Lojong Practice Journal: Don't wallow in self-pity

The 59 slogans through a social justice lens

The slogan ‘Don’t wallow in self-pity’ sounds like something a parent or grandparent might say to us. It can make us feel like we’re not being seen, as if our suffering is being disregarded or dismissed. But there is a difference between wallowing in feeling sorry for ourselves, versus acknowledging our suffering in order to address it in a broader social context. Understanding this difference is how we can approach this slogan as a practice instruction, rather than as an admonishment.

As with so many of these slogans, translations vary, with other versions of the instruction reading to “not boast” or “not take ourselves too seriously.” Whether it’s not wallowing, not boasting, or not taking ourselves too seriously, the instruction still comes down to looking at ego-clinging and how we use that to rank our suffering (or lack thereof) hierarchically.

The idea that suffering — and likewise joy or happiness — are like rungs of a ladder we collectively move up and down, posits that in order for me to suffer less someone else has to suffer more. But life is not a zero-sum game and suffering is not a system of reward versus punishment.

My personal experience with this slogan has deepened significantly over the years. In the beginning I saw it as a reminder to not add to my own suffering through self-pity. Suffering doesn’t make us special or unique. Suffering is a universal condition. Wallowing in self-pity would be acting as if no one has ever experienced hardship quite like we have.

This is not to say that suffering is evenly distributed, of course. The middle-way approach is not to dismiss our suffering because someone else has it worse, but also to not think we can even compare what is hard from one person to the next. My hardships are legitimate and deserve to be addressed, but I also know that I have not faced the same level of adversity as many others, just as I know there are many people whose hardships I would see as not hard at all.

Self-pity, boasting, or taking ourselves too seriously enforces a sense of separateness and isolation. As I worked on this commentary, I kept thinking about an ex-partner’s family dynamics, where everyone would consistently get into arguments over whose life was harder. Whenever someone mentions ‘suffering Olympics’, the memory of these family arguments comes to my mind. The heartbreaking part of it, was the way everyone went into competition about whose life was harder, while never doing anything to support one another.

Ultimately everyone in that family worked low-paid retail or service industry jobs, living paycheque to paycheque and were, therefore, working poor. Three generations, and there had been no income increase. Each generation was struggling to survive under capitalism, but rather than turn outward in class solidarity they, as a white family, condemned brown and Asian immigrants, “other” poor people (the lazy ones, of course), and each other. They were all so attached to being the most put upon, that they were unable to recognize their shared experience and the larger issue of social inequity.

Reflecting on watching these dynamics play out again and again, I see this slogan as a message to look beyond the limits of individual experience so we can understand the systemic causes of suffering. My commitment to seeing our interdependence took my understanding from ‘suffering is universal’ to ‘much of our universal suffering is born from how capitalism, cisheteropatriarchy, and white supremacy divide us.’

This slogan can help us notice some of the particular ways ego-clinging shows up when we grasp onto suffering (or success). Letting go of self-pity helps us to step into solidarity across all movements for liberation, regardless of shared identity, because we are united in our commitment to alleviate suffering for all beings.

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Originally published on Medium.

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