For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with self-doubt. I felt there was something different about me, something not quite right. While other children seemed confident in who they were and what they wanted, I was never quite sure of myself. As a result, I became very interested in and curious about others, how they felt, how they knew what they knew.
To some extent, I still navigate the world in this way. I ask people a lot of questions about how they handle day-to-day events, relationships, and feelings. I bounce my thoughts off of trusted friends and family members, hoping to find myself somewhere on the continuum of “normalcy” and to triangulate my way toward a sense of certainty and rightness. Still, I don’t quite trust my intuition and my own goodness.
The concept of basic goodness is foundational in Buddhism. In contrast to original sin, Buddhism holds that humans are essentially good, clear-seeing, loving, and compassionate. In Ocean of Dharma, Chogyam Trungpa writes:
The Buddha discovered that there is something in us known as basic goodness. Therefore, we don’t have to condemn ourselves for being bad or naughty. The Buddha taught what he had learned to the rest of mankind. What he taught then – twenty-five hundred years ago – is still being taught and practiced. The important point for us is to realize that we are basically good. Our only problem is that sometimes we don’t actually acknowledge that goodness. We don’t see it, so we blame somebody else or we blame ourselves. That is a mistake. We don’t have to blame others, and we don’t have to feel nasty or angry. Fundamental goodness is always with us, always in us.
When I first learned about basic goodness, it was difficult to think of myself in this light. As a life-long self-doubter, it was easier to see the basic goodness in others than in myself. I still struggle with it.
This past weekend I took the refuge vow to formalize my commitment to the Buddhist path. I took refuge in the Buddha as an example of a human being who attained enlightenment. I took refuge in the dharma – the truth – the teachings of the Buddha on the nature of reality. And I took refuge in the sangha, the community of practitioners who are all on their own lonely paths but who are also there to support one another.
As part of the ceremony I was given a Tibetan name – Champa Wangmo – which can be roughly translated as “maitri (or loving-kindness) lady.” The Acharya who named me explained to those of us taking the vow that in his experience, we grow to embody our refuge names over the course of a lifetime. While I am sure I will be figuring out the meaning of this new name for many years to come, I have some initial thoughts.
Maitri has been described by Chogyam Trungpa and other Buddhist teachers as an unconditional friendliness, toward others and especially toward oneself. Maitri has also been described, most recently by the wonderful Susan Piver, as an antidote to self-doubt. This is not about countering doubt by beating my breast and proclaiming all my wonderful, lovable qualities. And it’s not about “managing” or forgiving myself for being scared or petty or small-minded. I’m beginning to see it’s about opening to myself with the same sense of love and welcome that I have for others.
Since taking the refuge vow, my thoughts and emotions have gone technicolor. My doubts and fears feel magnified, and I have an increasing sense of groundlessness. I have reached out to friends and family to talk through my concerns, for some consolation, for someone to confirm me, but the feelings haven’t changed. After a few days of confusion, I realized this is exactly what I signed up for.
In practicing maitri or loving-kindness, I am practicing turning toward all of the scary, uncomfortable feelings with softness and a sense of welcome. I think this is the practice of my lifetime. And it’s all good, basically.