looking quite shocked, and turned to see the hermit standing respectfully on the water, next to the boat.

“Excuse me, please. I hate to bother you, but I’ve forgotten the correct pronunciation again. Would you please repeat it for me?”

“You obviously don’t need it,” stammered the meditator; but the old man persisted in his polite request until the meditator relented and told him again the way he thought the mantra should be pronounced.

The old hermit was saying the mantra very carefully, slowly, over and over, as he walked across the surface of the water back to the island.

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A few days ago, as I attempted to do my homework, my mom was watching Oprah in the same room. The subject matter, spirituality, was too intriguing for me to ignore.

Oprah had brought three spiritual teachers onto the episode: two ran spirituality centers and authored books, and one was an Episcopal priest.

One caller into the show was a tearful woman who had invested her entire life savings into her bakery business, now failing. Her life, house, and her family’s welfare were all at stake.

During the commercial break, my mom mentioned that she liked the Episcopal priest more than the other two teachers. When I asked why, she pointed out that the priest was the only one of the three teachers who gave this desperate woman helpful, relevent tips instead of spouting rhetoric at her, such as, “You will grow from this experience in the end.” The priest talked with the woman while the other two seemed to talk at her.

These teachers had wonderful insights throughout the show, and while I don’t want to focus on the shortcomings of other people, (before I take the log out of my own eye…) I thought this demonstrated a paradox for a lot of spiritual people. A fine line separates humble spirituality from ego-driven dogmatism. Pure spirituality penetrates through the self-serving entrapments of the ego, such as pride, and shouldn’t feed them. While defenses are completely natural, they are still glaring signs that we still have a lot of work to do. Flaws are opportunities to grow.

I am far from perfect and occasionally become a wind-up toy, automatically hurling my ideas at people. But I try to watch myself and to maintain an engaged discussion, listening to the other party instead of judging them. I must always ask myself: am I trying to benefit myself with this, or to truly be of service?

If I ever stop talking with you and start talking at you, please stop me. That’s pride speaking, not me, and clearly it’s counterproductive to helping anyone, including myself. Pride only traps and encloses. I find the satisfaction it gives is illusory, gaseous, fleeting, and ironically, a sign that I need to address some insecurity within myself. There’s no need to compensate for the parts of ourselves that we are comfortable with.

Humility, on the contrary, is the epitome of spirituality, for it gives birth to pure love. You can’t force love or goodwill. Remove your own barriers, and you will allow love to expand and become you.

“The best way to live
is to be like water
For water benefits all things
and goes against none of them.”
-from Tao Te Ching verse 8

On a side note: I think I’ll start a facebook group soon for those of you who are reading regularly and would like updates. Keep an eye out.