Seeing Yourself Through Compassionate Eyes


Over the past few years that I’ve known Ven Tenzin Lhamo, I’ve been struck by the sharpness of her mind and her generous spirit. She’s an excellent teacher, a great listener and friend. Her commitment to bringing the Gelugpa tradition of Buddhism to our area is unwavering. Her support for the Center has been crucial to its continued growth.

During Lama Zopa’s October visit to D.C., he re-affirmed the importance of having Dharma activities downtown. In accordance with his wishes, Ven Tenzin Lhamo has organized a new study group, Seeing Yourself through Compassionate Eyes, based on the text, How to See Yourself as You Really Are, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about the group.

Q: Why did you choose this particular book?

His Holiness makes such enormous effort to reach out to all people. At his teachings in the last few years, he has been saying things like, “If you are Christian, visualize this way ; if you are atheist, that way; if Jewish, this; if you are Muslim, that way; if you are Buddhist, do this…, etc.”

Our world suffers so much from divisiveness, from people thinking they know what the ‘right’ answer is, from dualistic thinking leading to stances such as “if you don’t agree with me, you are wrong.” We certainly see this in the political sphere, as well as in our personal lives and relationships.

To me, His Holiness’ approach really resonates. It respects individual choices and paths and, from that starting point, explores what tools Buddhism can offer to help people of all belief systems achieve more happiness.

Also, from my years of work as a psychotherapist, I know that most of us carry some residual uncertainty about our worth, our identities, the meanings of our lives. We are looking for reassurance or answers or even simply a place where it is safe to ask questions. So this book seemed perfect to provide a forum for addressing those particular issues and needs, within an overall Buddhist paradigm.

Q: ..and why does this book fit the needs of Washington DC dharma students?

Here in DC, I have met so many wonderful, bright, people who basically are unable to articulate who they are, what they believe the meaning of life is, and what they think transcends the suffering so pervasive in our world.

To me, what is essential about ‘dharma’ is understanding it as a path leading from confusion, unhappiness and suffering to a state informed by the spiritual dimension, a state allowing us to exist in this difficult world in peace, grounded in the knowledge of our worth, our sense of knowing what the meaning of life is and how we relate to it individually. Then even the simplest things are endowed with meaning; the difficult things become training grounds to strengthen ourselves; and an underlying sense of peace can be achieved.

I have met a lot of young people here with great altruistic ideals, who have been so defeated by the system they encounter that they become depressed, or they are worn out with the tension of constantly striving for things not in their power to control. I have met a lot of older bright, sensitive people who never really defined for themselves what they think the meaning of life is, and are becoming anxious in their older years, unsettled by being unsure of what their lives have meant; and I have met so many people longing to have faith in something, but defeated by their own skepticism and cynicism. This book has something to offer these people on the cognitive level, the psycho-emotional level, and spiritual level. The study-group format allows us to draw on each other’s wisdom and find comfort in our common humanity.

Q: Based on your work as a therapist, do you think that Westerners in particular struggle with feelings of low self-esteem? How can Buddhism help?

Yes, I do think Westerners face certain obstacles in greater measure than found in other cultures. We have been led down the wrong path, of thinking material things will bring us success and that ‘success’ is measured by fame, friends, fortune, and beauty; the practice of ethics or virtue is regarded as an optional side-dish rather than the main course. A desperation sets in among those who sense that even as they commit themselves to this approach, something essential is missing; they are like someone who eats but never gains nutrition from their food, like those living on a diet of cotton candy–even eaten in prodigious amounts, it never satisfies hunger and creates serious problems eventually.

As my daughter Julia once remarked, she sees people taking refuge in drugs, in music, in ‘fun,’ in clothes, etc, but none of these ‘refuges’ bring safety or happiness or peace. Rather than transcend the suffering of this world, they simply drag us further into repeating cycles of that very suffering.

Self-esteem must be grounded on realities that cannot be changed by circumstances, just as a gyroscope holds steady, no matter how it is tossed about.

If our sense of self is founded on “taking refuge” in looks, talents, wealth, title, possessions, friends, it will always be unstable. If instead, the sense of self is achieved by defining ourselves through good actions, trustworthy views, and transcendent values, etc, it will be impervious to storms of change and difficulty. This is Buddhism’s great key, unlocking our cell doors and offering the pathway to freedom, and it is a key offered to everyone.

