Entitlement: The Near Enemy of Spiritual Practice

In Buddhism there is a concept of a "near enemy" of particular states of being. A "near enemy" is something that masquerades as the intended state, but is quite different, even harmful. Compassion, the near enemy of which is pity, is a good example of this. When we pity someone we separate ourselves from them, we see their troubles as something other that ourselves, something we even subtly look down upon. Pity creates a sense of separation and otherness. This often feels like we are experiencing compassion, "I feel terrible for this person." What often comes along with this however, is a subtle sense of, "Glad it wasn't me," thus affirming our sense of self and creating distance between us and the suffering person. Compassion, on the other hand, is a recognition of suffering, a familiarity. Instead of seeing the suffering person as other, we understand their suffering to be our own, perhaps not directly, but there is more of a mirror-like quality in our understanding that we suffer in the same way as this other person suffers.

While logically this separation may seem clear when written down, in any given moment they often feel quite similar, thus gaining these states the title of "near enemy." The similarities make these near enemies subversive and difficult to recognize.

What is even more difficult to recognize is the overarching near enemy of meditation, or spiritual practice in general, itself: Entitlement. Often people enter into spiritual practices in order to feel better; not many people begin to meditate because they feel great. In itself this is not a bad motivator if it gets us to practice. When it becomes a problem however, is when we feel we have the right to feel good all the time; when we feel we deserve to feel good. This slowly perverts the practice into a practice of feeling good.

Buddhist practice is not a path of feeling good, it is a path of recognizing things as they are, but it can easily become transformed into a path of seeking positive emotional states. Often feeling better is a result of the practice, but if the goal becomes feeling good, then we have left the realm of Buddhist practice and entered into entitlement practice.

Often metta (loving-kindness) practice is pointed to as a practice that can help pull oneself out of a depressive state. In itself this is not necessarily a bad motivator, but when it becomes the sole motivator it serves to increase our sense that we deserve to be happy all of the time and we begin to bypass our emotional states. We solidify our sense of self, become less able to handle our negative emotional states, and do not get to experience the most beneficial outcome of the practice: a greater sense of connectedness with others as they are and an acceptance of ourselves as we are. When we engage in this entitlement practice, there quickly becomes an expectation that practice leads to feeling good, and when it inevitably does not, we become disheartened, further slide into depression, or even give up the practice altogether.

By engaging in entitlement practice, we demonize negative emotions and try to rid ourselves of them, it becomes intolerable to feel sad and we often shirk our responsibility for our own emotional states, blaming others or beating ourselves up. Internalized aggression is as much of an avoidance of responsibility as externalizing it. When we internalize our aggression, we blame ourselves instead of someone else. The object may be different, but the result is the same: inaction and resentment.

The irony of engaging in feel-good entitlement practice, is that in the end we feel much worse. Instead of acceptance, we turn to avoidance. We avoid reality by making the world into a magic place, we begin to rely on our superstitions, giving up all of our motivation and action to what we see as an external controlling force, be it fate or a faulty understanding of karma. When these external forces fail to give us what we desire or believe we deserve we often shut down, fall into despair, or give up.

Meditation is reality practice. We accept things as they are. An important point to note here is that accepting reality as it is does not equate to a permanence of reality as it is. As we begin to accept reality as it is through meditation, we begin to see things clearly. When we see clearly, we gain the ability to take responsibility. When we take responsibility, we gain the ability to make changes. Another important note here is that responsibility does not equate to fault. Responsibility here is seeing reality as it is and saying, "This is how it is, now what do I do?" Responsibility is action with clear understanding and without blame.

Entitlement is the near enemy of spiritual practice and meditation because it can often feel very similar. Entitlement practice is seeing reality without the acceptance and responsibility that come with meditation practice, and an underlying belief that we should always feel good. We may see the same reality with the same clarity, but without acceptance and responsibility the only option is despair or inaction.

None of this is to say that finding this distinction is an easy path. We enter into meditation in search of something, often some improvement to our lives or a respite from our difficult emotions. We do often find this comfort in meditation and spiritual practice, but we have to begin to view it as a respite and not as the end goal. If we fail to make the shift from a feeling-good practice to a reality practice, we fall into entitlement practice where we turn the true practice of seeing reality as it is into a practice of being endlessly disappointed with reality as we believe it should be, and as we falsely believe we deserve it to be.

Ian Andersen

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