Beware of idealism

Ajahn Sumedho, from a talk,”Before I Am Arises”, in the book Don’t Take Your Life Personally:

I lived with mostly Thai monks for three or four years, and during that time I noticed that they had a kind of acceptance of humanity. The Thai culture isn’t an idealistic one, so they have a way of accepting the limitations of being human. This at first seemed irresponsible for a high-minded idealist like myself — you can become very righteous when you are holding onto the best — and someone like myself can feel rather superior. When you look at the grasping, however, and the sense of being superior, when you really recognize it as experience in the present, you see that that is not a peaceful mental state; it isn’t peaceful to feel better than somebody else. What I was grasping was a sense of myself, which is an illusion, and an ideal so high that I couldn’t possibly live up to it — because I am human not an ideal; I am a human being. Buddha-images are ideals. Anything could go on in this room and that Buddha-rupa [statue] would just sit there serenely. Ideals are not living conscious forms; they might be beautiful forms, but they have no sensitivity. And people that are very idealistic are often not very sensitive. You lose your sensitivity when your investment is in an ideal so high that you are always comparing the reality of the here and now and how it should be, which of course it very seldom is.

When I was younger, being an idealist was considered an excellent way to live. Who wanted to accept reality as it was instead of constantly pointing out how it should be better? It seems that whenever ideals are at play, there is newly created suffering. Understanding this point requires enough humility to accept that we are not here on earth primarily to set things right. We are agents of change in small, local ways for the most part.

The ideal is, by definition, not the real. When there is an opportunity to reduce suffering and increase joy, for ourselves or others, we should take it. But if our eye is on some ideal, we may miss the opportunity in front of us.

Another way idealism works against our freedom and happiness is when we idealize people. While it’s great to have role models and inspiring friends, if we think they are essentially different from (better than) us, we’ve created new suffering.

Possibly the ideals that cause our biggest problems concern who we think we should be and how we should feel, think, and behave. If we can see our thoughts, feelings and actions clearly, we can start to consider them wisely and not be blindly driven by them. We can see the clinging and the non-clinging, the grasping and the letting go. This is practicing the Buddha’s (realistic) path.

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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One Response to Beware of idealism

  1. Really enjoyed this, as it really helps bring bring balance and direction to my desire.

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