100 Days of Lovingkindness

Having gratitude for our enemies (Day 70)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort.

“…patience arises only in dependence on that malicious intention, so he alone is a cause of my patience. I should respect him just like the sublime Dharma.
From the Bodhicaryavatara, by Santideva

The 8th century Indian teacher Shantideva gives us a rationale for feeling grateful to those who wish us harm: our enemies give us an amazing opportunity to practice patience.

This can actually work! This morning on a social network something I’d said attracted the attention of a guy whose communication started off as rather brash but quickly degenerated into graphic threats of violence against me. There was a momentary urge to write something nasty (but subtle!) back to him, but then I realized this guy was a “troll” — someone who gets their kicks from barging into discussions and causing a reaction. And I actually felt some gratitude and affection toward the guy for having given me an opportunity to be more mindful, wise, and compassionate — which manifested as refusing to respond to him at all. After a short reflection on gratitude, all anger for this person totally vanished. Right now I feel like I want to hug him, in fact!

We may generally wish that people who don’t like us would just go away, or start liking us, or stop being so unreasonable, but since we can’t force other people to change it seems that Shantideva’s approach has some merit. There are going to be people who hate us, dislike us, or make life difficult for us. We can’t entirely alter the world so that it suits us. But we can change our attitude toward them.

Now everyone has some positive qualities, to some degree. I can think of people it’s hard to like because they’re destructive, violent, and narcissistic. But not every single thing that they do is intended to cause harm. They have some restraint, some patience, some tenderness — or at least the potential for these things. But it can be hard to get beyond our dislikes and find something to appreciate in someone we feel antagonistic toward. Shantideva’s approach short-circuits this. When cultivating mudita — joyful appreciation — for the people we find difficult, it’s their challenging behaviors themselves that we appreciate. We don’t appreciate those qualities because they are harmful, but because they test us, chellange us, and allow us the opportunity to go deeper into our practice.

This is a difficult thing to remember in the heat of the moment! When someone “flames” you in a discussion forum, it can feel like a sharp object has been jammed into a sensitive part of your body. The first instinct is to retaliate. So we need to practice cultivating this attitude when our amygdalas are not red-hot and throbbing (the amygdala being the ancient part of your brain that sparks off the “fight or flight” reflex).

So right now, think of someone you tend to get annoyed by, or someone who has hurt you, or someone you tend to criticize a lot. And see if you can feel a sense of generosity and appreciation toward them for testing you. See if you can regard them as being like a particularly challenging climbing wall, or sudoku or crossword puzzle, or like a tricky mystery story that’s designed to baffle you (please translate to your challenge of choice). Seeing the enemy this way, we take them less personally. We see them less as a personal affront, and more as a puzzle to be solved. It’s good to be challenged! Life without challenges becomes gray and insipid.

It crossed my mind that there’s a mirror image of this in the way that when we’re first in love with someone their “faults” are seen as endearing. We appreciate our loved one and take their odd habits not as a personal affront but as a reason to feel even more appreciation. But once the infatuation wears off, we’re left with being annoyed by our beloved’s faults. Shantideva walks this process back — we no longer take the faults as being a personal affront, and start to feel appreciation, and perhaps appreciation, because of them.

This is an important part of the Bodhisattva path — practicing Buddhism to benefit not just yourself, but all beings.

PS. You can see a full list of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Innate purity versus original sin (Day 69)

eveOne of my favorite lines in a movie is where a Freudian analyst (complete with thick Viennese accent) asks a man about his childhood.

“I had a normal childhood,” the man replies.

“Ah, so you vanted to kill your fazzer and sleep with your muzzer!” the analyst declares.

I sometimes wonder if Sigmund Freud was an incarnation of Mara, the Buddhist personification of doubt. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have had experiences of happiness undermined because they suspect that they must be repressing something, somehow believing that happiness must be delusional. And many people carry around the notion that there is something fearful and unknown (incest! death wish! penis envy!) lurking inside them, unseen because repressed. The fact that you can’t see these things just shows how deeply repressed they are.

And people often assume that this repressed nastiness is more real and authentically them, than anything else, including their compassion and wisdom; we’re inherently bad, and our goodness is superficial.

