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28 August 2007

R is for Rightness

Projector"Grasping at things can only yield one of two results: Either the thing you are grasping at disappears, or you yourself disappear. It is only a matter of which occurs first." -Goenka

Sometimes, people irritate me.

This week has been one of those weeks.

Actually, I’ve been irritated for the past month and not just because of the incessant and furious heat and humidity that is sucking the marrow out of every bone in my body and making me harbor great resentment toward slow drivers with happy bumper stickers. Okay, I’ve been irritable for approximately eight months, give or take a day or five. In fact, 2007 is turning out to be the year of Grumpy Patti, as my business partner, David, says. “I like Grumpy Patti,” he told me, “Grumpy Patti is a truth teller.”

I can see his point—the grumpiness has moved me forward this year in many important ways because most of that truth—if the truth was told (!)—has been directed at myself.

And yet, in one of those rare moments in which you can stand back and see yourself more clearly, I can see that there is an arrogance to truth-telling, a danger to it.

Last week, I came to realize—thanks to the gentle intercession of my wise acupuncturist—that my holding on to being right is an attachment that can only cause me to suffer.

“How are you doing?” she asked as I entered her office. “I’m okay,” I said. She sat, quietly, looking at me. “Okay, well I’m a little stressed out, I guess.” She invokes truth by silence better than anyone else I know.

I’m in a situation at the moment that is maddening—and in which I know I’m right, so I hold forth. She listens. And listens some more. Suddenly, we’re 30 minutes into my acupuncture treatment and I’m not even on the table. “Let’s get you on the table and we can continue this conversation,” she says.

Then I’m prone, under a sheet, and she is holding my hand, taking my pulses. She pauses. “Patti,” her tiny voice started, “why do you think you are so attached to being right about this situation?”




A world of knowing washes over me. Why am I so invested in being right? Oh, I don’t know, this is just a wild stab, but MAYBE BECAUSE I’M RIGHT?

“Because it’s so clear that I’m right,” I said. “Can’t you see that I’m right? There’s just no way that I’m not right!” I said, quietly indignant.

“Why is being right about this so important to you?”




“And doesn’t everyone have their own version of ‘right’?” she continued.


“I wonder what would happen if you gave up your need to be right?”

Damn. She can do more in four questions than I can do in a lifetime.

After a while, she spoke again. “In Buddhism,” she said, “attachment is the root of our suffering.”

I understand that, I thought to myself. I lived with a Buddhist family in Sri Lanka, I studied with Buddhist monks--I get that.

I don’t feel overly attached to things, to owning new cars and silent trash compactors and sub-zero fridges and…and….and new music from Lucas Silveira (well, I think I will need that new CD from the Cliks, just to hear his cover of “Cry Me a River”) and an iPhone (though those iPhones are beautiful)….

“And,” she continued, “maybe you’re not so attached to possessions, but attachment to being right is still an attachment. And it is causing you to suffer.”

I never knew. But it all became clear in that moment in that small room on that table in that sunlight. My attachment to being right is as much an attachment as lusting after a possession. I have made being right a palpable thing, like a new purse or hand-painted silk jacket or Ayana Bar necklace from Tel Aviv.

Thorn“There is an image of attachment that might be helpful,” she explained. “It is said we should imagine a large thorn bush, in which we are sitting, naked. As you can imagine, every move we make to reach for something,” she moved her arm forward to demonstrate, “causes us to sink our limbs deeper and deeper into the thorns.”

I listened, not moving. 

In the Four Noble truths, Buddha taught that attachment to self is the root cause of suffering: 

  • From craving (attachment) springs grief,
  • from craving springs fear;
  • For him who is wholly free from craving, there is no grief, much less fear. (Dhammapada Sutra. In Narada Maha Thera, The Buddha and His Teachings.)

"Great Monk, let me ask you, how can I attain liberation?" The Great monk said, "Who tied you up?" This old cultivator answered, "Nobody tied me up." The monk said, "Then why do you seek liberation?" (Hsuan Hua, tr., Flower Adornment Sutra, "Pure Conduct," chap. 11.)

