Silver Spring, Maryland, Community Online on Thursday Evening
September 30, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all Online on Friday Evening
October 1, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Dear Still Water Friends,
Last week we talked about the importance of identifying our aspirations, the deep motivation from which our actions manifest. Are they spiritual, focused on the quality of our inner landscapes, the lived experience we wish to have in our lives? Or are they worldly aspirations — deep desires to receive approval and rewards or to avoid disapproval and punishment?
This week we will explore the related theme of power. Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) begins his book, The Art of Power, by suggesting that our understanding of power may be too limited, too worldly:
What does power mean to us? Why are most people willing to do almost anything to get it? Even if we are not aware of it, most of us seek to be in positions of power because we believe this will enable us to control our life situations. We believe power will get us what we most want: freedom and happiness.
Our society is founded on a very limited definition of power, namely wealth, professional success, fame, physical strength, military might, and political control. My dear friends, I suggest that there is another kind of power, a greater power: the power to be happy right in the present moment, free from addiction, fear, despair, discrimination, anger, and ignorance. This power is the birthright of every human being, whether celebrated or unknown, rich or poor, strong or weak. …
All of us want to be powerful and successful. But if our drive to get and maintain power drains us and strains our relationships, we never truly enjoy our professional or material success and it’s simply not worth it. Living our life deeply and with happiness, having time to care for our loved ones—this is another kind of success, another kind of power, and it is much more important. There is only one kind of success that really matters: the success of transforming ourselves, transforming our afflictions, fear, and anger. This is the kind of success, the kind of power, that will benefit us and others without causing any damage.
Wanting power, fame, and wealth is not a bad thing, but we should know that we seek these things because we want to be happy. If you are rich and powerful but unhappy, what’s the point of being rich and powerful?
While Thay’s reasoning makes sense to me now, it wasn’t how I was raised. My parents were the children of struggling Eastern European immigrants. The lessons they learned from their parents and their lives were that acquiring power, fame, and wealth was protective — both a condition of happiness and an indicator of it. Overtly and implicitly they pointed me toward a materialist and self-aggrandizing way of living. I consciously rebelled against that worldview, however it lives on in my storehouse consciousness and many times the old views and strategies appear in my life wrapped in idealistic coverings. Thay writes about this in The Art of Power:
We can distinguish our compassionate ideals from our unwholesome desires and cravings. These two things are very different, but sometimes we mistake our craving and desire for noble ideals. We often try to fool ourselves to feel more peaceful. Greed is based on ignorance. We have misperceptions. We think that if we can obtain certain things, we’ll be happy. But when we get them, we continue to crave and suffer.
The Buddha used the image of the bait and hook to illustrate this. You see the bait and you think it will give you a lot of pleasure, a lot of happiness. But when you bite it, the hook gets you. These days people use lures, artificial bait, when they go fishing. The bait is not a real insect anymore but is made of plastic. It’s very appealing. When the fish sees the bait, he bites the lure, because he doesn’t know there’s a hook inside. When the fish bites, he gets hooked and is pulled out of the water.
We’re just like the fish that gets hooked. What’s appealing to you? You’re tempted, you want it, so you bite it, even though you know that it will get you. Fame, sex, power, and wealth are the four kinds of bait that have a hook. If you’re motivated by any of these desires, your destiny is suffering.
So what can we do to lessen our suffering? How then shall we lead our lives? Thay answers these questions:
Right or wrong action can be determined by using the single criterion of suffering or nonsuffering. Whatever causes suffering in the present or the future, for ourselves and people around us, is the wrong thing to do. What brings well-being in the present and the future is the right thing. The criterion is clear.
To put it another way, what comes from mindfulness, concentration, and insight is right, and what goes against mindfulness, concentration, and insight is wrong. Suffering and happiness are a complementary pair we can use to see our situation more clearly. If you use these two yardsticks, you’ll know what’s wrong and what’s right, what is to be done and what shouldn’t be done.
This is why, to be happy, to be a real bodhisattva, we need to take some time each day to sit down, look into ourselves, and identify the kind of energy that’s motivating us and where it is pushing us. Are we being pushed in the direction of suffering and despair? If so, we must release this intention and find a more wholesome source of energy. Our volition should be bodhicitta, the mind of love, the intention to love and serve.
This Thursday and Friday evenings we will begin our Dharma sharing with these questions:
- What did acquiring power mean to you when you were growing up?
- What does it mean to you now?
- How do you use the power you have to be happy in the present moment?
You are invited to join us.
You are also invited to join us for The Buddha’s Enduring Counsel — The Still Water Online Fall Retreat, October 8, 7:00 pm – Sun, October 10, 12:30 pm.