One of the unwanted side effects of a long-term spiritual practice is the tendency to become, at times, a bit smug.
Mea culpa, mea culpa. At least, after 25 years of hard Buddhist practice, I can usually spot smugness when it arises within me. It always makes me cringe; to root it out, I usually head back to my library for a rereading of long-familiar spiritual teachings, to remind myself that the spiritual journey is a path of kindness, humility, and compassion—not smugness, in any form.
Recently, I found myself reading an email from a fellow teacher, someone who was struggling with issues that I myself have long thought of in the past tense. I felt that little seed of smugness arise, and I knew it was time to return to some of those ancient teachings for a good ego cleanse.
My partner, Jeffrey, is always a good sport about these things, so he agreed to join me on a new daily ritual: each morning we would read one of Pema Chödrön’s lojong cards, as a way of sinking back into old-time Buddhism.
Lojong slogans—aphorisms traditionally used by monks and other students as reminders or focal points for their study—have been around for centuries. They nudge us to do everything from forgo judgment and comparison (“Don’t ponder others’ weak points, becoming arrogant about your own accomplishments”) and let go of our jealousy and envy (“Work with jealousy when it’s small; otherwise, when it hits full force, you’ll be swept away”). The original sayings come from the ancient Tibetan text Seven Points of Training the Mind, by the meditation master Chekawa Yeshe Dorje.
Even though it was my idea in the first place, when we started reading the cards, I pretty much shrugged off most of the advice. Jealousy? I’m just not the jealous type. And you don’t need to tell me each day could be my last—I already know that. But after a couple of weeks of reading those cards every day, it dawned on me that maybe all that shrugging-off might be part of the problem. So I changed my thinking. I decided to start with the assumption that each card was fundamentally correct and something that applied to my life.
Whoa! With this subtle shift in perspective, I felt one self-image after another begin to unravel. Maybe it’s true that I’m not the jealous type, but suddenly I remembered that twinge of tech-envy I felt when my baby sister started messaging me from her sleek new iPad last year. And when a good friend decided to do a girls’ road trip into the desert for a few days, and neglected to invite yours truly, there it was again—the twinge.
The purpose of lojong slogans is not to beat ourselves up when we recognize these less-than-perfect tendencies within ourselves. The simple act of noticing works its own miracles. We find that these tendencies have a way of getting smaller and smaller with every moment of observation. I have no idea why this is true, only that it is. Buddha actually described this process when he was asked how enlightenment happens. He didn’t say it was instant. He didn’t say that someone else could give it to us as a gift. Instead, he described the process as being akin to finding the gold dust in a pile of rubble. First we need get the big stones out of the way—a drinking problem, toxic friendships, or other major impediments to health and happiness. Next to go are the rocks—a tendency to overcommit; forgetting to make time for prayer or meditation. We keep sifting down, smaller and smaller, until we get to the sand. These are very subtle, but they’re still impediments—a tendency toward exaggeration, maybe, or secretly believing that our posture is better than anyone else’s in yoga class. Feeling smug.
A tool like logong slogans can feel arbitrary and disconnected from our personal spiritual journey—until we see what powerful teachers they can be if we are willing to look at ourselves without ego. When we are able to do this, the rewards are obvious and immediate. We discover that a spiritual path is a path of deep honesty. And—wouldn’t you know!—we also discover that when we live lives of deep honesty, things have a way of being perfect just as they are.
The author of numerous books, including Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Geri Larkin is spending this spring making seed bombs—figuring the world can always use more flowers.