2022-05-26 Binding and Unbinding (4 of 5) Unwholesome and Wholesome Confidence
3:32PM May 26, 2022
The theme this week is binding and unbinding, or being tangled and untangled. There are qualities of our inner life, qualities of being, that can look like each other, be related, kind of similar, but be on either side of that divide. Sometimes these two are confused. Sometimes, in letting go of how we get caught and entangled in attachments, the wholesome side of it looks similar, so we might let go of that too. But we want to keep the wholesome, that which is unbinding, that which helps us become untangled. For today, conceit is one side of that divide.
Buddhism puts a tremendous emphasis on freedom from conceit. It sees that conceit is clearly an attachment and an entanglement. Together with that is the philosophy – the teaching – to realize not-self, to realize how many things – everything – in our life we take, somehow, to be me, myself, and mine are not really that way. They are not really who we are. And so we can let go of entanglement with the things we appropriate for our self-identity. We can let go of the way we cling to identity and ideas.
These two ideas of not-self and of overcoming conceit, then lend themselves to the idea that you are not supposed to be strong in any way, be confident, or show up in a confident, clear way, like you are really there. You should probably sit in the back of the room. You should probably slump on the couch so you are not really asserting yourself.
But in fact, Buddhist practice is meant to free the emergent qualities of strength, the emergent qualities of life, that have nothing to do with attachment. They come from the release of deeper responses, attitudes, feelings, motivations, for this world we live in. One of these can be a sense of confidence.
There can be strong confidence in the Dharma, in practice, in oneself, confidence that we have learned how to navigate through the world wisely. I would like to suggest that one of the ways to have that – easy to understand, but maybe not so easy to do – is to be confident that we will go through the world not breaking the precepts.
Hopefully, all of you are confident that you will go through the world and not act on any impulse to kill another human being. You have confidence that this is not what you are going to do. You are not going to steal from someone. From there, hopefully you are not going to cause harm through your sexuality, through sexual misconduct. Part of the reason why there is sexual misconduct is that people start making exceptions. And then you do not lie. You do not engage in intoxication.
We have confidence in our precepts. We can have confidence that we are not going to intentionally harm anyone. We will restrain ourselves if necessary, but that is not what we are going to do. There is confidence in our ability to not make things worse. This is a powerful thing. Whatever situation you are in, do not make it worse. You might not know what to do. Maybe not knowing is important. It is okay not to know, maybe, but do not make the situation worse. Hold your tongue. Do not act if you think it is going to make the situation worse. Have confidence that you know what to do like that, Have confidence in your practice, confidence that you can show up, be mindful, and find your way with what is going on.
That confidence then feeds a kind of inner strength. Buddhist practice makes us stronger and stronger human beings as we go along. It is kind of like we are cultivating and developing muscles, spiritual muscles, psychological muscles, muscles of mindfulness, muscles of concentration and focus, muscles of equanimity, muscles of non-reactivity, muscles of understanding and wisdom and discernment. These become strong.
And that strength can feel embodied, so when we show up someplace, we do not show up with any hesitation. We do not show up in any way that diminishes ourselves. We do not assert ourselves, but we also do not diminish ourselves. There is a confidence in just being present in that midpoint between pulling away and asserting ourselves, but just there fully. Just full of confidence and being present and here, as if we count, as if we belong here. All that.
To navigate between conceit and confidence, and not confuse the two. In Buddhist teachings, conceit is said to be a product of the imagination. Its purpose is to advertise oneself. The way it is talked about in the ancient world, is that you are holding up a banner or a flag, "Look at me. I'm so great." Somehow advertising the self as great. It comes along with greed, greed for my way, for what I want and who I want to be. It thrives with praise. Searching for praise is one of the functions of conceit. It is a contraction. It is a form of irritation for the heart, to have conceit.
Oddly enough, for many English speaking people, the word "conceit" is often associated with arrogance – which Buddhists also associated it with. But it is also associated with a certain kind of preoccupation with self, a contraction and tightness around self, that we would call a negative conceit. And that is an attachment to being, a preoccupation with, or being entangled with thinking of oneself as being less than others, being less valuable than others. That is just as much of a conceit as thinking that we are better than others. It still involves the self. It involves comparisons.
Practice is supposed to free us from establishing an identity based on comparing ourselves to others, either as being better than, or worse than. What can we do instead of comparing ourselves? We learn just to be. We learn to be without comparisons. We learn to be without measuring ourselves against other people, any kind of standards at all.
We learn meditation to let go. To do that there are some standards we might have to deal with, the precepts for example, the standards of making amends for some of the harms we have done in the world, the standards of learning how to speak honestly, truthfully, kindly. We might have to clean up our act to some degree so we can really let go and trust this moment, trust ourselves, so that there can be an emergence of a non-arrogant, unconceited sense of real strength, presence, confidence, and aliveness.
We do things then without attachment, without clinging to anything, but also wholeheartedly. We are not held back by attachments. We are not held back by holding onto complacency, resistance of any kind, or ideas that it is too hard. But there is a freedom in what we do. We do it wholeheartedly, given the conditions of our mind and body, the energy that is available. But there is not that complaining which can come along with doing. There is just, "This is what I'm doing in whatever way that I can."
So, confidence, strength as part of Dharma practice. In fact, there are the Five Strengths – Powers – that the mindfulness tradition, the Buddha talks about. They are the power of confidence, the power of engagement, the power of mindfulness, the power of samādhi, and the power of wisdom, of discernment. How can those powers flow through us, emerge through us without conceit? I would like to propose that conceit is always a reactive response to the world, but that Dharma confidence, Dharma strength, is not reacting to anything. It is an emergent quality that emerges through our freedom, a quality that we allow for.
Maybe for these next twenty-four hours, you can look at this. You can try to take a look at the divide between two ways to be in the world. One, we are entangled in self concerns of some form or another, of what people think of us, or how we want people to think of us, in judgments, in ways we measure ourselves. We are entangled and caught in conceit, even arrogance, or even self-diminishment, versus two, a whole other way to be in the world with confidence, with a certain strength.
To do this exercise and explore this, I would like to suggest that, in whatever way that it is appropriate for you, you act in the world this day, you find ways to behave or to do that are expressions of confidence, expressions of whatever innate strength you can tap into.
It might be as simple as, when you are sitting in a chair, you might not slump, but sit in some way that both allows you to relax and rest, and allows you to be in a posture of confidence and strength. If you are cooking, if you are washing dishes, whatever you are doing, see if, this day, you can do it in some way that allows something to emerge inside – be expressed – that is strength and confidence, without conceit.
As you do this emergent thing with confidence and strength, it might highlight where conceit is operating. If you start seeing it, do not despair. Seeing conceit clearly is one of the great benefits of mindfulness practice. If you see it clearly, then there is hope for it not to interfere with your life, not bind you and keep you entangled. Thank you. I hope this exploration is nice for you.