One of the most powerful Tibetan Buddhist mind training techniques is universalizing, a practice that transforms everyday pains and pleasures into profound meditations. From arguing with the family to stuffing yourself with a delicious meal, life’s problems and pleasures can bring anger, guilt, and sadness. The meditation technique of “universalization” transforms our everyday experiences of pleasure and pain into engines of love and compassion.
Everyone wants to be happy, no one wants to suffer. This is something we all share, a basic human right.
But how do we achieve happiness? Ironically, from a Buddhist perspective, the most powerful route is to turn our concern toward others.
Buddhist teachers as well as nonreligious people who’ve also found paths to true happiness tell us that all of our genuine happiness comes from benefiting others and all of our suffering comes from selfishness.
It’s not selfish to take good care of yourself, of course. But when does self-care turn into selfishness? When does it become a cause of suffering?
The Dalai Lama says that compassion is the intelligent way to be selfish; that true happiness comes from opening our hearts to others.
So what’s the unintelligent form of selfishness? That’s the thought: me, mine, my coffee, my car, my phone, my lunch, my job, my friend, my boyfriend, my girlfriend, my happiness; the idea that as long as I get mine, I’m okay. This is a common view today: that, if we all act selfishly, and just avoid harming each other, we’ll create a happy beautiful world. Everyone takes care of themselves. But we’ve nearly perfected this self-centered philosophy in our country, and has it created a perfect happy world?
The Buddhist view is that the path to happiness is the reverse. Thinking of you: your happiness, your welfare, your lunch, your partner, your coffee. This is the source of all happiness. This is being intelligently selfish. As the Dalai Lama says, “If you want to be happy, cherish others.”
What can a Buddhist nun learn from me?
One of my teachers is Ven. Sangye Khadro, who is also still known by her given name, Kathleen McDonald. She was one of the first nuns ordained in the Tibetan tradition, and she’s also the author of my favorite book on meditation, How to Meditate.
Venerable Sangye Khadro gave me some helpful advice when I started leading meditation 14 years ago. She was teaching in San Francisco for six weeks and I had the chance to ask her a lot of questions about Buddhist meditation, especially about countering deluded states of mind.
I was surprised, later, when an email arrived in my inbox from Ven. Sangye Khadro asking me for advice.
What advice could I give a master of meditation, one of the most senior members of the global sangha?
But then I understood when I read her question, “What does it feel like to get hurt?”
Venerable Sangye Khadro said that people kept asking her in teachings how to deal with getting hurt: by your partner or family, or through bigger conflicts like between Israelis and Palestinians or Republicans and Democrats.
One of my first reactions to her question was sheer admiration at the inner discipline she must have: a mind of such peace and stability that she needed to do research on what it’s like to get hurt.
I felt confident that I could help her, help her understand what it’s like to feel hurt. I wrote Ven. Sangye Khadro back a twenty-page email reflecting on my own pain with my parents and relationships and co-workers and politics.
Venerable Sangye Khadro later wrote back with gratitude and said that was plenty! Enough for her to gain some insight into the wounded state of mind.
I know intellectually how, from the Buddhist psychological perspective, this mind of feeling hurt is a deluded mind. I know that feeling hurt is a type of aversion, and that aversion is a disturbing state of mind. I know that such disturbing emotions are rooted in a mind that exaggerates my own self-importance at the expense of others’. I can rattle off that my feelings are my own and not something I can blame on others.
But even as I remember this, I have trouble applying the antidotes. And maybe you do too.
In today’s episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, we’re going to introduce one of the most powerful antidotes to the self-centered delusions of attachment and aversion: an antidote that uses love and compassion to counteract every single instance of craving or annoyance that we have right at that moment. This technique transforms both our problems and our joys into causes for opening our heart to others. It’s a technique called “universalizing” which I’ve been looking forward to sharing on the podcast since we started.
The self-centered point of view
It’s worth going deeper into what Robert Thurman calls the “root delusion”: the self-centered delusion giving rise to attachment and aversion that we discussed in Episode 15: Am I More Important than Everyone Else in the Universe? That’s a cheeky title. But, sadly, I think it’s true that it’s the way I, and a lot of us, view the world, from the lens of what it can do for me.
One of the first steps to countering the delusions that are at the root of our suffering is simply to become aware of the workings of our mind, without getting caught up in them. Like Venerable Robina Courtin says, “Don’t believe everything you think!” It’s a wonderful piece of advice that helps us begin to question the basis for the spontaneous thoughts of craving and anger and self-pity that arise in our mind.
