Nothing Special about Ourselves or Our Feelings
Mind training or attitude training, lojong in Tibetan, is a very broad topic that deals with how we experience our life and how we can change our attitudes about what we experience. We all know life is full of ups and downs and usually isn’t very easy. Many things happen to us all the time, and these arise from a very broad spectrum of causes and conditions.
As an easy example, think just in terms of us all gathering here this evening. What brought you here? There’s the whole physical side, the traffic and transportation, the fact that you live in the city, and then there are whatever interests you have, what’s going on in your family and work and life in general. As a result of an enormous amount of causes and conditions, we’re here together, everybody coming from a different background and different set of causes and conditions.
Now, as we sit here, there are all of you and there’s me and a translator. There’s also a video camera recording us. What’s the different between you looking at me and the camera? Like us, the camera too is here because of various causes and conditions: someone manufactured it, someone else bought it, yet another person set it up. Both the camera and us take in information. The real difference, however, is that, we develop feelings on the basis of the information we take in, namely some level of happiness or unhappiness. Cameras and computers don’t experience the information they take in.
What Is Happiness?
It’s a mental experience that can accompany either a physical cognition, like seeing something or someone, or a mental cognition, like thinking about something or someone. It’s not so much that we like what we’re seeing or what we’re thinking; rather, we like how we feel while seeing or thinking it. But, happiness is not the same as the physical sensation of pleasure: it’s a mental state. It’s also not the same as the disturbing emotion of clinging, with which we exaggerate the good qualities of something, like chocolate, our youth or even happiness itself, and don’t want to let go.
The level of happiness we experience while looking at something, a movie for instance, might be low degree, but if after a few minutes we’re still watching it and don’t feel like looking away, this indicates that we’re satisfied and don't want to be parted from what we’re feeling. We might say, we’re still “happy to be looking at it.” If we were unhappy about it – unhappiness being defined as that feeling which, when experienced, we naturally want to be parted from – we would usually try to change our experience by simply looking away. Then, of course, we also sometimes have neutral feelings, where we neither want to be parted nor not parted from something; we’re indifferent.
Often, however, if we think of the terms “happy” and “unhappy,” we think in terms of extremes – either a huge smile on our face, or really sad and depressed. The feelings of happiness and unhappiness, however, don’t need to be this dramatic, because we’re experiencing every single moment of our life with some level of happiness or unhappiness, and most moments are not very dramatic.
The Ups and Downs of Life
Every moment, we experience all sorts of things happening and, like our being here, these come from millions of causes and conditions coming together. We take in the information about what is happening either around us or just in our minds and, while this is happening, we experience it with varying levels of happiness and unhappiness. We often describe this phenomenon in terms of the mood we’re in – a good mood or a bad mood.
The nature of life is that it goes up and down all the time, isn’t it? And the mood that we’re in doesn’t always correspond to the information that we’re taking in, what’s going on around us, and what we ourselves are doing. For instance, we might be doing something we normally like, but we’re in a bad mood so we’re not happy and not enjoying it. Or we could be doing something not particularly fun, like a demanding physical exercise, but we’re happy to do it, we want to continue. It’s interesting to look at how our moods don’t always correspond to what we’re actually doing.
As we experience each moment, we always have a certain attitude towards it. Attitude is what we’re talking about now, so what is it? An attitude is simply how we regard something. There are so many different types of attitude we can have, and depending on that attitude, it very much affects the kind of mood we’re in. In normal circumstances, there’s not much we can really do to change these ups and downs that we’re experience all the time in life. Even if you take some sort of medication that makes you feel good, in the long term there will still be ups and down, right? The thing that we can work with, however, is our attitude.
Now, when we talk of training our attitude, there are two aspects. One of these is to try and cleanse or stop having a destructive attitude towards things. “Destructive” might be a bit too heavy a word, so we can also say “non-productive.” But in a sense it is self-destructive, because these attitudes just make us feel worse. The other aspect is to train ourselves to have a more productive way of looking at things.
Here it’s important to note that we are not talking about what people normally call the “power of positive thinking,” which is to be super optimistic: “Everything’s wonderful; it's all great and perfect!” This can help, but it’s a bit simplistic. For a really effective method to deal with our attitude, we need to look more deeply.
Let’s focus first on our attitude about our feelings, namely our attitude about the level of happiness or unhappiness we feel. We’ll look at this in the context of a problem that most people have – exaggerating the importance of what they’re feeling.