The origin of suffering is attachment, a grasping that sinks the thorns in deeper.

As professor Gerald Grow wrote: “I think of it this way—instead of experiencing life directly, we create a worldview and experience it. That worldview serves to protect us through a system of explanations; but it also makes each of us into an isolated self, separated from nature, from real experience, from spirituality, and from one another—causing all experience to be distorted and ‘out of joint,’ and ourselves to suffer from living at one remove from life. We are nearly always, in some degree, outsiders to the world and even to our own experience.”

“Buddhists have given deep attention to the ways human beings are at once empowered and entrapped by the categories we create for thought and language. Racial prejudice is a straightforward example of what Buddhists mean by suffering that is created by the mind; it is based on mental categories that distort perception and project our expectations onto others. The fundamental Buddhist act is to accept responsibility for one's projections, and to learn to know, first hand, how the mind creates illusion and amplifies suffering.”

“Every ‘thing’ is actually a process—it arises, develops, flourishes, declines, and dissipates. All nouns are still-photos from the movie of life—which is made up of verbs. All that we see around and inside us is the result of trillions of simultaneous processes, arising and declining in a symphony of different overlapping rhythms at once. All that appears solid in this cosmos is in reality a shimmering, substanceless dance of energy in flux.”

“True insight leads to compassion. Insight is compassion.”

Mark Kleiman has said, “There is no more destructive force in human affairs—not greed, not hatred—than the desire to have been right. Non-attachment to possessions is trivial when compared with non-attachment to opinions.”

“Perhaps it is not the situation that is making you suffer, but your grasping at being right in it,” my acupuncturist guru said quietly.

From inside the worldview I've adopted, I can own a position without grasping for it, I see now.

And I can see now that in grasping at being right, I myself am disappearing.

Am I right, or what?

[cartoon from here]


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Awesome post and wonderful epiphany! Yes, yes,'re right!

Lovely. I struggle with this myself in my own philosophy, since my tendency is not to be attached to my view of rightness, but rather attached to the desire to avoid conflict, sometimes to my own long-term detriment. How do you maintain that emotional equilibrium and still burn with passion for social justice, for fixing the environment? How do you turn nonattachment into something other than nihilism? I think that attachment to compassion must remain. I think that attachment to the Four Great Vows ( must remain. But I am a novice, and arrogant in my assumptions.


Why so grumpy? While you addressed the reason behind your current grumpiness (i.e. attachment to being right), you left us wondering about the rest of 2007 and worrying about you. What truths are you directing at yourself? Are these truths really as helpful as you believe they are or are they just a way to beat yourself up over perceived failures?

Maybe there are some other truths you need to hear:

1. you are blessed with a wonderful husband and daughters;
2. you are doing important work that leads people to treat each other better;
3. you are an artist who bravely exposes your feelings to the world.
4. you are a wonderful writer who brings joy, delight, sorrow, anger and so many other feelings to others.
5. Johnny Depp wants your telephone number (OK, so I don't know this one for sure)

Introspection is healthy, to a point. Look outward more often to find your blessings.

Take care of yourself.

Kikipotamus the Hobo - you really made me smile with your note - thank you!

K - this is a Big Question you have raised - how can I be passionate about something and be detached at the same time? I don't know, not fully. Like you, I'm also attached to a desire to avoid conflict, which I didn't articulate inside my own head until I read what you wrote, so thank you. My "rightness" is often internal, but not expressed externally, which means it eats me up--because I want to avoid conflict. Thank you for helping me see that paradox... There is so much in what you've written that opens new doors of thought for me--many thanks.

Bill - you're very perceptive. thanks for asking. i appreciate the truths you see in me - really, I do. I am particularly drawn to #5, though the others - in the long run - are more meaningful, I know... (smile) I do so appreciate your kind words - I have a hard time hearing them, or accepting them (see "L is for Little...") I am grumpy for many reasons - perhaps one of them is impatience with the hidden messages we see around us in the world - or people who hire me without clear intentions or whose intention is to cover their rear end, not really do the work. I'm grumpy about consultants who placate and entertain rather than challenge and involve. I'm grumpy about people and politicians who lie. I'm grumpy about knowing that the work I'm doing in my professional career is the deepest, most meaningful work I've ever done--and yet doesn't sustain me because it makes people really work, not just check off a box--and we're a society of "quick fixes." I'm grumpy that we play small. Shall I go on? ;-) thanks again for asking - and for telling - and for caring.

