Oneself, indeed, is one’s own protector.
What other protector could there be?
One gains a protector hard to obtain. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
This simple verse can lead to a useful inquiry. What do we feel we need to be protected from? What are our fears and anxieties based on? While we may fear dangers from other people or situations, a lot of dukkha comes from our desire to avoid experiencing unpleasant thoughts and emotions.
Not facing up to our fears is childish behavior, an unthinking desire for a mother (or father) figure to protect us from harm and hurt. As adults, we take responsibility for our lives, and paradoxically, taking responsibility replaces our fears with purpose.
Many of us are familiar with the extraordinary book by Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. The wisdom in the book came directly from his thinking during and after his incarceration in the Nazi death camps during WWII, and his insights have served many people who have endured terrible suffering. Here are a few quotes from that book that are relevant to our verse for today:
- When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
- Everything can be taken from a man [sic] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
- Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Frankl also talks of salvation being through love. When things are not as we wish them to be, can we nonetheless embrace life fully? It might be as simple as choosing to accept an unpleasant fact.
When the Buddha talks about protection in the Pali canon, he is clearly referring to the damage we can do through acting thoughtlessly, through causing harm, to ourselves and others. The positive result of purposeful restraint of our unwholesome impulses is freedom and joy. We can create a space for kindness to grow simply by taking care with our actions and words. We can make a prayer of our good intentions.
Even when we are afraid, we can ask ourselves: What are my options? What part of my self is threatened and how important is that? What do I have control over right now? Is it possible to keep quiet and wait to see what develops? Where, specifically, is the dukkha in this situation? Can we release the idea that something “shouldn’t be this way” and simply be with the way things are? This is the space between stimulus and response that Frankl referred to.
We protect ourselves by developing the path – the ethical trainings, the meditation practices, and applying wisdom wherever we can.