We make a big thing about ourselves – the “me” – and a big, big thing out of what we’re feeling. We experience everything in what’s known as a dualistic way. For example, we have this view of “me” on one side and the unhappiness on the other side. We’re afraid of this unhappiness and try as much as possible to shield ourselves from it and get rid of it. But how does it actually make us feel when we have this attitude. It makes it all worse, doesn’t it?
Think about it for a moment: what is your attitude when you’re in a bad mood and you’re unhappy? I don’t mean when you’re crying and really sad, I just mean that feeling of when you’re sitting doing your work or watching television or whatever, and you’re just, “Ugh, I feel lousy.” Do we think that it’s just like we’re sitting here and a big dark cloud comes to us, then we want to put up our shields: “I don’t want this!” Is that a part of your experience? It often seems like the bad mood just comes, and we never want that. And the more we focus on it, how horrible it is, it just gets worse. The problem here is that we’re exaggerating what’s going on, and making two things out of it – “me” on one side, and the bad mood on the other.
Now what about happiness? Again, we tend to have a dualistic way of experiencing it, “me” on the one side and happiness on the other side – and then we become afraid of losing it, so we cling and try to hold on to it. There’s a feeling of insecurity because we get scared it’s going to pass, and we’re going to lose it; we’re going to stop feeling good. It’s difficult to just relax and enjoy feeling happy, as this insecurity actually destroys it, doesn’t it? On top of this, there can be all sorts of complications like “I don’t deserve to be happy” and all of that.
If you start to think about it, it’s funny how we’re often a little bit like an animal. Look at how a dog eats, supposedly enjoying what it’s eating, but it’s always looking around too, a little bit tense that somebody is going to take it way. Do you ever have that feeling? We’re feeling happy but get afraid that someone’s going to come and discover you and take it away. It’s sort of weird.
Then there’s the neutral feeling, again from a dualistic point of view of “me” and the neutral feeling. We exaggerate the neutral feeling into nothing, into no feeling at all. This happens quite often, where we feel as though we’re feeling nothing whatsoever. It kind of makes us feel as though we’re not really alive. This neutral feeling actually makes us feel a bit unhappy. We don’t really like feeling nothing.
With each of the possibilities of happy, unhappy and neutral, the more we exaggerate and make them into a big thing, it actually makes us even more unhappy. Thus, our attitude about our feelings is very crucial for affecting our experience. We tend to view the happy or unhappy or neutral feeling as something a bit special, and we usually see it as separate from ourselves.
Imagine there are three dishes of food in front of you. One is terrible, one is delicious, and one is just bland; these are like the feelings of unhappiness, happiness and neutral. When we feel these it’s like we’re taking them into us, we’re “eating” them. And in a sense, it’s as if we could choose not to eat, but you can’t really do that, can you, with feelings – “I wish I didn’t have any feelings.” But then we wouldn’t feel alive either, so that’s unsatisfactory. We can check if we have this dualistic thing of “me” here and the mood, the feeling over there, separate from us.
Just Do It
The first thing we need to do when training out attitudes, is to have an attitude of “nothing special.” It might not sound like much, but it’s actually very profound. “There is nothing special about what I’m feeling now” – life goes up and down, sometimes we’re in a good mood, sometimes in a bad mood, and sometimes not much is going on at all. There’s nothing surprising about it, and there’s nothing special about us, as though we have to feel certain ways and shouldn’t be feeling other feelings. The main thing is that we just get on with our life regardless of how we feel.
If you have to take care of your children, for example, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a good or bad mood, you still need to just do it. You drive your car and go to work, whether you feel good or bad. The more we focus on ourselves and how we feel, the unhappier we become. This doesn’t mean that we stop feeling anything at all, this isn’t the point. We should be aware of what we’re feeling, but at the same time not make a big deal out of it.
Some people seem really afraid of feeling unhappy, because they think that it’s going to totally overwhelm them. Like when someone dies or something really terrible happens, you want to protect yourself from feeling unhappy because it’ll be too much. It might be unconscious; it doesn’t need to be a conscious blocking of the feeling. We seem to want to reject it as though it’s something external trying to get in. On the other hand, there are those who think they don’t deserve to be happy. Things might be going well but they think they shouldn’t be happy because they’re basically no good. Then you’ve got those who can’t just feel neutral, they have to be entertained all the time, like listening to music constantly. They feel like it will entertain them and make them happy, and so are afraid of the neutral feeling of silence. Thus, in a sense, we’re often afraid of feelings. Why? Simply because we make a big deal out of them, and exaggerate their importance. But feelings are just a totally normal part of life; they’re how we naturally experience every moment. It’s what makes us different from the video camera, so nothing special. It sounds simple, but it’s not so simple.
