Attachment to being liked or genuine kindness?

Apr 28, 2020

Many people have a natural tendency to be kind and to want to help others. So special! However, these same people also often feel that they are people-pleasers: forever trying to keep the peace, make everything nice, make people happy. And they also often feel that they get taken advantage of, get used like a doormat.

So what’s happening? Is there a difference between genuine kindness and people-pleasing? We need to analyze it. 

The Buddhist model of the mind makes a clear distinction between ego-based, fear-based, unhappy states of mind and positive, useful ones. We understand these words, but we just take them all for granted and assume that this is the way we are. 

In other words, we give equal status to anger, attachment, and jealousy on the one hand and kindness, intelligence, and self-respect on the other. We just assume that a normal person has a mixture of them – and what we mean by “normal” is that we’d be abnormal if we didn’t have them.

Buddha’s view is radically different. He has found from his own direct experience that we can rid the mind of the disturbing ones and grow to perfection the others: this is the goal of Buddhist practice, the very meaning implied by the word “buddha.” Clearly, then, the main job of a Buddhist is to learn to identify them and gradually lessen the ego-based states of mind and develop the others. 

And why should we? Because attachment, anger and the rest break our hearts and cause us to make a mess of our relationships; and kindness, patience and the positive ones are the source of our happiness and our ability to be of benefit to others.

But distinguishing between them is one of the hardest jobs we’ll ever do. For a start, they’re mixed together like a big soup, and then, because we don’t pay attention to our thoughts until they roar to the surface as emotions, we don’t notice them until it’s too late.

For the Buddha, the state of mind called attachment is primordially deep in all of us; it’s the motor that drives most of what we think, do and say – even our positive actions. We experience it as an aching dissatisfaction. 

At the grosser level this dissatisfaction, manifesting as a belief that “I don’t have enough,” drives the search for something out there, such that when I get it, I’ll get happy, find satisfaction.

But the deepest manifestation of this dissatisfaction, the assumption that “I’m not enough,” drives the search for approval, to be seen and heard, to be validated, to be liked. It’s like we’re cut off from ourselves. It’s like we don’t exist until someone smiles at us, says we’re good. We’ve been doing this since we’re born. 

At the same time – thank goodness! – we also have all the good qualities: compassion and empathy and love; these are wonderful states of mind! These are our saving grace. The trouble is they’re mixed in the big soup of the other emotions, and we just can’t tell the difference.

So, the skill is to distinguish between them. And that’s the tricky part. That’s the approach that Buddhism takes. We need to cultivate the skill to become very conscious of our thoughts and feelings, moment by moment, and certainly at a deeper level, well before they are fully blown. The more we become conscious of what’s going on in our mind, the more we can hear the conceptual stories that underpin the emotions, and the more we can gradually change these stories. Slowly, slowly — it takes time!

So, what to do? Don’t throw out the kindness – no! Gradually learn to have the clarity and the courage to be appropriate with others. We don’t need to run around making everything nice. This is also not only attachment to be seen as a good girl but attachment to things being the way we want them to be. Allow the apple cart to be upset!    

As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, meaning well is not enough – we need wisdom. And that’s what comes from knowing our own minds. One step at a time.

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