When I was a child I believed, as did many my age, that carrying a rabbit's foot in my pocket had the power to bring me luck. I never left home without my precious lucky charm, and I would close my eyes while rubbing the fetish, hoping that my latest wish would come true. This ritual was not unlike the fervour I put into my evening prayers, kneeling with my hands folded: "God, please let me have a new pair of skates for Christmas!" or "God, please don't let my mother find out I broke her mirror!"
At some point I had to face the fact that my prayers were rarely answered, and so the rabbit's foot eventually ended its career at the bottom of a trash can along with my declaration: "That thing doesn’t work!"
It was only recently that I realized that I had been doing this all my life, relying on external agents to provide me with what I wanted—security, happiness, fortune, pleasure—and resenting circumstances or people if my wishes were not fulfilled. My days were spent in this way, demanding that people behaved according to my wishes or that no events occurred that might upset me.
All these many rabbit's feet I ranked according to their power, or obligation, to make me happy.
Of course, just as the fetish very rarely fulfilled my wishes, so it was with people and circumstances. Since I couldn't actually throw them in the trash, I would create alternate narratives, repeating clichés like, "You can't have everything in life." Or, trying to convince myself that I really was lucky, I would compare my situation to that of the less fortunate: "Stop complaining! There are plenty of people who love you. Think of others who aren't so lucky!"—as if merely saying these words had the power to relieve me of my distress. Between my philosophical incantations and rubbing a rabbit's foot, there wasn't much difference, because the relief, if any, was only temporary.
When everything went well, I clung to my periods of happiness as I had to the rabbit's foot of my childhood, repeating "please, please, please," asking that they never end, but not understanding that former good times had always wound to a close and that there was no reason for it to be any different now. When one of those happy times ended, I would start another cycle of depression and confusion, and return to searching for something that would cure my malaise. I attended seminars, participated in personal growth weekends, devoured the writings of Krishnamurti, and so on.
Again, the "please, please, please" of the rabbit's foot.
It was in this frame of mind that I came to Vipassana, attracted by the novel, but concrete approach proposed. After my first retreat things started to go better for me quite quickly. Little by little I saw the periods of worry, depression, anger and resentment become less frequent. The episodes became shorter and shorter and lost more and more of their intensity.
Victory! The rabbit's foot had finally answered me!
This way of, once again, handing over responsibility for my well-being to an external agent induced in me an attitude of judging the effectiveness of Vipassana according to my current state of mind, as if the Buddha needed to undergo an interview, pass an exam, or convince me of the product he wanted me to buy.
Over the weeks, like a gardener every day digging up a seed to reassure himself that the plant is still growing, I was often checking to see whether the Buddha’s teaching was still working for me. If unpleasant moments arrived in the course of my day, they were almost always accompanied by, "It's not working," and I would start to doubt, almost always cutting short my evening meditation session, preferring to read or go straight to bed.
If I felt good, I would find myself declaring the superiority of the Buddha's system, and would end up developing a kind of pretentiousness, an arrogance, looking down on others who were obviously not as enlightened as I was, and trying to convince them to follow my example. I fell victim to egocentricity, to narcissism.
Again, I was handing over responsibility for my condition to an outside agent. If I was doing well, it was thanks to the Buddha's teaching; if I was doing badly, it was because of the Buddha's teaching. The rabbit's foot, which sometimes responded well, sometimes responded badly. Through Vipassana I started to look more deeply into my experiences. I began to understand that I had always used the language of a victim, enduring people or events by giving them power over my state of mind. They were the ones who decided, not me.
By paying attention to the experience of each moment, I discovered that this language of victimization was much more present than I would have imagined. The slightest annoyance, from a little moment of concern about my bank account to an untimely solicitation call that made me angry, was the fault of a person or an event.
Fortunately—and this is the unique aspect of the Buddha's teaching—by striving to be as aware as possible of every inner experience, I increasingly recognized the emergence of the language of victimhood as it arose on the horizon: "Here comes the victim again!" Anger was gradually replaced by equanimity, followed by a smile. Under the surface, my sense of victimization began to gently fade away. A bit like with bodybuilding: you don't see the increase in the volume of the biceps immediately, but they firm up from the inside, and the beneficial effects manifest themselves little by little.
What happened? What is this subsurface work that could have produced such a fundamental change in my outlook?
I'm not sure. I've just been following the instructions, training myself to be constantly aware of the multiple changes that take place in my body and mind, and I think it's this understanding of the changing nature of all personal experience that means I needn't attach so much importance to my reactions and the emotions that may follow. I just let them pass. Whether someone says something to me that I find unpleasant, or I get stuck in traffic, I now know that any reaction is optional, and is, hence, my responsibility. Of course, I still don't have a good handle on it, but, if I react, more and more I am better able to quickly regain control … and with good humour. This taking of personal responsibility also frees others because, through my actions and general attitude, I want them to know that they were not put on this earth to make me happy, that they can feel free to say or do anything without risk of offending me.
Is the Buddha's teaching likely to end up as the rabbit's foot did? Not a chance!