The Example of the Wild Bird at Our Window
What we need is a delicate balance. Of course we prefer to be happy, but with it there can still come the feeling of not wanting to destroy whatever happiness we now have, and so we cling to it and feel insecure about it. From our own experience, we know that the happiness we have now is definitely going to pass. It doesn’t last because the very nature of life is that it goes up and down. If we know this, then there’s no point in worrying. It frees us to just enjoy the happiness for as long as it lasts.
There’s a lovely example I sometimes use for this. Imagine that a very beautiful wild bird comes to our window and stays there for a little while. Now, we could simply enjoy the beauty of the bird, but we know it’s wild and it’s going to fly away. If we try to catch it and put it in a cage, that bird is going to be very, very unhappy. In the process of catching it, the bird will get scared, try to fly off and never come back. But, if we’re relaxed about it and just enjoy the beauty of the bird while it’s there, no one gets scared or unhappy, and it’ll perhaps come back again.
Happiness seems very much to be like this, doesn’t it? It’s also like that with people we really like. When they come to visit, we often have this attitude of “Why don’t you stay longer?” even before they’ve taken off their coat. “When are you coming again?” This type of thing. It’s sort of typical of the way in which we destroy our happiness.
Nothing special. Nothing special at all. A bird comes to our window; a friend comes to visit us; our friend calls – nothing special. Just enjoy it while it lasts, because of course it will end. So what, what do you expect? Yes, we want to be happy. When we’re unhappy, accept it as what we’re experiencing now. There’s nothing special or surprising about that either. That unhappiness too, will pass. When you try to just push it away, it makes it worse.
So we can analyze our feelings and examine what we’re really afraid of. Am I afraid of feeling unhappy? Am I afraid to feel happy because I don’t deserve it? Am I afraid of feeling neutral because then there’s just nothing? What are we afraid of?
I have developed something called sensitivity training, and one of the exercises helps people to overcome their fear of feelings. It’s simple; you tickle your hand, then pinch it, then just hold it. One’s a nice feeling, the other is not so nice, and one is just neutral. But there’s nothing particularly special about any of them, is there? They’re just feelings. So what? This is the type of attitude that we need to develop. I’m not in a good mood – so what? It’s nothing special. We acknowledge that we’re in a bad mood and if there is something we can do to improve it, then why not? If there isn’t, then we just deal with it. Actually, you don’t even really need to deal with it, you can just go ahead and carry on doing whatever you’re doing. If we really want to change the way in which we experience that feeling, then we need to look at other ways of changing our attitude about it.
This, “nothing special,” is the first level. There’s nothing particularly special about the way I feel, and there’s no “me” that’s separate from these feelings, and that we need to shield. There are ups and downs, this is just the way life goes.
There’s Nothing Special about Me
Connected with “nothing special about the feeling” is “there’s nothing special about me and what I’m feeling now.” This gets into the topic that we call “self-cherishing” in Buddhism. We experience everything in terms of self-cherishing. What does this actually mean? It means complete concern only about ourselves. We’re focused on ourselves and what we’re currently feeling, and we ignore everyone else: “It doesn’t matter what they feel. I’m unhappy.”
Again, the trick is to think that there’s nothing much special about ourselves and what we’re thinking. The narrower our mind is in terms of clinging to “me,” the unhappier we actually become. It’s just like a muscle that’s very tight and tense. Our mind is like this – “me, me, me” – but if we think of the seven billion humans and countless animals on this planet, what we feel is nothing special. Everybody is feeling something now. Some are feeling happy, some unhappy and some neutral (they might be asleep!), and with each individual, it’s changing constantly. Looking at it this way, what’s so special about me and what I’m feeling right now?
Like when you’re in a terrible traffic jam. Do you think everyone else in that traffic jam is having a wonderful and really happy time? The more we think, “Me, me, me – I’m here and I’m stuck and I can’t get out, how horrible!” the unhappier we become, isn’t it? If you think about everybody in the traffic jam, then it automatically leads to your mind being more open, more relaxed.