This may or may not be what Freud taught, but it’s the way his teachings seem to have been popularly understood.

And this reinforces the Christian idea, dating back to the second century, of original sin, where we inherit Adam’s sin of eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. We inherit sin, so that by nature we are sinful. St. Augustine believed that unbaptized infants go to hell as a consequence of this inherited original sin. Even a newborn child — often taken as a symbol of innocence, can be seen as inherently evil.

So there’s this tendency to see human beings as inherently selfish and bad. This view isn’t one that Buddhism shares, and the concept of original sin is one that hinders our practice.

100 Days of LovingkindnessSome Buddhist schools teach that we are actually inherently pure, and that the mind is merely contaminated by greed, hatred, and delusion. This doesn’t mean that at some time in the past our minds were pure and that they picked up these contaminants. Buddhism sees these “origins” questions as irrelevant and based on an unhelpful craving for certainty. What’s important is that this view of our inherent purity makes sense practically.

Let’s say you had a jar of water mixed with dirt, that had just been shaken vigorously. What you see is a turbid slurry of swirling mud. But leave the jar undisturbed, and what happens? First, the water stops moving. Then, gradually, the mud begins to settle out. And what are you left with? Clear water.

The mud was not an inherent part of the water. And so the water and the mud were separable. The inherent clarity of the water is revealed in stillness.

And it’s like this with the mind as well. Sit quietly, and the mind starts to settle. Sure, you keep having thoughts coming up that stir the waters of the mind once again, but keep on sitting, again and again, and you find that those thoughts come up less often. And you find that simply by letting go of thinking, and allowing the mind to settle, you become happier, kinder, more compassionate, and wiser. Joy, compassion, and wisdom are the natural qualities of the mind, and they are revealed by stillness.

So in this way, practically speaking, the mind is inherently pure. And for those of us brought up in a culture that emphasizes original sin, the idea of “original purity” is enormously liberating. It’s liberating on a personal level to be able to let go of this idea that we’re essentially bad. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you have an assumption that you’re inherently evil. And it’s liberating to be able to think of others as being the same.

Of course the muddy water illustration is just a metaphor, and it breaks down at a certain level. Practice is not just about letting the unskillful fall away, it’s also about cultivating, strengthening, and maintaining the skillful. Joy, compassion, and wisdom are the natural qualities of the mind, but we need to give attention to those qualities and develop them. The water analogy is faulty because the water purifies itself naturally by sedimentation, and once that sedimentation has taken place you can’t make the water any more pure. But with the mind, the sedimentation approach can only take us so far. Sure, sit long enough just being mindful, and your mind will become more joyful, wiser, and kinder. But only to a point. We need to actively cultivate those qualities.

And this is why we have the metta (lovingkindness), karuna (compassion), and mudita (joyful appreciation) practices that we’ve been focusing on for the last two months.

These reflections on human nature are particularly apropos when we’re cultivating joyful appreciation, or mudita, which is a practice that’s about appreciating the good that’s in people. The concept of original sin suggests that goodness is superficial and may be entirely absent in a “bad” person. The concept of innate purity suggests that goodness is there, waiting to be revealed.

PS. You can see all our 100 Days of Lovingkindness Posts here.

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Looking deeper for the good qualities of others (Day 68)

100 Days of LovingkindnessAt first glance, and maybe at the second or third glances as well, it might seem odd that in the mudita bhavana meditation, where we’re developing joyful appreciation, we’re asked to rejoice in the good qualities of a “neutral person,” who is usually someone we don’t really know. Mostly my neutral people are people who work in shops or post offices, so I have very limited contact with them and don’t know them personally. Yours may have similar roles in your life. So how can we rejoice in qualities when we don’t know the person and may not know what their good qualities are?

Well, one approach to this is just to bear in mind that your neutral person is certain to have good qualities, by which we mean ethically skillful qualities that lead to the arising of peace and joy. These include qualities like patience, kindness, courage, ordinary life wisdom, mindfulness, generosity, gratitude, humor, admiration, and curiosity. All of these qualities are the basis for the arising of happiness and peace. Now I think it’s safe to assume that your neutral person has all of those qualities to at least some extent, and they may even have some of them well developed. So you can just bear in mind that this person has some of the qualities, and wish that those qualities grow and develop, and that the happiness and peace that arise from those qualities grow and develop too.

