May 19, 2013
We can be very hard on ourselves, can’t we? It’s as if, sometimes, we’re watching out for any tiny hint of a mistake, and then we pounce on ourselves, getting angry, or frustrated, or ashamed.
I suspect it’s because we can be. When people are allowed or encouraged to be cruel, they often will be. There’s some inherent cruelty in all of us (to varying extents) and this is kept in check by social norms. Change the social norms so that cruelty is encouraged, and it soon emerges. The Standford Prison Experiment and other similar studies shows that that cruel streak is there and can easily be brought out to …
May 13, 2013
So far I’ve just been advising people to do the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice while bearing in mind the sufferings of others, but karuna bhavana (the development of compassion) is a practice in its own right. I thought I’d take an opportunity to geek out by looking at an early source of instruction on this practice.
The “Path of Liberation” (Vimuttimagga) by Upatissa is the oldest meditation manual that I know about. It was probably written in the 1st century, several hundred years after the Buddha’s death. It’s from India, but the text has only survived in Chinese translation.
The scriptures of the Pali canon, which contain records …
May 11, 2013
Yesterday I wrote about the complexities of the “near enemy” of compassion, which is the grief that arises from attachment. So we might feel bad when we see someone suffering, but not actually have any empathy for them. That’s not compassion. It’s “grief” at having our normal experience disrupted by someone who’s inconsiderate enough to suffer. Or we may spiral into despair and sorrow (which is called “failed compassion”) because we’re unable to bear the discomfort of knowing someone is suffering. This is all rather tricky for people to get hold of, sometimes, and it’s potentially undermining because we can end up doubting, in an unhelpful, self-hating kind of …
May 10, 2013
The other week I was walking to work after it had rained hard all night. The sidewalks and roads were covered with worms, who like to migrate when the weather is wet (no, it’s not because they would drown in their tunnels).
Now, almost exactly twenty years ago I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t walk past a worm without moving it to safety. Why? Well, I just don’t like the way I feel when I ignore another’s suffering, even if the other is a slimy invertebrate. And the sun was out, the sidewalks were starting to dry out, and it was obvious that many of these …
Mar 16, 2013
This week one of my students described how she tends to talk to herself in a very harsh tone of voice — much harsher than she’d ever use with other people. And that’s a very common experience. In our own minds we often describe ourself as “an idiot,” tell ourselves that our actions were “stupid,” or limit ourselves by telling cruel stories about how people don’t like us and how we’ll never be good at the things we do.
We tend not to talk this way to others, or at least to a much lesser extent. Of course if we do there tends to be a backlash. We cause hurt, anger, …
Feb 13, 2013
At the weekend I read a great article by Tony Schwartz in the New York Times. It was exactly what I needed at that moment to address the problem of being overly busy. The article was about the importance of taking breaks in order to maintain productivity, and it started like this:
Think for a moment about your typical workday. Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? Find it nearly impossible to keep up with
Jan 19, 2013
There’s a lot of sickness going on at the moment, this being cold and flu season, so the question arises, what should you do about your meditation practice if you’re sick?
It’s tempting to “take the day off.” After all, that’s what we often do with work when we’re feeling under the weather.
But that’s not the approach that the Tibetans take. When they’re sick they do more, not less, meditation. The reason is that they assume, rightly or wrongly, that the illness is the result of previous bad karma, and they want to offset that with karmically healthy activities. So they meditate more. And actually meditating has been …
Jan 12, 2013
Almost everyone is going around making judgments all the time, about others — and about themselves. It’s hard to remember to be compassionate, or to actually be compassionate if we remember. Here’s one perspective that helps me.
Behind every negative emotion, there’s a positive intent or valid need. So when we’re grumpy and unpleasant to people, for example, there’s a need and an intent to defend ourselves (our feelings being fragile and easily provoked at that time). When we crave something it’s because we’re short on happiness, and see the object of our craving as a source of the happiness we need. When we’re worrying about something we’re looking …
Dec 14, 2012
Marge, a woman in our meditation community, was in a painful standoff with her teenage son. At fifteen, Micky was in a downward spiral of skipping classes and using drugs, and had just been suspended for smoking marijuana on school grounds. While Marge blamed herself — she was the parent, after all — she was also furious at him.
The piercings she hadn’t approved, the lies, stale smell of cigarettes, and earphones that kept him in his own removed world — every interaction with Micky left her feeling powerless, angry, and afraid. The more she tried to take control with her criticism, with “groundings” and other ways of setting limits, …
Sep 21, 2012
During the years right after college, I was the director of a yoga studio at the ashram where I was living near Boston. One day, at a time when we were behind in promoting our major event of the year, which featured a number of well-known teachers, the head of our local community arrived late to our weekly staff meeting, visibly upset. I asked him what was wrong.
In a barely controlled voice, he thrust in front of me a flyer I’d created for the event. “Just take a look at this.” Immediately, I saw the typo in bold print—it was the wrong date. My heart sank: …