the preliminaries step 6: working with the positive past

Step 0: Start Fresh

Step 1: Watch Your Breath

Step 2: Call Your Teacher

Step 3: Take Refuge

Step 4: See How We're All in This Together

Step 5: See What Causes Suffering and Disable It

Step 6: See What Causes Happiness and Enable It


Sharon Salzberg tells a story about going to a conference with the Dalai Lama in 1990. When it was her turn to propse a topic for discussion she asked the great teacher about self-hatred. "What is that?" he asked in earnest confusion. His translators were having a hard time getting him to understand the phrase, which has no direct equivalent in Tibetan. "But you have Buddha nature. How could you think of yourself that way?" 


This story says much about how much your culture molds the way you look at your self and your world. Self-loathing seems to be a predominantly Western issue. And within my own community here in New York City, I have discovered it to be one of the greatest obstacles to meditation. In this step of the Preliminaries we learn how to recognize our own light and how to grow it without being blinded by it.


In Step 3 you called your teacher. Now tell your teacher about something good or kind you have done. When you first start practicing the preliminaries you may want to go back and think of highlights from throughout your life. But eventually, you will just scan the period of time since you last did this exercise.


Spend a little time resting with your teacher in the warm atmosphere that recalling your good deed has created. Then contemplate the circumstances around your good deed. How did that come about? How might you perpetuate and propogate similar actions in the future?


What we pay attention to grows. So it seems unfortunate that most Westerners spend so much more time hashing out their mistakes than reflecting on their virtues. Marianne Williamson famously wrote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us."


Why are we Westerners so afraid of being great? Maybe we're afraid of the effort that greatness asks of us. If I'm truly a good person, a smart person, a talented person, then I am probably going to have to take responsibility for those qualities and use them to make something of value in the world. Sounds like a lot of work! It might be more appealing to just hang out on the couch and eat Doritos. 


Maybe it is because I heard from someone else that I was born without value, that goodness was a quality to be found "out there," "over there," or "up there." Maybe I was infected by a story that it is ignorant, vain or even "evil" somehow, for me to think that there is something fabulous at the center of me. Maybe the people who told me such stories seemed so convincing because other people told THEM those stories a long time ago. Perhaps a story of worthlessness just got passed down through the generations like DNA, and feels too difficult for one person to shift in one lifetime. 


Maybe I'm afraid of being great for some combination of those reasons and others. But what keeps me coming back to meditation, yoga and buddhist teachings, is some primordial part of me that just doesn't buy the fearful stories. Some part of me that can't truly enjoy vegging out, checking out or running out on self-progress. It keeps me a little on edge while I evade doing the awesome work that's meant for me. Creating an off-flavor in my mouth when I'm done with my Doritos or causing me to stumble in my sprint away from goodness. It says, "This isn't the way. You are meant to evolve, expand and prosper. Get up and turn back toward your light."


In addition to the reasons we spoke of above, there is another really compelling reason that we get stuck in the negative. Many people fear gaining an inflated sense of self. This is a legitimate concern. But what people don't seem to see is that a blown-up ego and a deflated one are just two ways of experiencing a single delusion. Like the front and back of your hand, these two perspectives come together, they are just one little twist or poke apart, and they are equally false and lead to an equal degree of suffering. Whether I think that I am the least important being in the universe or that I am the most important being in the universe, I have an ego-centric perspective. In reality, of course, Aaron Knowles Dias could not be the MOST of anything, but simply another intrinsic thread of the woven whole.


If I believe that I am "the best" I end up getting frustrated at everyone around me and am constantly finding them sub-par. I end up being that nagging girlfriend or complaining customer who only sees the negative, making every moment into a bummer, for myself and everyone else. I lack the ability to see the uniquness of each being and the special positive qualities of each circumstance. 