But you might actually have a clearer impression of the neutral person than you think. Research shows that we automatically form impressions of people within the first tenth of a second or so of seeing them. As soon as we glance at someone we make evaluations about their social status, their personality, their friendliness, approachability, their trustworthiness, etc. Those impressions aren’t always very accurate, but the fact is that we make them, so you have some impression of your neutral person.

Probably, in fact, you’ve had repeated opportunities to see your neutral person in action, and so there’s a lot of information stored in your mental data banks to draw on. These memories are a resource that you can tap into. One of the reasons why our neutral people are neutral is that we simply haven’t taken the time to think about them. Often we see them as having a role — the person who swipes my groceries over the scanner, the person who takes my checks and gives me cash at the bank, the person who drives the bus. We take them for granted because we don’t think of them much beyond what they do for us.

But when we pay attention to our experience of these so-called neutral people, or to our memories of them, we have an opportunity to pay more attention to their good qualities — good qualities that that we’ve been taking for granted. So you might notice that the woman who serves you at the post office is cheerful, or is engaged and energetic in her work. Perhaps there’s a sense of this person being honest, of having a good sense of humor, or being patient, or of being able to cope with difficult circumstances.

If you don’t have much of a sense of the people you call to mind in the neutral person stage of the practice, it may be that you just need to practice! I’ve noticed that I’m not particularly good at noticing the skillful in people. I’m often impressed when other people remark on a positive quality or skillful action they’ve noticed in someone else. My thought is usually, “Oh yeah, why didn’t I see that?” and I really appreciate these little lessons on mudita. So you can just practice allowing the positive in when you meet this person.

Often I think I don’t notice other people because I’m already thinking about the next thing I’m going to do. I don’t take my encounter with them seriously, and see it as an interruption to real life. So I’ll be busy thinking about something else. I find if I drop those thoughts, be mindful of my breathing, and allow myself to really see the other person, I can start to notice good qualities that I’d missed. There’s a sense of the heart opening, and of the other person coming to life, although of course they’ve been fully alive the whole time — it’s just that I haven’t been paying attention. So in this way we can let in the good.

But if all else fails, just go on the assumption that your neutral person does in fact have many of the good qualities I’ve mentioned above to at least some extent. You don’t have to wait until someone has perfected a good quality before you rejoice in it! You can assume that they have at least a little patience, kindness, courage, wisdom, etc., — and then your joyful appreciation practice becomes wishing that those qualities grow, so that the person you’re wishing well will experience the peace and joy that comes from them.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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The “magic ratio” of appreciation (Day 67)

shellAppreciation of others’ good qualities improves our lives and makes us happier. But it’s great for them, too, and it can also save our intimate relationships.

I remember one time my wife saying, just after I’d made a critical comment, that I criticized her a lot, which surprised me, because I didn’t think I did. I asked her as gently as I could when the last time was that I’d said something critical, and she couldn’t remember. I asked if it was within the last two weeks. No, it was longer ago than that. The last month? She was pretty sure it was longer ago than that.

So this is indicative of the way that the mind latches on to critical comments — a topic I’ve mentioned before. Criticisms sting, and they stick in the mind. They’re hard to forget.

And on the flip-side of this, it’s a reminder that we need to be very careful about the quality of our communication if we don’t want to create a sense that we’re nagging.

100 Days of LovingkindnessWhen critical or negative communications outweigh appreciative or positive ones, a relationship can become severely strained and distorted. It can become hard for people to have any appreciation for their partner, and neutral or positive statements (“Why don’t we eat out tonight?”) are interpreted as being critical (“Are you saying you don’t like my cooking!”).

Merely balancing a negative comment with a positive one doesn’t work. According to John Gottman, Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, the magic ratio is 5 to 1. Yes, in order to have a healthy, mutually appreciative relationship, there has to be around five positive interactions for every negative one! This is the mathematics of marriage.

