1. Religion & Spirituality
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.
Barbara O'Brien

Trusting Yourself

By February 28, 2011

Follow me on:

Several years ago, when I was very new to Zen practice, I was facing a difficult decision about a job. I took the question with me into dokusan, the private interview with the teacher. We're told that the interview should be about practice, or questions about dharma, and I don't know why I thought the teacher would help me make a job decision. But, I guess I figured bringing it up wouldn't hurt.

So I asked what I should do, and all he said was, "trust yourself."

It sounds so simple, right? Just trust yourself! But of course, in struggling to do that I waded into swamps and mires and bogs of confusion. How do you trust yourself when, in fact, you don't really trust yourself? And given that this same teacher was telling us the "self" is an illusion, what "self" do you trust? And who is doing the trusting? Ack!

Of course, in Buddhism this "trust yourself" is part of shraddha (in Pali, saddha), which often is translated as "faith." But instead of placing faith in a belief system or in a "higher power," Buddhist faith is more about confidence or trust in oneself and one's practice.

But that takes us back to the game of Who Do You Trust? Whatever decision I made those years ago didn't lead to happily ever after, but to new sets of problems and new decisions to be made. What I was looking for at the time was a place where there weren't so many problems. I didn't know how to find such a place, so how could I trust myself to find it? Help!

In a dharma discourse, my teacher said, "In order to trust yourself you have to let go of expectation." Oh-oh, this was even scarier. At the time the circumstances of my life were, well, let's just say, challenging. I kept myself going by looking forward to something better. But here the teacher was saying, trust just this moment, this circumstance. Very, very hard.

Of course, I was seeing myself and my life in a fragmented, one-sided say. I saw myself as a fixed thing trying to navigate a big, scary world of "other." And that perspective was, and is, the source of distrust.

There's a famous text attributed to a 6th century Chan master named Chien-chih Seng-ts'an (or Jianzhi Sengcan) called the "Hsin Hsin Ming," (or Xinxin Ming), which means "Faith Mind Inscription." Some translations render the title "The Mind of Absolute Trust."The Hsin Hsin Ming advises us to

Live neither in the entanglements of outer things nor in inner feelings of emptiness. ...
...Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.
Do not remain in the dualistic state -- avoid such pursuits carefully.
If there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong, the Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.

The Mind-essence will be lost in confusion, indeed. And I'm not going to pretend I've got this issue completely licked; after all this time, it's an ongoing struggle.

Of course, this is not an intellectual exercise. You can't will yourself out of seeing dualisms. It takes dedicated practice. So, if "trusting yourself" seems too daunting, try trusting the practice.

March 1, 2011 at 7:45 am
(1) David says:

The NYT online has an article this morning on self-compassion. Paradoxically, to apply yourself to your life problems successfully you first must ease up on yourself. ‘Trust yourself’ sounds to me like a self-compassion statement. My Zen teacher likes to emphasize what some call ‘radical self-acceptance’–accept yourself totally in everything you do and then, paradoxically, you will be able to change what needs changing. I suppose that, for Buddhists, self-compassion ultimately arises from the sense of no-self, that self is no big deal because, in the big scheme of things, it is an illusion. The discipline of Zen dramatises the paradox for me. At a sesshin you’re always hearing directions and criticisms–be still, you forgot to be in gassho, you forgot to bow, etc.–but after the first day or so the inner response is ‘OK, big deal, everyone forgets to bow; next time I’ll remember.’

March 1, 2011 at 9:59 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

I suppose that, for Buddhists, self-compassion ultimately arises from the sense of no-self, that self is no big deal because, in the big scheme of things, it is an illusion.

Yes. If you talked to most people about self-accepting and trusting themselves, it could come across as a seal of approval for selfishness and even narcissism.

But it’s a subtle thing — where is the self? Who self-accepts? Sometimes zennies can fall too far on the side of “I don’t exist,” and it can fuel a kind of weird self-denial. There was an article in the New York Times magazine a couple of years ago that illustrates this. Louis Nordstrom, a Rinzai teacher, while in his 60s sought out a psychotherapist to help him with issues stemming from a childhood of severe abuse.

