I have realised recently that whatever topic my different (and lovely) clients want to be coached on (e.g. relationships, career choices, addictions, assertiveness, leadership skills etc…) the one thing they all really want to feel is that their lives are authentic. They often realise, usually after one or two sessions, that the real reason they’re unhappy – for example in a job or relationship or town – is because they find it hard to express their true feelings. When that happens, life quickly begins to feel empty or meaningless. Or the discomfort may manifest as restlessness (what am I here for?) or anxiety (will I ever make anything of myself?) or a sudden loss of ‘mojo’, or anger (caused by cognitive dissonance.)
We learn to hide our true feelings from an early age. We do it with the best of intentions: usually to fit in, to feel safe, to gain approval or to avoid conflict. Gradually it becomes a habit, as it is easier to back down or roll over when more powerful people decide they want you to play a certain role or they use you to fulfil their own goals.
Recently I came across this great quote by author Robert McCammon: “We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because our magic made them ashamed, and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.”
Wow, how powerful is that? But more importantly, how can Buddhism help with this search for authenticity? Let’s start with this quote from Daisaku Ikeda, alluding to one of Nichiren’s most famous writings: “Cherries are cherries. Peaches are peaches. A cherry could never become a peach. It wouldn’t be necessary. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be happy. We should live in a way that is true to ourselves. We could not become someone else, even if we wanted to. Our lives are precious and irreplaceable.”
In other words, treasure yourself and strive to be the shiniest and shapeliest plum you can be, rather than wishing you had been born a peach. (Or having facelifts and other cosmetic surgery until you look like a peach.) To me, this all sums up what Nichiren meant when he spoke of “attaining Buddhahood in one’s present form.” And I love this famous Oscar Wilde quote, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”
So, when you chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, it is vital to do so without constantly judging your feelings. Buddhism is not a philosophy based on morals or on a dualistic view of good and evil. That’s why all feelings are an acceptable starting point in front of the Gohonzon – for they all contain latent Buddhahood. I have known of people who started practising with a desire to kill someone who’d hurt them and then felt their anger gradually transform into healing compassion and wisdom. When you work through your negative emotions in this brave and honest way, you discover your true self and become happy. The lotus flower blooms only from the muddy pond.
Just as importantly, other people come to see your sincerity and authenticity and they will trust you, even if they disagree with your views or lifestyle. So, instead of constant self-judgement, chant instead with a mindset of: “I give myself permission to express my feelings, for all of them contain Buddhahood.”
I tried this not so long ago during a week of depression (part of my karmic tendency) – instead of judging it or resisting it or fighting it or even wanting it to go away, I began by accepting the sadness, then slowly began to treasure it and then finally came to see how it could help me fulfil my mission. As the late great Shin Yatomi said: “Buddhas accept their innate goodness without arrogance and recognise their innate evil without despair.”
For people who don’t chant (and even if you do…) there is also an exercise that my clients find really powerful when striving to find out who they really are. It is called ‘Values Discovery’. This simply means uncovering what is most important to you. For example, if you now hate a career you used to love because you hardly laugh any more, ‘Fun’ is probably one of your Values. And if ‘Creativity’ is one of your Values but it isn’t shared by your partner, there’s a chance you will clash because you want to re-decorate the lounge more often than they do!
Most people have 8 core Values and it takes me just two or three coaching sessions to dig them out and rank them in order of importance. Then you can go off and build a life that truly honours them. An authentic, meaningful and fulfilling life.
And finally, Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Love after Love’ sums it all up for me:
The time will come when with elation you will greet
Yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,
And say, sit here, eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you
All your life, whom you ignored for another
Who knows you by heart, take down the love
Letters from the bookshelf, the photographs
The desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.