How accurate is Gottman predicting the success of relationships? In one study 700 newly-married couples were videotaped while being interviewed for 15 minutes. Simply by counting the ratio of positive to negative interactions that took place during that quarter of an hour, Gottman and his associates were able to predict — with 94% accuracy — which couples would divorce.

Interacting positively goes well beyond verbal communication, however. It includes behaviors such as touching affectionately, smiling, laughing, making friendly eye contact, showing non-verbally that you’re listening to a conversation, etc. And negative interactions can similarly be non-verbal. Some of the most damaging are indications of contempt, such as eye-rolling. The presence of contempt in a relationship, you may or may not be surprised to hear, is the single best predictor of divorce.

Couples can have many different styles of communication: some are volatile and prone to explosive outbursts, while at the other extreme some are conflict-avoiding, where the partners retreat into separate rooms until their emotions simmer down. Neither of these, Gottman has found, are necessarily problems for the long-term stability of a relationship, as long as the 5:1 ratio is maintained. As long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as negative ones, the relationship is likely to be stable in the long term.

Critical communications are not necessarily bad! They can help keep a relationship healthy, and help us to grow. The Buddha once said that not criticizing someone who really needed to be criticized was akin to destroying them. But it’s clear that there has to be a healthy basis of appreciation and affection in a relationship for it to succeed.

There are many ways of showing appreciation and affection, including showing interest by making eye contact and by engaging in conversations (rather than grunting as you read your email), holding hands, saying “I love you,” hugging, etc., doing little things for your partner.

But one thing I’ve been working on for a while is that when I find a negative thought about my wife cropping up (and it’s often something as mundane as not liking the way she’s stacked things in the dishwasher, I’ll switch to consciously rejoicing in her good qualities and reminding myself of my underlying affection for her.

So it might go like this. I hear myself thinking “Sheesh. This isn’t the most efficient way to arrange the cups! Doesn’t she realize that if you turn all the handles this way … wait a minute. I’m being critical.”

And then I’ll articulate positive comments, saying to myself that I love her, that she’s a wonderful mother, that she does way more housework than I do, that she’s very patient, that she has a great sense of humor, etc. That’s five positive thoughts right there, to balance up the negative one. I’d suggest you try this approach of cultivating a stream of positive thoughts when you notice a negative one. If you can’t immediately think of five, that’s OK. You can repeat the same ones. You can even say the same thought five times. The important thing is that you flood the mind with appreciative thoughts, and bring the ratio of positive to negative closer to five to one.

I’m not suggesting it’s enough just to think positive thoughts. We need to show affection in our body language, in the things we do, in what we say and in how we say it. But there are more opportunities to think than there are to speak or act, and cultivating appreciative thoughts makes it easier to speak or act in ways that show love and kindness.

Gottman’s ratio, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been applied in the context of friendships, work relationships, or parental relationships, but I’d be surprised if the same principle didn’t apply. So you can try being aware of the positive to negative balance in many kinds of relationships, and see if you can drive the balance toward the positive.

PS. You can see all our 100 Days of Lovingkindness Posts here.

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There’s more right with you than wrong with you (Day 66)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong, no matter how ill or how hopeless you may feel.”

From the moment you are conceived, right up until the moment you take your last breath, there is more right with you than wrong with you.

It’s very easy to lose sight of this. When something good happens to us, we often don’t celebrate much and so don’t take it in. And when we do celebrate it’s often almost momentary. And yet we obsess about things that bother us.

Imagine a friend has said an unkind word to you. Often you’ll call that event to mind over and over. Sometimes you’ll elaborate the fantasy by imagining retaliations on your part. By sheer repetition, and by vividly imagining the scene over and over again, you carve pathways associated with the emotions of anger and resentment into your mind. But when a friend says something complimentary to you, you may just experience a lift in your mood for a few minutes. Unless you’re a very unusual person you probably don’t find yourself, months later, thinking about the compliment you were paid, the same way you would with an insult.

Similarly, we tend to obsess over things that we think are wrong with us. We think over and over about the habits we want to change, and mentally beat ourselves up over them, whether it’s that we think we drink too much, or we think we’re lazy, or cowardly, or too unkind. But we ignore all our good habits. When we’re surfing the net late at night we castigate ourselves for our lack of willpower, but when we’re brushing our teeth for the second time that day or having our daily shower we don’t spend our time in the bathroom celebrating how wonderful it is that we take care of ourselves. Instead, we let the mind drift. And what does it drift to? Half the time we’re probably giving ourselves a hard time about our faults!

