Lojong Practice Journal: Work with the greatest defilements first
The 59 slogans through a social justice lens
My introduction to Buddhism happened after a mental breakdown when I subsequently began to see a psychologist. At our very first session, Dr. Korol walked me through some breathing exercises as a way to get me to not only be in my body but notice the way my breath impacted my physical experience.
When these sessions started I was just past my lowest point. I’d been living with Panic Disorder for seven years with very little support and few coping mechanisms. The trip to the ER that led me to Dr. Korol’s office also meant I was taking medication for my mental illness for the first time in my life. I could not longer distract myself from my mental health — I had to start working with it.
On hearing ‘Work with the greatest defilements first’, I immediately saw the wisdom of this slogan. That’s what I was doing when I finally told my family intervention and support was needed for the anxiety I was experiencing. Up until that point, I had been operating on the belief that if I focused on work, or my relationships, or volunteering, I could get outside of myself enough that the anxiety would go away. I insisted on focusing everywhere but my mental health, adopting an ‘if you ignore it, it will go away’ mentality.
As I’ve delved deeper into dharma practice and study, I find a lot of teachers insist on the importance of working on small stuff as a way to prepare for the really big stuff. This is not a modern or North American dharma instruction. Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara from the 8th century says:
There’s nothing that does not grow light
Through habit and familiarity.
Putting up with little cares
I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity.
This seems like a contradiction to the slogan. Do we focus on the ‘little cares, or do we focus on the greatest defilement?
However, there isn’t a conflict. The instruction Shantideva gives us is supportive of working on the greatest defilements. When you sit with the greatest defilement — really sit with it and get to know it — you start to see all the little things that contribute to it. We are simply starting with what is most obvious as a way to support our intention to liberate ourselves. Our strongest emotional response is like a beacon to help focus our practice.
The anxiety I lived with in my late teens and early twenties stemmed from a lot of little things, all of which I was avoiding. When I met Dr. Korol and she began instructing me in meditation, I began to see how resistant I was to being present. Digging deeper, I started to see all the little accumulated things that contributed to this resistance, which ultimately contributed to living in a near-constant state of dis-ease.
The overarching defilement was that I wanted to have control in any given situation—for everything to go as planned. When things inevitably didn’t pan out as I’d hoped or thought they should, I would spin out into a panic attack. I felt like I had somehow failed when a situation didn’t go as I’d expected.
To work with this, I started by accepting the small things that didn’t go my way. I would be heading home from work, normally a ten-minute drive, and find myself in a grid-lock of traffic caused by an accident. Instead of getting upset that I hadn’t left earlier (as if I could have predicted the accident) or thinking unkind thoughts about those involved in the accident for delaying me, I’d pause. Most often in this situation, the antidote was to practice Metta, opening my heart to others. I would think of those in the accident, wishing for their happiness, safety and good health. I would look at the people in the cars surrounding my own and offer more of the same. I saw how the neurotic spinning out and panic at being late or having my schedule disrupted was instructing me to think outside myself, to remember that my time was no more or less valuable than anyone else in that gridlock. And I certainly wasn’t having as difficult a time as the people involved in an accident that day.
As the years have passed and my practice has intensified, what I once considered too challenging to sit with changes significantly month on month and year on year. The ‘greatest defilement’ changes, but the practice remains the same. Start with what is obvious and work with lighter versions of it in order to transform it. This is what it is to apply this slogan to your life.
This blog was originally published on Medium.
This is part of a series of posts I am doing to support my practice.
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