We all have some rough relationships in our lives that seem held together by the stickiness of attachment and expectation. It is true that we have love and care for these people, but, at the same time, it’s not so clean; there’s plenty of complexity. Inside, we feel an emotional tug when we see or think of them. This is often exaggerated with the people we are close to and with whom we share a strong dynamic, such as our parents, children, close friends, or spouse—all relationships where a lot of expectations tend to arise. There are many unspoken demands. In the midst of our romance, marriage, or parenting, we find ourselves responsible for someone else’s loneliness and their emotional or physical pain.

There is a Tibetan term that describes this kind of dynamic: lenchak, commonly translated as “karmic debt.” Len literally means “time” or “occurrence,” while chak refers to “attachment,” “attraction,” or the notion of a karmic pull toward someone, usually in an unhealthy way. So lenchak could be understood as the residue that revisits us from the dynamic of a relationship from what some would call a past life, a dynamic now strengthened by habitual responses. Lenchak is most often used to explain or describe why a particular relationship is how it is.

In the Buddhist texts, we read that in certain hell realms beings experience the negative results of past unwholesome relationships. They hear their name being called out and experience a pull toward the voice of the person they once knew. They travel toward that voice but end up encountering horrendous creatures and experiencing intense physical and mental anguish. This is interesting because, with those with whom we have lenchak, we feel an immediate pull beyond our control or sense of resistance. Our name is called, and we jump at once to serve them. This is not a conscious decision—not a joyous decision—but more like being propelled by a strong wind. Our reaction— whether with anger, jealousy, attachment, or what have you—only serves to reinforce the dynamic. People have done many things “in the name of love.” But if this is love, it’s not a healthy kind of love.

Human Currents, Kim Lieberman, 2006, oil paint on postage stamp paper, 84 x 29 inches. © Kim Lieberman
Human Currents, Kim Lieberman, 2006, oil paint on postage stamp paper, 84 x 29 inches. © Kim Lieberman

In Tibet they say there is a lake where, during a particular full moon each year, the seal-like creatures who live there gather fish in their mouths and offer them up to hordes of owls who hover in the trees above, waiting to eat. There is no apparent reason for the seals to offer the fish other than the fact that the owls seem to expect it. As the story goes, the seals gain nothing from offering the fish, and the owls are never satisfied. So, they say, since there is no obvious reason for this dynamic to be as it is, “it must be lenchak.”

The lenchak dynamic has two sides: the seal side and the owl side. If we are the seal, we feel an unspoken emotional responsibility for someone else’s mind and well-being. We feel pulled toward this person as if they have a claim on us. It’s a strong visceral experience, and we have a physical reaction to it: the phone rings and we check our caller ID—it’s “the owl.” We should pick it up, but we are overcome by a strong wave of anxiety and repulsion, as if we are being attacked by our own nervous system. We brace ourselves for a problem or a strong emotional download. As much as we want to detach ourselves from this person, we can’t break loose; it’s as if they have captured us, and there’s no escape— checkmate! Of course, this is not the case. In truth we are held hostage by our own attachment, guilt, and inability to resist the pain that comes from feeling unreasonably responsible for them. On one hand, we can’t bear watching the owl struggle. On the other hand, we can’t let go. This dynamic brings us down; it makes us lose our luster as human beings.

Meanwhile, the owl is never satisfied, no matter how many fish the seal tries to feed it. Of course, when caught in the owl syndrome we don’t see it in this way. We feel neglected, isolated, and weak. The reason for this is that we are depending on someone else in hopes that they will manage our fears. We have so many unspoken demands, although we often express these demands in a meek and needy way. The owl syndrome reduces us to a childlike state. We begin to question whether or not we can do things on our own, and we lose confidence in our ability to face our mind and emotions. Interestingly, the owl—so frail, needy, and insecure—is not necessarily as feeble as it seems to be. In fact, the owl has the upper hand. It’s a little manipulative, if you want to know the truth. The owl just doesn’t want to clean up its own mess. This is a privileged attitude. If the owl couldn’t afford to be weak—if it didn’t have the seal—it would naturally rise to its own challenges.

