Mixed feelings

Mixed feelings

Everyone, when approaching a spiritual tradition, feels a mixture of attraction and repulsion. We feel a pull toward it at the same time we experience resistance and doubt. Every religious system seems to have delightful aspects and irritating ones.

It is important to allow this ambiguity. However, mixed feelings are uncomfortable. We would rather know: is this tradition the right one or not? So it is tempting to jump to a definite conclusion. But to really discover whether there is a good fit takes months or years of investigation. So any quick judgment is likely to be wrong. On the one hand, giving up at the first signs of trouble risks abandoning a system that could work, with more effort and understanding. This results in wandering from one spiritual group to another, always frustrated that none is quite right. On the other hand, suppressing feelings of doubt risks wasting time with a system that isn’t right in the long run. And it is likely to cause emotional upset when the bad fit can no longer be ignored.

In Buddhism, there is a deeper point: ambiguity is an essential aspect of experience. Learning to accept ambiguity is a key Buddhist practice.

Approach gradually

Every religious group has some series of stages that allow increasing involvement as your interest and understanding deepens. (For the Aro lineage to which I belong, these are described as “phases.”)

It is important to move from one stage to the next only when you are ready. Mixed feelings are inevitable at every stage—but each requires a greater level of confidence. Or, put another way, the feeling of repulsion needs to be less at each stage.

It is tempting to “bull our way through” feelings that things about the lineage are not right for us.

  • We like the feeling of attraction and dislike the repulsion. We hope we can get rid of the bad feeling by pretending it isn’t there, or shoving it away.
  • We want the teachers and students of the tradition to accept and like us. We worry that expressing our doubts will make us unattractive to them.
  • Finding a tradition that is a good fit can be time-consuming, hard work, and anxiety-provoking. It is almost like searching for a spouse. We want to believe that we have succeeded.

But this risks harm not only to ourselves, but also to the group we approach. They may invest considerable time and emotional resources in a new student who appears unusually enthusiastic. If the student suddenly leaves upon finding that they can no longer deny their frustrations and fears, it can be wrenching for everyone involved. Students who try to go too far, too fast are likely to become hostile and leave with bad feelings when they finally acknowledge that the group is not exactly what they wanted.

discuss mixed feelings with members of the tradition

It is important to discuss mixed feelings with members of the tradition—lamas, other teachers, and longer-term students—as you approach. They should understand and accept that mixed feelings are inevitable, and not inherently a problem. (I would call it a big red flag if a group did not recognize this, and had an attitude of “accept everything immediately or go away.”)

This conversation needs to start in a respectful and open way. Suppose you say “I like some things about your system, but practice X is obviously wrong.” The only possible reply to this is “I’m sorry you feel that way—but as you know, we do practice X, so maybe you will be happier elsewhere.” Keep in mind that, in Buddhism, we are not searching for the one sect that has the truth but for a tradition that is a good fit personally.

A better approach is “I like some things about your system, but I am bothered about X, because it conflicts with Y. Am I missing something?” Useful replies to this may be: “Yes, it appears to conflict with Y, but actually it doesn’t, because . . .” or “Yes, it conflicts with Y, but Y may not be essential, for this reason” or “Yes, it conflicts with Y, but that isn’t a problem, because we only do X when Y doesn’t apply.” After discussion of this sort, you may realize that X truly won’t work for you, so it would be better to look for another tradition. Or, you may realize that X is not really a problem for you after all.

A discussion of this sort also leads naturally into discussion of the nature of attraction and repulsion, and of ambiguous feelings in general. These are central themes for Buddhism. Discussing specific mixed feelings can be a springboard for profound teachings on the essence of Buddhist view and practice.