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The Big Umbrella

By | 6/4/2022

“Protecting oneself, one protects others;
Protecting others, one protects oneself.”

The Bamboo Acrobat Discourse (Sedaka Sutta)

SN 47.19

Elaborating on the assertion that all beings seek happiness, the Buddha declared it impossible for anyone to be truly happy if he or she does not refrain from whatever harms the peace and harmony of others.

Since his teaching entered my life, I have recognized in my quest for personal happiness a social responsibility: my duty to be happy for the welfare of others. After all, no-one is interested in the hurtful things that I sometimes say about them, in enduring my blame and annoyance, in witnessing my worries and anxiety attacks, or in my insistence that things go my way.

I am starting to see the goal of eliminating these self-centered tendencies as beneficial to me as well as to others. Makes sense, doesn’t it? And yet, I had always lived in complete ignorance of this truth. Blinded by my own anger, I would always open my eyes too late, after tears began falling from the eyes of others, and that was if I noticed at all. How much pain and frustration I must have caused without realizing it—not during, not after! I wasn't aware that a mere word or gesture of impatience from me could have a telling impact on those around me.

Sometimes after a tantrum I would express (to myself) an habitual, “I shouldn't have,” followed by the intention to do better next time—a firm resolution that lasted only until the next tantrum. Again and again. Why did I do it? Why couldn't I escape this disheartening repetition?

I came to a Vipassana course wanting to improve my life, but without a clue how to change my distraught self. Although vaguely aware of the effect that my anger and anxiety had on my loved ones, my customary attitude was, “too bad, not my fault.”

It was only through the process of learning this novel method of self-observation that I discovered what I had never before heard, much less understood, about the mechanics of the human mind. It was by dint of looking very carefully that I began to see that this clinging to “Me” rendered me a prisoner with a single obsession: take advantage of all possible sensory and intellectual pleasures. As a corollary, I could not bear to be deprived of them.

By systematically learning to observe the subtle physical sensations that operate continuously within, I penetrated a hitherto unknown part of my mind and began to uncover the forces that generate anger, anxiety, impatience and everything likely to make me unhappy.

As my concentration improved, I slowly realized that the impulses that pulled me out of any state of tranquility all hinged on an “I” thought, a “Me” thought. Gradually I began to understand that these thoughts, which seemed beyond my control, were merely impersonal, changing phenomena. And that by ceasing to foster and cling to them, I could eventually be happier and more peaceful.

From time to time during the meditation retreat, I could calmly observe very unpleasant sensations in my knees or back. But if another unpleasant sensation appeared simultaneously elsewhere (for example, a physical pain or the sound of a fellow meditator coughing), then the reaction, “this is too much for Me,” would arise, and I would instantly flip from simple physical pain into mental suffering. Because “Me” had sneaked onto the scene, the calmness disappeared. What was impersonal and natural suddenly became unpleasant, personal suffering.

The gradual development of detached, focused attention meant that, back home, as the days went by, I became slightly more adept at noticing the persistent infiltration of the “Me.” I could better ignore it, let it die as nascent anger, anxiety or worry before it swelled and overwhelmed me. This skill was developing without my actually knowing how or why. By applying objective attention to the phenomenon of change, I developed mental reflexes that protected me from these harmful impulses.

I wasn't sure what was happening, but I could see the results. I was feeling better. Anger, worry and other negativities decreased. I could also tell by what people said to me: “You've really changed.” “You're less stubborn than before.” “You're so much more patient.” And, “You look happy.”

Only recently have I come to understand that this “Me” is a process of fabrication, and that a reduction in clinging to this process was occurring little by little. It was as if the body's tenant were leaving, and eventually there would be no one remaining to be insulted or hurt. But let's make things clear: it's a long path, and there's still a long way to go. Sainthood is exceedingly far away.

And what about protecting others? By protecting myself from the suffering that anger, anxiety and other ailments cause, I am also protecting others ... from me. I protect them from me because my suffering is a contagious virus, poisoning relationships and making others unhappy.

No longer having to endure my emotional outbursts and, equally important, knowing that nothing they say is likely to produce a strong negative reaction, others gradually come to feel that they don't have to walk on eggshells around me, like they used to. They too seem to feel better, freer.

This was no heroic effort of will, nor was it due to any moral, intellectual or philosophical insight. It was simply the result of protecting myself, which eventually became a spontaneous function like blinking to protect one's eyes from dust. I have done nothing more than follow the instructions of the teaching, giving constant, thorough, equanimous attention to the reality of change. The results are automatic and natural. And surprising.

Simple, continuous attention to the impersonal phenomenon of change is the umbrella that protects me. And it's big enough to protect whoever comes near me as well. Protected from me. Protected from “Me.”

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