My earliest memory is of choking on a grape. I was about 18 months old, and what I remember most is the panic in my mother’s face. I’m sure it only lasted a second, obviously she figured out what to do or I wouldn’t be here, but in that moment, I got a message that the world is not safe. That my caretaker couldn’t keep me safe.
I’m currently in therapy, and whatever event we work with, it always comes back to this idea that I don’t feel safe, or the world is not safe. I have an astute therapist, who has been able to point this out and she challenged me to look at the difference between safety that was needed for the 18 month old me and the safety needed for the 38 year old me. And she asked an important question: “What does safety really mean from a Buddhist perspective?”
The dictionary definition of safety is: the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury. But the first noble truth of Buddhism is the truth of dukkha. The truth that there is a level of unsatisfactoriness in life and nothing can change that. We are going to experience unpleasant events. So it is likely that at points in our lives we are going to be in situations that cause danger, risk, or injury. That’s just a part of life.
So in order to understand safety from a Buddhist perspective there needs to be a paradigm shift. What aspects of the path and our practice allow us to feel safe? How do we find a sense of safety while embracing the truth of dukkha?
I love the story of the Karaniya Metta Sutta. At the time of the Buddha, some monks went to practice in the forest. But they were scared and came back to the Buddha asking him what to do. How could they continue to practice in an inhospitable place? The Buddha gave them verses on ethical conduct and kindness. And the monks returned to the forest, practiced the Metta Sutta, and felt welcomed and supported and safe there for the remainder of the retreat.
Ethical conduct and kindness were the key tools the Buddha gave to his disciples to help them feel safe. How can we use those tools to foster a sense of safety in our modern lives? How can these tools offer a form of protection?
In Buddhism, for laypeople, ethical conduct is most often described as five precepts we are asked to follow. Abstaining from taking life, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants. By abstaining from those five behaviors, we begin to align ourselves with a “safer” way of life.
When I was abusing drugs, I was surrounding myself with other people abusing drugs, and we were stealing, and lying, and practicing sexual misconduct, all so we could take more intoxicants. Once I took the drugs out of my life I began to live my life more ethically, I had no need to lie or steal anymore, and I began to be surrounded by more people who were also living their lives ethically.
There are many other ways I’ve seen my ethical behavior help keep me safe. As I’ve stopped killing insects I’ve found more harmony being in nature. Because I don’t take things without asking, I find it opens me up to see more of the generosity in the world. When I am wise with my sexuality, I have the conversations that need to happen to make sure there’s no transmission of STDs. Because I am careful with my speech, I don’t have to worry about someone catching me in a lie. (Ugh, that used to be such an uncomfortable feeling.) When I am awake, not intoxicated, I make wise choices when I’m traveling alone, so I feel safe.
We all find our own way with ethical conduct; what feels skillful to you may not to me, and that is ok. But as we begin to give ethical conduct a place of importance in our lives, we begin to feel a deeper sense of safety because we are doing our part to keep the world safe.
The second aspect of the Metta Sutta is the aspect of kindness, or friendliness. When I’m acting and feeling kind to all beings, I am more likely to get kindness in return. While we wish for kindness for ourselves and other beings, we’re not sending magical happy beams out in to the world. What we’re actually doing is training our own minds to gravitate towards kindness rather than fear. As our minds learn to be kinder, we cultivate kindness in the world, and we’re able to see more kindness too.
This morning I caught myself judging someone as I walked by him because I was worried he was judging me because he was going to exercise and I was clearly not. While I started caught in fear and judgment I was able turn it around and wish kindness to both of us. In that moment I reminded my brain that the default doesn’t have to be fear, or negativity, it can be kindness.
Think about the people you feel safest around. What makes them feel safe to you? Is there a thread of kindness? I think of two of my teachers. They are so different. One is more soft spoken, the other much more direct. One reflects before he speaks, the other is prone to blurting. One has really strong boundaries, the other not so much. But I feel completely safe with both of them because I know the intention underneath everything is rooted in kindness.
Just like with ethical conduct, we all find our own ways with cultivating kindness. Whether it’s a formal metta practice, or acts of generosity, or some other tool, if the primary purpose is to increase kindness in your world, you can be sure it is also increasing your sense of safety.
The third aspect of the Dharma that I have seen help me understand safety is this idea of groundlessness. We’re looking for safety, for solidity, for stability in an impermanent world. When I truly embrace the impermanence of life, I can let go of this struggle to make something stable that is inherently unstable. When I know that good and bad things are going to happen to me, I no longer have to exert so much energy trying to avoid the inevitable. It doesn’t mean I intentionally walk into traffic, but I own that safety is an internal attitude, not an external goal to strive for.
I think about a day I got my car broken into and my purse stolen. I dealt with the police and my car and still was able to be present with the other things I had on my plate that day. I was mostly skillful with my speech and didn’t act out in any crazy ways. That was a good day. That was a safe day. That was one of the first days that something “externally unsafe” happened and yet I felt safe. Because my practice allowed me to be present and be aware and respond in skillful ways. There was groundlessness there, it wasn’t how I expected my day to go, but because I wasn’t looking for stable ground it wasn’t a problem.
As we explore this concept of being safe from a Buddhist perspective there may be some growing pains. Our conditioning tells us safety is something we can control and create outside ourselves, and we are trying to reframe that. It’s not an easy process. But as we find our way with ethical conduct, kindness, and groundlessness, we may find a deep sense of internal safety.