One of the big questions for me in my practice has been how to balance and discriminate between the contingent feelings and emotions rooted in ego and self and those things that, upon examination, appear on the surface to be selfish, but taken in a purely objective view (e.g. outside of the perspective of practice) have the potential to simply be seen as personal choice.
For example, I am a very introverted person and prefer to spend most of my time alone or in smaller groups of people. When I turn down invitations to group outings with people that I don’t know such as parties, I feel as though I’m being selfish, a slave to my introversion, and not mindful of the things that I can do for others, which in this case is as simple as showing up and having fun at a party.
Is there a way to navigate or balance this struggle in the realm of Buddhist practice?
The short answer is Yes, there is a way to manage this struggle between doing what feels good, like following your tendency to be introverted, and what feels right, for example going or not going to the party, in the context of Buddhist practice.
First, stop struggling, relax. Whenever there is struggle, it is a sign that attachment, aversion and ignorance are at work and there is a learning opportunity.
Next, look at the statement “I am a very introverted person”. Are you an introverted person or a person with introverted tendencies? A big part of the practice is to stop identifying with a fixed self-image. The self is conditioned and subject to change. Do you want to be less introverted in your behavior? If so what can you do to promote that?
Now we can address the question of personal choice and selfishness.
As long as we have a body and mind, everything we do, whether selfish or altruistic, is the result of personal choice. Sometimes that choice is conscious, sometimes not. Until meditation and behavior are firmly rooted in wisdom choices are driven by habits and conditioning. There is struggle between what we think we should do and what we feel like doing.
So, when invited to the party your propensity for introversion arises. What does that feel like? Where in the body and mind does it occur? Does giving in to the feeling and making the choice to stay home serve you well?
When the thought of being selfish arises, what is its cause? Are you fooling yourself by thinking you are being selfish by withholding your presence from the others? Will it really bother anyone else that you are not there? Won’t they have a good time even if you are not there or will they miss your light and wisdom and be miserable? If they don’t enjoy themselves without you being there, whose problem is that?
What is the underlying cause of your struggle? if it is a sense of selfishness and you aspire to do all you can to relieve the suffering of others, then go to the party. If you include being kind to yourself, then the decision is more difficult.
However, what if the underlying cause of the struggle is a sense of discomfort with the introversion? Can you confront that feeling and the thoughts and conditioning that causes your aversion to social situations? Is it about clinging to the safety and pleasantness of your solitude or boredom with the idle chatter at the event, or something else?
Perfecting practice means to become increasingly aware of the thoughts and feelings that lead to actions and then to make conscious decisions about what to do and what not to do.
Fierce practice confronts conditioned habits. The practitioner consciously decides to do what may feel unpleasant to achieve a goal. As an example, the yogi might choose to sit with an itch rather than scratch it to strengthen self discipline, see the impermanent nature of physical sensations and feelings and better know the mind and it’s ways. That doesn’t mean that itches are bad or that judiciously scratching or not scratching is unskillful.
The same is true of any tendency. When the itch to stay home alone arises, can you see it for what it is and make a choice to scratch it or not, based on what will be most likely to further your practice?
Imagine being a renunciate, living in a monastery or cave and giving up parties completely – no music, no food after the mid-day meal, no dancing, no idle chatter, no fancy clothes, etc. – dedicating your time and effort to meditation. For the introverted, that might be easy. But, would it be skillful? There is the parable of the yogi who spends years in his cave only to come out, thinking he is fully realized, to freak out because he is jostled and ignored in the first market place he enters.
For the lay practitioner, meditation and the rest of Buddhist practice is not something separate from parties and social relationships. If you can’t practice and find peace in the most chaotic situations, you have more work to do.
So, whether you go to the event or not, reflect on the causes and conditions behind your choice. Make that choice skillfully so that it is most likely to lead your own enlightenment for the benefit of all.