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How To Deal With Praise And Blame

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On a wintry day just before the New York State Democratic primary, I was volunteering for Senator Obama's campaign, and was assigned to stand alongside my friends in front of a subway exit in Manhattan's Union Square. We were all holding up signs with the candidate's name and his campaign slogans. As it turned out, the very first person to emerge from the subway stairs glanced at our group, and marched directly over to me to shout, "You suck!!" "Me?" I thought. "Not even the candidate, but me??"

The very next person to come up from the subway was someone who had attended many of the meditation classes I regularly teach in New York City. The instant she spotted me she beamed, walked up to me, and said, "I adore you!" "Now you I like," I thought. "Stick around for a while."

Political seasons are perfect occasions for experiencing praise and scorn, belittlement and admiration. If we air our deeply held views and ready opinions we are vulnerable to everyone's reactions. Yet, according to the Buddha, it is like this all the time. He said, "There is always blame in this world. If you say nothing, some people will blame you. If you say a lot, some people will blame you. If you say just a little bit, some people will blame you."

A story is told is of a man going to the monastery one day to learn something of the Buddha's teaching. The first person he came upon was a monk who had taken a temporary vow of silence; when asked to say something, the monk remained silent. The questioner became furious and stomped away.

The man returned a second day and came upon a disciple of the Buddha who was famous for not only his profound personal realization but also his vast theoretical knowledge. When asked to describe some of the Buddha's teaching, he launched into a somewhat lengthy discourse; furious, the man stomped away.

The man came back a third day, and saw yet another disciple of the Buddha, who, having heard what happened on the first and second days, was careful to say a little bit, yet not too much. Once again the man became angry: "How dare you treat such profound matters so sketchily!"

This group of disciples went off to see the Buddha and recounted the story. In response, the Buddha said "There is always blame in this world. If you say nothing..."

There will always be praise and blame coming our way, no matter what we do. Knowing that doesn't mean we don't care. Of course we care -- most commonly we want to be thanked for our generosity, noted for our courage, and lauded for our acumen. We generally prefer being told that we are adored than that we suck. How could we not?

But the question I always try to ask is, "How much do I care?" Where do I find my most authentic sense of integrity? What is the basic source of my conviction and my willingness to take a risk? From what place do I summon up the strength to be a little different, or to express myself, or to step forward, or to just be myself? If I'm only happy when universally, uniformly, entirely praised -- if I'm not happy when there's any disagreement, or a single frowning face, or a random slur coming my way -- it seems I won't be happy very often.

So, how much do we care? Can we take in negative feedback and reproach and disapproval, rather than just disavow it in a narcissistic fit of pique? At the same time, can we look at criticism with an open mind for what we might learn while also holding it in the larger context of wisdom - "There is always blame in this world"? Can we look toward our motivation to speak or act to determine the worthiness of our action? Can we be discerning about whether or not we acted skillfully, without deciding that praise means we have nothing to learn, or any blame at all means we've failed utterly? If we can't, we will continually give our hearts over to a shifting world of praise and blame that we can never finally control, and over to the vagaries of time and personal circumstance that always shape peoples' reactions. If we can't, we will continue to get our hearts broken as our expectations are thwarted and our measures of success are challenged.

Or we can know who we are and why we do what we do, and we can try to act as skillfully as possible -- and then know deeply, from within, that if we are standing outside in the cold, acting in alignment with our beliefs, inspired to put forth effort to realize our aspirations, to express our caring - that truly, no matter what someone might say, we don't at all suck.