A Rinzai teacher had told him the self “is a malignant growth which is to be surgically removed.” (I’m very sure my current teacher would disagree with that.) So, apparently, the sensei spent years “stuck in emptiness,” suppressing a self-image of an abused child, and screwing up his personal life all along the way. This is not exactly the effect we’re going for. :-)

I blogged about the article here, and I just re-read the comments, which are wonderful. Better than the blog post, even. :-) It’s a great discussion on this very point — what is the self that is dropped? What is the self that is trusted?

March 1, 2011 at 10:37 am
(3) Mila says:

To me, “trusting myself” means, fundamentally, having trust in my Original Goodness, i.e. Buddha Nature. This seems to allow for the kind of radical self-acceptance that David mentions above. Since I was raised in largely Judeo-Christian contexts, this has meant — over the years — unwinding “original sin” programming.

My Tibetan teachers speak of a “contextual self” — a functioning of the skandhas in relation to specific “historical dimension” situations. It’s possible for this contextual self to be completely free of egoic constriction/grasping.

So when I’m able to relax into a deep and continuous trust in my Original Goodness, contextual self is able to be fluid and naturally wise, i.e. to arise in perfect (nonconceptual) response to the situation at hand.

March 1, 2011 at 10:46 am
(4) Yeshe says:

You don’t go away when you realize that you’re not a self. The river flows, and then flows into the ocean, dissolves into the sky, and returns to nourish all the living beings. When was it a river? When wasn’t it? A Dharma practicioner doesn’t need to ‘nuke’ themselves to become a no-self. You’re already a no-self. And as far as selfishness, just chip away at that rock bit by bit, and it will disappear. Narcissistic selfishness manifests as perfectionism where one mentally flogs oneself to be a better no-self type of self.

March 3, 2011 at 2:51 am
(5) Hein says:

“Trust in yourself” in my view (and if I understand my teachers correctly) is not to indulge in yourself or to put yourself down. But on the otherside; “no man (and no woman) is an island”. This person is interconnected with every other phenomena including people. It is the deep realisation of pratitya-samupada (dependent origination) as well as “cause and effect” together with the realisation of the impermance of feelings etc (“the Heart Sutra”) that one can have the confidence (although an illusion, a very useful illusion sometimes) to forge ahead in what you consider “your life”.

Now, I know this is a Zen blog, but as a practitioner of the Chinese Chan/Pureland cannot but wonder whether the combined practice of so-called “self-power” and “other-power” might not be helpful in certain instances? Without going into my personal experiences I can say; the Chan/Pure Land practice has been helpful on many occassions in diificult circumstances in my life.

March 3, 2011 at 4:36 pm
(6) ktj says:

I think this is very intimately connected to trusting the dharma, karma, taking refuge etc etc.
Even if there is no permanent fixed self, there is a being with conciousness and it is this conciousness that Dogen says we must study.
Sometimes i have to answer a question I have been sitting with by asking a different one, in this case, it might mean “what happens, when i domn;t trust myself”.Lots of times for me when i don;t trust myself to do, xyz, it usually means that i haven;t thought about the situation enough, in enough ways, and also that i end up doing nothing til that happens. Sitting around trembling is something i find only productive if it leads me to get off the 100 foot pole.

March 3, 2011 at 7:05 pm
(7) Yalaha says:

Compassion is defined as the wish to relieve one (or others) of suffering, and then acting to do so.

We must be careful that the compassion we’re speaking of here is the compassion that is born of wisdom, with source in true understanding and skillful means.

Otherwise, it is just scratching an itch, perhaps compassionate in a loose, broad sense but NOT the compassion of which the Dharma speaks.

March 3, 2011 at 11:31 pm
(8) Karen M. Krueger says:


Well, I cannot agree with your Chinese quote on a number of planes. Most importantly, to me the Chinese have no resspect coming to them. Their egregious behavior vis-a-vis Tibetans has made them into a cruel and unworthy master of any kind. For you to quote them is giving them a respect that they do not deserve. I do not choose to respect anything in the quoted statement either. Isn’t it obvious that they do not know that what they are doing is evil. – Karen M. Krueger

March 4, 2011 at 1:00 pm
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

Karen Krueger — I find your comments deeply disturbing. Do you practice Buddhism? Why are you tarring all Chinese people throughout time with what the current government of China is doing? Very, very unskillful.

