Sometimes, people irritate me.
This week has been one of those weeks.
Actually, I’ve been irritated for the past month and not just because of the incessant and furious heat and humidity that is sucking the marrow out of every bone in my body and making me harbor great resentment toward slow drivers with happy bumper stickers. Okay, I’ve been irritable for approximately eight months, give or take a day or five. In fact, 2007 is turning out to be the year of Grumpy Patti, as my business partner, David, says. “I like Grumpy Patti,” he told me, “Grumpy Patti is a truth teller.”
I can see his point—the grumpiness has moved me forward this year in many important ways because most of that truth—if the truth was told (!)—has been directed at myself.
And yet, in one of those rare moments in which you can stand back and see yourself more clearly, I can see that there is an arrogance to truth-telling, a danger to it.
Last week, I came to realize—thanks to the gentle intercession of my wise acupuncturist—that my holding on to being right is an attachment that can only cause me to suffer.
“How are you doing?” she asked as I entered her office. “I’m okay,” I said. She sat, quietly, looking at me. “Okay, well I’m a little stressed out, I guess.” She invokes truth by silence better than anyone else I know.
I’m in a situation at the moment that is maddening—and in which I know I’m right, so I hold forth. She listens. And listens some more. Suddenly, we’re 30 minutes into my acupuncture treatment and I’m not even on the table. “Let’s get you on the table and we can continue this conversation,” she says.
Then I’m prone, under a sheet, and she is holding my hand, taking my pulses. She pauses. “Patti,” her tiny voice started, “why do you think you are so attached to being right about this situation?”
A world of knowing washes over me. Why am I so invested in being right? Oh, I don’t know, this is just a wild stab, but MAYBE BECAUSE I’M RIGHT?
“Because it’s so clear that I’m right,” I said. “Can’t you see that I’m right? There’s just no way that I’m not right!” I said, quietly indignant.
“Why is being right about this so important to you?”
“And doesn’t everyone have their own version of ‘right’?” she continued.
“I wonder what would happen if you gave up your need to be right?”
Damn. She can do more in four questions than I can do in a lifetime.
After a while, she spoke again. “In Buddhism,” she said, “attachment is the root of our suffering.”
I understand that, I thought to myself. I lived with a Buddhist family in Sri Lanka, I studied with Buddhist monks–I get that.
I don’t feel overly attached to things, to owning new cars and silent trash compactors and sub-zero fridges and…and….and new music from Lucas Silveira (well, I think I will need that new CD from the Cliks, just to hear his cover of “Cry Me a River”) and an iPhone (though those iPhones are beautiful)….
“And,” she continued, “maybe you’re not so attached to possessions, but attachment to being right is still an attachment. And it is causing you to suffer.”
I never knew. But it all became clear in that moment in that small room on that table in that sunlight. My attachment to being right is as much an attachment as lusting after a possession. I have made being right a palpable thing, like a new purse or hand-painted silk jacket or Ayana Bar necklace from Tel Aviv.
“There is an image of attachment that might be helpful,” she explained. “It is said we should imagine a large thorn bush, in which we are sitting, naked. As you can imagine, every move we make to reach for something,” she moved her arm forward to demonstrate, “causes us to sink our limbs deeper and deeper into the thorns.”
I listened, not moving.
In the Four Noble truths, Buddha taught that attachment to self is the root cause of suffering:
"Great Monk, let me ask you, how can I attain liberation?" The Great monk said, "Who tied you up?" This old cultivator answered, "Nobody tied me up." The monk said, "Then why do you seek liberation?" (Hsuan Hua, tr., Flower Adornment Sutra, "Pure Conduct," chap. 11.)
As professor Gerald Grow wrote: “I think of it this way—instead of experiencing life directly, we create a worldview and experience it. That worldview serves to protect us through a system of explanations; but it also makes each of us into an isolated self, separated from nature, from real experience, from spirituality, and from one another—causing all experience to be distorted and ‘out of joint,’ and ourselves to suffer from living at one remove from life. We are nearly always, in some degree, outsiders to the world and even to our own experience.”
“Buddhists have given deep attention to the ways human beings are at once empowered and entrapped by the categories we create for thought and language. Racial prejudice is a straightforward example of what Buddhists mean by suffering that is created by the mind; it is based on mental categories that distort perception and project our expectations onto others. The fundamental Buddhist act is to accept responsibility for one’s projections, and to learn to know, first hand, how the mind creates illusion and amplifies suffering.”
“Every ‘thing’ is actually a process—it arises, develops, flourishes, declines, and dissipates. All nouns are still-photos from the movie of life—which is made up of verbs. All that we see around and inside us is the result of trillions of simultaneous processes, arising and declining in a symphony of different overlapping rhythms at once. All that appears solid in this cosmos is in reality a shimmering, substanceless dance of energy in flux.”
“True insight leads to compassion. Insight is compassion.”
Mark Kleiman has said, “There is no more destructive force in human affairs—not greed, not hatred—than the desire to have been right. Non-attachment to possessions is trivial when compared with non-attachment to opinions.”
“Perhaps it is not the situation that is making you suffer, but your grasping at being right in it,” my acupuncturist guru said quietly.
From inside the worldview I’ve adopted, I can own a position without grasping for it, I see now.
And I can see now that in grasping at being right, I myself am disappearing.
Am I right, or what?
[cartoon from here]