“Facing the Mirror”

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What we perceive as the faults of others are simply a reflection of our own. If we observe what is going on in the other person, we can use what we notice as a mirror to know ourselves. A commentary on two verses of the Dhammapada by the late Ayya Khema.

Easily seen are the faults of others,
Hard indeed to see are one’s own;
The faults of others you bring to light
Like winnowing the chaff,
But your own faults you cover up
As the trickster conceals a losing throw.
Those who always find fault with others,
Who criticize constantly,
Their own cravings will grow,
Far are they from the cessation of their desires.
Dhammapada 252-3

These two stanzas from the Dhammapada are of universal relevance, and capable of generating significant insights. In the first stanza, our tendency to hide our faults is likened to the subterfuge of a cheat, because essentially we are being dishonest with ourselves. To acknowledge how we really are, however, is extremely difficult, particularly with regard to our faults, because our opinion of ourselves is always so wide of the mark—it is either too high or too low. The best way to get a clear and realistic picture of ourselves is to observe ourselves mindfully.

It isn’t difficult for us to notice other people’s faults, as these so frequently annoy us, and in this negative state we are convinced that what we think is right, and that we are entitled to pass judgement. This makes us quick to criticize, and in doing so we forget that our thinking is based on our own opinions, which cannot be completely objective. In a sense, all our opinions are wrong, because they are rooted in our ego-illusion: “I have, I want, I will; I believe, I know, I think.” On the relative level, these opinions of ours may be true, but relative truth can never be enough to completely satisfy us since in the end it can only express the truth of one ego against that of another. One person believes this, another believes that; one does it this way, the other does it exactly the opposite way. Truth built around the notion of an ego cannot be absolute and unadorned. At best, it reflects personal preferences. Relative truth can do no more than that.

From the point of view of absolute truth it is a very different picture. From this perspective, we begin to realize that the faults we are concerned with in others should be recognized with the same concern in ourselves. The faults of others are a reflection of our own, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to recognize them. When we see someone being angry or showing off, we recognize these failings from our own experience of them in ourselves. We know how these emotional reactions come about and how they feel. By the same token, it is said that only a buddha can recognize a buddha, because only an enlightened one knows about enlightenment.

When we become aware that we are criticizing other people we should immediately realize we are on the wrong track. Our criticism is unlikely to be of use; after all, who has ever changed through being carped at? Spreading negativity is always harmful, mostly to ourselves. We can also expect the other person to be annoyed at us, and if we react with anger and resentment, we can get into a vicious circle of ever more negativity, and possibly lose a friend.

So criticism is not helpful—but acknowledgement is. If, for example, we notice someone being unmindful, the right response would be, “I wonder how mindful I am at the moment?” This is the only worthwhile response. If we observe something unskillful in someone and want to criticize, we should remind ourselves that criticism is harmful to us.

By the time repeated criticism becomes a habit, we have carved ruts of negativity within ourselves. We probably all know someone who habitually criticizes, and we know how unpleasant it is to listen to them. Consequently, we must be on our guard against criticism, and avoid inflicting such an unpleasant habit on others. We should also be aware that every time we criticize we are gradually forming a habit.

Conversely, if we take the opportunity to observe what is going on in the other person, we can make use of what we notice in their behavior as a kind of mirror on ourselves. This is a very valuable mirror, because although it may not give us a view of our physical features, it does enable us to embark upon the much more difficult task of knowing ourselves. The task is difficult because not only do we lack awareness, but we prefer it that way—we prefer not to know the truth; we are anxious to avoid it because we fear it will be unpleasant.

Two of the eight worldly phenomena are involved here: praise and blame. Preoccupying ourselves with winning praise and avoiding blame is obviously a little absurd, but we don’t really question it. In addition, this preoccupation underlies our reluctance to take up any kind of self-analysis: we are afraid to find out things about ourselves for which we might have to accept blame. We prefer to wear blinkers and avoid an all-round look at ourselves.

The fear of blame may be dealt with using the formula, “Acknowledge, don’t blame, change.” The first step is to become aware of this fear of being rebuked, and of disagreement, and lack of support and appreciation.

The root of all fear is the fear of non-existence. Subliminally it is present in every one of us, and it can surge up in panic, simply because we do not want to incur blame. At the same time we are always ready to blame others, in the belief that this will not harm us. But we are mistaken, for in giving way to negativity, it is we who suffer.

The fear of blame is the same as our fear of death, or our fear on behalf of our ego, our self-affirmation. Ultimately, it is the fear of not being here any more. Of course, when we anticipate blame, we are not afraid of actually disappearing on the spot; we are afraid of the disappearance of our self-esteem, which depends on the appreciation of others.

Clearly this is crazy, yet most people are totally convinced by this scenario, some to the point of obsession, so that they are forever trying to please everyone. But how can we possibly hope to do this? We do not even know what another person’s feelings and wishes are in the first place. Although we cannot make everything right for everyone, we can always try to do what is most skillful.

