It’s my honour to welcome Justin from American Buddhist Perspective and Buddhist Ethics as our Guest Author for today. Justin is completing his PhD in Buddhist Ethics – a path fraught with ethical dilemma itself, I’m sure! And a journey to the PhD would also give him extensive practice in dealing with issues of irritants from the mild to the supra-humane. So, we are in good hands today.
Let me begin by thanking Lynette Genju for providing me this space and for Nate DeMontigny for organizing this second round of Article Swaps.
In the random assigning of topics I was given the task of writing about practicing with what irritates me, and Genju asked if I could incorporate some Buddhist ethics into the discussion. The topic is, I’m afraid to say, pretty difficult because, quite frankly, so much irritates me. Trying to be mindful of the irritants in my life only seemed to show just how irritable a person I am! Studying at a coffee shop, I now couldn’t help but explore my irritation with one man’s overly loud and shrill laughter, or the way a woman opened the door and then proceeded to start a conversation, still holding the door open (it’s about 9°F/ -13°C here). My study partner stumbles over a sentence (we translate Pali texts together), skipping a key word here, inserting a word there; my brow furrows, I sometimes unconsciously shake my head at him, which he has regularly called me on. I come home, my girlfriend asks me the same question she’s asked two or three times in the last two days. I give her the same answer. She tells me not to roll my eyes at her – which is when I realize I’ve rolled my eyes at her!
Such is life.
Plenty to practice with, I should think. But then I wonder how exactly I should practice with all of this: perhaps extend metta to all of these irritating people and metta toward myself for being so irritable? Or how about looking for some underlying connections, seeking the roots of all this irritation. I could begin this latter analysis by thinking that perhaps all of this irritation is connected by people’s mistakes: if those people at the coffee shop were more thoughtful, they’d modulate their volume or take notice of the icy draft sweeping in across the front of the room (not to mention the heating expenses incurred by the business and the unnecessary contribution to global warming); if my Pali partner would just slow down, he’d get the sentence, and if my girlfriend had paid attention the first two times she asked me the question, she wouldn’t be asking me again! So I’m irritated by people’s mistakes!
But that’s still a pretty shallow analysis. I could go further by saying that everyone’s mistakes were caused by unawareness. Now I’m sounding Buddhisty. I could depersonalize it and say I’m irritated by unawareness itself. And hey, aren’t we all? But I’m still far from getting it if I fail to see my own role in all of this. And that’s where practice comes in.
Buddhist meditation is generally divided into two parts: calming and insight. First we need calm; we need a mind which is made malleable through one-pointed concentration exercises such as following the breath or cultivating metta. Without an easily directed mind, analysis meditation quickly becomes distracted. So a practice like metta-bhavana for irritations is very useful. It counters the ill-will which arises in times of irritation. One should recall the line from the Dhammapada, “All people tremble at the rod, all men fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should neither kill nor cause to kill.” (verse 129)
Once the mind is calmed, two other insights become clear. First is that I, too, make these irritating mistakes! I too am unaware of what I am doing often enough. Kind of like the “three fingers pointing back at you” idea. Second is the perhaps deeper realization that these people are all, in a way, part of the play of my own consciousness. It is my own mental states that bring these people – or their irritating aspects – into existence in the first place. This is an insight used heavily in Vajrayana Buddhism, but it can be applied by anyone. It’s necessary to have the calmed mind, but now when something I would typically label “irritating” arises – today it is a loud truck passing by my window – I simply watch the experience. In this case it is sound, rising and falling, moving left to right through my embodied awareness.
That’s it. Amazingly simple, but profound in its effect. Now the mind is present in the experience, instead of judging and demanding a return to the quiet past. It is that clinging to the past that is irritation. So by being present the mind cannot be irritated, plain and simple.
That’s the practice. And the ethics are the too often unseen foundation for the calm mind. Buddhist ethics can be described in countless ways, but the basic touchstone tends to be the five precepts: refraining from harm/killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false or harmful speech, and taking intoxicants. All of them cloud and disturb the mind. Quite beautifully though, we each have our own relationship with them: some come quite naturally, others take years or lifetimes of work. But, like the things that irritate us, they serve as a mirror for us on our practice, and as an opportunity for growth.
But Buddhist ethics is not just a matter of static ideals. The precepts are guidelines for the path to awakening. And the realization that life/spirituality/awakening is a path can instantly remove a great deal of weight from one’s shoulders. It is not about trying to be “right” and always coming up short in this way or that, a way of thinking that leads quickly to judgment, aversion, and irritation. This reevaluation, or re-valuation as one of my teachers puts it, of life makes those difficulties opportunities for being more ethical, seeking firs t that calm mind and then watching as compassion,
generosity, patience, and the rest fill the space where irritation once ruled.
PhD Candidate, Buddhist Ethics
Goldsmiths, University of London
Thank you, Justin! I admire your skillfulness in touching both heart and mind on this difficult topic. The ease with which you make the transitions from sensation to assessment to insight speaks to a deep practice. May we all benefit from your teachings now and forever.
Please visit Marcus at Marcus’ Journal where I am being graciously hosted in this Blog Swap.