Who’s the Boss? You or Your Ideas?

Businessman carrying brain on his shouldersBuddhist meditation does a good job of showing us that we are not our thoughts. Observing them come and go, we realize that they seem to have minds of their own. Maybe a better way of saying it is that they march to their own drum beat, or nerve impulse.

If you don’t keep those pesky thoughts in  line, they start acting like they own the place, aka your brain, and they start forming ideas, opinions and, gasp, positions. A position is a terrible thing to have. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement. It’s not terrible to have a position every once in awhile as long as you recognize what it is — a position, perhaps based on a few opinions, which grew out of your ideas, which grew out of your thoughts, which you don’t control.

You are not your thoughts, your ideas, your opinions or your positions. A perceptive Facebook post today by the Rev. David Pyle, a district executive in the Unitarian Universalist Association and a military chaplain, had me thinking about that. Here’s some of what he said:

What I am sensing in this political season is a large number of people who have invested their personal identity in the opinions they hold. It means that changing opinions is near impossible, because it would mean changing their fundamental understanding of themselves….

It is also why people cannot accept that their opinions may be wrong, no matter the evidence that is presented… because to accept you are wrong means your “life is a lie.”

If our bodies are not the same from one moment to the next, why should out thoughts be? As Walt Whitman said:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.

But Rev. Pyle’s second point is the more insidious one. When we see no daylight between ourselves and our opinions and positions, we become dangerous to ourselves and others, to the fabric of our interdependent web of existence. We stop listening to other views because we see them as assaults on who we are: If our ideas have little worth, then we don’t, either. That’s not a healthy place for a society to be.

The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing offer a beautiful guide for healthy living in community. The Second Mindfulness Training: Non-Attachment to Views explains how to avoid letting our opinions control us.

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. We are committed to seeing the Buddhist teachings as guiding means that help us develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for. We understand that fanaticism in its many forms is the result of perceiving things in a dualistic and discriminative manner. We will train ourselves to look at everything with openness and the insight of interbeing in order to transform dogmatism and violence in ourselves and in the world.

We and the world in which we live are more important than any idea.

–Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)

–Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)

Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine

8 Comments Add yours

  1. This is an interesting post, and makes a lot of good points. It’s especially relevant in an election year when people are expressing a lot of strongly held opinions, and maybe feeling attacked.

    But it leaves open the question, if you aren’t your thoughts, opinions, or body, then what are you? What is the Buddhist teaching on what you are? Does Buddhism have a place for belief in a soul?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. melhpine says:

      This is one of the least understood aspects of Buddhism. The idea of the self being an illusion is a bit of hyperbole in order to be clear that the self is not really an unchanging, distinct entity. The Buddha would not have said it that way. He was all about personal responsibility for one’s intentions. That’s where he differed from other teachers of his time. He based sis sense of morality on intention as opposed to action/effect or ceremony. If your intentions were good, you gained merit, even if your actions didn’t turn out as you intended them and if you didn’t perform the right ceremonies.

      So there is an essential self underneath all the buzzing that goes on in our heads and even though we are constantly changing and even though we are one with everything else. That core within us can learn to calm the mind, overcome the buzzing and live compassionately with the best interests of other at heart.

      Dzogchen Buddhism describes the true mind as the heart-mind, as opposed, I guess, to the thought-mind.

      So there is an essential self with choices to make moment by moment about how to live, and that self gains good karma or bad karma based on his or her moral intentions. Where I have some problem is with what the karma means. In the Buddha’s time, a cycle of death and rebirth was widely accepted as true just as heaven and hell are in our culture. The Buddha didn’t tinker with that, so he said good karma resulted in a higher rebirth and bad karma in a lower birth, and Nirvana was the escape from it all (with some other categories thrown in, too). That’s where I depart from the literal teachings of the Buddha.

      You may once again have given me my next topic. I’m slowed down this week moving up to moving day Saturday, but I think I’m ready to tackle that difficult subject — the Buddhist alternative to a “soul.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh boy. That’s deep. I I’m admittedly skeptical of the idea that intentions matter more than outcomes. It’s hard for me to come up with a good example right now, but I’ve always been attracted to the saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

        Also, I had a boyfriend when I was a lot younger, with whom I remember having confusing arguments over intentions. The main thrust of many of our misunderstandings seemed to be that he thought good intentions ought to be enough, whereas I would find myself in the position of arguing that they weren’t–at least not in a relationship like ours. In particular I remember being just furious when he argued that because he hadn’t intended to make me upset, that there was “no reason to be upset.”

        He wasn’t really a Buddhist, he was a Lutheran primarily, but sometimes he would talk about Buddhism in ways that I didn’t find very appealing. I’m not going to blame Buddhism for those long-ago arguments, but I do wonder now if he was trying to get at some Buddhist idea that I didn’t understand at the time.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. melhpine says:

        Doesn’t sound like he understood Buddhism. The Buddha didn’t mean we’re indifferent to the outcome. We need to sincerely desire the outcome, not pay lip service to it.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’d forgotten, but I actually wrote about this last year.


        I still feel that way, but your post gives me food for thought. If you sincerely desire the outcome but simply fall short on delivering on it for whatever reason, then focusing more on the intentions than the outcome is the compassionate thing to do.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. melhpine says:

        Ceremony was important in the Buddha’s time. You boyfriend turned intention into a ceremony. That’s what the Buddha opposed.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. amiezor says:

    This is wonderful Mel!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      David liked it. I told him he could now say he has been quoted alongside Walt Whitman and Thich Nhat Hanh.

      Liked by 1 person

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