It is a fact of life that we all want acclamation and praise. Our actions are geared to this end, and if our desire is frustrated we become seized by a fear that prevents objectivity. In other words, we are afraid of criticism. To cast off this fear, we should begin by trying not to be so critical ourselves, understanding that whatever we do returns like a boomerang.

This first step towards insight into cause and effect—something observable everywhere in the universe—is insufficient to overcome all fear. The second step involves understanding the nature of fear. In our quest for affirmation from others we make ourselves the slaves of our environment. So long as this environment fails to match our expectations, or to confirm how wonderful, intelligent, or beautiful we are, we will continue to be uncomfortable. Such an attitude makes life enormously difficult, and obstructs our progress toward self-knowledge.

Conversely, honest self-knowledge is essential in enabling us to let go, including letting go of our fear of blame. We can only let go of that which we have fully recognized for ourselves, and it is quite unnecessary to transform our fear of blame into fear of self-knowledge. The fact that we are able to let go of self after we have understood it doesn’t mean that we die. It means that self-centeredness is no longer the dominant force in our life. Things need not revolve around how we see them all the time. Instead, we open up a space within for that which is universally true. We then understand that because there are faults in every aspect of conditioned existence, nothing perfect is to be found anywhere.

Just consider the fact of impermanence: all that has come into being must pass away, and nothing stays the same. If we try to hold on to an experience of something, it slips away like sand through our fingers. The fundamental unreliability of things can of course become an occasion for blame, especially when other people let us down by not keeping an appointment or not completing a job properly.

No one would ever criticize a star in the sky when it becomes a supernova and fades away—we know that it would be pointless to offer such a reproach, since it just happens. But in reality this is the true nature of all things, and it is equally pointless to complain about the unreliability of everything else in the universe. All conditioned things are imperfect.

This is why it is worthwhile to look at ourselves without fear and to see what it is about other people that we don’t like. Do we dislike their negativity? We should examine ourselves for negativity. Do we dislike their constant attention-seeking? Is it possible that we too have the same desire to be the center of attention? In this way, we will get to know ourselves better and better.

We all know the fear that arises, again and again, in the course of this exercise: “Maybe I am not quite as nice as I thought—and if I am not so nice, other people are going to disapprove of me.” I call this “result-oriented thinking”: we stiffen up in fear against its threat, as if against the whip, and this can lead to a physical pain. We believe that everything has to be perfect, right in every way. But what is it that we expect to be right? In the universe, everything goes its own way, on and on. Rivers flow, and any attempt to stop them causes a flood. Life flows on; as each day comes to an end, a new day begins. Why do we not give ourselves to this flowing of things, and stop thinking about putting in its way all the things that have to be right?

This applies to our meditation as much as to anything else. Although we may be sitting quietly on our cushion, with no one saying anything or criticizing us, we still find we are putting pressure on ourselves and blocking our meditation. If we think our meditation has to be perfect we will be unable to meditate and encounter only anxiety.

It is pointless to expect to do everything perfectly; we can only do our best. We are also much better off if we can give up the wish to be appreciated. Of course, if someone does offer us appreciation, gratitude, even joy, for what we have done, that is good—but a good thing for them.

We should also remember that we are constantly changing. Our powers and capabilities can be seen to fluctuate from one moment to the next. This also applies in meditation. Sometimes the mind may focus very quickly; on other occasions it may have to clear away so many thoughts that an hour has elapsed before we attain a degree of stillness. We tend to refer this ability or inability back to our “self” and take it on as our own. But why do we feel the need to do this? What is really happening is that the mind is constantly changing.

If we can see how everything changes in ourselves, it is reasonable to conclude that the same goes for everyone else. If someone behaves in a way unworthy of praise, we should appreciate that they will change, hopefully for the better. So in becoming more aware of impermanence—especially impermanence of bad behavior—we will find it easier to let go of nitpicking and the urge to find fault.

As we have seen, what we resent most in others are those features that we like least in ourselves. We have also seen that if we take time once in a while to investigate and understand these tendencies, we can make the effort to overcome them. However, in the course of this process we are liable to dole out heavy criticism, because while the behavior we observe may resemble our own, the people we criticize may not be making the effort towards purification that we are making. Such an attitude creates a lot of friction in relationships; it may not be explicit, but nevertheless we harbor feelings of disapproval and antipathy. Time and again we need to make a fresh effort to accept others and refrain from criticism. This is true even with respect to ourselves. We should not carp and cavil, but keep reminding ourselves of the formula, “Acknowledge, don’t blame, change.”

