“Abandoning negative places, disturbing emotions gradually subside;
Being free from distraction, the practice of virtue spontaneously increases;
With brightened awareness one feels confidence in the Dharma;
To adhere to solitude is the practice of the bodhisattvas.”
- the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Verse 3.*
We need to be aware of where we’re going and what we’re doing. Sometimes in life we just do things and don’t give it much thought. The truth is that everything can be part of our spiritual journey. Actually everything is, whether we like it or not.
What do we mean when we say things like “Abandon negative places”?
Sometimes in life we feel trapped. In a job, in a relationship, in a social group, whatever. Rarely are we as trapped as we think we are. None of that really bind us. In the song “Already Gone” by the Eagles there is the line: “So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.”
I love that line. It really says what I’m getting at. You are not trapped. You can empower yourself to get out of anything. That’s what we’re talking about here. Staying in a situation that doesn’t serve your growth gets in the way. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for to get ourselves out.
I’m being vague on purpose here. I can’t tell you what is or isn’t a negative place. I can’t tell you if your job or your friendships or your relationships are toxic. But you know. With just a little introspection you know exactly what situations would be good to get out of. Also, it’s true there are some outlier situations where people are really trapped. I do need to go out of my way to mention that. Speaking just for myself, I’ve felt like I was trapped and been wrong before. I have usually had more power to get out than I believed I had.
I think we can add habits to this too. What are the habits that keep us away from our spiritual journey? And then what habits can we add to our lives that inspire more practice?
The Ornament of Sutras says:
“The place where intelligent ones practice
Is well supplied, an excellent dwelling place,
An excellent soil, endowed with good companions,
And graced by yogic bliss.”
Several years ago I got divorced and I was really struggling. I stopped trying to cultivate mindfulness and virtue and just sort of wallowed in my struggle.
Then I started going to a Buddhist temple all the time, the Rime Center. I wanted to spend some extra time dwelling in a sacred space and also meeting good companions, people with the same spiritual goals that I have.
If you go less often to the places and situations that get in the way of your spiritual journey, then that can really help. If you go more often to the places and situations that help inspire your spiritual journey, then that can help too. I want to compare it to filling your diet with vegetables so there’s less room for chips.
And it doesn’t have to be a temple, of course. Plenty of people feel motivated and inspired by going out to the woods or something. Your mileage may vary, but I think you probably know already what things and places work for you.
I still like to go to the Rime Center to feel inspiration, but I also have a statue garden in my backyard that I can go to for that. Where do you go?
Nagarjuna said, “One remains in a place that is conducive and relies on holy beings.”
The Buddha said that having a community is important. I think he was right. Getting together with other people that have the same goals as us can motivate us in a way that nothing else really seems to. Some people want to put that aside because they’re introverted. I am sympathetic to that, I used to be quite introverted myself and I still am sometimes.
The Buddha’s student Ananda said, “You know, I think spiritual friendship is half of the path.”
And the Buddha replied, “No, Ananda. It’s the whole path.”
I don’t, however, need to appeal to authority really. I can point to my own life. In the past I spent time with people who looked down on and made fun of others often. And then I stopped. And I could really see my own personal growth, just from getting out of those situations.
That’s really what it comes down to here. Spend time with virtuous people. You don’t have to go to a temple or join a group to find them. You just have to pay attention to the people in your life and dedicate time to the ones who have qualities that you think are positive. That’s it.
Obviously we still have a lot of work to do on our personal growth, but spending time with positive people really puts you ahead.
Spend more time in the places that inspire you. Spend more time with the people that inspire you.
That is how to unleash your potential.
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*all quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa