Since discovering Buddhism as a way of life in 2007, I have seen some interesting things happen to people, including myself. For example, when I first started along the Buddhist path, I was very, well . . . let's just say I was enthusiastic.
What I mean by that is once I was comfortable with fundamental Buddhist ideas, I really dove in. I read books, went to retreats, meetings, and events focused on Buddhism; I meditated and walked mindfully. Most of all, I had compassion for ALL living beings. No matter what, I strove to be compassionate and wise in all my actions . . .
I think you can see where this is going.
Then one evening I was walking home, a to-go vegetarian meal from Panera in my hand (a rare treat for me at the time). Out of nowhere, a homeless man came up to me asking for a dollar. Me, in my ever-noble "Buddhist" mode, handed him the dinner I had so been looking forward to. At first taken aback, the man thanked me, but proceeded to ask yet again for a dollar! Now it was my turn to be speechless. "But . . . but, I have just given you my dinner," I stammered. "Sorry, I don't have a dollar for you." (That was true- I had just spent my last bit of cash on the meal I had given him!).
As you can imagine, I went home more than a little miffed. There I was, a grad student living paycheck to paycheck, "compassionately" giving my dinner to someone with the nerve to only ask for more! What the #*$@?
Then I realized my mistake. For all my good intentions, I was trying too hard- and expecting too much. But I couldn't say that I didn't know better. Buddhism advocates that we should all work diligently to improve our attitudes and habits- However, we must also acknowledge that these changes take time. Although by nature we are all Buddhas-to-be, instantaneous revelation of our Buddha-nature (especially through self-righteous actions) is unlikely. Reflecting on that encounter with that (grateful, but) persistent homeless man, I was forced to revisit that fact.
From that evening onwards, I started to let go a little bit. I let myself make mistakes, to be apathetic and impatient, to get angry. But, in contrast to before I had set along the Buddhist path, each time I engaged these negative emotions I learned from being aware of the harm they can do. Being more mindful of the consequences of my thoughts and actions has been a practical approach that I believe has helped me become a better person.
Since then, I have seen this type of experience happen to others. With the best of intentions, people (but especially it seems, new Buddhists) try so hard to be compassionate to all beings, wise in all their actions, striving towards enlightenment (and more often than not, humbly broadcasting their compassionate thoughts on social media!). As one can imagine, all this puts enormous pressure on any individual who is making their way along the Buddhist path- or any other path for that matter.
Based on my my observations, there are generally two outcomes to this behavior. Some people eventually realize that their efforts are not sustainable and step back towards the Middle Way, while others buckle under the pressure and have a complete meltdown. Obviously, I think most of us would prefer the former.
It is important to remember that as human beings most of us are struggling to find meaning, purpose, and peace in our lives. As we stumble along, it is painfully apparent how many wrong views and negative emotions we have. Overwhelmed, we may be tempted to go into fanatic overdrive to somehow make up for our unskillful actions.
But we have to face the truth: Years -perhaps lifetimes- of bad habits are not going to disappear today. This type of change requires more than attending Buddhist retreats, switching to a vegetarian diet, and sitting in lotus position. It requires time, a lot of self-awareness, and most of all, hard work. As we slowly become more honest with ourselves, our thought patterns and actions will eventually be less driven by ego, or the the delusion that we have found some quick fix for years of carelessness.
In truth, this is much more easier said than done. As I travel the Buddhist path, I for one am only making very small steps in what I believe is the right direction. But through it all, I am grateful for having found the Middle Way as a practical, balanced, and straightforward guide for my intentions, behavior, and life.
What did you think about this post? Have you witnessed others trying too hard to improve, or done this yourself? Do you think the Middle Way is the antidote to overzealousness?
May all beings be happy!