Go Tiny or Go Home

My Six Paramitas: a Buddhist Primer


This is about the Buddha’s ten commandments, only they’re not commandments and there are only six of them. The Six “Paramitas” (a Sanskrit word, translated as “perfections”) are generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom.

But this is my take on the Six Paramitas, so they’ve become MY Six Paramitas. And the way I practice them, I try to put them into motion right when the wave hits.

Photo by Elena Terrone

It wasn’t really that big, the one in the photo. It just hit me at exactly the moment I wasn’t expecting it. Which is when most of what happens to us happens. Right? But that’s the fertile moment where your practice can mean something, where it can actually bear fruit.


When I first read about the Six Paramitas, images of The Perfect Buddhist showed up in my mind and it made me want to bury myself in youtube clips of bloopers from “The Office.”

I’m so far from the Six Paramitas, I don’t see why to start trying at all. But this is exactly what stops us: the perceived distance between us and whatever it is we want.


Here’s what I’ve learned, though: If you reach for the stars in the wrong way, you end up with nine hundred trillion excuses for why you didn’t make it. Reach for the stars in the right way, you can actually get there. It will just take nine hundred trillion tiny little steps.


So in this game, go tiny or go home.

For instance, here are some tiny examples of practicing the Six Paramitas that make them mine, that make them doable.


1. Generosity

I’m stingy with time. So I practice — just for today — opening up a tenderness for my death grip on time. I watch myself saying “I don’t have time for this!”, thinking time is finite, trying to hoard as much of it for myself as possible. I put my arms around that poor sweetheart who thinks she has the answers, who’s trying so hard to make them true. I love her without limits. Just ’cause. That’s the beginning of generosity.


2. Discipline

Do what I say I’ll do. (Go small.) Pick one thing. It could be ten seconds of slow breathing every day. It could be one packet of sugar instead of two in the coffee. It could be I put my dirty clothes in the hamper instead of letting them lie around. Or it could be punctuality — get there when I say I’ll get there. One teeny tiny thing. But every day. This builds discipline. (Emphasis on “builds.” A house doesn’t just materialize full blown. The foundation has to be laid and then the house is built. Tiny good habits, practiced over and over, build discipline.)


3. Patience

In Buddhism, there’s pain and then there’s suffering. No one escapes pain. But we can all be free from suffering. “Patience” connotes accepting some painful state or event, i.e., accepting it without suffering over it. How can I learn to do this? Again, I start tiny.


There’s this thing I do at the grocery store. We have a list. My idea is, get what’s on the list, pay and go home. My wife loves to look at all the produce, discover new condiments, check out what’s on sale. (Ding ding ding! Irritation? That’s the pain. Nagging her to finish already? There’s the suffering.) Can I feel the pain without activating the suffering?


Patience: I can turn off the arbitrary ticking clock at the grocery store. I can exercise patience by acknowledging (but not judging or acting on) my preference for things to be different. I can release the muscles at the back of my neck. I can try enjoying my wife’s simple love of what we’re doing. Her way of enjoying life.


4. Effort

Just thinking up these examples takes some effort. Putting them into effect once I publish this post will mean much more effort. Some other words for this Paramita are diligence, enthusiastic perseverance, dogged determination. So in other words — not a flash in the pan. Something you throw your shoulder into. Something you do like you mean it. Like it matters.


So starting tiny, my idea is I meditate for one minute and absolutely nothing or no one gets in the way. No sickness. No emergency. Nothing. I am doing it no matter what. Make it tiny enough that I can keep the commitment.


5. Meditative Concentration

This is about getting to know the mind. To do that, one must actually watch it in action, which is the definition of meditation. We think meditation is having a completely still mind. Nope. Meditation is watching the roiling drama of the mind without believing it (which, I’ll grant you, can be difficult).


Starting tiny? Set your alarm to go off twice a day (for me, it’s 11am and 4pm). When the alarm goes off, just ask What am I believing right now? You don’t have to write it down, but it can be funny later if you do. I mean it. And illuminating. The list from yesterday on just one of those events was this:

* I’m probably going to need surgery on my foot it hurts so bad. * I’m a terrible grandmother. * I’m too old for this. * My daughter probably hates me for being tired. * I’m a big drain on my wife — look at her, she’s so much more positive! * I’m so exhausted now, and I’m only 64. It will only get worse. I’ll be an invalid before I’m 70. If I even live that long.


None of that is a true reflection of who I am. Generosity can come into play here, smiling tenderly at the one who believes all that shit for no reason, reassuring her she’s ok. And patience with her neurotic tendencies. Discipline combined with strong effort will help me keep my gaze on the drama without believing it. Even if just for a minute a day.


6. Wisdom

In my belief system, wisdom, the sixth Paramita, comes as a fruit of practicing the first five Paramitas. You live in wisdom when you understand that the one practicing, the practice itself, and the fruits of the practice are indistinguishable from one another. All breathing through each other in the ocean of compassion.


Every day we can take these six tiny steps--in a million different ways--toward our own freedom from suffering.


Starting small is the secret. We can do this.


Photo by Elena Terrone