Chien-chih Seng-ts’an lived almost 15 centuries ago. He is one of the patriarchs of Zen, so for me he’s a venerated ancestor. Most of the major schools of Mahayana Buddhism were established and developed in China, so a lot of us have Chinese dharma ancestors. We owe them boundless gratitude.

More critically, your demonization of the entire Chinese people because of what the current government is doing creates the very karma that brings about atrocities and oppression. Harboring such enmity sinks us further into suffering and delusion. “Those people are bad” so easily becomes a justification for violence.

Master Chien-chih Seng-ts’an said, “If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.”

March 4, 2011 at 1:07 am
(10) Kwilson says:

May I ask? It seems to me that problems arise when we expect something, some result from some practice or other. Whether it is a result from trusting oneself and achieving some success or expecting to be a better Buddhist because of some practice or study. We should perhaps not expect or yearn for some result! We should work hard but not expect. What do you think please?

March 4, 2011 at 6:50 am
(11) Rajeev G says:

Self exists, non-self exists, self do not exist, non-self do not exist. All these are linguistic plays. When we know we have an an illusory self present, I think we should accept the fact that it exists now in the “mind” and trust that. If we do not understand our “self” then there cannot be freedom from it. So, first accepting the fact that there is a “self” illusory or looks real or contextual. Then trusting the same self to come out of that illusion. At the time of death, Buddha also told the same, “be a light to oneself”. We know what self he meant. So, this also to be taken in that same meaning.

March 4, 2011 at 8:51 am
(12) Lee says:

when the flow is clear intent is pure
no need to think about right and wrong
right action manifests
trust is manifest
when self attaches greedily to other
discernment of truth is murky
action more likely to aid in suffering
the instant I act I question my intent

March 5, 2011 at 10:09 am
(13) George Deane says:

Americans are fortunate in being the recipients of a culture that fosters self-trust and its allied key component – individuality , as compared to other cultures in which the individual is relegated to the “wisdom” or in some cases the repression of the collective. This self-trust can easily degenerate into arrogance by ignoring the opinions of others. Self-trust can be a daunting task, imposing the necessity of wisdom-seeking squarely on the shoulders of the individual. Sartre said that when we make a decision we bear the weight of the world upon our shoulders, we are in effect legislating not merely for ourselves but for the whole of humanity. He presents the decision making process as an awesome challenge. The decision making process is an agonizing process. In the world of dharma, that decision making process is no less painful. We have to choose between Tibetan Buddhism, Thereveda, Zen. Which is right for us? Then there are differences of opinion , even within these traditions. Whose opinion are we to choose? This is where self knowledge comes into play. Is there, for example, a single answer as to what we should be doing in meditation? What practices express our personality? Does chanting have the same effect on me as it might to another? Should we be turned off by the enigmatic nature of traditional Japanese approach to Zen or should we rather go the route that American Zen teachers have charted an American path to to make Zen more intellectually lucid? Which practices speak to our own individual personality and which don’t? Trust in oneself means that ultimately we are the authors of our own decision; that means self-acceptance with the humility of respecting tradition and integrating those aspects of tradition which are consistent with our own personality. Self- knowledge, to me, is what we are and what we are not as individuals That is what I feel to be the key to self-trust.

March 6, 2011 at 2:47 am
(14) Michael Holt says:

The problem with “trust yourself” is how do you know that it is the real “self” that you can trust.
I do support the doctrine of emptiness : the mind is a process, nothing inside telling you what to do.
The ancient Romans had a saying “know yourself”.

March 7, 2011 at 8:22 am
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

how do you know that it is the real “self” that you can trust.

This isn’t easy for many of us. However, I’d say there is something to be trusted, and we practice to realize and appreciate what that is.

February 7, 2013 at 11:46 pm
(16) Linda says:

We always know the “right action” for the specific situation at hand. When we trust our essential selves, we can feel it. We go on from there, to a place of no form, a place of love and understanding. The only place where we can survive. Trust is a matter of survival.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.