First of all, Gerald GROW...that's his NAME?! When I saw the projector cartoon, I thought, "How PERFECT!" and then noticed the name in the corner, thinking it was a moniker of some sort. What you call "grumpy," my dear, I've come to think of aging. I've noticed the past couple of years (especially) that I just have a whole lot less tolerance for all of the B.S...and I'm tired of playing nice and pretending it's not B.S. That said, you have COMPLETELY got my number with this post...I tell myself this stuff all the time (re letting go of the need to be right). My current struggle is that I work in a vortex of people who are buried deeply in those thorns and want me to come play in the thorn bush. And, oh, how much easier it is to do that sometimes than to walk away...even though it hurts like hell to be STUCK in there. :) In the Big Book of A.A. it talks about "righteous indignation"...and how it's the biggest enemy (I don't know if it says "enemy," but that's the idea) of those battling alcoholism. I gave up the drink...but kept my addiction to the indignation. ;)

Hi Patti, thanks for the conversation. I know some people who were drawn to the nonviolence and nonattachment of certain philosophies (examples are Buddhism and Quaker) because they in fact matched an internal tendency towards avoiding conflict. Why can't everyone get along? OK, I'll make it all better. I won't bring up upsetting things when I don't have an answer. I won't confront a destructive person with the truth, because they're not in a place to listen and they may choose to escalate. I'll wallpaper over our differences to make everyone comfortable so that they won't leave or bully me. Sound co-dependent yet? How about spending so much time internally explaining away our growing sense of unease about a situation until we blow up and feel like the only method of recourse is to react violently out of proportion, out of control...and then spend lots of time apologizing, making ourselves small again for as long as possible until yet again we can't take it anymore...

This is why I fear giving up my sense of seeking to 'be right'. Because it's usually the first step for me in ignoring my own boundaries and compromising my own set of values, trying too hard to appease someone else who may or may not have my best interests at heart.

Perhaps there's a middle ground. Perhaps one can have strong boundaries with a solid sense of "rightness" that can exist separately from an ego-driven desire to be right. Perhaps that's really what the heart of these non-violent methods of communication are trying to tell us. Perhaps it is possible to non-egotistically, spontaneously assert those boundaries without apology, without negotiation, without guilt.

This may or may not be pertinent to your situation. I apologize if it is not, obviously I'm not trying to read your mind. But the taste of what you were saying...let's just say it tasted awfully familiar to me, and so I wished to warn you from rationalizing away your own sense of unease that may be a disguised boundary talking, trying to get past your clever neocortex mind and warn you that someone's trying to violate you.

But that could be me projecting my own weaknesses upon you. Namaste.

I'm pondering the difference between thinking right and knowing right. I think about your essay that included the man's strata drawing of his life with the black dot that was his father's death and how you KNEW that was right. Then I contrast that with this one. And I wonder, how can we turn up the thermostat on that resonant knowing so that we can use it when thinking?

katiebean - great distinction to try to decipher, between thinking and knowing. I spend a lot of time pondering what knowing is, how it comes to us. In the case of the black dot, that was a very personal "knowing." It was knowing for me, not a knowing that I imagined existed outside of myself. Resonant knowing - what a wonderful phrase. Thank you for sparking further thought on this...

K, Oh, my. So very much here to think about - and learn from. I agree that there is an insidious relationship between avoiding conflict at all costs, losing our own edges and boundaries, and being right only for ego's sake. Letting anger seep inward and then exploding--or disconnecting altogether--doesn't feel healthy to me. Your words help me see that more clearly. I am working to stand up straight in my own boundaries and yet allow others to live from within their own worldview--that my "right" need not be someone else's "right"--and, most importantly, that I not contribute to their "right" by supporting it in a co-dependent way, or being complicit in it. My essay, "E is for Esther" comes to mind--the ability to say "I don't see the truth in that." Thanks for all this important thinking... Perhaps that middle ground is where I want to head in this journey.