This first part—getting a clear view of ourselves—is the most difficult. The second—not blaming—is not easy either, as the mind automatically responds negatively to any unpleasant feeling. All that we dislike in ourselves—everything we cannot accept and would like to change—produces unpleasant feelings and self-reproach, and one can lose sight of the way towards self-knowledge.

It is insight into impermanence that facilitates self-inquiry. When it becomes clear that everything we see is at that moment disappearing, it will be much easier to avoid falling into self-blame. Everything that comes will go and never return—and nothing that comes after will be quite the same, however similar it may seem. By investigating impermanence in this way we start to be able to accept ourselves and others more readily.

Recognizing the true nature of what we denounce in others helps us to develop a fresh view of ourselves. We free ourselves from what offends us not by turning away from the people with these faults, but by dropping the need to make others responsible for not being how we think they should be.

In this process we can recognize both impermanence and dukkha. Realizing that dukkha arises from our own negative reactions, which include the fear of criticism, makes it easier to refrain from criticizing others. We can see that almost everyone knows the fear that derives from lack of support and affirmation, and that this type of dependence on people is extremely unpleasant.

How do we suppose that other people can ever have the right opinion of us? Have we not woken up to the fact that we are all trapped in an illusion that makes it impossible to have a truly objective opinion? The illusion is that we are separate individuals and that we can have exclusively pleasant sense contacts if we are clever enough to arrange things in the right way.

Everyone lives under this illusion, which gives them a craving for existence and a fear of annihilation. How, then, is it possible for someone else to give us confirmation of our existence? All fears reflect this fear of annihilation. Fear is not limited to fear for our physical existence, but extends to our emotional existence, our self-affirmation. If we become aware of this fear, we can develop a deeper empathy with others, for all mankind has this craving for existence, which gives rise to the most severe dukkha.

This deeply-rooted fear is what stands in the way of perfect contentment on a basic, human level, and once we begin to understand this correlation, we will stop searching for fulfillment in the wrong places. Instead, we will try to transcend the difficulties of the human condition caused by ego-illusion. But first we have to recognize that the fear of honest self-inquiry, together with the fear of being criticized by others and the corresponding urge to criticize them, are motivated by the need to bolster our self-affirmation. In condemning others we are making ourselves feel better. We will come closer to the truth if we admit that we all have weaknesses.

This recognition takes us a big step further towards insight into the fundamental insufficiency of existence on this human, conditioned level. It is only once we have become aware of this insufficiency that we will experience an urgency to leave this level behind—not physically, of course, but in terms of letting go of our ego-illusion. The problems we have overcome will no longer trouble us, and we will gain insight into whatever other problems continue to cause us difficulties. We will be able to see that we have yet to transcend those problems since events can still disturb us. If, for example, we read bad news and instantly feel negativity welling up within us, we can assume that we have not yet lost our greed and hatred. There is a lot of destruction in the world, but irritation and condemnation only show that hatred is still deeply rooted within.

We are all born with six roots—three good ones and three bad ones—which is why it is pointless to condemn ourselves or others. The only response that makes any sense is to recognize these roots, and to commit ourselves to encouraging the good ones to flourish, so as to gradually attenuate the unwholesome ones.

The unwholesome roots are of course greed, hatred and delusion (delusion in the sense of ego-illusion). But their opposites should be just as familiar to us. If we can see the three good roots—generosity, unconditional love and wisdom—in other people, we may draw the natural conclusion that they are also present within us. Actually, we do know perfectly well exactly when, where and how to practice. Words and precepts are never enough on their own, but we already have sufficient wisdom within us to sense the truth when we hear it, and to know where it can be found.

Those who always find fault with others,
Who criticize constantly,
Their own cravings will grow,
Far are they from the cessation of their desires.

In this stanza, “cessation of desires” is another term for perfect purification. It means that greed and hatred are no longer present, and when they have died away one is only a little short of complete enlightenment. Until then, as these words of the Buddha make clear, there is a lot of inner work to be done, for as long as we criticize we will be unaware of our real motives and unable to work on them.

These motives are principally the two roots of greed and hatred. Both spring from delusion, or ignorance, from the illusion that leads us to believe that there really is “someone.” On the relative level it is true that we sit here on our cushion, but the absolute truth is quite different. Inasmuch as we live according to relative truth, as a “me” that exists in relation to “you,” we experience ourselves as separate from others, and want to protect and build walls around ourselves. To do this we draw on these motives, and they are strengthened whenever we are negative.

This is why it is so important to mindfully observe our emotional reactions—to be mindful of them again and again, as they occur, even if we cannot let go of them. Once we notice those reactions, we will also notice how much restlessness they stir up, and therefore how inimical they are to the calmness we need for meditation. In everyday life, it is not easy to notice the difference between a calm mind and a restless mind, but meditation over a longer period makes this contrast more apparent. We see that our reactions do not consist only of criticism; their roots can be traced back to desire, to aversion and to fear.