(This reminds me of a saying of the Buddha, where he’s describing the thoughts an ethical person has regarding others: ime sattā averā abyāpajjhā anīghā sukhi attānaṃ pariharantū’ti. This is usually translated as something like “‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease.” But the word “ease” here is “sukha,” or joy, so the last part could just as easily be “May they look after themselves joyfully,” implying that we should rejoice and appreciate the good habits we have that involve taking care of ourselves.)

When we’re ill, we obsess about what’s going wrong in the body. We don’t think about the fact that since we’re alive virtually everything in the body is going right! And when we’re healthy, how often do we celebrate our good health? Hardly ever, for most of us.

So I’m going to suggest that you devote more mental space to celebrating and rejoicing in the ordinary things that are going right, and that you’re doing right, in your life.

  • When you’re driving, notice that you’re driving with care and attention, and celebrate this. Say to yourself things like “Yay, me!”
  • When you’re reading, pause once in a while and rejoice in the fact that you can read. (As a father whose oldest child is only just beginning to stumble through reading primers, I’m at the stage of recognizing how amazing this is.)
  • Notice that you’re conscious. What an amazing thing that is! No one has the faintest idea what consciousness is — how matter interacting with matter can create this thing called “experience.” You’re a miracle!
  • Pause and celebrate your good health. Say “thank you” to your body. If you’re in bad health, rejoice in the fact that your body is forever trying to heal itself, and that most things in your body are in fact functioning.
  • Celebrate having access to clean drinking water, clean air, food.
  • Celebrate having clothing and having possessions. If you’re poor and live in the developed world, you’re probably still richer than 90% of the world’s population.
  • Celebrate family and friends.
  • Celebrate the fact that you’re alive.
  • Celebrate that you’re able to celebrate.

We really need to make an effort to celebrate, because of the mind’s inherent negativity bias. We need to consciously celebrate in order to carve pathways associated with joy and love into the fabric of our brains. And when we do celebrate, life becomes joyful.

There’s more right with us than wrong with us. And that in itself is something to be grateful for.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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The power of appreciative words: “Mishan’s Garden,” by James Vollbracht & Janet Brooke

mishan's garden

“The greatest gift you can ever give another is to see what is best and unique about them.”

This morning I stumbled downstairs, bleary-eyed, having got home late after teaching a class the night before. My six-year-old daughter gave me a running hug and a huge smile. She’s naturally affectionate, but I suspect there was an ulterior motive, because a few seconds later she came running back to me with Mishan’s Garden in her hands, asking that I read it to her. And so, I did.

Mishan is the titular heroine, a young girl who lives in The Village Above the White Clouds, where her father is the innkeeper. Misha is a special girl, whose birth was accompanied by the song of a white bird — a song so sweet it seemed to unite heaven and earth.

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The land around The Village Above the White Clouds is too cold and barren for anything to grow. The barrenness is metaphorical, since people there say it is not a place where people belong. But Mishan’s father predicts that she will cultivate a beautiful garden of hopes and dreams.

Mishan dutifully plants seeds in the cold, infertile soil, but those are not the seeds that are to grow. Instead, it is the seeds of goodness in the villagers’ hearts that Mishan is to cultivate, watering them with her kind and appreciative words.

When an argument breaks out in the inn, Mishan asks a worn-out old soldier to intervene and prevent violence. He says he’s too old and weak, but Mishan convinces him that he still has strength, like an old tree whose boughs offer shelter. And so the old soldier asserts himself and puts a stop to the fight.

She tells an arrogant and rich merchant that he is like the village stream, bringing life to all who are in need. Her kind words inspire him to be generous, and we see him giving alms to a beggar.

She offers kind words to the village children, whom she compares to wild flowers, and to the young girls, whose talk about the beauty of others perfumes the air like the scent of lilac flowers.

