Conquering Self

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My wife and I just returned from a trip out west to Montana, and during our stay there, we found a beautiful garden at the base of the Mission Mountains near the reservation town of Arlee, Montana, known as the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas. Carved into a large stone at the entry point of the garden was the following quote from the Buddha:

The one who has conquered himself is a far greater hero than the one who has defeated a thousand times a thousand men.”

This statement resonated with me because I had brought an old friend along with me on vacation—worry—and quite frankly, worry was kicking my butt! The day before we left for vacation, we closed on a house, and the night before our flight, we went to the house to take a closer look and to celebrate, and we noticed several stress cracks in the drywall that were not apparent during the inspection or any other time that we were there during daylight hours.

Several times during our trip, I felt overwhelmed with worry. I was plagued with thoughts like: What if we just bought a house that is falling down? What if the walls fall over while we are away? This house could mean our ruin. My life is over. We are fools.

By the time we had arrived at the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas, I was exhausted with worry, consumed with self, weary with concern about what might be happening to our new house. I was not conquering self, but self was indeed conquering me!

I took advantage of the solitude of the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas and spent some time in meditation. I did a lovely walking meditation among the more than 1,000 marble Buddhas, and I contemplated the quote that greeted me as I entered. This process helped to calm me down and allowed me to realize that what I was experiencing was suffering caused by rumination—second dart stuff caused by myself. Whether or not the house fell down would not be prevented by my constant worry and stress, but I was certainly being defeated by it.

My mind strives for perfection, for control, for evidence that everything will behave in accordance with my own preferences. This never really materializes, but frequently I respond emotionally as if it should, and I am often stressed out over and worried about things that are really beyond my control. In order to defeat self, I must surrender these old mental formations that no longer serve any useful purpose in order to focus on the things that I can change.

A practice that I have relied upon over the past year or so to help myself let go of attachments to suffering is to recite the Five Remembrances during meditation:

The Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

I find this practice helps to put things into perspective and allows me to realize that my mental habit is to try to wrestle a little permanence from impermanent situations. Most of the time, it only takes a little mindfulness to calm me down and change my perspective.

This Thursday evening after our regular sitting we will explore the many ways that we defeat ourselves with our old mental formations and discuss how we can use the practice to increase mindfulness and reduce our suffering and the suffering of others while addressing the following topics:

  1. What mental formations are particularly difficult for you?
  1. How does the practice help you overcome your own mental formations that cause suffering?
  1. With regard to overcoming old thought, what are the successes and challenges you have experienced?

Thank you,

Eric Donaldson