I would like begin by reading a quote from Hubert Benoit, a French doctor who, amongst other things, studied, practised and experimented with Zen. He had a deep and creative way of conceptualising the core of the practice, and at one time he said, ‘All suffering, by humiliating us, modifies us. But this modification can be of two sorts that are radically opposed. If I struggle against humiliation it destroys me and increases my inner disharmony. But if I let it alone without opposing it, it builds up my inner harmony. So, when I start understanding,’ he says, ‘I begin to see that all my negative states, basically, are humiliations, and that up to this point I have taken steps to give them other names. Then I become capable of feeling myself humiliated and vexed without any other image within me, and I become capable of remaining there, motionless.’ He concludes, ‘From the moment I succeed in no longer moving in my humiliated state, I discover with surprise that there is the unique harbour of safety, the only place in the world in which I can find perfect security.’ Somewhere else he also speaks about ‘resting on the stone bed of discomfort’.
If one thinks of one’s own practice, it seems to me, it is safe to define it as a journey from humiliation to humility. Because of ‘me/mine’, because of ego, this is a journey from the suffering which is experienced as humiliation, to the freedom of humility and seeing things as they are. Humility comes from earth (humus), being firmly planted on the earth rather than being overwhelmed and carried away by projections, fantasies, desires and aversions.
Humiliation is centred upon the work of ego, and humility is freedom from ego. These two words capture the gist of bondage and freedom, the gist of our practice. Maybe the only effort we need to make is to re-own the word ‘humility’ in its true sense, which often gets lost in a pseudo-humility. Hubert Benoit talks about ‘remaining motionless within humiliation’. He refers to ‘resting on the stone bed’ and ‘letting the humiliation alone.’ These are excellent descriptions of our practice; they have the strength to evoke what is beneficial, what is skilful, in transforming us.
We can learn to abide in humiliation as the cutting edge of this practice, as a very important part of it. We can stop, pause, and gently explore all kinds of suffering we come across.
The Buddha teaches, basically, about remaining motionless in fear, about mental firmness and gentleness: ‘If fear came while I was walking up and down,’ said the Buddha, ‘I would keep walking up and down. If fear came while I was sitting, I would continue sitting. If fear came while I was standing, I would keep standing. And if fear came while I was lying down, I would continue lying down.’ This is not a different teaching. Maybe the words are different, the angle is different, but it is essentially the same.
Now, to the extent that we get into this different perspective, we become less identified with our suffering. Being less identified with our suffering means less ego, and less ego means feeling less humiliated and being more humble. This is the way the practice works. But we have to see this, and see it again and again. I do not know of any short cuts. More humility means more freedom, more inner peace.
When we first come across invitations to rest in discomfort, to abide in what is unpleasant, either we don’t honestly understand—maybe we can pretend that we do, but we don’t—or we have a reaction like: This is the last thing on earth I want to do. And this is a very honest response. As a matter of fact, the ego’s policy is simple and clear: At all costs to pursue what is pleasant, and at all costs to avoid what is unpleasant—ceaselessly. We all know this very well. The idea of welcoming what is unpleasant is intrinsically alien, foreign to our egos.
So, what is wrong with the ego’s policy? It sounds reasonable, but dharma practice shows us that it simply doesn’t work. Actually, it fails all the time, but we keep trying, which shows what an incredibly deep faith we have in this ego. No matter what happens, we keep believing it, we keep doing it, and this will continue to be the case unless a different kind of faith takes over. As long as we are driven by this blind faith in our egos, we cannot develop wise faith in the inner work and its goal. They are incompatible.
In this practice, of course, we are not asked to work immediately with what is unpleasant, frustrating, or humiliating, because it wouldn’t be realistic. The practice that the famous Buddhist author Shantideva describes in his Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, is not immediately accessible:
Whenever I have distracted thoughts, the wish to verbally belittle others, feelings of self-importance or self-satisfaction, when I have the intention to describe the faults of others, pretension, and the thoughts to deceive others, whenever I’m eager for praise or have the desire to blame others, whenever I have the wish to speak harshly and cause dispute, at such times I should remain like a piece of wood.
Whenever I have impatience, laziness, fear, shamelessness, or the desire to talk nonsense, if thoughts of partiality arise, at these times, too, I should remain like a piece of wood.
As with any other form of learning and discipline, this practice too needs training, gradual development, so that we can build a solid base. It seems to me that this happens mainly through two things: (i) the gradual stabilising of the mind through formal practice, and (ii) using as many opportunities as possible that everyday life presents to us—I mean the small disappointments, the small frustrations that arise every day, with the emphasis on small, you know, ‘small is beautiful’. This is not a coincidence. We should begin from what is small. This is something which is often overlooked, but it is essential.
