In third grade we were studying ancient Egypt and our teacher helped us make a play about the Pharaohs. I was the sacred cat called “the Servant of Ptah.” I had a black cat suit and lovely whiskers. My parents and their academic friends gave me rave reviews. No doubt it was the praise from often critical parents as much as my confidence in being a cat that forged my intention to pursue acting.
I slogged through grade school to high school with this bright light of future glory as my North Star. High school theater was a clique of pretty girls; I sneered and turned away. The college I chose didn’t have a theater major but it did have a demanding acting teacher, so I learned, graduated, then went to New York and became an actress.
But this is not the point of this story. I have a set of cards printed with slogans. Ancient guidance for the Buddhist bodhisattva path. For decades I have turned over a card each day, pondering its slogan. Recently I drew, “Do not be swayed by external circumstances.” I interpret this to mean: keep meditating even when you feel ill, or would rather go shopping or hiking, or when the house needs cleaning or emails checking. And yes, it does mean that. But more.
From my youthful determination to become an actress, I learned to keep going. However, there came a time when my determination had become, “If you bang your head against the wall long enough, eventually the wall will fall.” I left NYC because, while the wall did fall, my head really hurt from the banging of it.
Meditation won’t be fueled very long by wanting attention or approval, or even feeling good. Such external desires soon make practice seem like tedious head banging. There has to be an intimate recognition that something is missing, some vital nutrient is being denied. In close attention to your inner longing, you recognize and commit to your need for happiness. A commitment, a determination, which persists even while slogging through things that get you no-where, like girl‘s gym was in relation to my acting ambitions. You ignore attractions that hint at excitement, intimacy or pleasure. And even if pleasured, you don’t forget that the stage or the cushion is calling. Having committed to meditation, “Do not be swayed by external circumstances” means craving what you cannot authentically live without. Commitment to our caring heart doesn’t demand head banging! Ironically the more we create a habit of quiet, unmoved by external circumstances, the more our hardened hearts soften, our caring and tenderness open to let the light of our inner world flood us and others with love, inviting us to a grand dance.
Perhaps my childhood desire wasn’t for approval and fame after all. Perhaps I really wanted to become the sacred cat, the servant, not of Ptah, but of peac
Inward Turning – An Exercise
During this pandemic, “Do not be swayed by external circumstances” could refer to scary
things like job losses, family separations, anxieties about economics, food shortages, illnesses and loneliness. It can become easy to doubt or dismiss our North Star of authenticity and yearning for truth if we don’t give ourselves opportunities to reconnect with our inner desire for true happiness by turning within.
- Sit comfortably and allow your body to relax.
- Turn your attention to your breath. Let it slow down and become quiet.
- When you feel settled, bring the slogan, “Do not be swayed by external circumstances” to mind.
- Rest with it for a little while.
- What external circumstance is the most seductive or persuasive challenge to your desire for peace right now? Does it have an effect on, or in, your body?
- Can you turn inward and connect with your desire for lasting happiness?
- What does this slogan mean for you, in this moment?
- Whether answers arise or not, stay present with your relaxed body and quiet breathing.
For more about these mind training teachings, see Teachings on Lojong: The Seven Points of Mind Training by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (audio) and “How Lojong Awakens Your Heart” by Pema Chödron.