Dear Still Water Friends,
In June of 2014, on the last day of the 21-day retreat, Thay (the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh) offered a Question and Answer session. A young woman asked for help with her pressing desire to be first among her classmates. She understood it was a false solution to protect herself from the instability of her environment, and she was looking for alternatives.
Thay explained that this desire to be first is very common. Many people believe it is a basic condition for happiness, even though this view of life robs them of their joy, happiness, and relaxation. At its root this desire to be number one arises from a mistaken understanding of self as something separate from other people and our environment. Thay noted that before the chanting that begins a dharma talk, there is an invitation to the community to:
breathe as one body, chant as one body, listen as one body– transcending the boundaries of a delusive “self,” liberating ourselves from the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, and the equality complex.
This invitation is, Thay noted, “to help us to see we have to abandon the wrong view of a self.”
Toward the end of his reply Thay addressed the young woman directly:
When you are a student, if you study only to become number one, you are not a happy student. To study can be a very wonderful thing. … you are curious about things. And as you study, you satisfy your first need: to understand. So to study is very fulfilling.
But if we study just because we want to get a diploma, to be number one, we will suffer for the whole academic year. So, up to you to decide. And if you change your view into a right view, you are making a revolution.
To be happy does not mean that you don’t study well — but you are happier. You study better, and even if you don’t want to be number one, you must be the number one! You see? That is why there are those of us who do not want to be number one, but it just happens like that! That is a by-product only. The first product is happiness.
Both the question and Thay’s answer resonate strongly with me. Growing up I was pushed to do well in school. It was as if my worthiness as a person and my chance for success and happiness as an adult all depended on good scores and high grades. There was very little nourishing of curiosity or satisfaction of understanding. I remember clearly the discomfort of my senior year in high school and my first years in college when I had to decide on a major and a direction for my life. I was unprepared for the task. The grades had always mattered most, not the subject matter.
The focus on grading extended well beyond school. My normal orientation was to constantly rank myself in relation to others:
- I was better than (and feeling worthy and self-satisfied).
- I was not as good as (and feeling unworthy and wanting to blame someone).
- I was equal to (sometimes felling worthy and happy if I ranked them highly, sometimes feeling envious and angry if they had something or got something I wanted).
All in all, it was a recipe to make myself miserable.
Some years ago, on a long retreat, I had an insight into how this grading or judging orientation had developed in me. I saw how from the time I was born I had a sense that my survival depended on others liking me, approving of me. I developed what I think of as an orientation to external validation. I was safe if others approved of me, if I did nothing to upset them.
Over time, I internalized this view. I learned to do it to myself. I was worthy and safe if I approved of me (using the standards, the grading systems I had learned). I was unworthy and in danger if I didn’t. And I was constantly obsessing and re-evaluating so my score might come out a little higher.
Mindfulness practice taught me a different way. It was possible to have an orientation toward internal validation: to learn because we are curious, to open to the beauty that is around us, the sunsets and smiles; to take pleasure in tasks well done, even if no one else ever notices them. When we have developed our internal validation, it is easier to let go of the judging and comparing. We see that they don’t really keep us safe and that they are based on a deficient and unhelpful understanding of self.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will watch a video of the Question and Answer with Thay and focus our Dharma sharing on our tendencies to judge and compare ourselves to others. What have we learned about ourselves? How has mindfulness practice helped us?
You are invited to join us.
The video of the student’s question and Thay’s response is available on line: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0m6L9NJmQA. A full transcript is below.
Do I Have To Be Number One?
A Q and A with Thich Nhat Hanh, June 21, 2014.
Transcription from https://amara.org/en/videos/046Q4KpG1BdN/info/do-i-have-to-be-number-one/
(Student) Dear Thay, dear sangha, with my practice, I have been realizing how deep and how strong were the ideologies I built as a child to protect myself from the instability of my environment, and how important for my inner balance it became, to be first at school, and how I unconsciously took the habit of always looking at myself as the first, to hide my fear, and to give me illusory confidence.
