Saturday, October 19, 2013

Trying too hard

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!   

8 comments:

  1. Hey!

    I needed to read the post very much! I *have* been trying WAY too hard at things. I am more mindful I believe, but this only causes me to be afraid of doing the wrong things. I know I should not be scared, but it's hard to do things right for some reason without it. I live in the USA, where there is a big dualism-type mindset, as you might know, and I guess I've been brought up to think as such.

    I really enjoyed this post. The Middle Way is the way to be, I believe....Now if only I could find it! :) I often go from extreme to extreme, One day I'm trying to be a hoarder and the next I'm donating like crazy. Nothing wrong with donations, I just don't know how to be in the middle. *sighs* Do you have any advice?

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    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Merry! I am glad you enjoyed this post. I don't really know if I am qualified to give advice on finding your Middle Way though, because only you can find that. But the good news is that you know what your extremes are, so, logically speaking, your Middle Way will be somewhere between :) (at least as far as material possessions go)! As for being afraid of doing the wrong thing, know that you're going to make mistakes. It might not be what you want to hear, but just be patient with yourself. Anything worth doing is going to take time.

      With Metta,
      Renata

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    2. Thanks for the reply back! :) You actually did help me. What's funny is how the Buddha says to 'try' his teachings out first before believing in them, and I've had a lot of this going lately, mistakes included. :D Can't wait to see your next post, they always help me, even if you don't mean to.

      -Merry

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    3. Dear Merry- Thanks so much- you are incredibly kind! That's funny how you mention the Buddha's encouragement to try his teachings before believing them. That was one of the most profound and welcoming things I came across when first learning about Buddhism- and pretty much solidified my decision that the Buddhist path was the right one for me.

      I am glad these posts help you in some way- I am by no means a spiritual teacher and so my goal is to simply reach out to others who may be encountering the same thoughts, obstacles, and also blessings. Thank you so much for letting me know that the reaching out is working :)

      With Metta,

      Renata

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  2. Wow!!!

    You people are being too hard on yourself. :) Well, I was there too before I read a book and got chided for what I was doing. Thank you Bhante for the reminder. (I forget which book I read. LOL!!!)

    Those practicing in the Dharma are just practitioner and not teachers. Even teachers sometimes fails in their practice while compare to practitioner who "supposed" to fail even more.

    A wise man once says we are allowed to fail many times but we required to succeed only once.

    Peace be with you. :)

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    1. Hi xenusfreeman- Thanks so much for stopping by, it is always nice reading your thoughts.

      Yes, we are all sometimes too hard on ourselves, and I wrote this post just to demonstrate that. Also, I must say that I am happy to look back and know that my all-or-nothing attitude has changed quite a bit from those days. I hope that my experience will help others who are 'trying too hard' or striving for a quick fix for bad habits by making sudden extreme changes in their behavior.

      I like your saying about having to succeed only once- that is encouraging :)

      With Metta,

      Renata

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  3. Hi Renata, A common misconception about compassion is that the act of compassion will be recognized or equally enjoyed by both the receiver and the initiator. But in most cases than not others don't. Hence, we who practice compassion must be aware not to have any expectations about how our good deeds will make others satisfied. When we practice compassion (which I define as a part of letting go practice) we must also expect to not expect anything in return. Dropping the expectation is another form of letting go.

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    1. Hello-

      You are certainly correct in what you have written here. Like most, I had to learn the hard way about what can happen when we hold too closely to expectations. Although I was not brought up to expect anything in return, often it just happens- especially when we are trying too hard as I was. You are right, it is all part of that 'letting go' process, the one that will eventually free us (and lead to true compassion).

      Thank you so much for commenting.

      With Metta,

      Renata

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Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and leave a comment! If you enjoyed this post, please share with others. -With Metta, Renata

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