Learning to deal with minor adversities is a crucial part of the training. It is naïve to think that we should save our energy for the big stuff. We could easily end up thinking like this. But can we work with the big stuff if we have not patiently worked with the small? If we skip what is immediately accessible, workable, minor, we are likely to be heading towards discouragement rather than trust and confidence, and we are likely to come to a point where we start complaining about the lack of results from our practice. But who told us that the numberless opportunities we receive every day are to be disregarded? Probably no one told us that. We probably told ourselves that, on the grounds of some conditioning which equates practise with sitting and working with big problems, with highly dramatic mind states. Sitting or working with dramatic mind states, we may think, is practise. However, we probably spend most of our time not sitting and not having contact with dramatic mind states, maybe 80% of our time, in fact. So, what do we do? Do we wait for the next sitting? Do we wait for the next dramatic mind state?
Often people come to the practice after long years of distraction. We therefore have to learn not to miss small opportunities. It isn’t easy. As T.S. Eliot puts it: Distracted from distraction by distraction.
It is important, then, not to miss the small things that life offers for our training. When we start treading the path, when we start to have less faith in the ego’s policies, then more and more whatever happens will go into the practice, and everything will acquire a profound sense.
Maybe we pick up the phone and for the third time the line is busy. Can we rest comfortably in this discomfort? Can we remain still and motionless? Or do we prefer to actively and frantically build up humiliation? Humiliation is not automatically present; it gets fabricated by the ego. We have a choice. We can get into the old habit of fabricating suffering, or we can stop and watch. Can we literally sit still in the tiny contraction that we experience, in face of that person who never smiles back at us? ‘Never’ means ‘every time’. ‘Every time’ means ‘a number of opportunities’. Are we going to use those opportunities? Or are we going to consider them irrelevant, minor?
Maybe it is the end of a long day. We are tired and our feet hurt. Can we focus on this fact instead of drifting into wanting and aversion? Can we be gently aware of the range of physical sensations as well as the range of reactions? This is such a wise use of time. But it can just slip through our fingers. We can constantly think that we have something more important to do.
Once we learn the art of mindfully and skilfully using the little challenges, something momentous happens, but it usually happens gradually. We begin to have a new interest in working with the abundance of little frustrations, etc. Perhaps we don’t realise it, but this is a giant turning point. When we first hear about working with what is unpleasant and painful, either we do not understand it, or we had a resistance towards it. But now, instead of feeling resistance, we have this interest. This is absolutely major. It gives us fuel, motivation, and brings understanding.
In retrospect, we realise that our initial attempts at staying with discomfort were no more than a kind of spying on it, wondering when it was going to go away. This is not exactly being motionless in discomfort; it is more like good old desire, wanting to get rid of discomfort, disguised as mindfulness. So this little flame of interest at the beginning is a very good friend and will help us in most decisive ways.
Someone said that everyday life can make us very dull. But it can also free us from ourselves like nothing else. In everyday life you can die to yourself slowly and gently, without noise; nobody will notice it, not even yourself. But most of us need formal practice, some intensive practice. We also need to work more with all the small challenges we are presented with, increasing that interest in working with what is ordinary, with what is average. Letting the ordinary go by indicates that there is still ego, still feelings of superiority, feelings that our practise is wasted on such things; it is subtle. We wouldn’t necessarily admit it to ourselves, but it is often like this.
Once the mind is capable of being relatively still and motionless within small matters, then it is trained and more or less ready to deal with serious or bigger issues and problems. That is not the case before training in this way.
Let us say, for example, that an important relationship has broken down. It came to an abrupt ending, but it was not us who took the initiative. We are devastated by such an experience, completely humiliated, and feel an enormous sense of lack of worth. If we have practised, on the other hand, and if we practise within the situation, it may be a very different experience. There may still be intense suffering, but somehow it is cleaner, simpler. In other words, there is less humiliation and more humility. And that is radically different. We call both experiences suffering, but they don’t belong in the same category. We suffer in the first case and we suffer in the second case, but the scenario is quite different.
I think it is the Christian author Jean-Pierre de Caussade in the 18th century who put it in a very beautiful way. In a letter he said, ‘Accept yourself with sweetness, without outward or inner impatience, peacefully.’ This thing only, provided it is practised well, can give you inner peace. And this inner peace will help you more than anything else. Why? Because when one feels some peace and sweetness within one’s heart, one goes back to one’s heart with pleasure, and what you do with pleasure you do willingly, continuously, and almost inadvertently.
This training—which we’ve called a journey from humiliation to humility—has a number of results additional to the most direct ones. An important one is that we become more able to enjoy what is pleasant. Through the effort to be motionless with what is unpleasant, frustrating, and humiliating, we find ourselves effortlessly still in what is pleasant. We no longer take pleasant things for granted—they maybe small pleasant things—and are almost taken aback by them. I would also say that our sense of time may be affected; it’s as though time expands. Being in the present starts to be real—just resting in the present and enjoying the good things, the pleasant things, that this moment may offer us.
Before being able to rest in what might be called ‘the clear present’, however, we have trained in what might be called ‘resting in the dark present’. But this is a continuum. The clear present comes as a gift through working with the unpleasant and frustrating. I do not think it’s a coincidence that all spiritual traditions emphasise working with what is frustrating. There is enormous power in there. Once we have worked on that frontier the rest comes by itself.
More from Corrado Pensa here
August 2003 Buddhism Now