As I wrote in my last post, Nichiren Buddhism teaches that each of us has innate brilliance. And I often tell delegates on my training courses that we are all magnificent works in progress. When we deeply respect others, we get this point and are able to see their potential, (even though right now they may be manifesting more of their dark side than their brightness.) This approach makes for more harmonious families at home, more productive departments at work, more forgiving friendships in the pub and better football teams on a Saturday morning.
As Daisaku Ikeda explains:“We are unlimited beings. Our struggle to surmount our obstacles and sufferings and fulfil our dreams is always finally the struggle to overcome the limitations we have accepted within our own heart.”
The problem is that we’re hardwired to stereotype and label people, including ourselves. “He’s a complete jerk.” “She’s a total angel.” “They’re utter idiots.” Perhaps this sort of stereotyping served us well in our prehistoric days, when survival depended on deciding very quickly that a sabre-toothed tiger was always bad news, with no shades of grey… But in the modern age, when we use negative labels to describe people we’ve argued with, we prolong the rift and block the seeds of hope from which forgiveness and progress can bloom. (See a previous post called ‘The two words to ban from all your arguments.‘
Last week I had the good fortune to be training some teenagers from Southend in Essex, one of my favourite seaside towns. All of them had been excluded from mainstream schools and/or came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Luckily there are two people who believe in their potential, their teacher Rachael O’Brienand Stuart Long (of South Essex Homes), who have set up a Football Club for them, with funds they have fought long and hard to obtain. More info on Southend ATF (Achievement Through Football) here: http://achievementthroughfootball.org/
We had two marvellous days together, a mix of football plus the mindset and happiness stuff I teach on The Winning Edge personal development programme. This wonderful experience proved that with some warm but strict encouragement plus a more positive way of looking at themselves and the world, even kids who’ve had the toughest starts in life can discover a spark of hope, an inner resilience and a new sense of purpose. More about these lovely kids and their dreams at the end of this post.
I have had a few angry conversations in recent months. One with a fellow blogger whom I’ve never met, one with the BBC and one with the manager of my son’s football team. Whether I ‘won the arguments’ or not is irrelevant (except to my ego), whether I was right or wrong is equally by-the-by. Buddhism teaches the sometimes inconvenient truth that I attract these situations into my life, that my own inner anger is like a magnet that can pull me into conflicts and sometimes sees me being disrespectful and losing my temper more than I would like to.
Luckily I have learned a lot about anger from my 12-year-old son Leon. A few years ago, when I was trying to catch the cat to take her to the vet, I asked him to make sure he didn’t leave the back door open. Unfortunately he did, the cat escaped, we were going to be late, I exploded with rage… And he just calmly looked at me and said: “Daddy, getting angry won’t bring the cat back in.” I was gobsmacked and will never forget this humbling moment and the fact that he naturally focused on the solution instead of the problem. Chanting about it later, it occurred to me that anger is the first reaction of the stupid when it needs to be the last resort of the wise.
The appointment last week of a new pope has made me think and chant lots about my Catholic upbringing. And it has stirred in me a mix of emotions. At first I felt really angry that my favourite BBC radio station (5 Live) dropped all their other news and sports stories to broadcast almost non-stop speculation for 45 minutes about what colour puff of smoke would emerge from the Vatican (who, it has to be said, do theatre incredibly well.)
The reporter’s tone was one of excitement and hushed reverence, of the sort we normally hear during coverage of a British royal wedding. I felt this was inappropriate, for an organisation whose treatment of women, homosexuals and sexually abused children leaves a lot to be desired. And also because I reckon only 20,000 of the programme’s 1 million UK listeners actually attend Catholic mass on a Sunday. I argued that there were probably more ex-Catholics than practising Catholics listening to the broadcast. I shared this view on a BBC blog, but it was deleted by the BBC for being too provocative. It was then allowed to appear after all when I emailed them to appeal against their censorship.
I love this quote by SGI-UK Buddhist leader Kazuo Fujii (pictured here in 1993) who outlines the huge difference it makes when we learn to challenge ourselves instead of just coping with life’s difficulties:
“There are two ways of approaching life. The first is coping and the second is challenging to change a situation. The situation is the same but the results are different. Coping is linked to the past and our past knowledge and experiences. It is a conservative attitude, limited, restricted, passive, defensive, dependent. There is no vision and no hope. This is not Buddhism. Buddhism is about change. Changing ourselves, society and humanity for good. The way to change is determination based on wisdom. Change is a projection towards the future. It is positive, creative, independent, attacking and seeking. It is an attitude of great hope and vision. Coping is the past projecting to the present. Changing is the present projecting to the future. We can choose. The difference between ordinary and great lives is up to us.”
What makes a teaching powerful?And what holds people back from making progress in their lives? I think the most powerful teachings are the ones that cause real paradigm shifts within individuals and society. The ones that shatter our illusions, bulldoze our comfort zones and remove our subconscious excuses for being unhappy. Poems like The Invitation, books like The Alchemist, The Key and Loving What Is. Buddhist teachings such as the Lotus Sutra. I am sure you can think of many others as well.
By illusionsI mean ‘beliefs that you think will make you happy’: things like: the familiar witty comfort of the cynic. The coping strategy that gets you through another day. Delicious but destructive addictions. Hiding away under the comfortable duvet of failure, instead of getting up and being all you can be. The belief that it is your wife or husband’s job to make you happy. Playing the angry victim. Bitching about other people (just for the temporary ‘sugar high’ it gives you.) Let’s face it, we’ve probably all done most of these things at one time or another, it’s part of being human after all.
Consider this scenario: John and Jane are both on the same personal development course. They’re both buying into all the good stuff that says that they could fulfill more of their potential, that they deserve success, that nobody can make them feel mad, bad or sad, that limiting beliefs sometimes hold them back, that they could set more exciting goals, that some powerful affirmations could boost their self-esteem… in short that they are pretty darned amazing.
At the end, does John turn to Jane and say: “You are truly amazing?” Unlikely. He’s too busy saying affirmations into the mirror such as: “I amtruly marvellous.” (And good for him, because it’s true.) Of course Jane is just as amazing, in her own unique Jane-like way; why wouldn’t she be? But John would make a more valuable contribution to society if he realised it. And vice-versa.