No One to Blame: How Equanimity Inspires Wisdom
It’s always good to start with a story.
I was wending my way slowly, along with hundreds of people, back and forth through the cordoned-off lanes of an airport security line, when I became aware of the conversation of the two people right behind me:
“It’s your fault!”
“What do you mean, ‘It’s your fault’? It’s your fault!”
“That’s what I mean. It’s your fault we’re late.”
“No, it’s not. Prove it to me that it’s my fault.”
“I don’t have to prove anything to you. It just is.”
I glanced behind me, as if looking beyond them, and saw that they were young, casually dressed, and apparently (was it tennis rackets, golf gear?) were going on holiday together.
The Ping-Pong recriminations continued. “Your fault.” “No, yours.”
I had a momentary impulse to turn around and say, “Listen to me! It does not matter one bit whose fault it is. Either you’ll be in time for your flight or you won’t. And if you miss this flight, there will be others. What’s more, you don’t know that this flight is the best one to be on. Perhaps this one will have engine trouble and the next one will arrive safely. Relax! You are ruining the beginning of your holiday with a useless skirmish.”
Of course, I didn’t say anything. I think I could have gotten away with it if I had done it sweetly enough, but I imagined them telling someone later, “You won’t believe what this wacky little old woman in the airport . . .” Anyway, eavesdropping and intruding are both impolite, even if unintended and well meaning.
I took off my jacket and shoes and pushed them through the X-ray machine along with my carry-on bag with my computer out for inspection. Retrieving my possessions on the other side, balancing on one foot and then the other to hurriedly put on my shoes, I noticed the couple just in front of me, also just emerged through the sensor gate, taking a moment to kiss each other, give each other a hug. I was amused by the thought that they were congratulating each other for having made it through the security hurdle unscathed. It was the briefest of exchanges of affection, but it was there. Right in the middle of getting re-dressed. Then I thought, “I should call the attention of the arguing folks behind me to the kissing folks in front of me. ‘Look,’ I could tell them, ‘here is another possibility. In fact, there are only two possibilities in any moment. You can kiss or you can fight. Kissing is better.’ ”
Of course, I said nothing and went on to my flight. I also knew then, as I know now as I write, that in situations where I feel stressed, I might behave like the couple behind me. Not even “long ago, when I wasn’t wise,” but right now, when I presumably understand that struggling with anything to make it be other than what it is creates suffering. If my mind becomes confused, broadsided by a challenge that upsets it, even a “minor” one such as “I’ll miss my plane,” I forget, at least for a while, what I know.
Becoming wise means, for me, forgetting less often—and remembering sooner when I’ve forgotten—the three things that are fundamentally true. The Buddha called these the Three Characteristics of Experience.
Everything is always changing.
There is a cause-and-effect lawfulness that governs all unfolding experience.
What I do matters, but I am not in charge. Suffering results from struggling with what is beyond my control.
The line from the Dhammapada, a compilation of say- ings attributed to the Buddha, that sums this up for me, that seems the one-sentence best expression of wisdom, is: “Anyone who understands impermanence, ceases to be contentious.”
Does that make sense to you on as many levels as it does to me? I understand it, primarily, as meaning “I have only a certain span of life allotted to me, so I don’t want to waste a single moment of it fighting.” Other times, if I catch myself on the brink of contention, the instruction reminds me, “Whatever is happening will change, and what I add to this situation is part of the change. Agonizing makes it worse.” And sometimes, if I remember that whatever is happening will cause results that I really cannot anticipate (although I often do and worry needlessly), I say to myself, “I have no idea whether this changed circumstance, which I resent, is actually a good or a bad thing in the long run. I can wait to see.”
Many people have told me, when I’ve asked for examples of wise people in their lives, “My granddad [or grandmother or elderly neighbor of my childhood or eighth-grade math teacher] always said, ‘You do the best you can, and then you live with what happens. What else can you do?’ ”
I think in these descriptions of wisdom, the important word is always. Those wise people always said . . . They did not forget. I forget. I know—I think we all do from innumerable events in our experience—that the moment in which the mind acknowledges “This isn’t what I wanted, but it’s what I got” is the point at which suffering disappears. Sadness might remain present, but the mind, having given up the fight for another reality, is free to console, free to support the mind’s acceptance of the situation, free to allow space for new possibilities to come into view.
My own experience is that I keep learning this lesson, over and over again. My wisdom is definitely not unshakable. Here is an example, from all too recent an experience. I became distracted, and . . . Well, here is the story, which speaks for itself.
I went to the antique store in the town in France where I live part of each year to protest the unexpected 400-euro charge that had arrived along with the mattress and innerspring for the bed I’d bought there. I had telephoned in advance. Madame Blaise, the antiquaire, had explained that, unfortunately, the unique size of beds made in the 1840s, especially the rounded corners, had required that a special-order mattress and springs be constructed. I was going in person to continue the discussion, but I was unhappy about going. I am, by nature, conflict-avoidant. I was urged on and accompanied by my husband, Seymour, who was angry and who does not speak French. I was caught between trying to please him and trying not to displease Madame Blaise.
“Remind her,” he said, “that she told us what the price of the mattress would be, that it was included with the bed, and that we already paid for it. If there is anything extra, she should pay. She is the expert. It is her responsibility.”
“Madame is an eighty-five-year-old small-town antiquaire,” I countered. “She is not Macy’s. You can’t undo these things.”
“It’s not fair, though,” he continued. “You should insist that she make amends. If you won’t do it, I will. I’ll pantomime how unhappy I am. Even if she won’t give us any money back, she could at least offer us something like those bedside tables you were looking at when we bought the bed.”
I spoke to Madame Blaise in my most elegant and polite French, explaining our shock, our dismay, and our distress about having trusted her judgment and now needing to pay the mattress company 400 euros. I looked pointedly at some of the furniture around us and suggested that she might consider making us a gift of bedside tables as a form of reparation. I ended by saying that we had enjoyed our previous meetings with her and were sad that we were now left with bad feelings, mauvaises émotions.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Happiness Is an Inside Job by Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D.. Copyright © 2007 by Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.