We Need Inspiration

I finally saw Invictus last night. Clint Eastwood’s film about Nelson Mandela and how South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I thought it was good.  Much of what makes the film work is Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela. I was moved by nearly every scene he was in. I have no idea how much dramatic license was taken with the events, but I felt as though I had a window into the soul of a great man.

The film is also about inspiration. Invictus means “unconquered” and is the title of a famous Victorian poem that inspired Mandela during his 27 years in prison. After becoming president of South Africa, Mandela wisely saw that his country was in desperate need of inspiration. After attending a game of the Springboks, the country’s rugby team, he thought that if the team could win the Rugby World Cup (in one year’s time), it would help unite the country and South Africans would be inspired “to be better than they think they can be.”

We all need inspiration. Some of the best sources of inspiration come from things that on the surface would seem to be rather trivial, like sports. Most of us are all for inspiration when it is the creative kind. When it comes to inspirational words or stories, however, sometimes I think we are too jaded or think ourselves too sophisticated to be able to appreciate these small gems of wisdom. Often, we’ll look down our noses at inspirational quotes, for example, and dismiss them as just some feel-good fluff.

Here’s an  inspirational quote that’s a perfect example of what I mean:

Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.

True, but sounds pretty hokey, right? Maybe that isn’t the right word, because it’s not really sentimental, although it may be a bit corny, like one of those phony Buddha quotes. Only this is a line spoken by Nelson Mandela in Invictus. Maybe it’s something he actually said, I don’t know. I think it ceases to sound hokey when put in the context of another quote from the film, spoken by a character reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s spirit: “I was thinking about how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.” For me, that raises it to another level.

Quotes like that one, and mottos, maxims, sayings, proverbs, etc. distill great wisdom in a few words. They convey sometimes complicated truths simply. That’s the part that catches us up. Because they are simple, they can be easily dismissed.

Nearly every successful businessperson I have ever met, particularly in sales, has had some simple motto or inspirational quote that they lived by. When you try to look past the surface and engrave the truth of these sayings into your life, they are no longer merely a string of words designed to make you feel good (and what’s wrong with that?), they are small bits of wisdom that serve as reminders of what we are striving for in life, and when faced with challenges they can help us keep up the momentum and not give up. It’s very easy to give up or become resigned to falling short of our own expectations.

In Tibetan Buddhism there is the practice of Lojong or “mind training” based on a set of sayings or proverbs, like inspirational quotes, concocted in the 12th century by Geshe Chekhawa. Here’s a few:

When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi.

Be grateful to everyone.

Always maintain only a joyful mind.

Change your attitude, but remain natural.

Don’t try to be the fastest.

Don’t seek others’ pain as the limbs of your own happiness.

There’s 59 all together. But I think they left out a few. Like “Silence is golden” and “Happiness is a warm Buddha.”

These are the kind of inspirational words that some people love to poke fun at, yet a number of today’s prominent teachers promote lojong practice, including Pema Chodron, Ken McLeod, Alan Wallace, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and the Dalai Lama. They’re not too proud to be hokey. What do they know that we don’t?

They know that a simple truth can be profound, and that it can be a springboard into even deeper truths, if you let it. Even the uber-cerebral Ken Wilber recognizes the profundity of simple truths. In the foreword to The Practice of Lojong, by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, he writes:

It is Rinpoche’s belief, which I heartily second, that not only are the secrets of Lojong an antidote to much of today’s emotional pain and suffering, they contain the very practices that can fully awaken the mind and liberate awareness. And not just in a passing, self-help kind of fashion, a “Gosh-I-feel-better” kind of way, but by striking right at the heart of suffering itself, while simultaneously pointing to the enlightened or fully liberated mind.

Lojong practice requires seeing these little mottos differently.

So, to wrap this thing up, the next time you are tempted to look down upon someone’s inspiration quote, inwardly smirk at some proverb, or criticize someone for using them, think twice. Maybe they’re on to something you haven’t figured out yet. Maybe they’re the smarties.

We need inspiration. It’s hard enough to come by, so I don’t think it’s such a good idea to just dismiss inspiration out of hand because it’s too cute, comes from a source we think is silly, or doesn’t measure up to our standards. The inspirational words that might be too sweet for your tea, may be a lifeline to someone else, and to you, too, once you get past your preferences and prejudices.

Always keep in mind these inspirational words from the immortal Chinese detective, Charlie Chan:

Any powder that kills flea is good powder.

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