I remember when we were coming here today, the traffic was not moving at all, and there was this side street in which all these cars wanted to join this line of traffic on the street we were on. These cars wanted to get across our lane and into the lane going in the other direction, which was also not moving, and somehow get through the various lanes in our direction and get to the other side. Of course, people didn’t let them through, and you think, “My god, how are they going to get through?” They start to inch their way and stick the nose of the car in, and so on, and it starts to become really very interesting. Then the guy in front of us, even when he could move ahead, was speaking on his cell phone and wasn’t paying attention. So he wasn’t moving, and then the cars behind were getting very uptight about that.
With all of this going on, then all of a sudden, you’re not thinking about: “Poor me, I’m stuck in this traffic.” It becomes like a whole drama that you’re watching. By wondering, “How are they going to weave their way through? How are they going to find their way?” you’re not thinking just of yourself. You’ve changed your attitude. You’re not making such a big deal out of “me.” And when we stop making this big deal out of “me” – “I’m so special. I’m the special one in this traffic” – then the whole way that we experience the situation changes. Think about that.
The Problem of Self-Cherishing
One great Tibetan teacher, called Kunu Lama, suggested an exercise that is very helpful. He said imagine yourself on one side, and everyone else on the other, and look at that separately, as an observer. The “me” on one side of this picture is unhappy, but so is everybody else on the other side. Or you’re stuck in the traffic and so are all these other people. Now, as that neutral observer, who’s more important? The one person, “me,” pushing to get ahead of everybody, or the whole crowd caught in the traffic? Please try that.
Obviously, the larger group is more important than a single person, right? This doesn’t mean that we’re nothing. Actually, if we care about and are concerned about everyone, we’re included in that “everyone.” It’s simply that we aren’t more special than everyone else, especially in terms of our feelings.
So, the problem is self-cherishing, this constant “Me, me, me. I’m so important.” When we’re unhappy, thinking that there’s this cloud over us and there’s a “me” that’s separate from it, this is the self-importance of “me.” When we’re happy, it’s also all “me, me, me.” We don’t want some larger dog coming along to take our bone away. Then sometimes we have, “Me, me, me. I’m not feeling anything. I’m not being entertained. I need to be entertained.”
Opening Up to Cherishing Others
This self-preoccupation, focused in this limited way on “me” and what I feel, is the problem. What we have to do is to change this perspective, to think in terms of everyone and have a motivation in terms of everyone: “May everybody get out of this traffic.” If you think about it, how could we alone just get out of the traffic? The traffic has to eliminated, and this includes everyone in it. If your concern has this much larger scope of everyone, then we’re much more relaxed. We’re not so uptight or so devastated at being stuck in traffic. And when we finally get out of that traffic, don’t just think, “Oh wonderful, I got out!” but think in terms of “This is wonderful, everybody got wherever they were going.” Then we don’t cling to that happiness as if somebody’s going to take the bone away from us.
This is basically what we call compassion, which is to think of others’ unhappiness, caring about it in the same way that we care about our own, and then taking responsibility to actually help everyone overcome that unhappiness – even though it might be nothing special. There’s no point in getting depressed, thinking of all the horrors going on in the world. This is natural and happens all the time; but still, it’s better if everyone were happy, right?
When you voluntarily take some sense of responsibility, thinking “I’m going to be concerned about everybody and wish everybody to be free of their suffering,” we develop an enormous sense of courage and self-confidence. This is something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks about very often. If we only think about ourselves and our own unhappiness, we’re actually very weak. But to think voluntarily about everyone else and their unhappiness takes a great deal of strength. It’s not at all a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength which leads to incredible self-confidence. This positive attitude also automatically leads to feeling happy. There isn’t this whole, “Oh poor me, I’m stuck in the traffic.” Instead, we think of everyone stuck in that traffic jam, really wishing that they could all be free from it. It’s much more courageous to think of everyone in the traffic jam, and then we end up with a more positive feeling about ourselves too. We’re not weak or being oppressed by the traffic; we’re strong.
If we’re thinking about the others stuck in the traffic and not just only ourselves, it indirectly helps the others. For instance, we won't be aggressive and constantly beep our horn (which is obviously pointless as no one can move anyway). When that car in the side street is inching in and cutting us off, we won't open our window to shout some obscenity. Then both of us are relaxed. But, we can’t have too much of an influence.
This is a simple example of how we can change our attitude, to change the quality of how we experience the natural ups and downs of life. All it takes is practice, and a bit of courage, to overcome the feeling that we’re so special and what we feel is so special, and to make the best of every situation.
