Spiritual leaders are profoundly wise. They are on another plane, apart from the rest of us. It is our job to know ourselves, and understand our leaders messages are not always on target for every single one of us. We have to understand context and nuance. It is our job to listen actively, with respectful discretion, and sometimes sit with the discomfort of their words.
Sometimes we have to dig deeper, into our own reality, and dissect out advice that may not fit. We have to set some things down. Somehow, we have to do this in a way that isn’t just convenient self-sabotage that keeps our worst traits at the wheel.
Today, I heard the wise words of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, one of the spiritual leaders I have listened to off and on over the years. He said “Negative emotions are mainly related to two things.”
In this post, I’d like to address respectfully just one of those: “Self-centered attitude, I, I, I, my, my, my, like that.” I realize carving out one point and leaving the other behind is incomplete, and lends to bias. I promise it’s not convenient self-sabotage.
It’s that the other is terribly complex and harder to grasp in the short time frame that placates our brief attention spans. Onward.
What I heard him stay today is simple and true. At the same time, I felt it flying so far out of reach of most people I’ve treated for mental illness, and/or the constraints of poverty, domestic violence, and/or addictions, that I loved and nodded wistfully at his words, then sent thoughts of love to every person I’ve known who doesn’t yet know how to pull the self out of the center.
I’ll be honest, I also wrapped that love around my younger self, who didn’t know how to mobilize change in the face of such wisdom, despite bathing in it every day. Today, when I heard him say self-centered, my brain replaced it with pain-centered.
We are self-centered when we are in pain.
The words of the Dalai Lama are for all of us, and yet there is a divide so wide between the act of sitting in everyday suffering and persevering to release ones hold on suffering, that it’s exhaustingly useless to try most days.
Too many of us are too entrenched in the most painful aspects of human life. For many of us, these are all we know.
Yes, everyone I know experiences moments of warmth, peace, and happiness. For some, it seems they are but brief, and for a subset of those friends, each brief joy was earned with Spartan fury.
It’s counterintuitive, right?
If we release our hold on suffering and practice more mindfulness, we should feel more sun on our skin and breathe more air into our softer bodies, which allows us to release a little more and a little more.
We regain energy wasted and re-allocate that toward being a part of the conscious collective, in whatever way serves us best.
We learn to rest and take good care of our minds, bodies, and souls.
Theoretically, over time we change our surroundings and community as we change our internal landscape. That is a good dog chasing its tail toward victory.
We come loose from the things not meant for us and grasp less at that which keeps us down.
But again, why even start if it’s such a Herculean task? If we’ve never seen a single person who’s made it out, what are we even striving for?
It’s nice that some people aren’t pain-centric. Who are these people? We know about the stoics, and that’s not the soup to thrive on. Stoics have plenty of pain–and very well-clenched jaws.
If you balk at the picture your mind makes, of the term self-centered, and you don’t identify with that, then maybe you can identify with pain-centered. Small shifts in language matter. Let’s unlock some wiggle room. Maybe you are centered around your pain. I certainly have been, and maybe we are not selfish, horrible, egotistical, or otherwise negatively embodied.
You can be in pain AND be kind to your neighbors. You can be suffering AND give to the causes that move you. You can be a teacher, healthcare provider, or other human services worker–in pain. And perhaps you are pain-centered, because you are trying your hardest, every day, to find your way out of it.
Maybe you have spent so much of your life tenaciously running your palms over every single millimeter of the inside of your pain, trying to find a crack of light, that you have grown weary.
We can be very good and humble people, who are self-centered, because when our self is struggling, we have to attend to that self. We have to figure out what to do with that pain. Some of us have never even had another person understand we are in visceral pain. We’ve learned to judge ourselves off of their judgment and deflection. That too, is painful.
And while we are trying to understand and release the pain, who is feeding our kids, if we have kids? Who is wiping their noses and eyes and stitching, patching, or replacing the worn-through knees of their pants?
And who is cleaning up after the dog/cat/hamster/bird/tortoise or God forbid, the fish?
Who is spending hours as an urban hunter-gatherer, just to find the few pricey foods that haven’t been filled with sugar, corn/rice/tapioca syrup, preservatives, and glycerine, so that we and our kids can eat real, actual food?
Who is vacuuming, cleaning the dishes and scrubbing the toilets, and attending to all those weird stains around the sink faucet? Who is continually asking the algae and mildew to leave?
Who is keeping up with the weeds and laundry?
Who is working to keep clarity, peace, and dust-free room to breathe in the house?
Who is paying the bills, taxes, and fees, and how? Did you know it costs money to get a copy of your own medical records now?
Hey, we can all be less self-centered. But maybe instead of inviting those words in through ears trained to judge the self so negatively, we can think about what they really gain us.
It is the self, centered around our pain and suffering, that we are working with, and sometimes, against. It is tiresome to grapple with something so large and slippery, alongside all those mundane chores I mentioned.
Try shifting your focus toward that–and know there is a way out. Trust you are doing so much while you work so hard to find your own way out. You’re well on your way, and if you’ve given up a few times, thank yourself for taking those breaks. Being pain-centered is incredibly hard.
Thank all the people who have stayed by your side, neither judging you nor enabling you. Thank your pain for telling you a story, and do your best to teach it that it doesn’t get to have the whole story.