“The innocent mistake that keeps us caught in our own particular style of ignorance, unkindness, and shut-downness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, and that if we could just learn how to get away from the painful things, then we would be happy. That is the innocent, naive misunderstanding that we all share which keeps us unhappy.” –Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape
So what do you do in the face of that– Stop trying? Move towards the painful things to prove our toughness?
I don’t interpret her words this way. Pema Chodron’s one of those people I wish I lived near, because if I did, I’d be all up in that sangha, every week, without fail (“sangha” is a term in Buddhism referring to one’s spiritual community).
What are we doing with all of our hard-won life lessons? Resisting them, most of the time; Insisting to ourselves that we’d be happier or better people without the very challenges that define us. I don’t take away that Pema’s saying that our options are to stop desiring improved circumstances (impossible, if you think about it), nor do I think she’s saying that pain will be some badge of honor in the end (masochism is not my style).
I think she’s saying that whatever we’re doing, we need to be doing it with integrity.
Integrity–it’s often thought of as the stuff of toughness, the character trait that is hard-won. But there can be gentleness in integrity as well–the integrity to treat ourselves kindly as we walk the path of being so perfectly imperfect.
Occasionally I run across someone pushing the philosophy that there is nothing, not a speck within any of us, that needs improving. I get what they’re after–asking me to accept my basic humanity–and yet I think this idea of letting go entirely of the desire to ‘improve’ is a misinterpretation of wise teachings that are asking us to treat everyone, including ourselves, with integrity. The teaching that we need to love and accept ourselves must be rooted in some kind of essential integrity, and what better place to start with integrity than seeing clearly and with gentleness, the what-is?
We can choose to accept that the painful things do happen and to see, gently and clearly, that all of the energy we put into resisting them is wasted effort.
Perhaps some of the fault lies with the conditioning around the word “improve,” which carries with it (for most people) the idea that that which came before it was “bad.” But–The fact is that what we’re doing whenever we say that we’re going to get healthier or start meditating or be more patient is…improving. I personally choose to believe that whatever I undertake is done not in a spirit of “I’m bad” but rather, it’s born out of an understanding that I am human, I’m sharing the planet with other humans, there’s so much big love here when I stretch my little corner of th earth, and it’s because of this that I want to “improve.”
In essence, I’m saying that the desire to “improve,” like anything else, can be born from either love or from fear.
My shoulders drop when I admit that I have desires, and that those desires involve some form of “improvement.” Here’s where I diverge from some of the essential teachings/interpretations of teachings from Buddhism: I don’t see ‘desire’ as a bad thing.
Desire without integrity, however? That’s where we get ourselves into trouble. This is the dangerous trap of self-improvement: that too much emphasis is placed on “improve,” and not enough on “self.” It becomes easy to lose ourselves in to-do lists and cognitive-behavioral rewards: treats for doing well, punishments for not doing well, all of which reinforce the “good/bad” model.
It’s possible to have desires to improve while simultaneously being satisfied and in acceptance of that which I already have. I’m grateful and in acceptance of the love I’ve got for myself, my partner, my family, community, the world–and I can’t imagine a space where I’d ever not be open to and working on bringing in even more. That desire to bring in more doesn’t negate that which is already there.
The real meat of anything we want to shift is not in the “improving,” or the attachment to outcome that that can so easily breed from that place, but in seeing ourselves more clearly and thus seeing the people we love more clearly and then seeing the world more clearly, as well.