Alexandre Jollien grew up in a home for the severely disabled, where, as he laconically notes, "rolling cigars" was his "professional horizon." But then, completely by chance, he discovered philosophy. He has since established himself as a profound and compelling moral thinker and spiritual teacher, the first to have consistently reflected on what it means to be born and live with disability not as an insurmountable obstacle but as a source of strength and creative energy.
In the following selection from In Search of Wisdom: A Monk, a Philosopher, and a Psychiatrist on What Matters Most (which he co-authored with Matthieu Ricard and Christophe Andre), Jollien considers the essence of practice, rooted in our becoming devoted to loving others and relieving pain. He also speaks eloquently of developing a practice at the juncture of two different traditions which, he admits, "is not without risks."
Read his words with the intention of catching a thought or phrase that you can carry with you during this day (and beyond) to deepen your own practice.
"Maybe this is the time to look at what constitutes the essential quality of daily practice. Since this is something that we will be pursuing our whole life long, we might as well be as diligent as possible about it. So here are some guidelines that serve me day by day.
"The first step, without doubt, is to dedicate the day to others, and especially to the most helpless, and to those who are suffering. As we sit here talking, there are people who are finding out that they have cancer, others are losing children, many are dying of hunger. We must bear in our minds and hearts the thought of the billions of beings who are struggling in the immense, engulfing ocean of suffering; and day after day every one of us violates our freedom and dignity. We must constantly remember that we are not practicing to pamper our egos but (to use the expression of Father Arrupe) in order to become men and women for others, in order to become people devoted to loving others and relieving pain.
"Of course you might say, 'A hell of a lot of good it does those people who are at the end of their tethers that you're dedicating your day to them!' But after all, if a mobile phone can connect with an antenna, just a crappy piece of iron that emits waves, why not imagine that at the heart of our innerness there exists a profound link with all beings? It's not falling into occultism to understand that everything in this world is interconnected. I am convinced that placing our day under the sign of generosity makes us better. This practice waves bye-bye to that tenacious egotism that is so hard to uproot.
"In the beginning, I flooded my master with questions: 'Who is God?' 'Why do people suffer?' 'When am I going to heal from my pains?' With infinite gentleness, each time he invited me to return to the here and now, where eternity is found. He showed me in a masterly manner that getting lost in vain discourse on the nature of ascesis leads nowhere, that nothing else is worth as much as the practice of generosity.
"Very concretely I try to follow four essential practices. The first picks up on the invitation of good Pope John XXIII: perform each act as though God has created you only to do that. For example, when I meet someone, I remind myself that at this moment that person is the most important person in the world. Similarly, when I brush my teeth, I devote myself to it wholly, without letting my mind get lost in thoughts. Master Yunmen summarized this great art in a magnificent formula: 'When you sit, sit; when you walk, walk. Above all, don't hesitate.'
"A great misunderstanding is that a sage feels no emotion. On the contrary, he experiences emotions fully, and he knows how to let them evaporate before they cause harm. In short, if he feels anger, he doesn't feel obliged to throw dishes at the wall. Experiencing fully and thoroughly what is troubling us, without denying any of it, and going forward with great gentleness — that is the challenge. For a long time I was horrified by the notion of acceptance. Often we think that it's a matter of amputating our emotions, wringing their necks. But accepting them is above all seeing them without judging them, taking them in as though they were our children. So when grief visits me, I don't take to my heels. Experiencing this sadness completely makes it possible for me to move on to something else, to turn the page. When I was little, I never let myself go totally in the face of pain. I always resisted it to the point of exhaustion. Today, by contrast, when I'm laid low, I try to flow with it for awhile, not to resist. I see that I can float, even in the midst of agitation. Seeing that emotions don't kill gives me great confidence in the end. I would almost say that, in a way, storms help us. Nothing conflicts more with joyous yea-saying than denial with regard to something troubling us.
"The second practice, the one that nourishes me the most, consists in letting pass — a thousand times a day, letting anxieties, fears, emotions, pass like so many bees buzzing around us. The more we try to shoo them away, the more it stimulates them. Just simply let them depart, without reacting in the least.
"With a simple phrase, the Diamond Sutra gives us a powerful tool for converting ourselves moment by moment. It can be summed up as follows: 'The Buddha isn't not the Buddha, that is why I call him the Buddha.' That is a third practice that I work with nearly full time and that helps me deal with the highs and lows of life. When I'm not doing well, I take this book out to find in it not weapons but tools for life. 'Disability is not disability, that is why I call it disability.' The phrase reminds me not to solidify anything and to see at the same time that a thing can simultaneously be a calamity and an opportunity. The point is to abandon binary logic, to exit the prison of duality. At every moment I can experience my disability differently. When conceptual mind tries to reify things and paste labels on everything, a thousand times a day I repeat to myself, 'Alexandre is not Alexandre, that is why I call him Alexandre.' What is powerful in this formula — what is magical in it — is that it helps never to dwell on our wounds but not to deny them either. It's a question of recognizing that we plaster a lot of preconceptions onto this reality and later have to pull them off one by one. So without deceiving myself, I can call a cat a cat, knowing that reality is much denser than I think. The exercise that I practice — I've been doing it for years now — is detaching myself, trying to break away from all my egotistical fixations, and constantly joining in with the movement of life. So saying, 'My wife is not my wife, that is why I call her my wife' is discovering that every day I am living with someone new, and ceasing imprisoning her in my conceptions of her. Seeing that a constant stream of thoughts and emotions is flowing in my mind is already enough to make me stop taking seriously everything that goes through my head.
"And lastly, I take a practice from a text in the Old Testament that builds a magnificent bridge to Buddhism — Ecclesiastes. With its pessimistic airs, it works to undermine everything, uproot our illusions one by one. I often repeat to myself its famous line, 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.' Seeing that in this world, everything is precarious and fragile helps me move toward a more profound freedom. This is something that cures my soul of going for cheap consolations. Fundamentally it is in chaos that I can also discover peace. Everything passes but, to my great misfortune, I'm not able to let things pass. I get hung up and I suffer again and always. ... Fundamentally Ecclesiastes cured me of the very idea of being cured. Losing one's illusions and false hopes one by one opens the doors to a certain serenity. The struggle ends, the exhausting combat gives way to peace.
"Developing one's spirituality at the crossroads of two traditions is not without risks. You have to keep yourself from absolutizing your path and avoid getting lost in syncretism and lack of focus. As for me, I try to follow Christ, and on this path Buddhism helps me to divest myself of ego and all its paraphernalia. Every day I try to keep company with the Gospels and nurture an authentic life of prayer. In my view, praying is stripping oneself bare once and for all, gradually leaving behind all one's roles in order to keep listening to transcendence and daring to let go into a confidence that is bigger than self. Here labels, representations, concepts, expectations explode into smithereens and the ego is eclipsed. It takes a lot of courage to let oneself lapse into the ground of all grounds, daring to do nothing, say nothing, want nothing, and to let God take care of God. Praying is saying yes to whatever happens, living without a reason. At that point, our defense mechanisms leave us, almost in spite of ourselves along with rejections and the thirst to control everything. Here, stripped of everything, one can dare the unthinkable: call God, Father. Though the path is difficult, sometimes arid, because the ego never fails to resist, I find a tremendous joy in it, a freedom that invites me to drop my crutches and go forward, loving without a reason."