abortion, buddhadharma, lion's roar, buddhism, narayan helen liebenson, blanche hartman, tenzin wangyal rinpoche

Am I practicing guilt or generosity?

The teachers tackle the question of guilt versus generosity as motivation for helping others.

By Lion’s Roar

Question: I consider it a bodhisattva practice to make my family and my job my top priorities. But ego makes me feel angry about sacrificing myself, instead of feeling good about being generous. I think I would feel lots of guilt if I didn’t behave in a way that helped others—especially my loved ones—feel happy. So am I practicing guilt or generosity?

Zenkei Blanche Hartman: It is very hard for me to answer your question in the abstract. Perhaps you have an exceptionally difficult and demanding family situation with an undue amount of responsibility resting on your shoulders. Or you might be trying to live up to an unrealistic ideal or saintly model of a bodhisattva. Or you might just have a habit of guilt-tripping yourself.

It is good that you are reflecting on your motivation. Even the Dalai Lama tells us that he begins his day by checking his motivation. In one quotation, which I keep on my desk as a reminder for my own practice, he says, “Each morning as I wake, I think, ‘Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts toward others. I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.’”

If he needs to continue to cultivate his bodhisattva vow after fourteen lifetimes as the Dalai Lama, you and I should not be surprised that selfish thoughts arise in us from time to time. So, never mind the guilt. Just see it as a mental habit that does not lead to happiness (don’t you find that to be so?) and do your best to let it go as soon as you notice it arising. If you can cultivate gratitude for this human life, seeing it as a gift, then your generosity to others will not feel like “sacrificing” yourself as much as it feels like passing on that gift.

What is this “self” you are sacrificing, and how are you sacrificing it? What is this “ego” that “makes you angry?” Where is this “you” that becomes angry? Does it truly exist separate from those “loved ones?” And how is the happiness of your loved ones different from your own happiness? I suggest that you investigate the story you are telling yourself to see how well it fits what my teacher called “things as-it-is.” I also suggest that you inject a little humor into your ruminations. (For instance, “This train of thought always takes me to a hell realm. I don’t think I want to get on it today.”)

I think you must be familiar with meditations on loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity, as well as the Metta (Loving-Kindness) Sutra. If you have a tendency to suffer with anger, you may find these meditations beneficial.

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: It is important to start where you are and not where you think you should be. Where you are is not feeling generous in doing for others, but feeling obligated and angry.

So it is important to bring the one who is feeling angry to your meditation cushion. Who is this one? Stop trying to be something you are not, and simply feel what you are feeling for a moment. Pay close attention to the effort and resistance you experience. Feel that resistance with naked awareness—without judging yourself as good or bad. As you bring awareness to whatever you are sensing and feeling, take care not to create a story through thinking or analyzing. Just be with your experience, directly, moment to moment. You will begin to experience spaciousness. If you observe directly, within the very experience of anger you can discover spaciousness in and around that feeling. The feeling itself will dissolve because there is nothing perpetuating it. As it dissolves, rest in that space. Cultivate and become more familiar with that space of openness.

Cultivate openness toward yourself and toward your family rather than pushing yourself to act in a particular way. Don’t act generous when generosity is not there. Instead, cultivate openness toward whatever you are experiencing in the moment. In this way, the anger, resistance, and guilt you experience will naturally clear. As you discover and appreciate openness, a true change and shift in consciousness occurs. Whatever actions come from openness will be more authentic. From openness you will be able to experience the joy of giving and the joy of sharing. That is how bodhisattvas are able to work tirelessly for the benefit of others. The bodhisattva is not suffering in giving but is exercising joy.

Narayan Helen Liebenson: It sounds as if your ideal of making your family and job into a bodhisattva practice may be colliding with the reality of life as it is. Although having these ideas is lovely, it may be more honest and fruitful to simply acknowledge how you actually feel instead of placing so much emphasis on how you think you should feel. The resentment you are experiencing needs to be held with compassion; otherwise it can accumulate and explode into unwise action.

All of us who live in the world have responsibilities to families, friends, and jobs. How we carry out those responsibilities determines the difference between a life of practice and a life that compounds suffering for ourselves and others. Carrying out one’s responsibilities need not mean sacrifice. Right now, you seem to be living a life of separation, doing what you feel you should do and trying to see that in the light of bodhisattva action. But true service to others has joy in it, even when it’s difficult.

It may be helpful to stop, acknowledge how you feel, and reexamine your intentions. See if there’s a way to recognize and accept your feelings. Can you be aware of your feelings of anger and resentment without acting on them? If you don’t condemn the anger and guilt, but instead bring an openhearted attentiveness to these painful energies, you might be able to gradually resolve your questions.

My suggestion is that you be honest with yourself, practice loving-kindness toward both yourself and others, do your meditation practice with diligence, and take responsibility for the emotions you are experiencing. This may go a long way toward helping you realize the inner and outer harmony you seek.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

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