The irony of this dynamic is that, in most cases, the more fish the seal offers the owl, the more resentful, demanding, and dissatisfied the owl gets. For both the seal and owl, this kind of dependence and expectation gives way to a lot of ugliness. At work we may have to hold our tongues and swallow what our boss has to say, but there is no holding back with our loved ones. We let our guard down and allow ourselves to get ugly, spreading our web of ego anxieties all over the place. It’s true, the seal may temporarily pacify the owl, but no mutual respect arises from this kind of arrangement. And in truth, isn’t it respect that we want most of all? Everyone wants love and care, but, more than these, human beings want respect for who they are. Even an enemy can respect another enemy. There is a sense of human dignity in this.

Feelings of love and care arise naturally; they are not the product of pressures and demands.

In this confusion of lenchak for love, we fear that without the lenchak dynamic our relationships will completely fall apart. What is there beyond all the obligations, all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” and all the fantasies we try to live up to? The distinction between love and lenchak needs to be examined carefully. Love and care toward others warms the heart and makes us generous and giving. Feelings of love and care arise naturally; they are not the product of pressures and demands. Think about the attachment and pain of lenchak. Think of all the insecurities and resentment that come with it. Lenchak makes us feel like we are not up for our own life and its challenges or that we can’t handle seeing others in pain. And yet we don’t trust that they can handle their own lives, either!

When it’s time for a child to start walking, a mother needs to let her child walk. She needs to let the child lose his or her balance, fall down, and then find balance once again. Alone, the child needs to get up and stand on his or her own two feet. Although children need protection, we need to have confidence in their potential to flourish. We don’t want to hold them captive by our own fears and doubts—this creates the unhealthy dependence we have been talking about. Letting children immerse themselves in a challenging situation or obstacle for a while gives the child confidence. It gives the mother confidence, too. It’s one of the early steps a mother takes in letting the child become a citizen of the world.

When challenges or obstacles arise for us, we don’t have to get so intimidated; we can say, “Yes, it’s an obstacle, but it is not intrinsically bad; it’s not going to destroy me.” To create a relationship with the obstacle, learn about it, and finally overcome it is going to be a helpful thing to do. It gives us a chance to cultivate wisdom and skillful means. It gives us confidence. We cannot eliminate all of the challenges or obstacles in life— our own or anyone else’s. We can only learn to rise to the occasion and face them. Shantideva suggests that we need to cultivate a “Can do! Why not? No problem!” kind of attitude toward our neuroses and obstacles in order to overcome them. If we have no confidence, we’ll already be defeated, like a dead snake lying on the ground. Around a dead snake, even a sparrow can act like a garuda! (This ancient mythological Indian bird, said to be able to travel from one end of the universe to the other with a single movement of its wings, is also said to hatch from the egg fully developed, and is thus used as a symbol for the awakened state of mind.) In the same way, the smallest fear or neurosis will entirely overpower us.

The great deception of lenchak is that it doesn’t even occur to us that our suffering is our own. We automatically expect that others should share in it or take it on themselves. In this way, lenchak gets in the way of our owning up to the responsibility of our lives. There are times when we try to pull others in for sympathy. If asked, “How are you?” we will review our full history. It starts off, “I’m okay, but . . . .” We feel a need to share everything. At the end of the conversation, others know all our troubles and ailments. We just can’t seem to go through the process on our own with our own strength.

But do we really need to be transparent as glass? Do others really want this kind of honesty? People often can’t handle all the details and confusion in their own lives. It is safe to assume that they have emotional ups and downs and uncomfortable physical sensations like we do. Furthermore, unless they are our doctor, what can they actually do for us?

At the end of my mother’s life, when she was quite sick, an old friend came to see her. When he asked how she was feeling, she said, “I’m fine.” I later asked her why she said that, and she replied, “What else should I say?” When you ask accomplished teachers how they are, they always say, “Good, good, very good”—always good. Many people say that they feel dishonest saying they are good when in fact they have problems. But what we are talking about here is developing a fundamental sense of strength and wellbeing. Wouldn’t it be better to associate our mind with that rather than with all the fleeting emotions and physical sensations we experience throughout the day? What is the point of being honest about something so fleeting and impossible to pin down? If your well-being is so dependent upon your emotions and physical sensations, you will have little opportunity to say, “I am well.” So when people ask how you are, say, “Good!” You may need to pump yourself up a little bit in the beginning, but soon you will start to believe it yourself. You will begin to see that people feel more attracted to you. They won’t feel that subtle tug when they see you coming. And they will be less hesitant to ask how you are!