I think one of the reasons mindfulness is such a popular meditation technique is that it so easily carries into our daily lives. As it’s taught in one popular form, mindfulness is simply becoming aware of what’s happening in your mind: gaining some distance from your thoughts to see them more clearly.
When you are able to maintain some mindfulness, you can start to see how your mind responds to events. And are able to then make choices about your responses; if not in your mind, then at least in how you respond with your speech and actions.
Something you begin to notice, probably for anyone who’s been meditating for a little while, is that the way our mind habitually operates is from a self-centered perspective. As we go about our day, invariably, some things go our way, and others don’t. We react emotionally to these events, feeling upset when things don’t go our way, and happy when they do.
When thing go our way, we want them to continue. But wanting good things to continue can quickly expand into expecting that good things will happen to us.
Look closely at your mind and see if this is the way you view the world. Do you expect things to go wrong, that the forces of the world, so much bigger than you, will cause all kinds of unpredictable events to happen, including huge problems? Or do you expect things to go your way?
Think about it for a moment. I know when I do, my conclusion is that inside I have this strong expectation—not just a wish, a hope, but an expectation—that things should go my way.
And when they don’t, I get upset, angry, frustrated, sad. Sometimes I even fall into hopelessness or despair when faced with a large setback like a big financial problem, an unresolvable dispute at work, political decisions I strongly oppose, or conflicts with those that I love most.
Robert Thurman has a great way of explaining why our emotions overcome us like this when things don’t go our way. He says that we can each discover this “root delusion” of ignorance inside ourselves, from which all our other delusions emerge; that, if we search inside ourselves, we find that we each believe out of all the people alive today—all 7.8 billion people on earth—that of all these myriad human beings, I’m just a little bit more important.
Remembering that talk he gave always makes me laugh. Acknowledging the absurdity of this thought is a great antidote to self-centeredness. The absurdity of our egocentrism. Laughter is one way to cut through delusion, showing us that there’s another way to look at our problems. It’s one of the reasons I love the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, because its greatest practitioners, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, are often laughing, making jokes, making fun of themselves, teasing others, not taking things too seriously.
Ego isn’t just feeling superior
But you might object to this conclusion that self-centeredness is the way we see the world. You might feel the opposite and say something like, “No, I don’t believe that at all. I’m not important. I actually feel inferior, like everyone else is more important than me.” Or you might know someone who feels this way, who talks this way.
But, from the Buddhist perspective—and this can be disappointing to hear—thinking that one is less important than everyone else is also a manifestation of ego. And, unfortunately, when we manifest self-pity, we don’t even get the shallow benefit of pumping ourselves up.
Instead, we think “I’m worthless, I can’t do anything right, there’s nobody more screwed up than I am.” Small-mindedness is ego in reverse, with thoughts still centered on oneself, but colored by negativity, self-hatred, and exaggerated levels of discouragement. This kind of self-pity is as equally delusional and self-centered as arrogance.
With a more balanced view of our strengths and weaknesses and especially our potential and capacity as human beings, the delusional nature of these exaggerating thoughts of our importance or unimportance becomes clearer. Even the most compassionate and effective people on the planet went through moments of ego and self-pity, which is encouraging to see, as they managed to overcome these moments to fully realize their human potential. You see this in many of the great leaders we admire. They each had moments of darkness that they passed through successfully to fully self-actualize the potential of their precious human life.
Ego manifests when things go our way too
This same ego also manifests when things go our way: when we find a parking spot, when we get a raise, when we meet that special someone and everything clicks. Or our ego can manifest as we enjoy the simple pleasures of the day: enjoying the foam on our latte, a movie on Netflix, a walk on the beach, a great conversation, or the warm presence of our partner.
Even in these moments our ego can go wild. The ego can become neurotic, worrying that this pleasure will end, and with good reason! Because, as we know from the nature of impermanence, everything changes and everything ends.
We can also feel guilty when we are enjoying ourselves. Because we know at the same time that so many others are suffering: deprived of the simple happiness of safely walking down the street. having enough money to buy food, having a comfortable place to go home too.
Or we can feel superior when confronted with our good fortune when compared to others’ suffering. We see this in gross caricature with some public leaders in business or politics, who, when confronted with the suffering of the homeless or unemployed turn a cold shoulder and say, “I worked hard and made it, why can’t they?” Or, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” Which can be another way of saying, “I’m glad I’m not in your shoes.”
