Come Back to Basics

Practice of the Week
Come Back to Basics

Keep Commitments, Don't be Outrageous, Be Patient and Fair

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

As soon as we are embroiled in a problem with someone else, our good spiritual intentions tend to dissolve. Nothing is so apt to pull us away from the basics of spiritual awareness as relationship with others. When our lives get powerfully drawn into the lives of others, and those others awaken our desire, our rage, our shame, or our fear, we immediately lose track of what we are doing. There's no distraction like a human relationship.

To turn the distraction of relationship into the discipline, the spiritual practice, of relationship, we come back to basics.

Come back to basics comprises three points.

First: Renew and keep to your commitments. Nothing is more common than the person who does spiritual practice for a long time with great commitment and intensity but completely forgets about it as soon as he or she gets singed by the heat relationship. When you keep in mind that your human life and the lives of others are rare and precious, that you and everyone else has to die someday, that no one escapes suffering, and that all of your words and deeds, and even thoughts and feelings, have big impacts on the world – when that is part of what you are aware of when you are aware of conflict with others, things change somewhat. These reflections may take the edge off your hurt or aggression and reframe for you what you are dealing with. Recall your original intention to take up mind training. Recall the firmness of your decision to do so.

Second: Don't act outrageously. In ancient India and Tibet, this meant things like don't chop down trees where spirits dwell, don't pee in rivers, don't hug lepers. That is, refrain from dangerous, anti-social, or attention-grabbing activities, outrageous things that would draw attention to you. This may seem an odd thing to bring up in this context, but maybe not. Possibly up to now we have been tempted a time or two to be a bit precious or overearnest about our spiritual endeavors. We may have felt a bit holier-than-thou more than once. This is no good in any case, but perhaps not so bad in the privacy of your own mind. But now that we are about to embark on the practice of interacting with others, it becomes really bad to come off as though we were holy and spiritual. As if somehow because of the virtue of our commitments and spiritual efforts, we are conducting ourselves differently from the general run of humanity. Clearly this would be a huge problem for our relationships. Nothing makes people feel criticized and even a little hostile like someone else's pretentious efforts to be good. So, Don't act outrageously. Keep your efforts to practice the discipline of human relationship within the bounds of ordinary human interaction. Don't appear to be different from anyone else. One way or another, we're all in this game together.

Third: Don't be one-sided. This one is very important in human relations, and it runs exactly counter to the usual way we approach things. Usually we are exactly one-sided: there's our side and the other person's side, and it's our side that is important, correct, or right, so much so that we may not even notice that there is another side. But there's always another side. This may be so, but that also may be so. This may be so today, but tomorrow it may not be so. If there's a side, there's always another side. Don't be one-sided has another sense too: Don't favor people you like over people you don't like. Try not to be one-sided in that way. This seems impossible and inadvisable. Are we really supposed to regard an acquaintance or an enemy the same way we regard our close friends, our spouse, and our children? Realistically, no. But that's not the point. The point is to notice how much in almost all of our encounters we are subtly prejudiced by our one-sidedness, constantly upholding ourselves and those we like and running down (in however small a way) those we don't like. These prejudices, which we take for granted and affirm, actually cause us more trouble than we realize. They create a subtle climate of preference, for and against, that gives rise to more of our interpersonal rough spots than we realize. So even though we may not be able to have equal feelings toward all, this slogan puts us on notice that we better take our one-sidedness into account and do what we can to deemphasize it.

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On the spiritual path, over and over again it is a good idea to keep coming back to a few basic principles. By doing so, you can bound your actions with discipline. You can keep your practice on track. The three basic principles to always abide by are: honor your commitments, refrain from outrageous actions, and develop patience.

Honor your commitments. When you make a commitment to train your mind, do not back down but stick with it. Keep the two basic vows of mind training: the refuge vow (to work with yourself and to develop mindfulness and awareness) and the bodhisattva vow (to work with others and to develop wisdom and compassion). When you first take such vows, they are highly inspiring and a bit intimidating, but it is easy to drift away and forget what you have vowed to do. So it is important to refresh those commitments daily.

Refrain from outrageous actions. Be steady and modest. Don't be overly dramatic and don't draw attention to yourself. Recognize the desire to be seen as special, to be noticed as “advanced” or “spiritual” as a stumbling block, and do not give in to its seduction.

Develop patience. Mind training is not something you zoom through and then move on to something else. It is a lifelong occupation. Be patient and without bias as you go about it, both with yourself and with others. Know yourself and do not think more or less of yourself, but be straightforward, steady and realistic.


In your journal, reflect on these questions: What does it mean to make a commitment? What helps you to maintain the commitments you have made, and what throws you off track?

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