Title: Mishan’s Garden
Author: James Vollbracht (Illus. Janet Brooke)
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 978-1-61429-112-1
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Lastly, she tells a white lie to an angry woodcutter who has come to the inn looking for his son, whom he regards as a lazy good-for-nothing. She praises the woodcutter’s wisdom in coming to the inn, saying that it is wise to know that there is a time to work and a time to rest and dream, like the vine that grows by day and bathes in the moonlight by night. The woodcutter not only accepts his son’s need to rest, but asks him what his dreams are.

But Mishan is still waiting for her garden to grow. And distraught that her seeds have not germinated, she becomes seriously ill. But although her literal garden has failed to blossom, around her kindness is blooming in every heart, and the villagers run to help her. The birdsong so beautiful that it seemed to unite heaven and earth is heard once again, and the villagers see Mishan’s garden, filled with beautiful flowers, vines, bushes, and trees.

When people think of the village now, they think of it as a special place where everyone not only belongs, but where every person has a “special place and their own special dreams.” And those who come to the village in search of their dreams hear the song of the white bird, and feel encouraged to keep on with their searches.

My daughter loved the book, and I enjoyed reading it to her. The story is charming, and open to many interpretations. Does Mishan die toward the end? Is the flourishing garden we see her vision of heaven? Why does she really become ill? Is it because she lied to the woodcutter? Does the white bird’s appearance at Mishan’s birth and possible death suggest that Mishan is some kind of bodhisattva — a being reborn in order to help others? I rather like all the ambiguity, which allows for much discussion and exploration with children.

Janet Brookes’ watercolor (?) illustrations are very beautiful, simple, and give a good sense of a non-specific Himalayan culture and landscape, with bare craggy mountains and fluttering prayer flags. I especially enjoyed the sensitivity and love expressed in the faces of Mishan and her father.

James Vollbracht’s storytelling is poetic, evocative, and beautifully illustrates the power of appreciative speech.

Mishan’s Garden is 30 pages long, and is the perfect length for a story at bedtime — or for reading before breakfast!

As well as being a regular book review, this post is one of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness series. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Appreciation is contagious (Day 63)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

When you practice joyful appreciation (mudita) or any of the related attitudes such as kindness (metta) or compassion (mudita), you become happier.

Your friends become measurably happier because you’re happy.

Your friends’ friends become measurably happier.

And your friends’ friends’ friends’ become measurably happier.

Happiness spreads outward into the world through your social network like a virus — although a rather beneficial one.

This may all seem rather incredible, but I stress the word “measurably” above because the evidence for this is solid, and is based on a huge study carried out by Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego.

Professor of Medical Genetics James H. Fowler (he’s the San Diego guy) and social scientist Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, (from Harvard) have been studying social networks for several years, using data from the ongoing Framingham Heart Study, which has been tracking the health, behaviors, and attitudes of tens of thousands of people since 1948.

The study measures many aspects of health, including happiness. Participants have been asked how likely they are to agree with questions like “I feel hopeful about the future” and “I feel happy.” And the study also tracks social networks, allowing the researchers to see how attitudes and behaviors spread.

Fowler and Christakis have found that if you have overweight friends, you’re more likely to be overweight yourself. If you have friends who don’t smoke, you’ll find it easier to give up smoking. If your friends are unhappy, you’re more likely to be unhappy yourself. And, as we’ve seen, if you’re happy your friends are more likely to be happy, and if your friends are happy you’re more likely to be happy.

In fact, if you’re happy you increase the changes of an immediate social contact becoming happy by 15%. And this effect ripples out into your friend’s friend’s relationships. The effect becomes weaker as it does so, but it’s still measurable in your friends’ friends’ friends’.

There’s a rather lovely image from the Buddhist tradition that ties in with this. On a traditional Buddhist altar there are always three offerings: Candles, which represent the light of the Buddha illuminating our own lives; flowers, which represent the teachings unfolding within us; and incense, which represents the way the skillful attitudes we develop in our practice percolate into the world around us. Just as the incese we burn doesn’t confine itself to the room in which we’re meditating, but ripples endlessly out into the world, so the changes we bring about in ourselves don’t stop with us, but affect those around us, and those around them, and so on and so on, flowing out into the world, with no limit.