When we are bound by the emotional needs of others, or simply afraid of our own, how can we entertain the idea of engaging a spiritual path? And when our relationships with others are so unclean and confused, how can we expect to extend kindness to others and work for their benefit? Lenchak goes against the most fundamental principles of spiritual practice. We are always seeking something from the outside and forgetting that our fundamental well-being and strength depend on how we relate to our own minds. Falling under the sway of the lenchak dynamic is like losing possession of our very lives. It’s like letting others lead us around by the nose ring as if we were a buffalo or a cow. What could be more detrimental than losing our freedom in this way?

All the great practitioners know the consequences and pitfalls of lenchak, so they fiercely guard their independence. They are savvy when it comes to working with others because they know that whether it concerns their students, parents, family, or whoever, if they fell prey to the lenchak dynamic, it would eat up their time and their peace of mind. Moreover, because it is a dynamic based on neurosis, lenchak leaves no supportive ground on which to serve others. In the end, they would find themselves leading an entirely different life from the spiritual life of practice they envisioned for themselves.

Knowing this, many yogis have steered clear of societal demands and led simple lives, traveling alone without the complications that come with having many sponsors and attendants. The great Nyingma teacher Patrul Rinpoche [1808–1887] had a strong, uncompromising presence and was completely immune to any kind of deception or partiality. There are stories that when important dignitaries would come for an audience—some of them so proud it would have taken a bulldozer to get their heads down—they would shake like prayer flags in his presence. But don’t think for a moment that Patrul Rinpoche, even though he was free of entanglements, had even a trace of indifference! He was known as a loyal and kind friend, a compassionate friend, who dedicated his life solely to benefiting others. Because he was able to see the greater potential of the human mind’s ability to awaken, he spent his entire life expounding the teachings with great care and tenderness. Through his wisdom and compassion, he was able to preserve his independence and serve others, perfecting his own mind through the jewel of bodhicitta (“enlightened heart”). On the relative level, bodhicitta has two aspects: aspiration bodhicitta, which is the wish to attain enlightenment in order to bring all living beings to liberation; and engaged bodhicitta, which includes such practices as generosity and patience. On the absolute level, bodhicitta is insight into the nature of all phenomena.

Wisdom and compassion are the two components of bodhicitta. When we begin to discover the mind’s natural potential and strength, we are cultivating wisdom. This doesn’t mean we become hard-hearted and indifferent. It doesn’t mean we have to cut our family ties, quit our job, or live in a cave. It simply means we refuse to give in to lenchak because we see that it doesn’t serve us and that it makes it impossible for us to serve others. We recognize lenchak, and we can “just say no”! We can see it as a form of civil disobedience— a nonviolent approach in which we refuse to succumb to our own and others’ ignorance. When we can reclaim our nose ring, we are left with no real reason to resent others. With a mind free from lenchak, we have a lot of room to expand the heart through serving others. This is how wisdom can protect us, so that we can be soft and caring. This is the bodhisattva’s way.

In the sutras it says that a bodhisattva is like an immaculate lotus that floats on muddy water. The lotus is a metaphor for the bodhisattva, who engages the world of confusion in order to serve beings. But how is it that the bodhisattva stays afloat without sinking into the muddy water of confusion? It is due to the wisdom of knowing the mind—how it can serve us or how, if left unchecked, it can spin in the direction determined by confusion. This kind of clarity may seem a long way off for us, but it all begins with rising to the occasion of our lives and facing our minds. We need to think clearly about this. Since this is our life, we must find some determination to rise to it in a way that supports our aims. Once we taste the freedom that comes with independence, it gets easier. We realize how much we have lost by desperately holding on, and we know how much there is to gain through disengaging from confusion. We can do this while expanding our most precious qualities: our good heart and our compassion for others. Through our innate qualities of wisdom and compassion, we can burn the seeds of lenchak once and for all, ensuring benefit for both self and other. This knowledge has been of great personal value to me in my life as a teacher, householder, and friend. I hope that it serves you well, too.