My teacher, Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, loves to share the store of Gotami and the mustard seed. The story goes (and I’m paraphrasing here) that Gotami had an infant son who became very ill and died. She carried her son to the Buddha and begged him to bring her child back to life.
“I can bring your child back,” he said, “But I need something in order to do so.”
“Anything,” she said.
“You must bring me a handful of mustard seed from any household in the village where no one has ever died.”
Gotami said she would and set off on her task. She went to every house throughout the entire village but of course, there was not a single household to be found who had not experienced the loss of someone.
She recognized that she was not alone in her grief. She realised, as painful as the death of her child was, there was no one else who hadn’t also felt the suffering of loss.
As Elizabeth explains it, Gotami’s experience shifted from ‘I am suffering’ to ‘There is suffering’.
This teaching resonates strongly with me and is one I apply often in my life. I grasped this before I’d heard Elizabeth’s teaching on it but didn’t have such an eloquent way of expressing it. She put into words what I understood: that my suffering - intense anxiety, long periods of depression, grief at the loss of anyone - didn’t make me special.
Doing Tonglen & Metta (loving-kindness) meditation helped me to develop ways of practicing that allowed me to open up into the shared experience of being human. Life is painful sometimes and that the painful things we experience do not separate us from others but actually help us to see and understand how we are all connected.
Recently I was contemplating this as I was reading Light Comes Through by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. He is addressing strong emotions, beginning with jealousy.
Jealousy is not something I’ve struggled with a lot in my life. It’s only rarely reared its head and after studying a bit of Gestalt psychology I’ve learned to look at it as a sign of what I should be doing. For example, I remember being intensely jealous to learn a school-mate of mine in high school had published a book of poetry. My jealousy wasn’t because I wasn’t happy for them and their accomplishment, but because I set the goal to be a published author at a very early age and still wasn’t at that time.
So I recognised my jealousy not as wishing someone hadn’t done well but wishing that I had done more with my own life.
I’ve always worked with jealousy this way but as I read Rinpoche’s chapter on jealousy Elizabeth’s words came into my head - but slightly altered.
It goes from: “They have joy” to “There is joy.”
Rinpoche asks us to rejoice in the success of others - to experience it as shared because we know how it feels to succeed and we can tap into the feeling when we hear about the good fortune of someone else.
In all emotions we can apply this shift in our thinking. Emotions don’t define us. They aren’t personality traits. We experience them but they are not solid. So joy is a place we can reside in, just as jealousy is a place we can reside in.
So the next time you catch yourself thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘me’ and ‘they’ try opening it up. Shift to thinking ‘there is’. There is arrogance. There is happiness. There is anger. There is delight. There is fear. There is wonder.
When we see more clearly how the human experience is shared our world becomes so much bigger.