The Way of the Bodhisattva ~ C. Clinton Sidle

Bodhisattva is a term Buddhists use to describe someone who is on the path to enlightenment but postpones the ultimate goal for the sake of helping others arrive there first. Bodhi generally means awakened, and Sattva most often means being, essence or spirit. I have also known Sattva to mean warrior. I like “awakened warrior” best.

What might this mean to us in our daily lives?

In his treatise A Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, eighth century Buddhist master Shantideva said, “All the suffering in the world comes from seeking pleasure for oneself. All the happiness in the world comes from seeking pleasure for others.” That, I believe, captures the essence of how this might matter to you and me.

My last post to this side shared the basic Buddhist view of how we naturally suffer. Each and every one of us has a hungry spirit that constantly searches for success, love, belonging, freedom or whatever it is we do to find meaning in our lives. That search is based on the idea that the self, or “I” really exists, and we cling to it out of hope and with fear of never being good enough. So we make up for that insecurity by constantly manipulating our situation to look good and not look bad, and burying ourselves in chasing after beauty, wealth, possessions and other ideas and beliefs we have been socialized to want.

But having more and consuming more is never, ever enough. So like a mirage that fades as we approach, the satisfaction of achieving life goals quickly disappears because that fear is never sated, and like a child chasing a rainbow, we are constantly disappointed. Still we run after these things as if they are real, and the more we do, the more we spin a web of an ever tighter cocoon — a reality made of our projections, imaginations, hopes and fears — that smothers the possibilities of a greater, fuller and happier life. You get stuck in a small world. But this is not who you are, it is just your idea of who you are — an illusion based in fear.

So what? You may ask. In understanding the illusion, you develop an appreciation for all that appears to exist without clinging to it as if it were real. You suffer less. All the acquired trappings that society builds you up and tears you down with begin to loosen, and your world becomes more workable. You have plans but they are not solid and you do not follow them blindly. You adapt to shifting circumstances and are not hijacked by anger, pride or stress when things don’t go your way.

You also stop blaming and playing victim because you see there are so many different versions of the truth and stop getting locked into right and wrong. Steadfast rules are often just babysitting you anyway. Instead, you gain a greater sense of freedom, creativity, responsibility and compassion because you can see more than one way to go and more than one point of view. You become more adaptive, and as I have argued before, this makes you not only happier but also more successful. You become an adult.

What we most need to know is that there is both a lesser and greater hungry spirit. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are both self-preservation and self-actualizing aspects of our being. The lesser spirit is made up of negative emotions of anger, desire, jealousy and so on that are based in fear and on getting or not getting what you want from the world. It is a selfishness that is designed to protect and project you. It is a necessary function rooted in our survival instinct, but most of the time we just get stuck there by our vanity.

The greater spirit is made up of positive emotions such as love, joy, devotion, gratitude and enthusiasm and is much more open, inclusive and outward-oriented. These broaden your view, connect you to others, extend you into the world and help you grow. It is more of a selflessness that is designed to help us adapt and is rooted in our evolutionary instinct.

In the Buddhist world, these positive emotions are generally known as Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta literally means “awakened heart or mind,” but it is also known as loving kindness or basic goodness. Basic goodness is the highest expression of your hungry spirit and your most authentic self. It is the treasure of your existence but most often you are not even be aware of it. It is like having a gem in your pocket and mistaking it for an ordinary stone. The gem is not powerless, but failing to recognize it, makes it so. It is the inspiration and belief in that basic goodness that can transform your life, transmute your underlying fear, and give you confidence to be who you truly are.

Discovering and cultivating this basic goodness is the Way of the Bodhisattva, and awareness and compassion are the two primary practices of that way. They make up the two inseparable aspects of basic goodness — inseparable in the sense that with awareness you become more compassionate and with compassion you become more aware. Together they loosen the grip of the lesser spirit, suspend your ideas about yourself and open you up to allow the greater spirit to shine through into the world.

They are like two edges of a sword that cut and slice away the cocoon of self-clinging. They are also like muscles. In exercising them, the path toward basic goodness models the desired result of basic goodness. In practicing basic goodness, you develop basic goodness. In the process, you turn agitation into peace of mind and low self esteem into confidence.

How do you work them?

Meditation, of course, is at the center of all Buddhist methods and there are plenty ways to learn it in today’s world. Meditation slows down and even cuts the constant spinning mental chatter of your hungry spirit. In cultivating simple awareness, you learn to observe this chatter as a stream of thoughts and feelings that you just let pass by without grabbing, rejecting or reacting in any way. Just pay attention and relax in non-clinging. After a while the stream begins to slow down and gaps begin to appear. As you bring your awareness to them, the individual thoughts and feelings begin to pop like soap bubbles in the air. This brings a sense of relief like the silence that comes after dogs suddenly stop barking. It also gives perspective on the emptiness of the experiences you hold so solidly, and reveals a vast, vibrant and loving inner space. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Coming back to that space time and again is the basic practice.

But if not meditation, anything you can do to cultivate awareness through making reflection a habit helps. Reflection expands awareness, unhooks you from the past and creates the possibilities of the future. Exercising, prayer, walking, journaling, volunteering — anything that helps you break up the routine, step back, take stock and gain perspective will work. In my profession we call it retreat, renew and return — retreat from the daily spin, renew by reflecting on what is really going on, and return with new insight and vigor. This trains the mind to be more aware. It sheds light on experience, and that light creates a sense of optimism that comes with insight.

