“Girls! Keep your eyes on your own papers!” Sister Mary Angela bellowed while she loomed over us.
Sister Mary Angela was in her mid-80s and pulled herself up to a full height of four feet and seven inches, and about 85 pounds. Don’t misunderstand, she was a force to be reckoned with. As tiny as she was, I was terrified of her. One of our recent encounters ended with her punching me in the stomach one day because I was not walking to class fast enough.
If she said that she would flunk me if she caught me looking at someone else’s paper, then I had no doubt that she would flunk me. My parents would kill me, and I would become a high school dropout and never make it to college. And if I never made it college, well, all I knew was that would be bad. OK, clearly, I did not think through the part where if my parents killed me, then the rest would not matter. These are the dramatic thoughts I had as teenaged girl. A teenaged girl who had yet to encounter Buddhism.
I was so nervous that I didn’t even look at the back of the head of the girl in front of me. It didn’t even occur to me that this threat was not applicable to me—I actually enjoyed history class and was well-prepared for the exam.
And you know, I didn’t turn and look when someone sitting next to me kept whispering, “What’s the answer to question five?” I wasn’t going to get caught in a trap, oh no.
So, what does this tiny, elderly Catholic nun have to do with Buddhism and grief and Death Dhamma?
In your practice and on your grief journey, keep your eyes on your own paper. As you work on making friends with death and impermanence, keep your eyes on your own paper. Your journey is your journey; your experience is your experience.
Now, let me give you a quote from another Catholic woman, my mother, Joannie Meloni:
“Comparisons are odious.”
You might watch someone else who is going through grief and become envious of how she seems to be completely recovered. Perhaps she appears to have absolutely no suffering. You might perceive another person as being too emotional or taking too long to return to normal. You think that she should be able to go to the grocery store without crying.
Stop it. When you compare yourself to others, you will probably either:
1. Feel Superior
2. Feel Inferior
3. Feel equal
If you develop feelings of superiority, you are feeding your ego and opening the door to pride and conceit. If you feel inferior, then you are succumbing to low self-esteem, another form of ego. Even feelings of equality are still feeding into a sense of self. Each of these potential outcomes solidifies a sense of self. Your grief and how you respond to it is not you.
Grief arises in you; you are not grief. Comparing yourself to others, no matter the outcome, is a form of conceit:
“If one regards himself superior or equal or inferior by reason of the body that is impermanent, painful, and subject to change, what else is it than not seeing reality? Or if one regards himself superior or equal or inferior by reason of feelings, perceptions, volitions, or consciousness, what else is it than not seeing reality? If one does not regard himself superior or equal or inferior by reason of the body, the feelings, perceptions, volitions, or consciousness what else is it than seeing reality?”— SN 22.49
The passage above refers to using the body as a basis for feelings of superiority, or inferiority, or equality. You can therefore extrapolate that whatever you use as a basis of comparison is also impermanent. And as such, you are not seeing reality.
None of this is meant to imply that you cannot learn from the experiences of others. If someone you know has a habit, or a credible teaching/teacher, this is worthy of investigation, and if your research brings you new ways to support yourself, try those approaches. But don’t compare your results to the results of others. You are not running a time trial; you are not racing to a finish line. Doing a better job than someone else is not a true measurement of your spiritual progress. And what does it mean to do a better job than someone else? Do you meditate longer? Do you meditate more frequently? Do you cry less often?
It is like reading the warning and recommendations on a bottle of medicine: results may vary. Results will vary. What matters is your progress. Use your energy to discern what works for you, remembering that each day will be different. Your experience with your grief will vary. You are engaged in a long-term effort. Keep your eyes, your focus, your effort on your own development.