Q: How can we resolve our struggle with past conflicts that interfere with our ability to focus during our meditation sessions?

By accepting things as they are, with humility and remorse when appropriate, and then forming the resolve to align one’s thoughts and deeds with carefully chosen and closely held values.

When we agonize over mistakes for prolonged periods of time, it can be really a reverse type of pride wherein we think we are better than those who make mistakes and the agony comes from grief and fear arising from seeing this is untrue; or it arises with long-term simmering disguised resentment or fear, usually meaning on some level, a need of ours has not been met or not even been recognized; or its root can be in attachment to seeing having a certain parameter of feelings we label as desirable and those we feel aversion for–we suffer when our experience takes us outside that parameter.

Many of us define our sense of self and whether we are ok or not by how we feel–this is a big mistake, as feelings are inherently unstable. Just as an anorexic feels fat, but is not in any way fat, so we can feel we are this or that, but are actually not.

We need to have a valid and steady base for understanding ourselves; feelings do not offer a valid base; they are to be noticed, understood, and honored when appropriate–but generally kept in their correct place–they are just part of our experience, but do not define us. So how can we define ourselves in a valid way?

In Buddhist philosophy, to be valid, something has to meet three criteria: it must not be contradicted by direct experience (fire is hot, and if I put my hand in it, I feel heat); it must be supported by consensual validation (others also experience that fire is hot); and it must not be contradicted by ultimate reality (fire has no inherent existence, but is dependently arisen even though we really experience it on the phenomenal level.)

If we apply those criteria to our observations of ourselves, and base our understanding of who we are on them, rather than our various, ever-changing feelings, we would all be much better off, much more stable and less prone to insecurity and ups-and-downs and constant revision of our sense of being ok. For example, if we generally do good actions, and live in virtuous ways, we would be able, in a stable way, to define our lives as valuable, not matter if we felt worthless on bad days. We can reach and check these types of observations through meditation.

Meditation should allow us the space to see things as they are, and experience them without trying to control our reactions. We want to notice things; to be able to see them clearly; to understand them in terms of our overall values; to make plans based on our observations; and to rest in spaciousness. Meditation ideally leads us to expansiveness, away from contraction. So when we feel ourselves contracting, it is usually because we are experiencing craving or aversion–we want something (even a feeling) really badly, or we want to avoid something (such as a feeling, an impression of ourselves, or even a memory) really badly.

It sounds paradoxical, but when we notice the inner contraction, we can learn to stay in a state of expansiveness to observe it.

An analogue would be if you were a person looking at the sky–you watch both the space and the clouds and see what is happening, without trying to edit or control it, without labeling one cloud as good and another as bad, without trying to hold on to those you like or to hurry the less appealing clouds along; you simply relax into awareness of what is there. After doing this for a while, you might frame a decision, such as, “Oh, when I watch the sky at dusk, the colors are so wonderful,” and then try to follow what you decide is a good path to achieve what makes you happy. This is expansive.

If you sat there and became sad or grumpy because you could not hold onto the cloud you liked, that would be contracting and dense, and not serve you well at all.

So, as we gain stability in holding the stance of expansive observation, we can notice part of ourselves contracting, without that taking us over and shrinking our world, our understanding of ourselves, into some small, tight perspective. Eventually, whatever happens when we are in a meditative state, we can simply sit and watch, through the relaxed lens of our observer-selves; we can view it from that expansive state and from there, discern a good path for ourselves.

It follows His Holiness’ advice to see things as they are, (including ourselves), then to react to what you see with wisdom and compassion. We learn to see ourselves as we really are, and react to that sight with wisdom and compassion… a laugh, some tears, and a gentle, perhaps rueful, smile of acceptance, all achieved with a discerning level of wisdom.

Q: How will the class be structured?

It will include meditation, discussion, Q and A, and a closing meditation; we will also adjust content based on what people are looking for.

Q: Is it open to newcomers to Buddhism? Are there any recommended readings in addition to the book itself?

All are welcome, even those with no interest in becoming Buddhist; the only requirements are to read the book and to show respect for the other members of the group. It will be a relaxed, warm-hearted and welcoming study group.

For more information, please visit our website: http://www.guhyasamaja.org/calendar.html#WashDC

Posted by Dina Li, Spiritual Program Coordinator, and Ven Tenzin Lhamo

Copyright @ 2007 The Guhyasamaja Center

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