There are two other essential ways for deepening this basic practice of awareness and compassion that we often conveniently choose to ignore. The ego is a tricky manipulator and will do almost anything to get off the hook.

The first is to follow and lean into your fear. When things go wrong, the first thing we want to do is retreat into our lesser spirit, hide behind our image, blame and play victim. We will take any exit we can from the squeeze. We escape through seeking pleasure, judging others, defending ourselves and blowing our view out of proportion. In doing so, we shut down and totally kill anything we have to learn from the moment.

You may feel criticized at work by one of your colleagues, for instance, so you go have a drink at lunch with your friends to cool down, then you defend yourself by rationalizing your colleague’s ineptitude and finally vent how this job just sucks anyway and is not worth it. So you wall yourself off behind your self image to shield yourself from the misery.

When things fall apart or go wrong like this, instead of hiding, lean into it and investigate. At these moments you can come face to face with who you really are and find out what is really going on.

Fear and suffering often exist at the edge of your self-image. They are signs that your ego is under attack and can serve as points for breakthrough. So stay on that edge and do not concretize it by fantasizing, rationalizing, justifying, blaming, manipulating or doing whatever you tend to do to feel better about yourself. Instead, relax in the discomfort, uncertainty and fear, and just simply be aware without rejecting. As you do, eventually they pop like the soap bubbles, and just underneath you find a soft spot — a tenderness.

That tenderness is your broken heart that comes from your broken image. In your suffering lies that jewel of your existence: your basic goodness. In discovering this, the drama collapses.

Your girlfriend may break up with you for instance. So the first thing you do is to launch into a self-defense and spin your truth out of proportion. If instead you just relax into the feelings of the melodrama, the façade begins to crumble because it is not real to begin with, and your soft, compassionate underbelly is revealed. With that softening you open, appreciate, forgive, adapt and learn. This is the way life becomes a good teacher. Your butt is kicked into being receptive if you stay with that broken heartedness, that groundlessness, that uncertainty. That is the path to awakening.

So lean into that discomfort, that discontent. Allow the quality of what you are feeling to penetrate your heart. Then the acquired you begins to fall apart and the greater, truly indestructible you begins to emerge.

The second essential way is to just give of yourself in some way to others. The Dalai Lama once said that there is an unwise selfishness and a wise selfishness. Unwise selfishness is when you only think of yourself and the result is self-absorption, confusion and suffering. Wise selfishness is to know it is in your best interest to be more selfless, and as a result, you experience happiness, joy and success.

I am sure you have heard of some of the following simple truths before: “If you want to be interesting be interested,” “What you appreciate appreciates,” “In giving you receive” and finally, “To get a smile give one away.” In being more generous with our time, focus and attention, we begin to think bigger. A warmhearted feeling for others puts our mind at ease and we stop cultivating our own life pattern. Our sense of well being grows and that gives us strength for coping with whatever obstacles come our way.

Just a week ago, I was standing in a crowded bus. At a stop, a woman enters on crutches. A pale, frowning man absorbed in his thoughts and troubles, spots her predicament and spontaneously offers her his seat. She was delighted at the favor, and he glowed at the small difference he was just able to make.

Giving is not magic, but it can be magical.

The mistake that many of us make is to believe that simple awareness or reflection is enough to break out of our cocoon — it is not. We also have to act. As the Buddhists say and as today’s research in emotional intelligence shows, we just don’t think our way into new behaviors, we also behave our way into new ways of thinking. Acting with kindness evokes feelings of kindness, expressing gratitude evokes feelings of gratitude and acting with confidence evokes feelings of confidence. We can rewire ourselves through our actions, and those actions can lead to changes in our being. As the poet John Dryden said, “We first make our habits, then our habits make us.”

When you are generous, you are often the one who feels best. Your basic goodness shines through your self-clinging. You just don’t drop your issues and hang-ups through simple awareness — you also burn through them with your actions like the sun burning through the clouds. It is also like the butterfly emerging from the cocoon where everything opens: the impossible suddenly becomes possible. Your full beauty is revealed and you become a happier, freer and a more effective human being.

In these practices, we are simply discovering what is already there. We are riding that greater spirit to bring forth our highest qualities. There still remains a clinging on this path, but as these inner qualities grow, that clinging of the greater spirit also begins to fade away. In the end any sense of path is also discarded. Like a boat taking you to the other side of the river, it is left behind once you have arrived. The ultimate goal of course is non-attachment or total freedom. But even if you never achieve that, you become more sane, adaptive and well-adjusted on the path.

What might that ultimate freedom really be like? I do not really know personally, I have only tasted it here and there. But I bet the 18th century English poet William Blake did:

He who binds himself to joy Does the winged life destroy But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise

In these two posts I have tried to share my understanding of the four noble truths of Buddhism. I believe this to be the Way of the Bodhisattva, and I hope you have found some practical wisdom in it.

C. Clinton Sidle directs the prestigious Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program in the Johnson School of Graduate Management at Cornell University and has developed an award-winning approach for developing leaders who succeed while also making a positive contribution to the world. He is also a top consultant working with Fortune 500 companies and various other organizations in strategic change, leadership, executive coaching, and developing human potential.


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