You will be walking some night…
It will be clear to you suddenly
that you were about to escape,
and that you are guilty: you misread
the complex instructions, you are not
a member, you lost your card
or never had one… Wendell Berry
Over a decade ago a small group of Buddhist teachers and psychologists from the United States and Europe invited the Dalai Lama to join them in a dialogue about emotions and health. During one of their sessions, an American vipassana teacher asked him to talk about the suffering of self-hatred.
A look of confusion came over the Dalai Lama’s face. “What is self-hatred?” he asked. As the therapists and teachers in the room tried to explain, he looked increasingly bewildered. Was this mental state a nervous disorder? he asked them. When those gathered confirmed that self-hatred was not unusual but rather a common experience for their students and clients, the Dalai Lama was astonished. How could they feel that way about themselves, he wondered, when “everybody has Buddha nature.”
While all humans feel ashamed of weakness and afraid of rejection, our Western culture is a breeding ground for the kind of shame and self-hatred the Dalai Lama couldn’t comprehend.
Because so many of us grew up without a cohesive and nourishing sense of family, neighborhood, community or “tribe,” it is not surprising that we feel like outsiders, on our own and disconnected. We learn early in life that any affiliation—with family and friends, at school or in the workplace—requires proving that we are worthy. We are under pressure to compete with each other, to get ahead, to stand out as intelligent, attractive, capable, powerful, wealthy. Someone is always keeping score.
After a lifetime of working with the poor and the sick, Mother Teresa’s surprising insight was: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of not belonging.” In our own society, this disease has reached epidemic proportions. We long to belong and feel as if we don’t deserve to.
D.H. Lawrence described our Western culture as being like a great uprooted tree with its roots in the air. “We are perishing for lack of fulfillment of our greater needs,” he wrote, “we are cut off from the great sources of our inward nourishment and renewal.”
Buddhism offers a powerful response to our individual and societal predicament. The Buddha taught that this human birth is a precious gift because it gives us the opportunity to realize the love and awareness that are our true nature. As the Dalai Lama pointed out so poignantly, we all have Buddha nature.
As we rediscover the truth of this goodness, we begin to awaken from our trance of unworthiness. Instead of living from separateness, we affirm our innate belonging by bringing loving presence to each other, to our moments, to the beauty and pain that is in our world. This is our practice, our path. As Lawrence goes on to say, “We must plant ourselves again in the universe.”
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