“Do you think it makes sense to work on your motivation?” He asked and took a sip of his herbal tea. His tone of voice was conversational. We often look into what matters at lunch. I don’t know if it was my blood sugar or the word. “Motivation?” I asked suspiciously. To help others, he slurped good natured. But it was too late, I had already pushed a button inside of me. He didn’t do it, you know, we do it ourselves.
I remember noticing a shadow swiftly passing by, somewhere in my field of vision. They are damned fast these shadows, even if I use my best and mighty mindfulness skills, they often outsmart me. This one was particularly young and swift; she had already pushed the button and I started, I went through the motions. Not that any of what I said was really silly. It was more the energy on which I let it ride. I was excited, judgmental, self righteous. And while I went on and on, he continued to slowly chew his food wearing his best Zen face, he did not nod or move a brow. The Zen face has different effects. This time it fueled the process.
By asking the question he had unwillingly thrown raw meat to the lioness. I tossed and turned the poor peace of flesh called “motivation”, throwing it up in the air, shredding it with my paws and jaws, deeply excited. He politely offered me tea and I paused for a moment, suddenly baffled. “Why do you ask?” He had barely finished his sentence before I was at it again. I smelled blood. All the sanctimonious people I had ever met lined up in front of me. The falsely pious. The others, not me of course.
I terminated them all with my bare words. Afterwards, when the steam had blown off, I looked down at my plate and saw the cold and wrinkled omelet, untouched, whereas his plate was empty, his belly full and the look on his face satisfied. Another shadow tiptoed in and pushed the embarrassment button, and as I started to excuse myself he kept smiling, then he excused himself and got up as tall and silent as when he first arrived in our house. “I have a meeting with the Buddhist study group,” he said. “We will be discussing motivation”.
So there I was with my lunch and my embarrassment of being this albino Latino. As I woefully slurped my cold tea, I tracked down the shadow and had a talk with her. She is actually not that much Latino, but rather rebellious, a lost teenager. Someone cheated her years ago, and she still hasn’t gotten over the fact that most people are not in black and white. We are for real. In colours.
Does it make sense to want to help others? Of course it does. But the theme is tricky. That’s why he asked.
We had a more decent conversation later the same day. And I agree, it’s possible and even worthwhile working on your motivation every day. It’s just that we have shadows out smarting us all day long, and the shadows have agendas of their own. Setting a motivation is fine, being mindful of your shadows is even finer. Look at me; I spend ten minutes every morning doing prostrations and saying “om mani padme hung” and I have fits of anger and sadness and despair, shorter and shorter, yes, but never the less I let myself get carried away.
And honestly my motivation for doing the prostrations is quite selfish: I can’t get sanely through the day without it. I sometimes say the words very slowly and in Danish to listen carefully: “I go for refuge until I am enlightened”, and I realize that will take many, many lifetimes. I really have to be here and now to take in what I am actually saying: “By the virtue of giving and other perfections may I become a Buddha to help all Beings”.
I don’t consider myself a helper. I don’t do anything to help others. Not as in ‘saint’. Not as in ‘without agenda’. Not as in Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi, not to mention the Buddha or Jesus. My best way to test this, is to think of the children I have been around for the past 22 years. As a mother and as a professional I don’t believe in helping children. I believe in creating space for them to flower. You don’t make them flower, they do it themselves. It’s a build in process. You can of course disturb it, and break them, not the core though, the incorruptible core remains intact, the Buddha nature is always available. But you don’t help. You can walk with someone, give them food and shelter, but in the end we are all in the same mess. As Irvin Yalom put it, writing about his profession: “We cannot say to other people you and your problems. Instead, we must speak of us and our problems, because our life, our existence, will always be riveted to death, love to loss, freedom to fear, and growth to separation. We are, all of us, in this together.”
I work the thought and feelings and emotions in this system I call “me” every day. I make use of mindfulness, the Buddhist teachings, dreams, therapy, supervision, whatever. And I do it, because it’s horrible if I don’t. I want to break free. That’s all. I don’t even aim at being happy. Although the occasional happy moment does open to me, or I to it. Short glimpses of bliss.
I don’t say it’s bad to help. It’s just that the word is so infected. I mean what’s a helper to you? Someone unselfish? Who will give away his last shirt? Expects noting in return? Someone without an agenda?
I often have a hidden agenda when I want to help. Sometimes even hidden to myself.
Honesty is really a wonderful thing. And man, does that shit hurt, when you try it on yourself.
Think of the stewardess on the airplane who, before takeoff, instructs you to take the oxygen mask for yourself first and then help your child. Same in life. If you consider every morning a takeoff, make sure to help yourself to oxygen before you set out to help others. Actually you might want to take a sip or two of oxygen during the day. Else your help may turn out to be very poor. You won’t die, but you will damage. Others, as well as yourself. With (hidden) anger, irritation, disappointment and manipulation.