My Little Broken Buddha

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My best friend gave me a little figurine of a meditating Buddha. Its head was still on.

I meditate and I really like Buddhism. In a nutshell to me, it’s about letting go of our need for things to be just-so.

Our first big excursion to the mountains since my last concussion, a long road trip to the Canadian Rockies. . . . I was really nervous as we prepared to leave, because travel is my thing and mountains are my best friend’s happy place . . . but my concussion on our last adventure had done a number on me, and each month since then had felt hard, sad, gloomy–anything-but-adventurous.

So I brought my little Buddha along. To remind me not to hold on too tightly to my expectations for the trip. To help me know that it would be okay if everything didn’t end up being just-so. Its head was still on.

Things did NOT go just-so.

Morning, middle-of-nowhere, Saskatchewan, my adventure buddy’s wrist started hurting where a few days earlier she burned it on the stove. It started getting red and it became a small bump. By the end of the day it was a not-at-all-small bump, the entire arm too painful to use much. We checked into our Canmore hotel and after several frustrating calls to insurance we drove to the local emergency room where after a quick glance the doctor hooked her up to an IV for antibiotics.

Four visits to the emergency room in three days. Fevers, dizziness, red lines starting to spread, needles, blood draws, tubes installed in my best friend’s arm, a panicky midnight outing to find a thermometer interrupted by my phone ringing and my best friend telling me that she was now shaking so violently she could hardly hold onto anything.

Honestly, it was scary as hell. I think scarier for me than for her. It got a lot worse before it got better, and I knew that an infection going bad isn’t a thing you want to experience.

Just out of the woods, day two or three–the days became a blur of emergency room and hotel room–I hopped in the car to go pick up some groceries–completely drained of every kind of energy. I grabbed my little Buddha and held it in my palm as I drove, more for its vague feeling of comfort and familiarity than for anything else.

I hopped out of the car at the grocery store and tossed my little Buddha into the center console, and heard two things bouncing around. I picked it up. Its head was gone.

*feeling when your heart sinks but even sinkier*

I broke my little Buddha. :(

And then I sort of grinned. No sh**, may as well, everything else is broken. I guess it’s exactly appropriate that my little token of not-holding-on-too-tightly broke.

At first I thought about replacing it, but more and more it seemed perfect to me that it stay broken. Because now–every time I see it on my desk–I remember just how much holding on too tightly doesn’t work. That “broken” is only “broken” in the context of my need for things to be just-so.

 

In the 5th century BCE, a man named Siddhartha Gautama lived in what is now Nepal. His family was wealthy, but he was struck by the pain and suffering he saw in the world, so he tried being intentionally-poor instead. It didn’t “work” for him, so he embraced “the middle way”–a life of moderation: not desperately seeking ease and pleasure, but also not seeking pain and self-abasement. In all this practice, he learned a lot about life and then he taught the people around him a lot about life and then he became known as “The Buddha.”

“Dharma,” the teachings of The Buddha, have at their heart the “four noble truths.” Dukkha, Samudaya, Nirodha, and Magga. And the first three are why I love my little broken Buddha.

Dukkha: Suffering is a thing. It’s a part of life.

Samudaya: Why is suffering a thing? Because we think things are supposed to be just-so. We crave pleasure, we desperately try to control, and we hold on too tightly to what we think we want or need or love. Attachment.

“According to Buddhist psychology, most of our troubles stem from attachment to things that we mistakenly see as permanent.” ~ Dalai Lama

Nirodha: There is an antidote to suffering: Letting go of attachments, obsessive cravings, and desperate control, and living–not in a bitter past or an anxious future–but fully in the present, one day at a time. Acceptance.

 

What are you holding onto too tightly?

 

I still bring my little broken Buddha with me whenever I go out of town or when I have a big scary thing that I think needs to go just-so.

It’s a perfect reminder not to hold on too tightly.

Things break. Things hurt. Things fade.

Life is weird, and needing it to not be weird will only lead to frustration.

But life is also beautiful. And a strange and strong beauty and peace can be felt when you let go of your need for things to be just-so. . . . when you remember not to hold on too tightly.

