So What Am I, Chopped Liver?

Ajahn Amaro • December 2008

A theme we explored on the Thanksgiving Retreat was “complaining and blaming.” I thought it would be a useful theme because our culture tends toward complaint. If I’m suffering, then the way to the end of suffering is to complain or blame. I’m suffering, therefore it’s somebody else’s fault. I’ve been treated unfairly. This isn’t right. It shouldn’t be this way. This is powerful conditioning in our lives. I remember a New Yorker cartoon with a student asking a monk, “You say life is suffering, but isn’t it also complaining?” It’s useful to take a period of time to reflect on the unconscious or semiconscious way we react to the experience of suffering—to reflect on the urge to be critical, to be negative, to complain, or to find fault in ourselves or in the things around us. While reflecting like that, we can broaden our view by inquiring into the matter. Why do I think I shouldn’t have to experience this illness, this pain, this weather, this food, this person sitting next to me?

Then we can broaden our view further by consciously evoking a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the gifts and opportunities we have in our lives. This is a way to catch the mind’s habitual movement toward criticism or complaint, its movement toward the classic glass-is-half-empty attitude. Evoking gratitude goes directly against that complaining, criticizing, blaming mind. But we need to make sure that this gratitude isn’t based on a “think-pink” attitude—trying to sugarcoat things and pretend that we’re not really feeling critical or negative. It doesn’t help much to paste an artificial expression of gratitude on top of a negative mood or a feeling.

We begin with listening to the critical, blaming, or complaining mind, and hearing what that mind is saying. What’s it coming up with? Is it the feeling of being unfairly treated, slighted, left out, or ignored? Can we hear the mind’s cry of righteous indignation, So what am I, chopped liver? We receptively listen to the affronted, hurt, wounded, abandoned, irritated feelings, and hear the mind coming up with the reactions and thought processes that follow those feelings. We are simply allowing this experience to be known—this narrow, painful, reactionary state of complaining or feeling slighted. By bringing awareness to that, fully knowing its reactive quality, we can recognize and inquire, This is a really painful state. Why would I choose to react like this? Why would I want to carry this around and burden my heart with this? We’re not saying to ourselves, Oh, I’m supposed to be grateful now, I should plant some gratitude in here. Instead we are simply seeing the painfulness of our narrow, self-centered reactions. Once we see this, then the very acknowledgment of that painfulness can enable us to let go and relax. In the broadening of our views and attitudes, what arises is gratitude. We are able to appreciate the bigger picture, the gifts and the lessons we have received, and the potential opportunities we have in the world.