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Paying Attention No Matter What
Willpower and the Buddhist Perfection of Virya, or Energy

Much of the time we observe the world around us and pass judgement on it. Something we observe may appear good, bad or neutral, but we usually feel like we are simply drawing a conclusion from the data of our experience. We may qualify our judgement by acknowledging it is “just” our opinion or preference, but usually we have a sense that we can’t do much about our opinions and preferences. We either like something, or we don’t. We believe people can usually be trusted, or we don’t. We are convinced the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, or we aren’t.

When someone suggests the “power of positive thinking,” we may think it is something we are supposed to do in our minds to make ourselves feel better. We may think it involves choosing to take a “positive spin on things” rather than listening to our discriminating wisdom when it says something is amiss. Correspondingly, we usually figure that this effort to draw positive conclusions instead of negative ones doesn’t change the reality outside of us, except when we interact differently with that reality because of our new, positive attitude (which, of course, is no small thing).

The Buddhist view on the relationship between positive mind-states and reality is different. Buddhism acknowledges the effect of positive mind-states on our subjective experience; it is more pleasant and less stressful, for example, to feel relaxed than it is to feel angry. When we feel grateful, our chests feel warm and energy flows through us, but when we feel suspicious and stingy, our chests feel tight and our body feels tense. So there’s a good argument for cultivating positive feelings over negative ones if you can. But feeling good isn’t all there is to it.

In the Buddhist view, when we are able to consciously transform the way we relate to an experience, we can change the very nature of that experience. This is because “reality” doesn’t have the hard edges we usually think it does. For me there is no reality “out there,” separate from my mind; I will never be able to perceive a thing without the involvement of my mind. And what is the use of any reality “out there” that can’t ever be perceived? In a sense, reality is born as we perceive it. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean nothing exists except what sentient beings have perceived, as if only the subjective is real. Rather, it is that reality arises in the encounter between subject and object.

This may seem overly philosophical, so here is a concrete example. Say a woman butts in front of me in line at the grocery store. She’s busy talking on her cell phone and clearly in a big hurry, and takes the opportunity of a few extra, ambiguous feet of space to nudge her cart into the line in front of me. It is possible she just didn’t notice me, but that hardly seems like a good excuse. My first reaction is to get angry and defensive, and to curse the woman’s selfishness and self-absorption. My own self-concern arises, and I press my cart in a little closer, to guard against any other people who might want to get ahead of me. 

Then I try the Buddhist exercise of imagining that each person I encounter has, in a previous life, been a kind, nurturing mother to me. And I recall the Buddhist teaching that all beings just want to be happy and avoid suffering (even if they go about seeking what they want in ignorant or destructive ways). Now I notice how anxious and tense the woman in the grocery line is. I know what it feels like to be in a hurry and overwhelmed, and I have no difficulty imagining that in certain circumstances I would at least be tempted to act like she just has. I feel a certain connection with her, and certainly some compassion for her. After all, is it likely she would be so pushy if she was spiritually at peace? Some of my anger and tension dissipate.

Now, what is reality in this example? A selfish, pushy woman butted in front of me? A suffering sentient being, just like me, acted out the age-old drama of seeking happiness and avoiding suffering? Is “reality” only the objective observation that a woman pushed her cart into a few feet of space in front of me in a line? Or all of the above? Reality turns out to be fairly flexible, or at least full of possibilities. 

Fortunately, Buddhist mind training does not involve denying or suppressing experiences or reactions we might categorize as “negative.” I don’t have pretend that it isn’t rude to butt in front of someone at a grocery store. I don’t even have to pretend I don’t care about someone butting in front of me. Without turning away from any aspect of our experience (internal or external), we have some options about how to relate to that experience. We can follow trains of thought that take us deeper into emotions like anger or despair, or we can get creative and apply some other techniques and tools.

Another example of a technique aimed at “positive thinking” is to give something away when you are feeling a sense of lack. It’s best if you give exactly the kind of thing you feel you are lacking, such as paying some personal attention to someone else if you are feeling rather unappreciated by the people in your life. Your generosity will probably be appreciated and will generate some connection and warmth, which might be nourishing for you. For a moment you step out of a sense of powerlessness, waiting for the attention of others, and into a position of strength, where you have something valuable to offer others. This is not a panacea for relationship problems (if there is a real issue to be addressed it will still be there after your act of kindness), but it could get you into a better space for dealing with problems. Or it could jar you out of a neurotic, pessimistic habit of mind that is primarily about your skewed interpretation of the actions of others.

I will close with the Buddha’s own words on this very challenging Buddhist practice of positive thinking, from the Dhammapada:

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

“‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.

“‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.

“For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love – this is an old rule.” (translation by Max Müller)

Paying Attention No Matter What
Willpower and the Buddhist Perfection of Virya, or Energy