What about Me?
We already have what we need—the opportunity to weave the tapestry of happiness every day with the needle and thread of our own mind.
As a child, I was struck by the story of the prince and the pauper. The Tibetan version of this story has it that the prince and the pauper are the same person. Through a series of mishaps, the prince grows up as a pauper, only later to discover that he is a child of the royal family and the future ruler of his kingdom. He was always a prince; he was never a pauper; the only thing that changed was his view. We are in a similar situation. We are all of royal birth.
In the legend of Shambhala, there is a family of beings called the Rigdens, who have never strayed from basic goodness, a pure radiance that has never been stained by ignorance, anger, jealousy, or pride. The Rigdens are not some celestial entities; they represent the ultimate ruler within us all. Tibetan paintings of the kingdom of Shambhala show the Rigdens conquering the negativity of the dark age. They are often depicted sitting on thrones of diamonds, indicating unshakable possession of the awareness of basic goodness, our primordial nature, which is also known as the Great Eastern Sun.
The Rigden king manifests wrathfully, but his armor is always gold, an expression of compassion. His sword represents the incisive wisdom that sees basic goodness. There are pennants on his helmet, which symbolize the courage it takes to bring windhorse—long life, good health, success, and happiness—to others. After the victory of the Rigdens, the story goes, the age of enlightenment arises. The Great Eastern Sun appears on the horizon.
Whether we take this story as literal or metaphorical, the meaning is the same. We all have the potential to be enlightened rulers. The Buddha is an example of a human being who developed this potential. By sitting still and working with his mind, he uncovered essential truths and developed techniques to help the rest of us discover our ability to rule. Since I'm a Buddhist, he is my role model, but obviously basic goodness is not confined to any one tradition. It is the essence of everyone and everything.
We all belong to the family of the Rigdens. Basic goodness, the shimmering brilliance of our being, is as clear as a mountain lake. But we're not certain about our own goodness. We begin to stray from it as soon as we wake up in the morning, because our mind is unstable and bewildered. Our thoughts drag us around by a ring in our nose, as if we were cows in the Indian market. This is how we lose control of our lives. We don't understand that the origin of happiness is right here in our mind. We might experience happiness at times, but we're not sure how we got it, how to get it again, or how long it's going to last when it comes. We live life in an anxious, haphazard state, always looking for happiness to arrive.
When we are confused about the source of happiness, we start to blame the world for our dissatisfaction, expecting it to make us happy. Then we act in ways that bring more confusion and chaos into our life. When our mind is busy and discursive, thinking uncontrollably, we are engaging in a bad habit. We are stirring up the mud of jealousy, anger, and pride. Then the mind has no choice but to become familiar with the language of negativity and develop it further.
When desire or anger takes our mind and says, “You're coming with me,” we become paupers. The pauper wakes up each morning with the thought “What about me? Will I get what I want today?” This meditation resonates through our day like a heartbeat. We think, “Will this food make me happy?” “Will this movie make me happy?” “Will this person make me happy?” “Will this new sweater make me happy?” “What about me?” becomes the motivating force of our activity.
Occasionally when I meet with meditation students, their questions show that they are approaching even spiritual practice as a way to make themselves happy. Is my yoga, my tai chi, my meditation making “me” feel better? They are simply using a new guise to perpetuate the old habit of putting themselves first.
This self-infatuated approach is like using unclean fuel. When our motivation is to make “me” happy, the engines of our life run rough. Our self-obsession makes us stressed and ill. The magnet of “What about me?” draws away windhorse—our ability to bring about success—and our mind becomes very small. We lose touch with earth—our potential to give our life meaning—so there’s no place for true happiness to land.
In Tibet, trying to achieve happiness without understanding the cause of happiness is called lotok, “backward.” It's like looking through the wrong end of the binoculars—happiness doesn't get bigger and closer, it gets smaller and farther away. What makes the mind of “me” so small is confused emotion, in Sanskrit, klesha—anger, desire, ignorance, and pride. These are obscurations that block our view of basic goodness. They are all very familiar and friendly to us. For many of us, they are simply the tools by which we engage in life. We may think that they're the only tools we have—that pushing hard and clinging tight is the secret to success. This confusion doesn't always show up as a temper tantrum. It also manifests as insidious discursiveness—going over things again and again in our mind, or jumping from one thought to another with “What about me?” playing in the background.
Being fooled into trying to make things work out for “me” is called samsara. This is a Sanskrit word that describes an endless dark age in which we are completely distracted by the agitation that comes from trying to make “me” happy. Our mind is constantly volleying between irritation and desire, jealousy and pride. We are unhappy with who we are, and we are trying to destroy our own suffering, which reflects our basic discontent. As we indulge in this negativity, our mind becomes thick with contamination. This contamination manifests as stresslack of peace. It is fueled by fearfear of not knowing what will happen to “me.” With the ambition to get what we want and to avoid what we don't, our mind becomes very speedy. We act in ways that hurt others and ourselves. Bewilderment rules our days and nights. We keep imagining that a love affair, a new job, a thinner body, or a vacation is going to lead to happiness. When we get what we want, we feel good, and we become attached. Then the situation changes, and we feel angry. Or somebody else’s relationship, job, or body looks better than ours, and we feel jealous.
When we’re fooled by the world of appearances, we aren’t seeing beyond the surface. Our changing mind keeps us trapped in suffering, the nitpicky details. We lose our desire for deepening and begin to consider the smallest, most irrelevant things important. We’d rather hear a piece of gossip about a celebrity we’ll never meet than contemplate the truth. We are more interested in listening to a new song on the radio than in hearing instruction about how to bring meaning to our life. If somebody tries to give us advice, we lash out. Slowing down and relating to life through a discipline like meditation seems like a frivolous luxury.