Going beyond yourself
If you’re been following along with this podcast you know that we’ve gradually moved through a thousand-year-old Buddhist sequence of topics called the Lamrim, and that we’re now examining the advanced states of mind where one wholly reverses the self-centered attitude to one of love and compassion.
There is a name for a being who commits to the opposite of self-centeredness, who works only to benefit others. In Buddhism, such a being is called a bodhisattva.
As a Buddhist, you might even become so committed to this ideal that you take a lifelong vow to pursue this ideal, just like the Dalai Lama. For people who take what’s called the Bodhisattva Vow, you renew your commitment to this ideal every day. The Dalai Lama says he does this himself with the famous words of Shantideva from his poetic work A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra). The awe-inspiring verse His Holiness repeats each morning goes like this:
For as long as space remains—Shantideva
For as long as sentient beings remain
So shall I too remain
To dispel the miseries of the world
This extreme ideal can be off-putting to ordinary people, thinking that such a compassionate attitude is only suitable for saints and altruists like The Dalai Lama or Ghandi, Desmond Tutu, or the benevolent physicians of Doctors Without Borders.
Yet bodhisattvas also report facing problems and experience pleasure. So, what do they do with these feelings? The mind training techniques of Tibetan Buddhism, called lojong in Tibetan, offer many advanced techniques for transforming our daily dramas into tools for expanding our love and compassion: not fleeing pain and pleasure like an ascetic, but using pain and pleasure as fuel that moves them toward a more enlightened way of living and being.
In our last episode we practiced a meditation on one of the most powerful of these techniques called tonglen. Today’s technique of universalization I find equally powerful, but far simpler to practice in everyday life. I’ve also found that students of meditation can find universalization easier to practice, because it’s free from some of those initial intense feelings of fear or pain that one might have when attempting tonglen’s heroic taking on of others’ suffering. I’m excited to share this other technique with you now, the technique of “universalizing.”
“Universalizing” is both simple and profound. The idea is to apply a universal antidote to the attachment and aversion of pleasure and pain that brings others to mind in every moment of our daily life.
Normally, when we experience a setback, our mind tightens into itself, feeling wronged, angry, sad, jealous, betrayed, or depressed.
And when we experience something pleasing, we can also get lost in ourselves, fixating on the pleasure and the “me” experiencing it: how great it is, what a bummer that it’s not going to last, and could I please have some more? Maybe tomorrow, or even later this afternoon? When can I get more of this thing that I love, that gives me so much pleasure? And, even as we’re enjoying a pleasure, sometimes at the same time we’re worrying, plotting, how we can get it again.
Or we can feel guilty, thinking that I don’t deserve this, so many people don’t have the pleasure and good fortune and wealth that I enjoy. I should be giving money to charity or helping the homeless instead of eating this cake, watching Netflix, having this fancy cocktail.
Obviously, it’s good not to overindulge and spend everything on yourself then do some Buddhist practice to make up for our gluttony. But still, we experience pleasures each day. How can we make them part of our spiritual path?
Is it possible to weather our setbacks and enjoy our pleasures without the disturbing emotions of craving and aversion and guilt arising?
Let’s explore what the Buddhist mind training technique of universalization has to say about pleasure and pain. And let’s start with pleasure.
What to do when things go your way?
Say you’re at Starbucks and you’ve just been handed your seven-dollar caramel latte. Instead of devouring it with selfish glee, or sulkily sipping it with guilt, or throwing it away in disgust with yourself, the technique of universalization says just to enjoy it. But, as you enjoy each sip, you offer that pleasure, in your imagination, to everyone in the world.
To do this, imagine that, instead of just you, seven billion other people are enjoying this fancy drink at the same time. And think, “May all beings enjoy a caramel latte.”
That’s it! You don’t have to stop drinking lattes, you don’t have to feel guilty, and you don’t need to neurotically plan your next trip to Starbucks. Just find yourself in the present and use whatever experience of pleasure you have to open your heart to all beings.
You can go into great detail, using the power of your imagination to expand to all kinds of people. Think of those who are thirsty, starving, or poor. Imagine that as you enjoy this drink, they too have their thirst quenched, their hunger satisfied. Picture how much they would enjoy it. And think how much you would love to share with them this pleasure, to nourish them if you could.
