On Being an "Imperfect" Buddhist

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I am part of a yearlong interdisciplinary learning group whose focus is on Buddhist psychology and mindfulness meditation practices. We are about half-way through. We meet weekly, most often with esteemed faculty, for discussion of the Dharma and mindfulness practice. In a recent meeting, there was an episode of conflict that became a learning moment. I share reflections on it here. 

We discover our differences as we become more intimate in our purpose, aims, and aspirations – it’s what we call “storming” in the Tuckman Model. It’s due to that general relevance that I share this experience in hopes that it may be instructive to others. [1]

The Experience Upon Reflection

The other day, I expressed my preference for using the term “client” rather than “patient” in reference to the persons I serve in my consulting and clinical practice. My preference was and is something I am rather attached to insofar as it signifies for me important normative qualities that I try to achieve in my relationship with those I serve.

By expressing my opinion, I excited in others their own attachments to their preferred term, “patient.” A conflictive tension arose as we marked our positions and defended our use of our preferred language. I was left, as others may also have been, feeling hurt, angry, and separated. These are the emotions that function as hindrances to the pursuit of wisdom.

If we had noticed this attachment and tension as signifying heartfelt concerns that merit attention, we might have proceeded in curiosity rather than reacting in judgment. The emotions we felt are not without meaning; they are a call to action, reflective action: “Tell me more about what that term means to you and why it is feels so consequential?”

The emotions themselves, therefore, are not inherently bad. Their virtue consists in calling out to us that something of felt importance is at stake. When we hear this call in this way and change our relationship to the conversation, making thematic the emotions that energize us, our emotions become data, judgment is suspended. Curiosity, listening, and joint inquiry becomes possible.

So far, this could be a phenomenological approach to interpersonal tension or conflict. That’s Western. It’s reliant upon attentional focus to the here-and-now events and experiences in the phenomenal field, a field in which what lies in the foreground and background, and what is most salient or figural (e.g. an emotional spike) is constantly shifting.

What the Buddhist approach adds to this is an embodied state of attentional grounding (pause, breathe, notice) that more concretely punctuates a change in relationship to the field: “Let’s pause, I observe a distinctive change in tone, energy, and feeling in our conversation. Let’s return to the breath.” And then we can resume conversation in a more mindful state.

In some respects, we might call this the group dynamics of sangha. It adds something important to our Western traditions, especially important when seeking to rescue ourselves from the hindrance of contentious emotion. It can help us see the silver lining in our aggressive-defensive emotions, how they can serve as a wake-up call, how they can be transformed into data. 

There is respect, compassion, curiosity, and learning that arises from this. We’re then free to examine moral and normative themes that are dear to us and that motivate us consciously and unconsciously. We can respect the essential virtues of normativity without having it devolve into moralism or moralistic judgment of one another. Mindfulness in this way is an act of care.                                                                          

[1] I am aware of the irony of mentioning perfection in the context of the human condition as conceived in Buddhism.