And the delusion that I am "the best" is eventually ripped away from even the most raging ego-maniac. The universe is so much bigger and greater and smarter and more stunning than any one individual aspect of it. When I forget that and weave my life around a false sense of greatness, one little failure can make it feel like I have lost everything. The universe inevitably sticks a needle in the side of an over-inflated sense of self, and if it's grown too large, that that "pop" can be completely devastating. For most of us this "pop" happens quite early. But at the latest, every body succumbs to its limitations and perishes. Even Donald Trump can't best death.


This "pop" moment can ultimately lead to an intense anger aimed at the self, it can lead to depression, confusion and debilitating nostalgia. For if I give such an overheaping value to a good thing I did yesterday, but today I don't do something equally amazing, the self doubt becomes overwhelming. Where once the story was, "I am so great!" The story becomes, "I was so great and never will be again. My golden age has come and gone." This self-sabotaging story is one of the most painful that I have encountered. It is building a shrine to the past and going there constantly, as Hafiz says in his poem And it keeps us from being able to see the goodness right here and now. It keeps us from stepping into loveliness in the future. 

shrine to the past

When my boyfriend and I first got a dog we learned that the best training method was positive reinforcement. If your main method is to punish the dog when she misbehaves, yes, she may very well learn not to do that behavior again (in front of you) but she also picks up other behaviors that you probably don't want in a dog. A beaten animal is fearful, skittish, untrusting and often, over years of only getting negative reactions, becomes aggressive and dangerous. You don't really know what the side effects wil be, but you're kidding yourself if you think that beating the dog gives you control over him. You are actually conditioning the dog to become unpredictable and unmanageble. 


The trainers we worked with all told us that, instead, a good dog owner should mostly ignore the negative behavior. When she realizes that she is not getting attention from doing bad things, those habits fall away. The main training is to reward the dog when she does something good. She loves getting the positive feedback and eventually learns to repeat the good behaviors. 


It didn't take long for my boyfriend and I to start using this method on one another. While before I would nag at him to do a the dishes or punish him with a mean comment or bad mood when he "misbehaved"--failing to clean up after himself or coming home late for dinner without texting or whatever--I learned to curb that instinct for negative reinforcement. Instead I started to praise him each time that he did something that I really liked. And lo and behold, he started initiating cleaning on his own and became better at informing me when he had to work late. Meanwhile, he began giving me more thanks and compliments for any number of little gestures that I used to feel the he wasn't appreciative of. As you can imagine, we both started to feel more valued and the atmosphere of our home grew cleaner, brighter and kinder. 


If we know not to beat the dog, why do we still beat up on ourselves so often? If we know that nagging drains the joy out of our partnerships, whey do we let the inner critic attack the self all day? If we know that showering our loved one with praise when they do something awesome makes them feel happier and work harder, why do we withhold rewards and back-pats from ourselves? If we know that spending less time fixating on the negative and more time bolstering the positive makes our world a nicer place to live, why can't we bring more sparkles into our inner environment?

 Our dog, Maude, when we first adopted her in 2013. She had been in and out of different adoption situations for nearly 4 months by then and who knows what trauma she lived through before she was rescued. After about 6 months of living with us her left ear stopped drooping and began to stand up confidently.

Our dog, Maude, when we first adopted her in 2013. She had been in and out of different adoption situations for nearly 4 months by then and who knows what trauma she lived through before she was rescued. After about 6 months of living with us her left ear stopped drooping and began to stand up confidently.

The answer is simply conditioning. In the West we have been conditioned to think a certain way. And that means that, with a little bit of time and effort, we can unwind the work of that conditioning and free ourselves. Really, that's what the Preliminaries are all about. Steps 5 and 6 are all about learning how to see ourselves clearly, without adding in a lot of judgement and commentary. Learning to own our past, work with its lessons, and then let it go to make way for the present. Considering most of us have spent a lifetime (or more, if you consider the way these stories of low self worth get passed down generation by generation) beating the dog, it seems wise to spend some time and energy balancing out the work of the negative. 

You have a Buddha nature. Keep it simple. Do good things. Thank yourself for doing them. Repeat.