The Good Buddhist Trap

by Lisa Ernst

“Where you stumble and fall, there you will find gold” – Joseph Campbell

Many of us in the West grew up surrounded by well meaning family, teachers and friends who stressed the importance of adhering to society-based standards of achievement and success. There’s nothing inherently wrong with challenging ourselves and working toward goals such as a college degree, a stimulating career and a rewarding family life. Unfortunately, many of us also learned to interpret any unrealized goals as character deficits, inadequate talent, lack of motivation and worse. By the time we reach adulthood, our own internal voices may have developed into the harshest critics of all.

Numerous people bring this mindset into their Buddhist practice, often unconsciously. Eastern dharma teachers have observed in western students a strong tendency toward self-criticism and low self-esteem. The tougher practice methods these teachers may use with students in their own countries are often watered down or even eliminated, replaced with a kind and grandmotherly approach intended to counteract the severe inner voices of so many students.

When we begin to study Buddha’s teachings on sila (ethics), right speech, non-harming, compassion and equanimity, most of us are inspired to cultivate these qualities in ourselves. Perhaps we wish to speak more kindly to a loved one who gets on our nerves, cultivate patience during trying times and extend compassion to those less fortunate than us. All of these intentions are worthwhile and necessary for awakening our hearts, but if we’re not careful our Buddhist intentions can become yet another inner exhortation to do better, be wiser and try harder. We may trap ourselves in a tangle of the “correct” and “incorrect” way to think and act, which suppresses what is actually arising. This repression takes us further away from sincerely manifesting our good intentions.

For example, most people on the dharma path want to cultivate genuine compassion toward the homeless.  This is a popular topic among students when I lead group discussions on lovingkindness and compassion. Many students report that they  experience aversion around the homeless rather than compassion.  They feel guilty because they are not manifesting their ideal Buddhist response. Even many long term meditators struggle with this. They forget that aversion, when met openly, is a gateway into compassion rather than something to repress or feel ashamed of.

At a deep level, I believe humans inherently know that all beings are interconnected. When another being suffers, you and I can feel their pain. Often we aren’t even conscious of this and our immediate response to a homeless person may be aversion, judgment and even intense fear. We may simply look away as quickly as possible. He or she becomes “the other” and this shields our intuition that this homeless person is actually none other than you and me. In the midst of this response, yet another layer of separation arises if we reprimand ourselves for being a bad Buddhist, short on compassion. Soon we’re so caught in our reaction to our aversion that any awareness of present-moment experience is far, far away.

But the remedy is actually close at hand. The first step is to pause long enough to  hear those critical voices; simply notice them and refrain from following their stories. Next, begin to accept and investigate the aversion, actually feel the distaste just as it is. Don’t strive to change it into compassion. As you directly experience your aversion and fear, your heart begins to open. An open and aware heart is a compassionate heart.

Begin with yourself; feel compassion for your own fear and sense of separation. As you do this, slowly your heart can open further, to embrace the suffering of other beings, including the homeless person. You may feel genuine sadness or grief for the travails of this person, the unknown circumstances that led him or her to such a vulnerable place in life. Once your heart can accommodate these feelings, compassion naturally arises, a kind and loving embrace that recognizes that all beings, high or low, good or bad, clean or dirty, are all of the same true nature and not the distant other. Sometimes your compassion may translate into action, an engaged response to suffering. At other times you may recognize there is no immediate deed that will help. Either way, you’ve discovered genuine lovingkindness, the heart of a good Buddhist.




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