If someone or something causes me distress, how do I judge whether to avoid the situation or to accept it as a practice opportunity, along the lines of an Atisha’s assistant?
Dungse Jampal Norbu: The story of Atisha’s assistant is a reminder that we can further our practice by accepting difficult situations in our lives. When Atisha was asked why he tolerated his insulting assistant, he replied, “If he weren’t around, with whom would I practice patience?”
In my experience, every situation is a practice opportunity. And there is always a skillful way to practice, whether we avoid a difficult situation or engage it head-on.
Our first instinct is usually to avoid relationships or situations that are uncomfortable or go against our self-interest. We may see someone asking for money or food on the street, but we only have enough cash to get the one thing that we want. Or maybe there is an ATM nearby, but we feel it is still a hassle to go out of our way. In these situations, the mind can react in interesting ways. We may feel guilty because we chose not to give. Or we might become a little bit harsh with ourselves, thinking we shouldn’t feel guilty because we don’t owe them anything. “It’s my money, so it’s my choice!”
Whether we decide to give anything or not, practice isn’t about shoulds and shouldn’ts. It’s about observing how our mind reacts so we can make skillful choices, ones that are not based on ego or habit. This is self-reflection. The mind’s ability to self-reflect is a powerful tool in assessing how best to respond to situations. Being generous can indeed help someone in need; it can also help us work with habits of stinginess or ego-attachment.
Sometimes, however, the most skillful practice is to not engage. If we are confronted by someone with whom we have a troubled history, we may want to avoid them, even when, at the same time, there is a feeling of obligation to help. In the Tibetan Buddhist teachings and folklore, this experience is called lenchak, or karmic debt, and it can quickly snatch away our discernment. A traditional portrayal of lenchak is a lake where many seals lived. Every evening, a flock of owls would gather on the shore and, for no apparent reason, the seals would collect fish and serve them up to the owls. The seals didn’t seem to benefit from this offering, and the owls were never completely satisfied, returning night after night. This fruitless repetition exemplifies the power of lenchak.
Whether we decide to give anything or not, practice isn’t about shoulds and shouldn’ts. It’s about observing how our mind reacts so we can make skillful choices, ones that are not based on ego or habit.
Most people can relate to lenchak in some way; many have experienced a difficult relationship that demands a lot of energy but doesn’t have any benefit. This kind of dynamic can be harmful to both sides. And because lenchak expresses itself as an obligation, there is really little room for genuine compassion to arise. In cases like this, we can recognize lenchak for what it is and transform it into an opportunity to practice mind training by taming our habits and reducing that karmic codependency. In some cases, it may be better to cut that codependent habit instead of taking on the situation as a practice. This, too, can be compassion.
Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin: As much as possible, I attempt to step toward my distress rather than turn away at the first whiff of discomfort. A better way to put it might be to turn toward, rather than immediately turn away from, distress—turn toward, then take a good look. It’s clear that responses are often governed by habits that have carved a path over time, and we can develop a habit of turning away from—or rushing toward—distress.
The great twentieth-century American psychologist William James studied and wrote about the power of habit in our lives, recommending the practice of doing one small thing every day that you would rather not do. This, he said, builds the habit and strengthens the potential of responding energetically when very difficult challenges appear. I have actually followed that practice for a very long time.
In any circumstance, we can ask ourselves: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it the right time?
When I feel distress and turn toward it to take a good look, I might see something in the category of a sink full of dishes that Others Should Have Done. Here, my effort is to try, if at all possible, to do it without delay. For me, many of the elements and encounters of community and family life are my Atisha’s assistants, inviting me to practice patience and appreciation for all that people do to make my life possible. I definitely fall short, but my friends don’t give up on me. The opportunities continue to arrive.
In any circumstance, we can ask ourselves: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it the right time? These three guidelines on right speech can apply to right action as well. Being deliberative, thoughtful, and respectful of your own and others’ time isn’t necessarily avoiding the situation. In a way, it’s the opposite: it’s allowing the situation to reveal more of itself—to you and within you. If your aim is to eliminate the distress quickly by rushing into a resolution, you might actually be avoiding the wider lessons that might be available if a little more time were allowed for exploration.
Ultimately, I think turning toward versus avoiding a situation comes down to timing, exploring whether now is or is not the right time to confront or investigate the distress. I sometimes wish there were a word in contrast to avoid and procrastinate, a word that means “to await the appropriate moment.” Then I would use it all the time.
Larry Yang: In the complexity of life, no single size fits all. There is no one absolute answer for every relative situation. The wisdom and understanding of the context of the “distress” becomes as important a practice to explore as the distress itself.
Many times, with conflict, difficulty, and even pain, turning toward the unpleasant sensations is a beneficial practice; we can explore our relationship to the situation and what our wisest response might be. There is benefit, kindness, and insight in that process of exploration. Addressing conflict in a relationship or family, confusion or problems in the workplace, or even injustice in our lives—all are tasks worthy of our intention, mindfulness, compassion, effort, action, and all the other factors of the eightfold path.
However, sometimes that hopeful aphorism “God never gives you more than you can handle” is flatly incorrect. Sometimes the unbearable enters our lives and the distress is on the level of trauma or extreme injury; we might experience such suffering as grief, abuse, or loss. It also can be caused by the impact of collective unconsciousness and suffering from disparities in our society and culture—oppression, racism, homophobia, and sexism, to name a few. In turning the awareness toward experience of extreme difficulty, one can get flooded and overwhelmed. It is not helpful to feel paralyzed—physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.
We make choices based on on what is possible and what is beneficial. That choice can only be made with mindfulness.
When we are overwhelmed, we must skillfully address not just the issues facing us but the experience of being overwhelmed itself. I have used the practice of strategic withdrawal. We withdraw our attention from the flooding of the senses due to something devastating. We don’t do so with the intention of escaping or pushing away; we withdraw with the compassionate intention to be aware of our own limitations and abilities in the moment. We also do not withdraw with the purpose of obliterating, repressing, or denying the experience. We withdraw strategically so that we might be able to re-engage and return our attention when we have the strength, the skills, and the capacity to turn more fully toward a particularly staggering first noble truth.
This ebb and flow of practice, turning toward and strategically withdrawing—like the opening and closing of every blossom—is the ebb and flow of life itself. It is the organic capacity for us to take care of ourselves and live a life full to the brim of the ten thousand sorrows and the ten thousand joys. It is the very definition of resilience in the face of hardship. And it is what is sometimes described as “skillful means.” We make choices based on on what is possible and what is beneficial. That choice can only be made with mindfulness. That choice is practice itself.