The Way to the Ultimate is not hard;
simply give up picking and choosing.
Just by not giving in to hatred and craving
will your heart and mind be as clear and bright
as the realm beyond the opposites;
Let but a hair’s breadth of discriminatory thought arise
and you have made Heaven and Earth
strangers to each other.
(From the “That Which Is Engraved Upon The Heart That trusts In The Eternal” Translated by Rev. Hubert Nearman, M.O.B.C. in Buddhist Writings)
Over the last couple of months I have been reflecting on how corrosive the habit of fault finding can be, both in our own mind and heart and to the minds and hearts of those around us. Fault finding is a subset of the activity of the discriminatory mind and, broadly speaking, it is usually focused on three important areas: finding fault in our own self, finding fault in our community (our friends, family, coworkers and those who live in the world around us) and finding fault in our Sangha or our spiritual community. I realize that this third area is part of our general community, but finding fault in our Sangha has particularly unfortunate results, so I put it in an area of its own.
Like other aspects of the discriminatory mind, the problematic type of fault finding is tricky to deal with because it is related to that aspect of our inherent wisdom which has the potential to perceive and understand that which creates suffering. In other words, when we look at our own behavior, or the behavior of others, we have the potential ability to see that an action or thought could cause suffering and we turn that basic perception into another layer of suffering by giving in to the mind which criticizes and finds fault in a judgmental way. The fault finding mind has an insidious way of convincing us that a small suffering is much greater than it actually is.
There are a number of reasons why we might be in the habit of giving in to this criticizing mind and it will be slightly different for each of us. Mostly though, it seems to be an attempt, colored by fear and anger, to protect ourselves from the disappointment and suffering brought about by our own or others weakness and humanity. What we don’t realize is that instead of protecting us, this criticizing mind creates this other layer of suffering which is like a hard shell of self that separates us from our own deeper wisdom. Interestingly, this fault finding mind can be one of the creators of the feeling of separation and isolation we might feel with regard to our community.
In reflecting on my own criticizing mind, I realized that I cannot think of a single instance where that fault finding habit has made a lasting positive contribution to my life or to the life of those around me: Instead of protecting and helping me, it has just made matters worse.
The alternative to the fault finding mind is acceptance: the way we find the reason for our own entanglement in the fault finding mind is to recognize it, let it go and work on accepting the thing which we are critical of. This could quite possibly be a struggle because, usually, the fault finding mind is given energy by trying to avoid something painful in our own heart or mind, something which we would really rather not see. Perhaps ironically, this training in acceptance for me has meant learning how to accept the criticism of others, both when the criticism is based on a true reflection of my actions and also when it is based on a mistaken perception of my actions. I should say that I find this training very difficult and is an ongoing effort but is very fruitful, less because it has helped to clarify my many shortcomings (which it has) and more because it helps me to see and have the humility to accept my own doubts, fears and misgivings about myself.
Also, let me be clear, when I am talking about acceptance I am not talking about passivity, capitulation, resignation or complacency. Letting go of the fault finding mind and moving toward acceptance can feel like a defeat, but really we are just aligning ourselves with the reality of preceptual life, and allowing ourselves to see more clearly by letting go of the distorting effects of hatred and judgmentalism.
In my youth I once had the job of releasing a rattlesnake that was being held in captivity for a while in order to teach some kids. I quite liked and respected that snake even while being a little afraid of it. It was clear he (or she, I don’t know which) was not happy about being imprisoned and it would be quite happy to bite me if the opportunity arose. I was quite careful in catching, transporting and releasing that snake and I hope I was doing it from the place of acceptance, even though it felt like the snake was pretty angry; I certainly had a lot of sympathy for it having been imprisoned and gawked at for some time. I can imagine myself, out of fear, giving rise to my own indignation and defensiveness and giving in to the fault finding mind: “that snake was really angry and shouldn’t have been, I was just trying to help!” etc. etc..
(I have captured and released a number rattlesnakes who found themselves in places where unwary humans might tangle with them and I have never encountered any that seemed as angry as that one I moved from captivity.)
The kind of thing I am talking about regarding acceptance of difficult circumstances in our lives is like dealing with that snake. We can find within ourselves the ability to deal with difficult, even dangerous, circumstances without giving rise to the fault finding mind which amounts to giving in to fear and ill-will and hatred. The first step to finding this ability within us is working on acceptance.
A Dharma friend who is a nurse once shared a story of working a night shift. She said that it was quite common for nurses working at night to grumble and complain and one night she was working with someone who, every time she encountered her, would complain bitterly about the patients or their employer or whatever else caught her attention. My friend said she would just listen and try to be still, letting the fault finding words go past. At some point late in the shift, my friends coworker seem to wake up to what she had been doing and, in tears, said something like “oh, I am so sorry, I have been spewing such negativity and it doesn’t really help does it?” I think after that they were able to talk more constructively to sort out what was really bothering the coworker.
It we are able to sit still with our own complaining, fault finding mind, just letting the vitriol go by, we can see and help what the underlying trouble is, we can bring it to peace. By seeing and accepting our own underlying difficulty, we are more likely to see the external things we complain about more clearly and have a greater possibility of taking constructive action.
Another thing that is very helpful in this is the mind of forgiveness. There has been much said about forgiveness and perhaps the simple thing is in the definition of the word forgive: “to give up resentment of or claim to requital for”. Whenever this fault finding mind has been present and active in my own mind, there has been a tinge of anger and ill-will (which is resentment) in the thing and perhaps that addition of anger is what distorts our own inherent wise discernment into the problematic fault finding.
And further, there is the insight in the word definition about the desire for requital: we all get the consequences of our own actions for good or ill so what is this desire and is this thing we desire an appropriate thing?
When we voluntarily give up the anger and ill-will, the resentment, the fear and the desire, we can see the situation more clearly and treat ourselves and those around us with sympathy, kindness and compassion. And this sympathy, kindness and compassion do not stand in the way of taking action in the world to help prevent harm or to promote good.
(Next month I’ll try to talk a little about why complaining about the Sangha is problematic in its own special way.)