I know that this coming school year will be academically very challenging. So I’d like to have some advice on how to practice in order to go through this year, while these ideologies, which were the ground I stood on, are falling down.
(SisterTrue Dedication repeats the question) Dear Thay, dear sangha, our friend shared that, since she was a young girl, she had a lot of ideologies that became part of her, including the need to be number one at school. Being number one at school helped her to overcome her fear, and gave her confidence, striving to be number one. But since she has been here, she sees this ideology, this need, begin to fall apart, and it’s as though the ground on which she stood is falling apart underneath her. But she still has a coming school year. So she’s asking Thay for some guidance, how to go forward in this year to come.
(Thich Nhat Hanh responds) This is the concern of many people. In the military, in the business circles, people want to be number one, because they believe that to be number one is a basic condition for happiness. And that is a kind of view. It has been transmitted to us, maybe by our ancestors, and maybe by collective thinking, and because of that we have to strive day and night, and tire ourself out, so that view is very costly. We have to pay with our whole life. And we may not experience joy, happiness, relaxation, because we hold that kind of view.
Maybe we ourselves do not want to have that view, but that view has been transmitted to us, and our parents are trying to force it on us, and also society is encouraging the same kind of view. It’s based on the wrong view of self. Wrong view of self leads to the wrong view to be number one, because if there is no self, there will be no number one. (LAUGHTER)
So meditation is an act of looking deeply. And when you look deeply, you have a right view. Why do I have to be number one? Is it a necessary condition for happiness? Why do my ancestors, my parents, want me to be number one?
We can find many answers. Maybe our ancestors wanted to be number one, but they could not, so they want us to do it for them. So we have meditated on that. Every time we come up and chant, we say: ‘Let us breathe as one body,’ ‘chant as one body, and listen as one body,’ ‘going like a river,’ ‘and transcend the illusion of a separate self,’ ‘overcoming the superiority complex, the inferiority complex,’ ‘and the equality complex.’
That is to help us to see we have to abandon the wrong view of a self. With the wrong view of the self gone, the wrong view that number one is the only condition for you to be happy will be gone also. Sometimes we don’t want to be number one, but it happens that we have to be number one. And very often we want to be number one, but we do not become number one.
We think that the president of a big country, like Barack Obama, is a number one, the most powerful person in the country. But I think Mr. Obama knows better, that he is not powerful enough. He does not have enough power. He feels very powerless. There are many things he wants to do, but he cannot do it. So if he does not have enough power, how can we have enough power? And, is the number one happy? That is our meditation.
So what do we want: to be number one, or to be happy? So when we are able to transform our view, from wrong view to right view, not only do we help ourself to be liberated, but we liberate our ancestors, and we liberate the world from the wrong view that if you don’t become number one, you cannot be truly happy.
When you are a student, if you study only to become number one, you are not a happy student. To study can be a very wonderful thing. There is a need to learn, to understand. We have two basic needs: we want to understand the world, we want to understand life, and then the second basic desire is to love, and to be loved. So the two basic needs are to understand, and to love.
To be a student, you have a chance to learn. You are curious about things. And as you study, you satisfy your first need: to understand. So to study is very fulfilling. A good teacher is also someone who studies all the time, because he knows that he knows many things but he can know more. So both teacher and students get a lot of happiness while trying to find out more about reality and to understand more. So if we study like that, our academic year will be wonderful.
But if we study just because we want to get a diploma, to be number one, we will suffer for the whole academic year. So, up to you to decide. And if you change your view into a right view, you are making a revolution. (LAUGHTER) Yes! And many young people, if they see you happy – and to be happy does not mean that you don’t study well – but you are happier. You study better, and even if you don’t want to be number one, you must be the number one! (LAUGHTER) You see? That is why there are those of us who do not want to be number one, but it just happens like that! (LAUGHTER) That is a by-product only. (LAUGHTER) The first product is happiness. So I think we have to tell our friends in school, both teachers and students, that our aim is to be happy, and not to be number one. Our happiness can be recognized by other people, and we can set an example for other students, and also for our teachers. Good luck!