~

“The root of suffering is attachment.” ~ The Buddha

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You vs You-with

A scientific study published in 1999 examined how we are affected by listening to others’ opinions about us: First, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the negative stereotype that women are bad at math. Later, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the positive stereotype that Asians are good at math. The subjects performed significantly better when seeing themselves as “Asians, who are good at math” than as “women, who are bad at math.”

There’s you. And then there’s you-with-_____.

You with your boss. You being watched by your in-laws. You surrounded by your employees. You feeling nervous with your date. You with the context of your work situation.

While you-with-anything is still the real you, it can be very helpful to not look at yourself only through the context of whatever is currently going on, whoever you’re with. Try looking at just you by yourself. Apart from the other thing, person, or situation.

Why is this so helpful? We have a huge tendency to define ourselves by the people around us and what they think. We tend to become the average of the people closest to us. We want to fit in, to please people. We also constantly hear their voices, even when they’re not talking out loud. What your boss thinks of you. What your parents think of you. What your buddies think of you.

When I look at a big decision I just made, while examining myself primarily in the context of the two or three employees it affects, maybe the big decision looks like a win. But when I do the mental exercise of separating myself and examining the decision in the context of simply who I have always wanted to be, what I really believe and value–maybe I find the decision wasn’t a win for me after all. Maybe it was just a people-pleasing win for somebody else.

Or vice versa. Maybe what you’re constantly feeling small about, because of how you know it looks to your parents, or what your boss thinks of you now–maybe that thing you’re regretting, feeling down about, kicking yourself over every day… maybe that’s exactly what you truly wanted and you need to give yourself some credit, encourage yourself, celebrate your growth.

If you don’t give yourself the credit of judging yourself for yourself, and instead constantly see yourself through the lens of another or in a context inseparable from others, you will say things you don’t really mean, choose things you don’t really want, and become a person you don’t actually believe in.

Of course there’s a limit to all this–if you completely stop considering what others think, you miss out on a lot of valuable feedback and you can start giving people very wrong impressions. You can stop working well as a team and you can hurt people. Being aware of others and how they feel is very important.

But there’s got to be a balance: “How will my employee take this?” must always be accompanied by, “How do I really see this?” And vice versa.

There’s a reason I encourage you mostly to focus on the independent part, though–seeing yourself distinct from the people and situations currently surrounding you. It’s because what we’ve experienced and learned throughout life has pounded an insecurity into us, leaving us constantly, endlessly agonizing over what others think, how they see us and our choices.

That’s the norm in society: Defining your life, your self assessment, and your worth through the lenses of others.

Try being fair to yourself. Give yourself some credit. What do you really think and want? Forget your boss’s opinion for just a minute. Or your parents’ expectations. What do you really, truly, deep down in your heart, believe and want out of yourself? That is immensely more important to your happiness and peace in life than what you know your co-worker is telling his friends about you.

“I am a woman, so I cannot be good at math.”

“I am an Asian, so I can be great at math.”

Or maybe… “I am me, and I love math.”

“Come See Me in My Office”

The dreaded invitation.

“Come see me in my office.”

When you’re the one inviting, here are a few truths to remember…

  • Your employee didn’t wake up this morning intending to make life miserable for you or anyone else.
  • Your employee is trying. If not, there’s a much deeper problem that’s been simmering for a long time.
  • Your employee is probably very nervous or afraid.
  • Your employee will definitely feel misunderstood and possibly bullied.
  • Your employee almost certainly will not say most of what he’s really thinking.
  • Your employee really wants some encouragement after a tough conversation.

And here are a few things to try…

  • Start things off with a less scary invitation: “Do you have a few minutes? I’d like to go over some stuff with you.”
  • Visit your employee in their own office where they’re comfortable.
  • If you need to close the door, tell them it’s because you want both of you to be able to speak freely with each other without having to worry about what anyone else thinks.
  • Show your employee honor by genuinely allowing that their motivations could be very good. Honestly try to understand your employee (they’ll know).
  • Make it a two way conversation. Ask them what their take on the issue is, what factors are causing it, and how you can help.
  • Tell them how much you appreciate them.
  • Ask them for feedback.
  • End on a positive note. Smile. Be truly excited to help each other make things even better!

Unless, of course, you really are just trying to kick them rudely out the door. In which case, you may be the problem…