Do not think bad, do not think not-bad

April 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

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When a child grows up with low self-esteem, she may go through life feeling “bad”. If her up-bringing involved punishment then a fear of punishment and anger may be superimposed over the feeling of badness. If a trauma is then added to the mix, a fear of being attacked or of dying may then cover the fear of punishment. These coverings do not replace the original low self-esteem but merely mask the feelings it engenders; feeling that may, over time, develop into self-hatred.

Some may be familiar with Sharon Salzberg questioning the Dalai Lama on self-hatred. For his part, the Dalai Lama could not understand the idea of self-hatred because he could not fathom how anyone could hate his or her Buddha nature. His response raises the question of whether a proliferation of low self-esteem and self-hatred exists in the West that does not exist in the East. If this is the case, should not we in the West be careful when taking up spiritual practices that are designed for the Eastern psychology?

In The Gateless Gate, Koan 23, the sixth patriarch asks “When you do not think good and when you do not think not-good, what is your true self?”

The intent of the question is to have the student of Zen realize a non-dualistic state beyond notions of good and bad. However, a person with low self-esteem may inadvertently take this koan as a directive to reject all thought of his or her own goodness. Such a misguided approach would be detrimental to the mental health of anyone filled with self-hatred. Their mental health depends on the practice of self-compassion, not self-negation.

Perhaps, for the Western mind, Koan 23 might be better phrased as, “When you do not think bad and when you do not think not-bad, what is your true self?” This phrasing does not alter the essential nature of the koan and may help those with low self-esteem, as it does not encourage a denial of self-worth while the koan is explored.

One might argue that the teachings of the Patriarchs and past Buddhas do not need tampering as they have lead many to enlightenment. Yet we in the West have to consider that our psychology is not identical to the East’s. We also need to consider that even the Ways of Old are known to be dangerous when used by the wrong person.

Not all Eastern practices need to be rewoven for the Western mind. But if you find that a particular practice has become detrimental to your happiness and mental health perhaps you should consider that although you might be the “right person”, you have chosen the “wrong method”.

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