Dealing with Anger
If we’re stuck in traffic and someone cuts us off, we might uncontrollably feel a flash of anger. Another way to change our attitude is to think of all the different causes that might have made this situation happen, like perhaps the driver has a sick baby and is trying to get to the hospital. This can help us to feel a lot calmer.
But the thing is these initial flashes of anger still continue all the time. It’s a really long process to overcome the tendencies and habits of anger. Changing our attitude, like in this example, by thinking that the person in a hurry might have a good reason for being so, is just a provisional way of dealing with anger. We have to go much, much deeper to pull out the roots of anger, which has to do with how we understand ourselves and other people.
We tend to identify ourselves and others with just one little incident happening in life. For instance, we view this person in the traffic as a horrible person trying to cut me off, and that’s all we think of that person. So we identify them with a single thing happening in their lives, especially when it also involves us somehow. We give them a solid identity, just like we have about ourselves. Then there’s this solid “me” who’s angry.
We have to try and loosen this, to the point where we don’t identify them or me with anything. But this is a deep and long process. Think of a still picture of someone. It is a single moment of that person, but not everything about them at all. So we need to stop viewing ourselves and our life and other people in terms of still photographs. Everything’s changing all the time. And once we’ve loosened our deceptive view of things, we need to get used to it, because the tendency is always to tighten up. Eventually it is entirely possible not to get that tightness of anger or jealousy or whatever again.
This training to not make anything special out of our feelings or ourselves and not to project fixed, limited identities on anyone, including ourselves, helps to improve the quality of our lives. Difficult situations become much easier to deal with, and so life isn’t such a struggle. We become more emotionally balanced and a happier person.
A larger aim is to think of others and how we dealing with them. If we live in a family and have children and if we have friends and co-workers, if we’re always in a bad mood and continually thinking “poor me” and stuff like that, we’re in a very weak position to be able to help them, and in fact it makes them unhappy. So we want to somehow deal with our moods in a more productive way because it will affect others, it will affect our family and so on, and we’re concerned about them. That’s another reason to work on ourselves.
The drive for happiness is almost a biological thing and there’s nothing wrong with being happy, and we need to try to attain happiness. But when we have it, we need to recognize its nature, which is that it’ll pass, and so just enjoy it there and then. The more relaxed about it we are, the more frequently we’ll feel happy. And sometimes we will feel unhappy, but so what? What do we expect? No big deal. Nothing special.
When we think that there’s nothing super special about what’s going on, that in itself is a more relaxed way of becoming happier. The point is we’re not worried, there’s not this constant, neurotic drive: “I always have to be happy, I always have to be entertained, I always have to get my own way.” This type of thinking is actually unpleasant. Remember what we said, being happy doesn’t necessarily correspond to what you’re doing, you could do the same thing and feel happy, unhappy or neutral on different days. It’s just a matter of what you focus on.
I’ll give an example. I really enjoy going to the dentist, because my dentist is a great guy, and we have very friendly relations, always joking and so forth. It’s pleasant to go there because I’m not focused on “I’m really worried that he might have to drill that or do that.” There’s no anxiety there. I look at it with happiness, “Oh great, I get to see my friend tomorrow.”
You might think I’m a bit weird, but once I had root canal work done, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was interesting because my mouth was wide open and they kept putting in more and more instruments, and I started to laugh because I couldn’t imagine how much more they could stick in. Mind you, I was completed Novocained, so I wasn’t feeling anything!
I mean of course the injection of the Novocaine hurt, but so what? Would you prefer not to have it and have 30 minutes of pain during the root canal or a few seconds of pain for an injection? You’re happy to get that injection even if it hurts, because it’s just for a short time.
Everything depends on our attitude. This is attitude training. It works and improves the quality of our life. If we need root canal, are we going to have it be torture or have it be not so bad? We have to experience it, there’s no choice, so we might as well make it into as okay an experience as possible. This is the principle behind it.
Nobody wakes up in the morning wishing for problems or suffering; everything we do is aimed toward making us happier. Yet, this elusive goal never seems to get much closer. By concentrating on ourselves, and exaggerating the importance of who we are, what we do, and what we feel, we either fail to enjoy the happiness we have or we dwell on the difficulties we have to face. Through training our attitude to be more inclusive of others and their feelings, we open a door to a more relaxed and happy experience of the ups and downs that we all go through.