Dignity

Going along with the sudden theme of patience recently has come the theme of dignity.

Stephen Batchelor writes that the Buddha’s enlightenment ‘brought a simple dignity to his life’ (to paraphrase). I always thought of that as an example of the ‘weak view’ of enlightenment- that it is not a radical change, but just a fluffy way of becoming a good person slowly. But recently, I can see that dignified behaviour is anything but a small deal when it comes to dealing with the question of suffering.

Dignity as a concept covers so many areas: conduct, attitude, speech, interests, ethics, expression. It is not for me a casuistic list of acts that are ‘dignified’, but it is also not just a thin veneer of snobbish, finishing school flounce hiding one’s more natural behaviour, whether that be nasty or nice. It is for me a bit of a wooly concept still, but one that clicks in with my intuition. The sense of the dignified brings with it the allied feelings of respect, peace, satisfaction, equanimity, non-malificence. It brings with it a sense of brave tolerance of suffering that has nothing to do with grinning and bearing it.

Being mindful immediately creates more dignity. It requires focus and awareness. When I am mindful, my posture corrects itself when I notice I’m slumped in my chair with some minor, delusively ignored back pain; it is not the haughty correction of the person who wants to ‘look good’. There is a change of mental posture that relaxes and strengthens my thinking and reactions in dignity, coming with the desire to choose to go into suffering with grace and to understand it a little better. It comes with self-talk that soothes me, reminding me that this moment is the one in which I have to set up the next, to anger a person for a lifetime or make them respect me as a person with a first impression.

Even the hilarious and absurd can be dignified. I think of the best physical comedians who impress with their skill even as they do something deliberately stupid. Then I think of the most fashionable, famous people on Twitter who use their considerable intelligence and power to blast other people into tiny bits, and am reminded of how I can be that undignified with my gifts too. It isn’t very dignified to fight fire with fire in that situation really, though! In this way, my usual reaction of snapping, righteously defending, or simply ignoring is short circuited, and I can think about what should be done that gives me and my interlocutor some dignity- because acting with it immediately provides the person you’re interacting with some, too. This is particularly important in my job in healthcare, because treating a person with all due dignity when they may be (for example) incontinent and humiliated can open up your relationship with them into something more noble than a simple task of helping someone to wash that is in itself, not particularly magical. That unconditional positive regard that the therapists talk about can make something negative into a supportive contemplative practice.

Dignity is important because life can feel so undignified. The seeking of the spiritual seeker is of course the wish for something unconditionally perfect to transcend the muck and slime of the world, at least in part. Depending on your tastes, sensitivity and sense of things being personal, everything from the deafening music blaring out from the car next to you or the subtle put-downs of a garrulous workmate, to the destruction of the natural world or a disfiguring disease can seem like yet another sad, sad example of how life can be not just miserable, but ignoble. It is this ignobility that can be worse than suffering; the thought that your actions are for nothing, or that what is beautiful lasts an instant while the crass steamrolls it, or that you will face humiliation as you age. The actual pain involved in these things is pretty much just a cluster of sensations, but the sense of craving and aversion in these things, about things that matter, really gets me where it hurts. I can’t just reduce that, as a person who cares about the world, to a mechanistic vipassana protocol. I have to have a way of acting that makes meaning to me, and bringing dignity to my life is one such way.

Dignity is inalienable in terms of others taking it from you; it is impossible, whatever another person does to you, for them to take dignity. Keeping it is another matter; every time I shout instead of facing a problem calmly, or waste my precious time, I am that little bit less dignified. Every time I pause, and choose to shake myself out of a self-righteous mood or some such mental weather, I feel happy and I feel a self respect that is very, to me, blameless. There is no need to overrate it; others have their own dignity and can recover it at any time. It is that kind of sanding down the rough edges of my personality that I think supports/is my spiritual practice; it isn’t heroic, it is gently rewarding, and I can sense things quietening down enough for the still small voice to be heard that leads me onward.

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