There are a couple of important points you can take away from all this.

First, you can be confident that as you meditate and as you practice lovingkindness, compassion, and appreciative joy in daily life, you’re transforming the world around you. Feel the power! It’s real!

Second, you might want to be careful who you hang out with. If you suffer from depression and some of your friends and colleagues are miserable and some are happy, you might want to try spending a bit more time with your more upbeat crowd.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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The power of gratitude (day 62)

100 Days of LovingkindnessRobert A. Emmons, Ph.D., is the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, and the author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, and so he’s written a lot about the benefits of gratitude.

Gratitude is, of course, an important aspect of joyful appreciation, or mudita, which is the practice that we’re exploring at the moment as part of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness. So here are a few ways that Dr. Emmons has shown gratitude can enhance our lives.

  • Gratitude enhances positive emotions. Emmons points out, as I have elsewhere, that we quickly habituate to pleasant circumstances, and that our positive emotions tend to wear off quickly. We’re wired as novelty seekers, and while we may celebrate some new development in our lives — a nice spell of weather, returning to health after an illness — the enjoyment quickly wears off, and we’re left with the existential “meh” that is so familiar to many of us. In fact we generally start seeking things to be discontented with. But when we consciously practice gratitude, we appreciate life’s benefits and are less likely to take them for granted. We find that we celebrate the many ways that goodness is woven into the fabric of life, and we feel more joyful and engaged.
  • “Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret — emotions that can destroy our happiness,” Emmons says, using language almost identical to Buddhist teachers of the last 2,500 years. He points to research suggesting that gratitude reduces the frequency and duration of periods of depression, and that people who are more grateful are less prone to envy and resentment. And this is exactly what we’d expect; resentment and envy are the direct emotional opposites of joyful appreciation. If you’re experiencing appreciation and gratitude, it’s impossible to feel envious or resentful at the same time.
  • Gratitude protects against stress. People who tend to be grateful bounce back more quickly from adverse circumstances, loss, suffering, and injury. They’re more emotionally resilient. Their ability to seek the good prevents them from focusing too much on the negative in situations. Someone who’s of a grateful disposition who suffers a disability is more likely to focus on the things they can do rather than to dwell on the things they can no longer do.
  • Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. When we lack gratitude, we’re more likely to think that the world is against us and that nothing is going right in our lives. Therefore we think that we’re not worth much. Gratitude makes those kinds of cognitive distortions less likely. When we’re grateful we value what we have rather than focusing on what we don’t have. We may feel grateful just for being, for having air to breathe. We recognize that even when some things are not going the way we want them to, the vast majority of circumstances are conspiring to support us. When we look at ourselves, we appreciate our own qualities, and see someone who is basically loved and supported by the universe.

I’d add to Dr. Emmons’ thoughts by pointing out that gratitude is a powerful reinforcer of social connections. People love to be appreciated and rejoiced in. When we expression our gratitude and appreciation of others, we cement powerful bonds, and feel connected. Those social connections are not only of practical benefit — people who like us are more likely to help us, but those people are more likely to be there for us emotionally. And feeling that we’re a part of a rich social network, which is more likely if we’re grateful to others, helps us to feel less alone with our problems. Studies have shown that feelings of isolation are actually as damaging for our health as cigarette smoking, so feeling connected to others provides valuable benefits to our physical and mental health.

Traditionally there are eleven benefits for the one who practices gratitude: “Happily he sleeps; happily he awakes; he does not see bad dreams; he is dear to humans; he is dear to non-humans; deities protect him; fire, poison, sword and stick come not near him; he concentrates his mind quickly; the colour of his face is pleasingly bright; at the time of death he is not bewildered; if he attains not the sublime state, he is reborn in the world of Brahma.”

I can’t vouch for your having a good rebirth in the next life as a result of practicing gratitude, but I do know that it will help you be healthier and happier in this life.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Learning to see the good in others (Day 61)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

How open are we to the good qualities of others?

Twenty years ago today, I was in the middle of a four-month retreat in the mountains inland from Alicante, in Spain. This was the retreat in which I, along with 25 other men, became members of the Triratna Buddhist Order.

