Stay in Touch

January 2018 Musings

Pay attention to everything.
Believe nothing.
Don’t take anything personally.
We’re offered these guidelines when we first begin a sitting practice. For many people, the last of the three tenets can be the most challenging to apply.
Don’t take anything personally?
Is that even possible?
Isn’t everything personal?
I worked out yesterday. My body is sore.
I have so much to do. My mind is busy.
I find technology challenging, customer service annoying, the political situation outrageous. That’s my experience.
I believe in free speech. That’s my position.
I love pizza. That’s my preference.
I don’t want to get involved. That’s my choice.
You’re wrong.  That’s my opinion.
Whatever is happening in my world involves “me” after all. How can it not be personal?
When we start an inquiry such as this, old Zen stories come in handy. Here is one of those not-so-old stories, retold with some poetic license.
A monk is sent to town on a routine errand. It turns out that the errand is not routine! Having no way to consult her teacher on his preferred course of action, she has to make a choice. It’s a tough call, and after sitting with it the monk does what she thinks best. She returns to the Monastery, fully aware that her teacher might not agree with how she executed her task.
And sure enough, he doesn’t.
Late in the afternoon, as she works in the garden, reveling in the last few rays of winter sunlight, she sees her teacher huffing and puffing up the hill. She knows she is in for it! His face is red with exertion and irritation! As soon as he is within earshot, he makes his displeasure known, loudly, explicitly, and clearly.  Everyone at the Monastery can hear him!
The monk stands silently gazing downwards, her heart pounding. She could defend herself. She had done her best. There were no other options. As his voice swirls around her, she becomes aware of another voice, a still small voice, clear as a bell, reminding her of her practice vow: “I choose peace and calm.”
When her irate teacher stops talking, the monk bows deeply, and without saying a word, calmly returns to her work.
The teacher turns on his heel and bristles down the hill. Wait, is there a barely perceptible smile playing about his lips?
Let’s project, from our experience of situations such as this, what might be going on in the monk’s mind during her teacher’s tirade. The voices would be repeating her defense and justifying her actions.
“I did my best.”
“Really, it was a considered choice. I thought it through!”
“If you only knew the details.”
“Just give me a chance to explain!”
“Why does he get so upset?”
“How is it fair that he gets to act out his anger on me?”
“What’s the matter with me? Will I ever get it right?”
“Will he ever approve of me?”
“I don’t like being yelled at.”
“I hate this place. I need to get out of here.”
In the voices’ version of the story, it’s all about the monk being wrongly accused and unjustly treated. But is there another version of what happened? Could it be this?
There is an errand
The errand got done one way.
There might have been another way to do the errand.
Lots of energy in a body!
Body moves up the hill.
Words are said.
Monk bows.
Sounds like a Zen poem, doesn’t it? Why Zen? Perhaps because what’s absent in this version of the narrative is “me,” “I,” “you”, “mine,” “he,” “she,” “they.”  Zen teaches us a way of viewing the world where there is clarity about “what is” as a set of processes. There is “no self” in sight!  
If we
pay attention to everything (tenet 1)
believe nothing (tenet 2)
we begin to see a process in operation that imposes “personhood” on anything that arises in life (we close in on tenet 3!). Ego, we could say, is a process of personalization, an ability to interpret existence in terms of “personal pronouns.” The Buddha termed this faculty of the mind “I-consciousness.”  We call it egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. For the purposes of this article, we could label the process “taking it personally!”
It seems everyone does it. It’s like a default setting, a habitual way to make sense of the world. But it’s not the only way.
It is possible to be in a body, be conscious, feel vitally alive, and participate in existence without identifying with the ego process. This is the possibility demonstrated by the monk in the story. Instead of believing the voices’ version of the story, which made it about “her,” she practiced not taking “anything personally.” She chose to have her attention on something other than that which personalizes. Instead of suffering from feeling hurt, betrayed, criticized, disappointed, and inadequate, and then living in resentment of her spiritual mentor, she was able to choose peace and calm!
Not taking anything personally opens up a whole new world, described by two magical words: Unconditional Love. Choosing Unconditional Love is attending to something other than ego. When we stop attending to the limiting orientation of the personal, we are free to experience the expansiveness of the Universal, an awareness of how things are where the divine, the human, and the ego co-exist peacefully.
Yes! That might be what the Buddha was talking about.