At the wonderful Seattle Rebel Buddha event recently, I reflected on the growing discussion about how to make Buddhism relevant to Westerners. Personally, I spent a long time figuring out how to make teachings relevant for myself.
I had a breakthrough when I began to apply the Buddhist insight about interdependence – in which everything arising in dependence upon certain causes and conditions — to my fear of asking for help.
I started by analyzing this statement: “It’s hard for me to ask for help.” I reasoned, “I seem to be speaking easily right now. What makes it hard when I want to ask for help? Do I strap a belt around my jaw?” (That would make it hard to ask for help.) Clearly, I wasn’t strapping my mouth shut. So what was the problem?
Through this analysis I discovered that what makes something seem to be “hard” is a train of thought, a judgment. It is hard to ask for help because “they” will think I’m a nuisance, a selfish person.
For a long time I didn’t understand the deep interdependence hidden in this statement. On the surface of it, the judgment seems to contain an obvious interdependence: it’s hard because they’ll think I’m a nuisance. But that still doesn’t explain why it’s a problem for me. My problem is dependent upon my desire that others not think I’m a nuisance.
But there’s still another layer of dependency. In order to have that desire, I have to believe it is harmful to me in some way if other people think I’m a nuisance. And – here’s the surprising part — that depends on me believing that I really AM a big nuisance!
The way out of this trap came when I noticed that a train of thought like this one always comes with a movie (and an intense Dolby soundtrack) of what will occur if I do or don’t do the “hard” thing. Whenever I considered asking for help, I noticed that the movie “Asking” would come into view. In that movie, people responded nastily to my request. Obviously, they thought I was a nuisance. Seeing that inner movie, and imagining the convincing soundtrack, my jaw would clench, and I would end up not asking for help.
It became clear that “hardness” or “difficulty” is just the conceptual codeword concealing what I was actually dealing with – my inner movies! To win the battle with “difficulty” we need to 1) become aware of the inner movies we’re making, 2) examine the scripts and the tonality of the soundtrack, and 3) challenge the beliefs underlying the script.
I looked closely at my movie. In it, people were judging me and rejecting me: “You selfish nuisance!” I recognized that this scenario was compelling only if I agreed that I was a selfish nuisance to begin with. Before I ever asked for help I had to believe that fundamentally, I was a selfish nuisance. Then I had to assign that belief to the people in the movie. All of these elements were interdependent in creating my own private horror movie.
I learned that as long as I stayed focused on trying to avoid the discomfort of being called a selfish nuisance, instead of challenging my own belief that I was a selfish nuisance, I didn’t feel very inspired or hopeful about ever finding it easier to ask for help.
So I took the focus off my terribleness and examined the actions of the people in the movie who were rejecting me. I discovered that, to be convinced they would reject me, I had to believe they lacked compassion and humanity. Suddenly I saw the hidden side of my dilemma, the very practical hidden interdependent side: in order to beat myself up for being a selfish nuisance, I also had to think the worst of other people. I had to be certain they would see only badness in me, and then attack me for it.
I realized that when I was focused on being a bad person, it seemed impossible to ask for help. But when I realized that this belief was dependent on my thinking that all my friends lack compassion and are basically inhumane. Seeing the absurdity of that belief, suddenly I felt roused to snap out of the whole drama.
This is how I learned to be able to easily ask for help. You can use it, too:
Renounce self judgment (“I am selfish and a nuisance.”) and renounce your assumption of the other’s response (“They’ll be annoyed and reject me.”).
Ask, “What do I have to believe about them in order to be certain they think I’m selfish and annoying?”
Evaluate the answer (“They must lack compassion and be basically inhumane.”). Is this true?
If it’s true, and they are, in fact, inhumane — get better friends! Don’t hang around them to be judged. Renounce the importance you’ve been placing on their opinions.
If it’s not true, and they are humane — stop insisting on believing in fantasies that they will attack you. Vigorously renounce these inner horror movies!
Make a new movie. In it, have a big crowd of compassionate people eagerly responding to your request for help. See them appreciating you and your worthiness. See how grateful they are for the opportunity to contribute to your well-being. Seeing this depends on you thinking you are worthy. This is practical interdependence.
As with the making of any good movie, rehearsals and script revisions are crucial. So practice remaking the movie until it comes alive for you–until you find it enjoyable to ask for help.