It was an amazing experience to be on retreat for so long, and to be studying and practicing the Dharma so intensely. We were living in a valley in simple huts, surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and rugged rock formations that jutted above the gorse-covered earth. We ate outdoors, and meditated in a simple hall which was filled with incense and the singing of nightingales.

At this point in the retreat, one person was being ordained each night. The ordinations took place in a small building some distance from the meditation hall, and we gave a special send-off each evening to the person being ordained. Part of the send-off included a “rejoicing in merits” carried out by Suvajra, our retreat leader. Suvajra would give a beautiful account of the fine qualities of the man who was being ordained. Suvajra had this amazing ability to recognize the good in people, and so these rejoicings would often go on for some time.

Now of the 25 other men being ordained, most I loved dearly, but there were a couple who irritated me for one reason or another. I tended to find fault with their behavior, and didn’t enjoy being around them. And when the time came for their ordination, I found myself wondering, “What on earth is Suvajra going to say tonight? How can he possibly find anything of merit in this guy?”

But you know what? Not only did Suvajra find plenty to say about the people I disliked, when he rejoiced in their merits I found myself thinking, “You know, that’s true. And so’s that. And that.”

There was often an odd sense that I’d both noticed and not noticed the qualities he was describing. The qualities he was rejoicing in weren’t hidden or in any way hard to find, but I’d not allowed myself to resonate with them. I hadn’t allowed the good in.

Later, one of the other men on the retreat commented on Suvajra’s ability to see the good in others, and his own difficulty in doing so with certain individuals, and he said he’d wondered what was stopping him from seeing the good. He said he’d realized it was himself. As soon as he said this I realized that this was the case for me as well. I’d erected filters that stopped me from acknowledging others’ good qualities. Having decided that I didn’t like someone, I wasn’t willing to see anything in them that I did like. There’s a certain sense of security that comes from having people we dislike.

Sometimes when we filter out others’ good qualities we just don’t register them. They don’t fit our preconceived pattern of what that person’s like, and so those perceptions just don’t register. In more extreme cases we’ll take good qualities and imagine them to be signs of something darker: someone’s generosity is seen as them trying to curry favor, for example. We come to believe we have special insight into this person’s thoughts and opinions. So we may need to ask this person a favor, but we don’t because we “know” that they’re going to say no. Or we assume that they don’t like us and are thinking critical thoughts about us.

So how can we become more open to the good qualities of others — especially those we have difficulty with?

  • Start with the assumption that this person has positive character traits that you’re just not seeing, rather than assuming that they have no redeeming qualities. If you assume that there’s a filter you’ve erected that’s stopping you seeing what’s there, you create a gap in your filters through which reality can begin to penetrate. Unless another person is a complete sociopath, they will have some kindness, some patience, some honesty, some positive ambition.
  • And stop bad-mouthing the other person. The first thing to do, if you find yourself in a hole, is to stop digging. You won’t see the positive if you’re constantly seeking the negative.
  • Ditto for thoughts. Now you can’t just switch off your critical thinking, but whenever you realize that you’re indulging in an inner rant, just let go of those thoughts, and then with the other person well.
  • If you’re lucky, you’ll have an experience like mine, and hear a third party say something kind or complimentary about someone you have difficulty with. And if you do, don’t discount what’s said. Let it in.
  • Sometimes you’ll not like someone but another person you do respect sees something positive in them. I noticed this last year. There’s someone I sometimes work with who I find a bit wearing because he talks a lot, and I find this exhausting and keep trying to avoid him. But there’s a third colleague who I really like and admire, and I found myself surprised by the fact that she liked hanging out with this guy. That created a sense of openness in me, which helped me to feel more tolerant.
  • Remember that this person that we tend to judge is, at a very deep level, just like us. They want to be happy. They find happiness elusive. They don’t want to suffer. They suffer all too often. Recognizing this opens us to our own vulnerability, and this sense of tenderness helps us not to judge others.
  • Based on that, recognize that others’ intentions are often good, even if the execution doesn’t agree with you. The person who talks too much is perhaps seeking a sense of connection, a sense of security, an escape from loneliness. Try to see past the behaviors you don’t like and allow yourself to resonate with those intentions to seek happiness.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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