According to the Buddha, our cravings grow when we look at the faults of others and indulge in negative reactions, because this reinforces our separateness, which in turn leads to an even more entrenched ego-illusion. Conversely, our relationships can also help us to a deeper insight if we realize that others are subject to the same laws of impermanence, suffering and dissatisfaction as we are. In fact, we should regard relationships with other people as occasions for learning, and if we use them in this way, we will benefit from a first-rate educational system. Indeed, we can view our life as a whole as a continuous opportunity to learn. All relationships can be a measure of our training in love and compassion, and an excellent opportunity to get to know ourselves.

If we dismiss or condemn someone, we are restless inside. The moment we let go of this feeling of censoriousness, peace returns. Letting go is not easy, but there are many small insights that can help us on the way towards it, for example, the insight that we ourselves have created this restlessness, and that it harms us.

If we keep reflecting on impermanence and dukkha, we start to understand that the whole universe is subject to them. Everything is in a constant process of dissolution, of passing away and arising anew. It is because of this uninterrupted movement of everything that nothing can be entirely satisfying. Once we recognize the fact of impermanence in all things, we no longer suffer from it. We are, after all, part of a community of six billion people, each of whom experiences exactly the same fact of life.

We can apply the general principles of impermanence and dukkha to any situation. Observing these characteristics in everything we lay our eyes on is the next step on the path towards insight. We then see that nothing is perfectly satisfying, that everything is impermanent. In this survey, no exceptions can be made. Everything has to be included. We cannot say, “I have the experience of dukkha, but that person who caused me so much dukkha is a good-for-nothing.” In fact, he experiences as much dukkha as us. So gradually, in this way, we develop a feeling that the world is a totality, that it does not merely consist of individual phenomena.

Each time we react with fear, the sum total of fear in the world is increased. Each time we harbor negativity, disapproval or blame, the sum total of negativity is increased. Conversely, if we understand impermanence and dukkha, this insight deepens the sum total of wisdom in the world. If we see clearly that each individual bears a responsibility for the totality, we will be more ready to dwell at a level on which we no longer see everything as separate.

Each good deed adds to the good in the world, because we are the world. Our feelings, thoughts, words and actions are constituents of the world. On this basis, it is simply short-sighted to criticize; to do so is to overlook the fundamental characteristics, or marks, of existence, which are that it is impermanent, insubstantial, and imbued with dukkha. The longer we meditate, and the more deeply we absorb and reflect on the universal truths of the dhamma, the easier it will be to be mindful of these marks of existence and apply them to everyday life.

On the level of absolute truth there are no separate entities—everything is manifestation. But on the relative level everyone bears responsibility for the manifestation of the good. Fear is a characteristic that can be traced back to our desire to retain an essentially fixed and separate nature as individuals, and for life to be pleasant all the time. Both these desires are unrealistic: we cannot possibly stay here forever and things cannot be pleasant all the time, so fear arises in relation to both these aims and blocks our path. Fear can be a very powerful emotion. It is said that the fear of death is worse than death. Likewise, such an emotion disables any attempt to sustain real insight. Nearly every meditator has known the fear that can arise during concentration, when their ego-affirmation suddenly goes into temporary abeyance.

Once we have overcome this fear, the next step is to realize that we have been chasing the impossible. Then the wish, indeed the urge, to transcend this ordinary, human level of existence will develop. The fear that arises in the course of this process needs to be relinquished, not once but many times, whenever we are assailed by the fear that our ego is under threat. It is essentially the same fear as when we are being blamed, or being denied the ego-confirmation we crave. There are many different names for fear, but it is basically the fear of non-existence.

The most effective antidote to our tendency to find faults in ourselves and others is to witness the truth of impermanence and dukkha. It is not enough to tell ourselves, “I should not find fault.” We have probably known this for a long time. The trouble is that we are so often attracted to the things we should not be. In this respect, only an attitude of engagement with insight, the main purpose of meditation, can help us.

Meditation is supposed to allow us to experience ourselves more deeply, which is why it should be backed up by contemplation and reflection, in order to increase our self-awareness. What degree of fear do we harbor in ourselves? How much do we fear losing ourselves? This kind of inquiry takes us closer to the truth. The crucial issue here is not whether we are able to let go of our fear immediately, but whether we can gain new insights through this examination of ourselves.

We can learn many things from the faults of others. Above all, we can get to know a lot about ourselves. When we do, we will feel a sense of connection, of solidarity with others, as though they are our brothers and sisters. Conversely, for as long as we keep separating ourselves and emphasizing our personal differences, our craving, greed and hatred will grow even stronger.

Ayya Khema (1923-1997) was born in Berlin in and became the first Western woman to be ordained as a Theravadin nun. This article is excerpted from her book, Come and See for Yourself: The Buddhist Path to Happiness, published by Windhorse Publications, 2002.