Be like a dustbin with a hole in the bottom

What the heck kind of quote is that, you ask?

It’s actually from one of Ajahn Brahm’s many amazing published books called Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?

Who is this Ajahn Brahm? No, he’s not a Thai poet (that’s the first thing I thought of). He’s a Buddhist monk and a very famous one at that. Okay, maybe famous isn’t the word I should use. Well-known, perhaps. Famous sounds… inappropriate for a monk.

Anyway, Ajahn Brahm is a Buddhist monk (you can read about him here) and we’ve had the privilege of attending two or three of his talks. He is an amazing speaker who has so many wonderful, touching and enlightening stories to tell. I can only hope that I get to attend more of his talks. If you do attend one of his talks, look out for the person bawling her eyes out at his stories… That would be me. Also, if you like, you can listen to some of his talks on Youtube or download them from this site.

At the latest talk we went to a few months (or has it been a year) back, it was revealed that he had released a new book – entitled Good? Bad? Who knows? – and it was being sold outside the hall but if I remember correctly, the reason why we didn’t get his book then was because 1) the lines were really long or 2) it would have been sold out by the time we joined the queue.

Which is why we said that when we got here, we would order it from Amazon. My sister recently brought this topic up at dinner and I was like, oh that’s right, we meant to do that. It was also around that time when I re-discovered Thich Nhat Hanh – another Buddhist monk whose book A Pebble for Your Pocket is one of my favorite books that I read while growing up – and began to look up more of his books.

You’d really like to know how much time I spent browsing all the Buddhist books, wouldn’t you? I was so tempted to get them all BUT…

As a surprise (and I’ll just admit that I’m bad at keeping surprises) and after going through the list of books over and over again, I ordered Ajahn Brahm’s Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? and Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Art of Communicating.

I bought Ajahn Brahm’s book as a gift for my mom and sister. Often times, with things (aka life)  happening so quickly or coming down at you, it’s so hard to remember to be positive or understanding or less judgmental/temperamental. Which is why I thought it would be a good idea to get these books.

I wrote a bunch of stuff but deleted it because felt like it was getting off-topic so let me try to direct this post to the main point I was getting to.

Before my mom went home, I decided to browse through Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? and I stumbled upon this page that spoke volumes to me. I had a sudden aha! moment, an epiphany if you will. It was like Ajahn Brahm had written that page just for me.

Before I tell you what I read, I’ll tell you the thing that has been bugging me for quite a while now. I had an empathy burnout. Or at least I believed that I did. I was so tired from giving my all to everyone that I felt empty and weary. I ran out of consoling things to say, I started to lose my patience quickly, I didn’t want to listen to people’s problems anymore, I began to wonder if my heart had gone cold. I actually read that people can have empathy burnouts where they are drained and need to have time to themselves to recharge.

But that didn’t happen. I waited for my empathy to be recharged so that I could continue giving my all and doing my best for everyone around me. I HATED being ‘cold’. I used to pride myself on having empathy. I wanted so bad for things to go back to the way they were – when I could listen to people’s problems, cry with them, laugh with them, console them, lift their spirits, be their rock. But it didn’t happen. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong or what I was supposed to do.

I continued questioning my ‘coldness’ until I read that one page in Ajahn Brahm’s book. I actually have two quotes from the book even though the title of this post only has one.

The first reads:

To help a person out of a pit, I must sometimes enter the pit myself to reach for their hand – but I always remember to bring the ladder – Ajahn Brahm

I was SO moved by this line because I remember drawing a small comic of myself helping people out of the pit but inadvertently falling in as well. I was mildly depressed when I drew that comic. I was overwhelmed by my emotions, by other people’s emotions, by my helplessness, by my empathy burnout.

I forgot to bring the ladder! I didn’t know I needed one!

But it makes sense to me now.

The other excerpt from the page read:

He* told us to be like a dustbin with a hole in the bottom! We were to receive all the rubbish but to keep none. Therefore an effective friend, or counselor, is like a dustbin with no bottom, and is never too full to listen to another problem. – Ajahn Brahm

Then I understood. I know it sounds dramatic but it was like someone had struck a match inside a dark and damp cave.

I’ve been receiving AND keeping. That was is my problem. I let people’s problems pile on and on and on until the load on my shoulders feels unbearable. My bin is full. I didn’t open the bottom lid (if you have a Hoover vacuum, you probably know what I’m talking about) to empty the trash. I need to let go of all the old baggage that is weighing me down.

If you’re thinking that by being a bin with no bottom means listening but not giving a shit about people’s problems, that’s really not what it means. As Thich Nhat Hanh put it so simply, if we learn to understand someone else’s and our own suffering, compassion arises. With compassion, we can be bottomless bins. To me, it means that you help with what you can and after that, you don’t let it weigh you down or keep you from moving forwards.

People don’t change overnight so it’s taking me time and effort to remember these two pieces of advice and practice it.

But I get it now and just thought I would share it with anyone who is going through the same thing as myself.

I would also like to offer my own piece of advice: if you’re in that pit, don’t forget to look up. Sometimes you may be so caught up in your own despair that you might not even notice that there may be people stretching their hands out to you to help you out. My mom and sister have been here for me and for that, I’m grateful.

P.S: You don’t have to be Buddhist to listen to Ajahn Brahm’s talks. They are for everybody and anybody.

* the ‘he’ in Ajahn Brahm’s quote refers to Ajahn Chah who was another incredibly wise monk and Ajahn Brahm’s master.

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