Stop Taking Yourself So Seriously

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo encourages Western students of the dharma to relax and have more fun with their practice.

By Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Photo by 和 平

In traditional Buddhist countries, people are quite realistic and laid back concerning dharma practice. Although they have deep faith and devotion, they understand that we are all flawed human beings. So they tend to be less critical both of themselves and others.

Western students, on the other hand, often try to become the perfect practitioner, to transform themselves into a Japanese or Tibetan, assuming not only the outer etiquette, but the inner attitudes of one’s adopted dharma country. Usually, however, this approach merely accentuates one’s low self-esteem and lack of confidence. To walk the path with confidence, we need to accept and befriend ourselves, to feel at ease in our own skin.

Most Buddhist teachers have encountered the tendency of Western practitioners to take themselves and the dharma very seriously. Perhaps it is a leftover from the students’ traditional religious backgrounds, but there is sometimes a humorless quality to the intensity and focus on achievement. Solemnity and earnestness often prevail in Western dharma circles.

One of the noticeable qualities of most Asian dharma teachers—and some Western teachers—is their readiness to laugh and joke. The Dalai Lama is a prime example of someone who spontaneously laughs when anything strikes him as funny—even in the midst of a solemn ceremony. This doesn’t mean that he isn’t deeply sincere; he’s just not too serious.

Usually it is our old companion the ego that likes to take itself seriously in order to feel important. So when we become interested in the dharma, the ego happily cloaks itself with an aura of spirituality and readily agrees to undertake retreats and disciplines to become a better and more realized “me.” Rather than quietly working to change our minds, it is easy to fall into the trap of taking on the most advanced practices and empowerments long before we are ready. This creates discouragement and a sense of failure.

Students sometimes ask: “What will I gain from meditation practice?” or “When will I know that I have realizations or accomplishment?” or even “What is the fastest and easiest way to enlightenment?” One of the problems seems to be making dharma practice into yet another goal to be accomplished.

The texts assure us that we need energy and dedication to advance along the path, just as we would to become proficient in any skill or sport. Yet it is easy to fall into the pattern or trap of making one’s practice rigid and ambitious. We grow depressed when we don’t appear to be making any progress: when we meditate and nothing seems to happen, or when we cannot regain our initial experiences. Our very expectations create a barrier to the natural unfolding of the mind’s potential.

The dharma is supposed to make our lives happier and less encumbered. “Feeders on joy shall we be,” as the Buddha said. The dharma should be like yeast in the heavy dough of our everyday existence, making our days lighter and more digestible. So when our practice becomes yet another rock in the rucksack of life, making everything seem heavier and more stressful, something isn’t working properly.

In the famous simile of a lute, the Buddha explained that just as the strings of a musical instrument should be neither too tight nor too loose, likewise our practice should be well tuned—not too intense and not too lax. Like a marathon runner, we need to pace ourselves.

We need to encourage ourselves and our fellow practitioners to lighten up and stop taking ourselves so seriously. Sometimes I think the seventh paramita should be a sense of humor! It is very unlikely that we will really accomplish full enlightenment in this lifetime. So what? We have countless future lives to continue the work. In this life, we can allow ourselves to relax a bit and enjoy the flowers, even as we keep walking onward.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, originally from London, was one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She is the subject of the biography Cave in the Snow, which describes her twelve-year retreat in the Himalayas, and is the founder of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in Tashi Jong, India, where she currently resides.