May 29, 2013


Doing the best you can

It must have been the recollection of drinking cognac with my teacher that brought this next idea to mind. Before I get to that, I want to make two comments about certain positions which are considered inviolable in spiritual work.

One is the prohibition against intoxicants. But the fifth precept, which I have quoted before, says “I vow to abstain from intoxicants which cause carelessness” (my emphasis). Perhaps there is space there for the use of intoxicants where carelessness is absent—in other words, drinking (for example), with awareness.

The second is the injunction to be vegetarian; positioned as a necessary lifestyle choice in order to ‘be spiritual’. It’s a pity that the Tibetans buddhists were not brought up to believe the same thing, as the majority of them eat meat whenever they can—yet somehow they seem to be just as aware (or more aware) than all the others who claim to be. I am reminded of one of the clichés of spiritual work: “Beware, your karma just ran over your dogma“.

Today, I have a personally embarrassing tale to tell. During a period of time while working with a teacher in the US, I had the occasion to attend a workshop presented by one of his senior students. I attended the workshop and, while spending some one-on-one time with the teacher, he asked me, “So, how was the workshop?”

“A pale facsimile of the original,” I replied, to which he responded, “Tell me more.” So, I proceeded to do a hatchet job on the workshop I attended, offering erudite, possibly even logical/reasonable, perspectives. Then the words that resound today:

“Do you think he was doing the best he can?”, he asked.

This hit me like a fist in the stomach. Of course the student was doing the best he could do. In that instant, I realised that everyone is—even those people whose behaviour we find personally appalling. There are so many factors in play here, which became clear to me in this instant, like upbringing, education, intelligence, mentoring, role models, etc., etc., etc. A significant chunk of my world shifted in that moment.

Ever since, I have operated with the belief that everyone around me around me with whom I interact is actually doing the best they can. Watching things more closely since this thunderbolt, nothing that I have experienced has weakened my belief in the accuracy of this point of view. Could this be the seeds of compassion?

One final heuristic I have followed when decisions need to be made is this: what is the best possible outcome for all concerned? I will explore this idea in a future post.

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