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Revealing Your Basic Goodness

How we create—and can better navigate—our experience

The notion of basic goodness is central to Buddhist psychology’s teachings on the concept of self. Where Western psychology tends to issue from a place of damage and illness, Buddhist psychology would have us start from a place of wholeness and perfection.

For centuries a clay statue of Buddha sat in the Wat Traimit temple in Thailand. Its origins unknown, it became something of a fixture there. Over the years the monks would tend the statue, fixing cracks in the clay as it dried in the heat. One day a monk was repairing a particularly large crack in the statue and, peering into it, found a golden reflection. When the clay was removed from the statue, the now famous Golden Buddha was revealed.

This bit of history is a fertile metaphor for rediscovering our basic goodness. The Golden Buddha represents our true, abiding nature. The clay that covered the statue for so long represents the grit and grime of anxiety, fear and self-doubt that often plague our daily lives. By staying focused on the ‘clay’, we lose sight of the precious mettle [sic] that lies beneath.

For us to recognize and acknowledge our basic goodness we need to first peel away the layers of whatever it is that hides us from ourselves. The first step in this process is developing a certain sense of self-compassion. This self-compassion comes out of an understanding of what we are actually feeling—fear, anxiety, self-loathing, insecurity—holding space for it and examining what is motivating those feelings. Understanding our motivations is integral to moving from an attitude of illness to one of wellness.

Western psychology is predicated on a model of causation—the bread and butter of the blame game. We are often quite quick to place needless (and, frankly, wasted) blame on ourselves or something outside of ourselves—parents, caregivers, spouses, partners and even the ephemeral unconscious motives proposed by Freud’s psychodynamic model or what these things might engender in us—as the reason for our circumstances.

Buddhist psychology, on the other hand, is informed by personal responsibility. Rather than looking to that point of blame—whether internal or external—as the impetus of our distress, it asks us first to be present with our experience and our reaction to that experience then look inside to find its source.

This might, at first blush, sound a great deal like the introspective analysis forwarded by the psychodynamic model. The difference is that psychodynamics suggests, ‘you feel this way because of that’, presuming causation and moving toward blame. Buddhist psychology suggests, ‘you feel this way because you feel this way’, demanding personal responsibility and moving us away from blame.

Once we acknowledge our feelings—and ourselves, rather than some ‘other’, as the source of those feelings—we can step away from the inertia they create. We are no longer caught in an unproductive dynamic of blame and defensiveness, but lay claim to the ownership of our feelings, deflecting the everyday tyranny we would otherwise impose upon ourselves.

This kind of ownership is the ultimate freedom. It liberates us from the trap of self- and other-blame that keeps us stuck in our dysfunctional thinking and fruitless patterns of behavior. We create the prison, and we also hold the key.

© 2012 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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