Marilyn, who, me, aging? ;-) So interesting that you bring up the point of others wanting to bring us into their thorn bush...I think there is such truth in that - and how very much it takes to say "no" to that sharing of thorniness, to walk away from that pain, to refuse to participate in it....

hummm I've been enbracing my inner 'grump' and I find it very liberating. No more pretending that I'm happy with the things the way they are. My inner grump has unheard wisdom and knows where / when she is exploited. She doesn't take kindly to be taken to task about not being a 'team member' when she darm well knows thats code for doing other people's jobs for them!

I just had to come back to tell you that I've thought about this post several times in the last couple of days. I've been so caught up in paperwork and organizing and dealing with anxious parents for the last month, that when our U.S. History teacher walked by yesterday and reminded me that he and I were planning to start a new club on campus this year, I was shocked that I'd completely forgotten about it...and it was my idea that I took to him to see if he'd collaborate! The idea? To start a peace club (although we might not call it that)...a unity club...a (I don't know yet what to call it) club. To promote tolerance and understanding and compassion on campus. And this post keeps coming to mind when I think about doing that. I didn't relate this post to areas where I feel taken advantage of (although those situations do exist in my worklife...and boy, do I ever get angry when I know I'm RIGHT!) What it did make me think about again is how much TIME and ENERGY(!) I DEVOTE (because it is a sort of perverted devotion practice) to righteous indignation...and how icky and empty I feel afterwards. I'd much rather take that energy and do something constructive with it.

Hi Patti,
Being right is a judgement that we often use to overcome some underlying judgement of ourselves. The unconscious or semi-conscious decision would go something like "If I can be right about this, then I can overcome my underlying feeling of being wrong." I know this one well. Rightness carries with it the polarity of wrongness. They go hand in hand. We chose to create them and we can destroy and uncreate them. Freedom is seeing everything, including our own point of view, as just an interesting point of view. If we choose not to allign and agree or resist and react, we can be free from right and wrong and good and bad. Things just are and the only true way to choose is for what we perceive is light and expansive for us.

I like to equate being right to winning. There was a time when I HAD to win every argument. Now, I just WANT to win every argument. The switch came while reading M. Scott Peck's, The Road Less Traveled. If I recall correctly, Peck discussed playing Chess with his daughter. He was challenged when his daughter asked him why HE always had to win?

I agree with you, "Let it be a barn." At the same time, respectful conflict, debate and arguments can lead to positive change.

There is a Proverb that says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." That is a road I would like to avoid if possible. I would prefer knowing the way that leads to eternal life.

What was your take-away from reading The Chosen by Chaim Potok?

My brief take: there are those things we the correct answer MUST prevail. But really we're talking about things like the dosage of a vaccine, or the items on a pilot's takeoff checklist. There is no room for opinion or "good enough," which is why nurses and co-pilots have an explicit duty to intervene if they see something done wrong.

But now let's get back to the non-mission-critical portion of the program. Much of the time, ehh, even when we are right, it doesn't make THAT much difference. More to the point, when dealing with all these pesky, imperfect people who surround us - ;) - we will often be ignored, discounted, or stupidly contradicted even when we ARE 100 Percent Right And Also Totally Correct.

And we, in turn, will also reject good advice, shun precision and truth, ridicule wise counsel. It's part of this human affliction.

As I age, and especially as I deal with my children, I try hard to separate the mission-critical stuff from the S.O.P.-for-humans stuff. When the kid reaches for the light socket, that's mission critical and there's only one right way to do it, i.e. "Don't touch it!" Most other stuff, ehh, it's not such a big deal.

I find that expression, "ehh," helps me. It's not the "Strange Brew" Canadian "eh," but the self-deprecating "Ehh, I dunno, maybe." "Maybe" is often a very good answer, and it certainly keeps my blood pressure lower than those times when I KNOW I'm right and I feel sure that NO ONE is listening to me.

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