With this small–mindedness, we have little inspiration to improve our situation in a lasting way, because we don't trust what we can't see—like wisdom and compassion. We have no relationship with the unchanging ground of basic goodness. We want to keep our options open. We think that freedom to keep changing our mind will bring happiness. In fact, the mind that is always changing can only lead to pain.
When we're on the “me” plan, what others say about us has great power. A friend tells us we look good—our mind soars. A colleague tells us we're not pulling our weight at work—-our mind sinks. We are like children, one minute laughing and the next minute crying. In reality, praise and criticism are like echoes—they have no substance, no duration. But when we chase our projections like a dog going after a stick, even words have the power to destabilize our mind. We think about what somebody said, over and over. We let it ruin our day.
When we're fooled by the view of “me,” our attitude toward wealth is that it's all out there—and we want some. We’re like monkeys grabbing at shiny objects. We accumulate so many things that we have no room to appreciate them. Our wanting creates the habit of perpetual hunger and mindless activity. We look at people with the attitude of taking, not of giving. We’ll help someone who’s becoming powerful and wealthy—somebody who’s on the way up. If somebody’s slipping, we start to pull away. We don’t think twice about fighting with our family or community. We believe that the only way to improve our situation is to keep trying to get a little more for ourselves. We’re confused, because we don't understand that we already have what we need—the opportunity to weave the tapestry of happiness every day with the needle and thread of our own mind.
Sometimes we think that power will make us happy. We can’t rule our mind, so we try to saddle others with the heavy yoke of our aggression. Far from accomplishing the benefit of others, we can’t bear it when something nice happens to them. The word for jealousy in Tibetan means “crowded shoulders.” There's room for only one head on our shoulders. We can handle only one person getting things, and that’s us. We take some kind of odd thrill in getting mad when the train is late or the power goes out. We’re so engrossed in “me” that we forget that others are also suffering.
Our superficial approach extends even to virtue. We may be kind to people in public, but behind their backs, we say snide things. We’re generous when we think we’ll get something in return. We may be patient about getting what we want, but when life presents us with something that we don’t want, like illness, we have no patience. We exert ourselves at work, but when we’re alone, we think we can do whatever we like—nobody is watching.
In fact, it is ourselves who should be most concerned about how we act, because we are most affected by our actions. Once when the golfer Bobby Jones was playing in a big tournament, he inadvertently moved his ball a few inches in the rough. He penalized himself, based on what had happened. When someone pointed out to him that no one else had seen the ball move, he said, “I saw it move, and that’s all that matters.” When I was going into one of my first meditation retreats, I asked my father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, for some advice. He said, “How you act when you're alone affects the rest of your life.” Even in solitude, the ruler engages in virtue.
Virtue is practical, not moralistic. It consists of cultivating thoughts, words, and actions that will help move us out of the “me” plan. As we change our habits—what we do and don't do—we are changing from the outside in. At the same time, what’s on the inside begins to come out. We have more space in our mind, and our view gets bigger. We begin to see our inherent richness, the brilliance that’s been hiding behind the clouds of stress and anxiety. The nature of our mind is pure, like the sky. Like space, it has a quality of accommodation. Like water, it is clear, with no obstructions or opinions. This is basic goodness, the indestructible nature of our being.
The mind of the pauper is small because it is rooted in attachment—a death grip on life. Fixating on how we want the world to be and trying to make it stay goes against the natural grain. That tightness and the sense of claustrophobia it creates is “me.” Our negativity gives us something to hold on to. We think that if we hold on tight enough, we can manipulate the world to make “me” happy. We’ve tried being angry and desirous hundreds of times. Has anger ever brought genuine happiness? Has desire ever resulted in long-lasting satisfaction?
Who is it that we are protecting with our anger? Who are we trying to get more for with jealousy and desire? The reason that we can't make “me” happy is that there is really no one behind that door. “Me” is just an idea, a concept, a myth. Essentially, it is attachment to a mirage. We're clinging to a fabrication and generating negative emotions in an attempt to protect it.
The king and queen know that happiness doesn't come from out there; it comes from in here. Getting off the “me” plan is the cause of happiness, and learning to see how “me” works is where it starts. It begins with the practice of meditation—just ten minutes or so every day. By stabilizing the mind we learn to connect with space beyond “me”—heaven. Heaven is the natural spaciousness of our mind before we make it small with self-protection. Once our mind becomes more peaceful, we begin to see how “me” is just thoughts, feelings, and emotions made solid.
In meditation practice, we learn to acknowledge and recognize our thoughts without acting on them. We’re no longer quite so fooled by appearances. Our mind becomes more flexible, because we begin to see our own projections. We begin to figure out the currency of life: it is all a display of the mind. No longer do we run after the stick of every outside appearance, like a dog. Rather, like a lion, we begin to look at who is throwing the stick—our mind.
Then we hear, contemplate, and meditate on how the mind works and how the world works. This is how we develop certainty in basic goodness. We realize that we are always hearing, contemplating, and meditating, but on a chaotic flurry of thoughts and emotions. Hearing that our friends are splitting up, we contemplate who did what to whom, developing certainty in blame. Hearing that somebody made a lot of money, we develop certainty in jealousy. Our hearing, contemplating, and meditating are haphazard, and the conclusions that we draw often lead us down the road of negativity.
This shortsighted attitude stifles our inherent energy. That natural energy is compassion—in Tibetan, nyingje, “noble heart.” In Tibetan paintings, buddhas are often depicted sitting on lotuses, which represent our innate yearning for the happiness of others. This self–arising flower is the core of our being. We need to create space in our mind in order to nurture it. The obsession with “me” suffocates it; the flower can't blossom. When we consider others, we allow the flower to bloom. Thinking of others makes our mind bigger, because it brings us joy.