Why are we so fascinated with cat videos? Cats are beautiful, elegant, soft, and noble. And they are hilarious to watch when they get caught up in their foibles.
We humans also have our beauty and nobility, and we most certainly have our foibles, our weaknesses, that unintentionally create drama or comedy.
Foible. Such a funny word. Say it out loud a few times and chances are it will put you in a lighter mood. Foible, foible, foible. When we think of our weaknesses or vulnerabilities as foibles, can we hold them more lightly, even smile a bit at our humanity? Just as a cat is most amusing and adorable when it lets down its reserve and allows us to see its foibles, so are we.
We don’t want to be laughed at unless we’re in on the joke, right? But notice how we can admire the cat and still lovingly laugh at its foibles, thinking Isn’t that just like a cat? In the same way, can we appreciate any nobility of character in others and ourselves, and when foibles are on display can we smile with affection, thinking Isn’t that just like a human?
Doesn’t that feel better than derisive laughter? Of course, we don’t want to be humiliated. But being open to our foibles sets others at ease. It’s when we hold ourselves apart from the rest of the world that others’ opinions can become harsher. Then we might feel we have to bolster up our sense of self-esteem by broadcasting our fine qualities and accomplishments. That’s like a cat sitting on the edge of an aquarium, fishing for compliments. We know that most cats hate water but love fish. Two foibles that combine into folly every time.
Humans love praise and hate blame, two foibles that combine into folly as well. If we notice when we are seeking praise or hiding from blame, can we recognize these tendencies as human foibles?
When we see foibles as typical human behavior under certain causes and conditions, it becomes less personal. As well it should. None of us invented this body-mind. We take responsibility for it in life, treating it with kindness and compassion, which is very different from indulgence and feeling sorry for ourselves. But taking responsibility is different than buying into the limited and limiting belief that there is a separate self to promote and defend.
In my last post, I talked about the Buddhist concept of anatta. No separate self. Our seemingly separate self, the one with a name, account numbers, roles, resumes, and relationships, is real, but it is, according to the Garland Sutra, particular reality, the one we inhabit to take care of things. Ultimate reality is the interbeing of all that is. These two realities are not separate, not here and somewhere out there. They are interwoven and require only a slight shift of perspective. We can see the ultimate nature of reality within the particular all the time. [Learn more about anatta.]
Unless we have at least some awareness of ultimate reality, where we perceive the nature of interbeing of all that is, we set ourselves up, again and again, to suffer from greed, aversion, and delusion, what the Buddha called the Three Poisons.
So clearly it’s important to access insight into the ultimate nature and to shine that insight onto our own thoughts, words, and behaviors to recognize these three poisons as they arise. We often see other people’s greed, aversion, and delusion more readily than we see our own, and that’s helpful as long as we accept it as a lesson for us, not for them! We can also see how greed, aversion, and delusion are the driving forces in fiction, drama, opera, and in the lyrics of all the saddest songs. The lessons are everywhere! Humanity has been telling itself about the three poisons for millennia! The Buddha gave us this helpful way to see them for what they are, and he gave us the way to cease the self-destructive habit of swallowing these three poisons.
In my experience, and I think many teachers concur, the most effective means to do this is metta practice, sending infinite loving-kindness first to ourselves and then radiating it out to all beings, gently softening into a more expansive awareness of the ultimate reality, our intrinsic state of interbeing.
If you are new to Buddhism and skeptical about this idea, thinking it will turn your brain to mush or cause you to give away all your worldly goods, relax! While the ultimate nature of being informs the particular life we’re experiencing, it does not cause us to lose our common sense. It does however cause us to loosen the tight grip of fear that distorts our sense of reality. That distorted sense of reality is fear that puts us into harm’s way, causing us to see threats where they don’t exist. Now, of course, as one of my students pointed out in class, one can be recklessly fearless and put self and others in harm’s way. We have seen a lot of that lately. But if we are living responsibly and mindfully, and yet fear has us tied up in knots of anxiety, then deepening into an understanding of ultimate reality and the nature of metta can help to keep us from tying ourselves into knots of fear.
Right now in the United States, we are experiencing the most division and the most collective fear we have known in our lifetimes. This fear has been purposely activated in the same way someone wanting to do a cat video might tease the cat to activate its foibles. The person may love their pet but at that moment they are taking swigs of the poison of greed, wanting a video to post online to draw attention, ‘likes’, followers, and perhaps monetary benefits. In the same way, many people benefit financially when they purposely activate our fears and we trip into greed, aversion, and delusion. Many years ago I worked in advertising, and even though I refused to work on accounts for any products or services I felt were detrimental to well-being, I discovered the nature of advertising itself is insidious. It uses the understanding of human psychology to activate fear, to create a false sense of lack and self-hatred. Finally, I quit! My husband used to work in television news, and finally, he threw up his hands in disgust as he witnessed how they sought the most fear-provoking angle on any story. Since he quit the news industry, it has only gotten worse with its sensationalistic fear-mongering. If you feel physically ill, consider turning off the news and see if your symptoms improve! I’m serious! If you can’t turn away, then understand that that is exactly why they do it, to keep you engaged. To keep you watching advertising, to keep you clicking on links. Greed, aversion, and delusion.
But instead of making an enemy of all these people—the journalists, the advertisers, the corporations they represent, and the politicians in their pockets, or the people they activate against you who think you are the problem—let’s remember that they are all suffering. They too are caught up in fear. They too are drinking the three poisons of greed, aversion, and delusion. They are being spoon-fed tales of such horror, it boggles the mind.
Is there some point when we can all un-boggle? Can we see that what we chase is like a crumpled ball of paper being dangled on a string that the cat keeps batting? Can we see the way we’re being set up to fight each other? We don’t have to keep falling for it! We don’t have to keep taking the bait! We don’t have to be crippled with fear of each other.
Let’s all wake up together!
No political outcome is going to change the hearts and minds of people who are caught up in fear. But we can at least give ourselves the chance to feel that our elected officials are not in the pockets of those who want to activate our fears. We need leadership that cares about all of us. So, on behalf of Insight meditation teachers everywhere who are usually somewhat apolitical but not when democracy itself, people’s lives, and the planet’s well-being are at stake, I urge you, if you haven’t already done so, please, please, please, do your research and VOTE!!!!!!