This morning I noticed a new review on our book, Just As You Are. It was our thirteenth five star review. I felt a familiar rush of warm excitement – ooh, someone has been impressed by what we wrote! They liked it enough to give it five out of five stars!
Receiving praise is so delicious.
I wanted more. I clicked to see the other reviews this person had written, interested in what else she had read. I was hoping she read scholarly Buddhist tomes, of course, and that she had given them two or three stars each at most. Instead I saw that she read a wide range of fiction and spiritual writing, some of it of dubious quality if I can judge books by their covers, and that she had given raving five stars reviews to all but a couple of the many she’d read. I smiled wryly as the warm feeling started to fade…
Yesterday I was speaking to my psychotherapy supervisor about a book where the (famous) author speaks about how fleeting and empty the pleasures of fame are. Logically, I know this to be true. I have had many lower scale experiences of being famous and receiving praise. When my fourth novel sold well and I watched it rise ever-upwards in the charts, I felt like I was on drugs. I found myself needing a higher and higher chart position to maintain my own high. I became greedy for more and more glowing reviews. The book peaked and came down, as all things must do, and I was left with a huge praise-hangover. I didn’t get to ‘keep’ any of the self-esteem I thought I was receiving from those readers. The praise went into my huge hungry-ghost belly and left me as starving as ever.
The Buddha warns us of the dangers of falling for praise and blame many times. I like how he puts it here in the Muni Sutta which describes the qualities of a perfect sage:
The wandering solitary sage,
uncomplacent, unshaken by praise or blame.
Unstartled, like a lion at sounds.
Unsnared, like the wind in a net.
Unsmeared, like a lotus in water.
Leader of others, by others unled:
The enlightened call him a sage.
So is it best to close our eyes and ears to praise and blame completely? My supervisor suggested yesterday that it’s okay for us to enjoy the feelings we get from praise, as long as we don’t get tangled up and start clinging. This would be like receiving an exquisite macadamia-praline chocolate from someone and enjoying every morsel, without feeling like we need to find a way (at any cost!) of getting a second or a third. We accept the chocolate we are given, we savour it, and then we move on.
When I read the new review I enjoyed it, but then I got my feet stuck in the sticky sweetness. What kind of person was giving me this praise? How discerning were they? How much credit could I give myself for those five stars? I led myself up the garden path and, to mix my metaphors, headed straight into a blind alley.
The next time I receive praise, whether it’s someone liking my new haircut or an excellent review from an esteemed peer, I will aim to be unshaken by it. I will enjoy the taste of it, acknowledging the mix of truth and fiction it will inevitably contain, and then allow it to pass from my sight as I keep walking. Unstartled, like a lion at sounds. Alternatively, in the Pureland Buddhist version, I will get my feet stuck in the praise again and fall on my face, knowing that Amida Buddha loves me just the same. Either way, I am giving myself permission to enjoy the warmth on my face as the sun of praise comes out from behind a cloud.
Reference: “Muni Sutta: The Sage” (Sn 1.12), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.12.than.html