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Shambhala Sun | September 2011
You'll find this article on page 52 of the magazine.


The Buddha in the Mirror

If we have the courage to look at ourselves honestly, we see both our flaws and our basic goodness, known in the Buddhist tradition as our buddhanature. This, says CAROLYN ROSE GIMIAN, is the ground for truly loving others.

Dissatisfaction: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote a song about it: "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction." What we want is just out of sight, just out of reach, but always in mind. We say to ourselves: I would be just fine if… If the internet were working, if I could just find someone to clean up the yard, if my partner weren’t so preoccupied with work, if my job were more interesting, if I could lose that ten pounds, if the weather were better, if I had more money. If, if, if!

Now, let’s say your plump fairy godmother arrives in a poof of light and fixes everything for you: the internet works at blazing speed; an organic gardener appears and offers to rake your leaves; your partner decides to forget about work and take you to Paris; you are offered an exciting promotion; you not only lose the weight but your metabolism changes and now you can eat whatever you want… yada, yada, yada. Are you satisfied now? Well, are you? I didn’t think so.

Your dissatisfaction, however, is good news. It’s the best news, actually. If you’re still dissatisfied, even when you get what you think you want, it’s possible that it will dawn on you that you aren’t going to find fulfillment purely by changing things outside of yourself, or even by changing something in yourself. If you have an inkling that there is something ultimately futile in your search for ultimate satisfaction, then it may occur to you that you need to make friends with your life as it is and with yourself as you are. This kind of friendship is based on openness, honesty, and acceptance. It is about unconditional friendship.

Unconditional friendship with ourselves ultimately affects our friendships with others, allowing us to open genuinely to them. But it begins by unlocking warmth and tenderness in ourselves, for ourselves.

A friendship with yourself that is without conditions means that you are truly comfortable in your own skin, regardless of the circumstances. A lot of the time, you might feel that you’re already comfortable with yourself. What happens, though, if you’re left alone in a room for a long time, with no phone, nothing to read and nothing to do, and no idea when you might get out of there? Maybe you begin to realize that you’re not comfortable being with yourself. You may feel anxious, frightened, or irritated; you may fall asleep or go a little bonkers. There is an analogy often used in the Buddhist tradition of the experience of ego being like a monkey caught in an empty house. The egomaniacal monkey is almost literally bouncing off the walls, feeling hemmed in, and trying to get out. He thinks he’s a prisoner in the house and has no idea that he’s created this prison. He also has no idea that he’s really okay, just as he is.

You and I may not be so different from Mr. Monkey. We spend a lot of time in our lives trying to be sure we don’t get stuck or trying to get unstuck. We try to make sure that we don’t end up alone in that empty room, metaphorically speaking. We fill up the space with activities, appointments, fantasies, ambitions, projects. Especially in this speedy, wired world of ours, we’re uncomfortable with too much space or silence.

Many of us thoroughly modern monkeys have a smart phone, high-speed internet, and a tablet computer. With so many gadgets and things to google, simplicity may not seem like much of a virtue. But making friends with yourself isn’t about being a Luddite monkey. We live in the world as it is, and it includes technology and devices. That said, making friends with yourself is about creating some space in life, allowing yourself to settle down in that empty space and see what comes up. It is the recognition that we are already familiar with that vacant room—that it’s a natural environment rather than something imposed on us, and it’s a good place to begin. It may sound, at first, off-putting or quite boring to settle down with yourself without any entertainment. However, it is worthwhile, for despite all the entertainment, promotions, and bling she can get, the monkey is still lonely.

She’s a very sad little monkey, when it comes right down to it. She would like to have some real contact with the world, maybe even a mate. It may seem like she’s totally in touch with the world, given all that paraphernalia and all those things to do. But the monkey somehow still feels empty and alone. In this situation, you might ask yourself, “I don’t just want to text my mate, do I? Don’t I want to actually kiss my mate? But how am I going to truly befriend someone else if I don’t befriend myself first?”

There are various opportunities to make friends with yourself. Almost all of them involve a gap in your daily life, something that seems out of the ordinary. Many of them involve silence and solitude of some kind. So, once again, we may find ourselves in that empty room. But instead of fighting with the space, which just solidifies it, we explore it. To do this, we use a mechanism such as the sitting practice of meditation. This is a powerful means to get to know yourself, to introduce yourself to yourself. Meditation is a discipline, a technique to transcend technique. You sit down on a cushion or a chair and simply experience yourself: your body, your breath, and your thoughts. You just be there, very simply.

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