One time I saw the Dalai Lama speak. He was presented two gifts prior: a baseball cap and a basketball jersey. He put on the cap and said in his laughing voice; “Oh yes, very useful.” He held up the over sized jersey and said quite seriously; “Not useful.” he dropped it on the floor next to his chair.
Since that time I have tried to sort in just that same way. Honestly, I do it with emotions and actions more than objects. That’s partly because I don’t own many objects anymore having given most of my stuff away, and also because I want to reserve this powerful sorting mechanism for the important stuff.
At first it seemed really easy. If I felt something uncomfortable or negative I dropped it like the jersey on the floor. But now I see this is not the way to sort. Many of our hardest emotions are also our most useful.
In my stay at Upaya Zen Center it’s nearly impossible to sort so easily. We are “on the cushion” or meditating for three to four hours daily. No matter how badly you might want to dump a feeling or thought that feels bad it follows you like the sad children in Mexico selling gum. It must be seen and dealt with.
So here’s how to sort your feelings and thoughts like a Zen pro, according to my teachers:
Don’t sort by what feels good, sort by what persists and then ask; “Where do you come from?” or “What is the nature of this feeling? Are you grief or pride? Are you coming from my comparing or judgmental mind? What are you here to show me?”
This comes from Buddha’s own tool kit. It’s said that toward the end of his seven weeks of meditation Mara, who is the embodiment of all our deepest fears and negative thoughts and feelings, came to see him. He asked Mara to sit with him and tell all. By the end there was nothing more to say.
Dismissed feelings and thoughts cannot be overcome by running away from them through busyness or even thinking you’ve “moved past it.” They are like little bullies in your brain who will chase you if you run.
Instead, my teachers suggest, meet them head on and look at them so fully they eventually vanish. And not to discourage you but to be fully honest, some of these bullies may have been addressed many times for years in many formats and still be there. You must continue to see them and deal with them no matter how many years you think you’ve been at it until they are finally ready to go. The only way for that to happen is to sit with them and interview them until the answers reveal themselves–and they will–they really will if you are patient.
But, lest we give up on “useful/not useful” it still has a helpful purpose. It’s a great sorting mechanism when you’re judging someone based on a superficial unknowing basis like how they look, or if you’re pouting because your lunch plans were changed or someone won’t let you merge in traffic. Those things don’t need a good viewing and rigorous inquiry. Most likely they just need a reminder that they are not useful.
Oh..and here’s a little useful piece of gossip from his holiness…if he doesn’t get proper sleep he is grumpy as hell. That’s why he finds it very useful to go to bed early whenever possible. because like any truly great person he’s happy to admit–he’s far from perfect.
So, let’s go easy on ourselves as we sort and investigate our wild monkey child minds and remember every one of us can contribute to a better world everyday because we are highly useful