It wasn’t really Buddhism’s fault, but it sure seemed like it at the time.
I began teaching and practicing meditation simultaneously.
Usually there are safe guards to make sure you have some practice under your hat before you teach. I did, sort of: a few years of studying writing as a deep process with a non-Buddhist Pema-Chodron-reading teacher. However, I had only once had formal meditation instruction, ten years prior.
That’s not enough.
There I was, all of a sudden, in my mid-twenties, and my writing teacher was in need of a break. She said to me: “Okay. Time for you to teach!” and I was like, “Uh, how and where and are you so sure about that?”
My Saturn Return was getting an early start, so I did start. At the very same time I started getting meditation instruction and following the Shambhala Training levels through my local Shambhala center.
One evening I arrived at meditation practice and someone needed instruction. Having no idea that I might actually need to be authorized, I enthusiastically offered to do it. No one stopped me. This woman had lots of struggles—sexual abuse trauma and physical issues that kept her from any traditional posture. I walked out of that instruction feeling like I’d done a pretty good job.
My smug mug got a quick talking to as someone kindly—but curtly—informed me that was not allowed.
For a brief second I thought “Oh, that’s good, ’cause I shouldn’t be doing that yet.”
It was a pretty overwhelming meeting. But then I felt defensive. “I am a teacher! I know what is going on!” Thus my spiritual materialism was born. This was long before meditation became my best friend.
I became arrogant quickly, always full of advice. I carefully asked about everyone else’s pain first, not mentioning my own, in order to make it seem like I didn’t have any. This was an issue I had prior to meditation, but it got much worse for a couple of years there. It still lingers (see my last post on pity and idiot compassion).
My friends, who cottoned on to my newly stabilized ego with a religion to back it up, were resistant to me fixing them. I blew through friendship after friendship, convincing myself that I knew what was best for them. I used my own Buddhist identity as a measuring stick for how much better I was than them.
I, like so many meditators before and after me, saw what was in my mind when I began to sit a lot.
It was mighty uncomfortable, icky even. I already knew what my worst thoughts were and I was trying to keep them at bay, thank you! But suddenly they become inescapable. All this increased vulnerability—to myself and to the world—made me even more defensive and protective. I was shoring up what Chogyam Trungpa calls “the cocoon”—our self-constructed world of delusions that keeps us from any real contact with the world.
Whenever an insight occurred, I wanted it last forever.
In the beginning, the insights felt so fresh and new and applicable and helpful. Sometimes they were. But they didn’t last forever. I had to come back again and again, spiral-like, to really understand them. I watch as newer practitioners now over-advise one another, over-apply a sound and insightful piece of advice or even just a reflection. I cringe, knowing I did that for a long time, too. It’s a benign form of arrogance—well-meaning even, but short-sighted.
10 years later, what Buddhism has taught me is that often the best thing to do is nothing: not to react so quickly, so strongly, to myself, to others, to situations.
Sit with it, really feel it out and then I can act with more wisdom and clarity. Of course, there are some circumstances in which I need to act quickly and without doubt—and those, too, can be worked with wisdom. But we train in a silent room for a reason—to give us lots of space, lots of chances to see that even our little fixes for the universe are just another trick of the mind.
I was ashamed for a long time about how much arrogance Buddhism revealed was already in me.
Now I have a sense of humor about it.
Yes, I have quite the ego streak. It’s not gone away, nor will it ever. Even last year a friendship finally fell apart partially due to my tendency to over-prescribe. I try not to be an over-zealous preacher for these methods. Sometimes I can’t seem to help myself.
Buddhism may make it impossible to ignore the jerk parts of me. It has also brought forward my true desire to help—as clumsy and human and off-center as that often is.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman