Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trying to make sense of Tibetan Buddhism: how devotion helped me gain self-confidence

I have been thinking about this blog for a while. As a modern-day Western practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, the role of devotion to a teacher is always a difficult thing to grapple wih. Very often there are stories of people uncritically submitting to a teacher, and the first association is that those people become nothing more than weak vegetables or uncritical robots. However, in my experience it works a little differently, and actually I found that in the practice of devotion I became more self-confident instead of a little vegetable. Why? As I explain below I think the crucial thing is that by focusing on the teacher (or the Buddha, for that matter), you let go of your worries about me (thinking too many self-related thoughts is associated with several forms of psychopathology), and connect to something that is much larger than you, and that is completely positive.
photo by Gerard Nikken

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many meditative practices in which you invoke a teacher or a Buddha, you call out for help, and imagine that they grant their blessing and you become one with them (for a better explanation, see chapter 9 of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Over the years that I have been practicing this path, it has become a habit to call out to the Buddhas whenever I face difficulty, or whenever I for example have to teach, give a talk or have an important conversation. In those moments I imagine that I am empowered with the wisdom, and I try to let go of my own wants and concerns.

Interestingly, I feel this practice has really helped me acquire self-confidence. How would that work? I think that a lack of self-confidence arises when you feel you can never satisfy the expectations you have of yourself, and thereby you are continually sucked into cycles of thoughts centred around "what about me?". You have these expectations so you feel others can think you are amazing. But actually this need for recognition is very much the problem. If we think about it, we can actually never be happy if you continuously look for other's approval. Now in this act of letting go of all expectations and dedicating whatever you achieve to this other person of being, it is no longer about you. You don't have to worry you cannot do it, because you surrender it to this higher being that certainly will be able to accomplish. In focusing on this being instead of your hopes and fears, they can then dissolve by themselves.
refuge tree thangka, which is one of the objects of devotion of Buddhists

One recent event in my life showed me the power of this practice quite clearly. Just before I had a meeting with my dean in which he told me he was going to fire me (see this blog for the whole story), I did this practice in which I invoked the buddhas and imagined their wisdom and power was transferred into me. Then when this bad news came, the practice I had done, and the focus on "not-me" enabled me to stay very calm and friendly. A few weeks after this difficult conversation (and after he had receversed his decision), the dean told me he was impressed by how I was able to communicate kindly and yet full of confidence. I think this is what devotion is about: by letting go of the hopes and fears of your small self, you can find a confidence that is much bigger than you.