We’ll go into a meditation on this next week, but Starbucks is a convenient, simple example of transforming the enjoyment of daily pleasure into a virtuous state of mind.
Now, obviously, the point here isn’t to overindulge and to start eating and drinking and binge-watching and buying and swiping right in excess. The meditation technique of universalizing isn’t meant to be a pass for overindulgence.
And whatever resources we can share with others, that we can use to create a more just and fair world in real life, we obviously should. But the focus on this first part of universalizing practice is how to transform our everyday pleasures like enjoying our lunch or our job or entertainment or the presence of others into a cause for our greater compassion and connection to others.
What to do when things go wrong?
So, what about when things go wrong? I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples, from trivial to heartbreaking: from my boss getting angry at me to losing my job; from an unexpected tax bill to losing your home; from not getting what I ordered at the restaurant to not having enough money to buy food.
Starting small can be powerful, especially if you’re someone who’s in the middle of the road right now – someone who’s not in a massive personal crisis and not in a state of greedy overindulgence.
Imagine a small displeasure, like being corrected by your boss for some error at work. Instead of getting angry, self-righteous, and defensive, thinking, “That’s not fair. I didn’t know. That was a mistake. She’s wrong. I worked so hard. She should have explained better what she wanted,” and so on; for the sake of this exercise, consider what we’d think through the lens of universalization.
From the view of universalization, you might think to yourself, As my boss yells at me, may no one else be criticized, feel hurt or insulted. Think of the millions of other human beings feeling similar pain at this moment, feeling criticized, hurt, insulted. And think, similar to the way we do in tonglen, that by my feeling hurt and insulted may no one else feel this way. May no one else even be criticized or insulted in the first place.
What’s important here is that you’re not even trying to change your behavior or your feelings. Like we do with mindfulness, we observe and accept our feelings. But then we go further, using this analytic meditation technique of universalizing, to use our pain as fuel for compassion. We realize that many others feel the same pain or worse—right now. And we wish that none of them should feel that pain or suffer that same problem.
Typically, when things go wrong, you might get angry and start fighting back, or feel dejected and sad, even hopeless at the repeated wounds of your lifetime being opened again.
Instead, from this perspective of universalization, you’ve been given fuel to expand your compassion. You use your personal pain to connect with the millions of other human beings feeling similar pain right now.
And then you think of those who have it worse. There are more extreme versions of being insulted. Think of those in prison being taunted and attacked by other prisoners or abusive guards; think of immigrants at the border denied asylum or separated from their children; think of people losing their jobs, people being unjustly accused of crimes, people whose partners are leaving them.
Use the small pain of your encounter to expand your heart to consider the greater pains of billions of other people on earth. Pains they’re experiencing right now. You can think, by my experiencing this pain, this insult, this conflict, may no one on earth experience pain, insult, and conflict.
Of course, this isn’t a magical cure that actually takes away everyone’s suffering. But this mental practice gradually softens and opens your heart. It brings mental ease. It helps you to more fully enjoy life’s fleeting pleasures, and gives you grace in accepting life’s setbacks. It turns every moment of your day into a means for expanding your compassionate heart.
Universalizing as a way of living
Next week we’ll meditate on this topic together. Universalizing is a practice that can be done in quiet solitude like other meditations. But the purpose of meditating is to familiarize your mind with the process of universalizing, so that we then recall it as we go about our day experiencing pain and pleasure.
The first step in countering self-centeredness is to simply imagine that we could share our good fortune with others. And that our pains can be ways to connect in our imagination with everyone else feeling the same or worse. The instructions are relatively simple. So even without the practice of next week’s meditation, see if you can try this week to remember these instructions as you experience the simple pleasures of your life: enjoying your lunch, enjoying the touch of another person, going for a walk, or even watching TV. See if you can imagine sharing these pleasures in your imagination with others.
And, as problems come up like your food being cold or your bank account running low or feeling lonely or rejected, see if you can expand your heart by opening up in your imagination to all the other people feeling the same, and then even to those feeling much worse in the world. Use your setback as fuel for compassion to wish that no one else should suffer the way you do at that moment, or suffer even worse.
See what practicing this way does to your mind this week. If you feel like sharing any of your experience, we welcome it in our private meditation discussion group or on our website or social media accounts that you can find under the name “skepticspath.” Until then, may your week be safe and free from problems.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio