appreciation

How and why to cultivate gratitude

“It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that beings us happiness.”

Why Practice Gratitude?

Gratitude is good for us. Our minds have a built-in “negativity bias,” so that we tend to pay more attention to things that aren’t going right. In fact, if we can’t find something that’s going wrong we’ll make something up by imagining future calamities. And this focus on what’s wrong creates anxiety and stress, diminishing our sense of well-being. And at the same time, we tend to take for granted and ignore things that are going right in our lives, depriving us of a sense of joy.

Practicing gratitude reverses this trend. By recognizing that there are in fact many things going right in life, and by taking our conscious attention to those things and naming them, we feel happier, and we experience less anxiety and stress.

In fact, research shows that one of the easiest things we can do to bring more happiness into our lives is to regularly practice gratitude.

In Wildmind’s online community website (which is for sponsors of our Meditation Initiative) there’s a bunch of us who regularly share things we’re grateful for. Some people do this sporadically. I try to do it daily, although occasionally there’s a day I miss.

Some Suggestions for Gratitude Practice

One of our community members recently wrote, asking for advice about how to cultivate gratitude. He wrote, “I feel almost, well actually, embarrassed to admit that I don’t feel a lot of gratitude for the everyday things in my life. What do I do if I can’t find anything that I feel genuinely grateful for? Is the practice like metta where we might just start with an intention?”

A bunch of people in the community jumped in with suggestions, and I thought I’d share some of this communal wisdom here.

  • Write it down. That makes it more real.
  • Do it every day, and come up with at least five things. If your list is shorter than this, then make sure you’re choosing things that aren’t obvious, and that you haven’t thought of before.
  • Don’t just create a checklist.Dwell on the things you’re cultivating gratitude for. Hold them in your heart and mind until gratitude arises.
  • Challenge yourself. For many people, finding three things to be grateful for becomes easy. Too easy. So easy it becomes rote. So maybe a list of five is good. If it feels hard to come up with the last one or two, that’s good! It means you’re eventually calling to mind things that weren’t obvious.
  • Look for specifics. It’s easy to say, “I’m grateful for my spouse.” Instead, think of specific things you’re grateful for in your spouse. It might be qualities or traits they have that you appreciate. Or it may be things they’ve done.
  • If you find it’s difficult to get started, introduce an element of play, for example by creating a list of things you are grateful for that are green or that start with the letter “j”.
  • Another way to  introduce playfulness and overcome a mental block is to list “favorite things.” For example, your favorite drink, color, tree, 20th-century invention, philosopher, bird, dessert, band, item of clothing …
  • Just jump in. Once you get going, inspiration arises. “Once we begin writing This morning we feel grateful for… a few times, the genuine appreciation begins to bubble to the surface. We’re determined to practice this discipline daily whether we feel like it or not.
  • Look for small things: “It took me some time to align myself with the fact that life is made up of lots of small things that bring pleasure or gratitude into our lives that largely go unnoticed, perhaps because they’re so routine, e.g. that quiet cup of coffee first thing in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up. Also, consider that there are far fewer ‘large’ events to draw upon anyway, so anyone is likely to run out of material quite quickly if they rely on them!”
  • Think of what life would be like without something “ordinary” that you’re experiencing or depend on right at that moment. It would be a major and difficult change not to be able to see or hear, for example. Or not to have electricity or flowing water. Or not having shops where you can buy food. If you spend a little time thinking about how it would be without those things, then you can appreciate having them.
  • Think about the things people don’t have that you do have. Some people are homeless, and many people in the world have very few possessions. A basic item that you or I would take for granted would be unimaginable wealth to someone who has very little. So imagine what it would be like being them, having something that you take for granted.
  • Think about how things were in the past. It’s not that long since an eight-mile journey meant walking for hours through mud. Until recently dentistry was done without anesthetic, people died young from tuberculosis, and so on. Our lives are so easy in comparison. So imagine being in those situations, and you might find it’s easier to appreciate what you have.
  • It’s okay when you are not feeling particularly grateful. This happens to everyone. Actual feelings of gratitude will return in time. In the meantime, keep noticing things you could be grateful for. Make mental notes of them, and even write them down.  Start with small things, like feeling grateful for coffee or falling back to sleep even if you were up for hours during the night, etc. You get into the habit of noticing things you might feel grateful for, and feelings of gratitude increase.

Keep Going: It’s a Practice!

Often when I sit down to write at least five things I’m grateful for — I do this in the morning — I find it hard to get past the first three. But I always manage to get to five, and often by the time I get to the end of the list I find myself sitting there, just grateful for breathing, for existing, and for every precious moment that arises. And when I read other people’s expressions of gratitude on our community website, I feel grateful for having been given an insight into other people’s lives, so that I can share in their appreciation and joy.

Practicing gratitude brings us a sense of abundance. Without it, we easily feel we’re living in a hostile world where nothing is going right. With it, we can come to feel that we are surrounded by blessings.

I strongly recommend this practice of gratitude, and hope you found the suggestions above helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of becoming one of Wildmind’s sponsors (those benefits go well beyond having a place to share our gratitude with each other) you can do so by clicking here.

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Jack Kornfield: “The trouble is, you think you have time.”

Jack Kornfield, in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, says, “The trouble is, you think you have time.” In other words, we put off important things, assuming that we can do them later. But there may not be any “later.” Life is short; make good use of it.

This quote is often attributed to the Buddha, but it’s not something he said. It’s Jack Kornfield’s adaptation of something from Carlos Castaneda’s fictional Don Juan in his third book, “Journey to Ixtlan,” where the shaman says:

There is one simple thing wrong with you – you think you have plenty of time … If you don’t think your life is going to last forever, what are you waiting for? Why the hesitation to change?

The resemblance isn’t coincidental — Jack makes reference to this quote in one of his talks.

Recognizing that our time here is brief can help us appreciate life and see what the important things are. One of the things the Buddha encouraged us to do was to reflect on our own impermanence, and how, in the light of that, it’s important that we take responsibility for our lives.

Life is short; make good use of it. When people hear this they sometimes think it means “life is short, have as much fun as possible.” But if you really take on board how brief our time here is, you’re also forced to recognize what’s truly most valuable. And for most of us that’s loving, being loved, and living meaningfully. “Fun” comes much further down the list. Love and meaning, it turns out, are more fun than fun itself.

Notice your breathing, aware that each breath comes only once. Each breath is unique. Being aware that the breath you’re taking right now will never come again makes it seem more significant and worthy of attention.

In fact, as you pay attention to your breathing, try noticing how each moment is unique. That moment, and that moment, and that moment—each one flits by. Each one is precious. This may sound like a platitude until you “get” it. Then it’s a simple and profound truth: each moment is precious.

Think about those around you, about those close to you, about those you’re connected to with ties of blood or love. Think about those who barely register in your attention, and about those you don’t like. Every one of them is going to die. And you’re going to die.

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Life is unpredictable. When you’re with someone, you have no idea if you’ll ever see each other again. Everyone you see today—this may your last encounter. And maybe you should behave as if it was. What last impression, what last words, would you like them to have of you, should either of you die tomorrow?

As I often say, “Life is short; be kind“.

Try adopting as a mantra, “We may never meet again.” Let yourself feel vulnerable and tender. Let yourself feel affection. Let yourself appreciate others’ basic goodness. Let your tendency to focus on the negative fall away, and recognize that you’re surrounded by good people who are struggling to find happiness in a world where true happiness is rare. Let yourself love.

The trouble is, you think you’ll have time to love later, and you might not, so behave as if you don’t have time to waste, and let yourself love: Now.

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The mind knows its own way home

cat looking through hole in wooden door

When we’re first learning to meditate, one of the things we have to get used to is that the mind wanders much more than we might expect.

We discover, perhaps, that we can’t go more than two or three breaths without the mind latching on to some thought that’s appeared and going for a long trek through our memories, fantasies, expectations about the future, and so on.

At first this might be frustrating. We get annoyed with ourselves, or with our minds, for being so distractible. We perhaps blame ourselves, and suspect that we’re not cut out for meditation, or worse at it than other people. Meditation seems a bit like hard work.

We learn, though, that this level of distraction is common. In fact, research shows that while doing activities with low objective demands on our attention (things like showering, waiting for an appointment, or driving a route we know well) we might expect to be distracted up to 80 percent of the time. And meditation is in this category: there is no compelling external task for us to be engaged with.

It’s not a personal flaw that results in our distractibility, but the way the nervous system has evolved. The mind likes having input. In the absence of stimulation, the mind will create stimulation for itself, in the form of memories, fantasizing, etc.

We learn to be more patient, and to simply let go of distracted thinking when we realize it’s been arising. We stop reacting so much. Distractedness becomes just a fact — something neutral that we don’t place any negative value upon.

But I think we can do better than that. Even though we may no longer react emotionally when we realize we’ve been distracted, we may still carry around a chronic sense that our minds aren’t “good enough.” That they have this regrettable tendency, this bad habit, of going off wandering.

We don’t ask our minds to get distracted. We don’t decide to get lost in thought. That’s out of our control. And I think that on some level we often find it uncomfortable to have “a mind that has a mind of its own.”

Here’s the thing, though. Every time the mind goes wandering, it comes back home again. Sure, we don’t ask our minds to go wandering. It just happens. But we also don’t ask our minds to come home to mindful awareness again. That just happens too!

Think about it. How do you come back to mindful awareness after a period of distraction? You don’t really know, do you? It just happens. One minute you’re on automatic pilot, lost in a daydream, with no awareness of where you really are and no ability to choose what you’re doing. You’re not even capable of deciding to be mindful again. Then the next minute you’re back in mindful awareness, knowing that you’re sitting on your meditation cushion, free to choose what you pay attention to and how you’re going to pay attention to it, free to choose to be kinder and more patient with yourself.

Your attention simply returns to mindfulness, over and over again. And you don’t have to make this happen. It happens all on its own. Isn’t that encouraging? Your mind knows its own way home. It will always come home to mindful attention. Focus on that automatic success, not on the supposed “failure” of the mind’s wandering.

Maybe we could think of the mind as being like a cat. It likes to go roaming, but it also likes to come home. What kind of welcome do you give it when it walks back through the door again? Maybe you don’t get annoyed. Maybe you just treat the return home as a neutral event. But how would it be if you were to give the house cat of your mind a warm reception when it comes home again? Do you think it would feel more at home, more welcomed? Do you think it might be more inclined to stick around?

Give it a try. When you find yourself emerging from a period of distractedness, welcome your attention back home again. Regard it with affection. Let it feel the warmth of your heart. Let it know it’s valued, cherished. Maybe, just maybe, your attention will feel like sticking around more, instead of wandering so much. And maybe your meditation will feel less like hard work and more like an act of love.

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To motivate yourself to meditate, choose to be pleased about the fact of meditating

Sport shoes on trail walking in mountains, outdoors activityAlthough I’ve been meditating for over 30 years, I have to confess (and have done so often) that for most of that time my regularity was erratic. It’s only the last few years that I’ve been a rock-solid daily meditator. Unfortunately I don’t think any advice I was given (or gave, in classes I taught!) on meditating daily was of any use at all, and I had to figure out my motivation for myself.

Maybe that’s true for all of us, although it seems a lot of people have found my “I meditate every day” mantra useful.

A friend wrote to me and talked about a “good” meditation he’d had, and contrasted it with “bad” meditations. He himself put the words “good” and “bad” in scare quotes, which I think is great. It’s good not to take those labels seriously, and I think he was being appropriately skeptical about the validity of those terms.

But this prompted me to reflect (again) on how the whole vocabulary of “good” meditations is flawed. Don’t these labels largely come down to how we feel about what unfolded in our practice? Judgements like “good” and “bad” are largely just a reflection of what we feel.

My friend’s “good” meditation was one in which he experienced an unusual (for him) amount of continuity of awareness, without the mind zooming off into distractedness.

In terms of feelings, he was something like surprised, delighted, and excited because his meditation practice was unusually focused. I know that’s more verbose than saying it was a “good” meditation, but it’s accurate and descriptive. Saying the practice was “good” doesn’t strike me as a very useful adjective. What does it add? (I’m not criticizing my friend’s choice of vocabulary, incidentally. As I pointed how he was very clear that he was using “good” as a “quick and dirty” way of evaluating his practice).

By contrast, my own meditation this morning, because I was sleep-deprived, was mostly dreamy, with lots of distracted thinking. I may even have been asleep at times! But I felt pleased about my meditation, simply because I did it. Was that a “good” meditation? Not by most people’s evaluation, nor when weighed against my average experience. But does it matter? No. The meditation was what it was, and how I feel about it doesn’t make any difference to that fact.

However, that labels I apply to my meditation practice might make a difference to my future inclination to meditate. If I’d labelled it a “bad” meditation—which would mean, presumably, something like “I felt disappointed because my experience wasn’t what I wanted it to be”—then I’d be less inclined to continue meditating in the future.

Let’s say my friend had had exactly the same objective experience, with continuity of awareness for most of his meditation, but had felt neutral or even displeased by those events. It would be the same meditation, but he wouldn’t regard it as “good” and instead would see it as “so-so” or even “disappointing.” Seeing the practice in that way would away from the motivation to keep practicing in the future.

In a way I’ve chosen to be pleased at the very fact of having done my daily practice, and that encourages me to keep doing it daily. and in a way, having being pleased about my meditation as my default means that my daily meditation is always “good.” And so I want to keep doing it. What actually happens in my practice is secondary and doesn’t affect me being please by the fact of having done it. The length of time I’ve meditated is also secondary, and also doesn’t affect me feeling happy about having meditated.

When my mind becomes concentrated during a sit, or when joy or love arises, then I can be pleased by those occurrences as well. But they’re an added bonus, since I’ve already decided to feel pleased simply because I’ve meditated.

Keeping going is the most important thing, because meditation is practice. It’s the doing of it that’s important. You might not see any calmness or concentration or love manifesting in any given sit, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not benefitting.

Although I said that none of the advice I received about establishing a rock-solid daily meditation practice really helped, I hope the advice that we can choose to be pleased about the fact of meditating does help.

How how can we make the choice to be pleased about having meditated? To feel pleased about meditating, celebrate meditating.

  • Simply choose to pat yourself on the back for having sat. No matter how short the sit was, or what actually happened during the meditation, tell yourself you’ve done a good job for having sat. Use congratulatory language: “Yay, me! Good job! Well done! It’s great that I sat today!” Smile! Or you can simply thank yourself: “Thank you for meditating. I really appreciate you doing that.”
  • Although some of us have conditioning that makes us feel bad about self-congratulation, I think that nevertheless, even if our cultural conditioning makes us want to go, “Oh, really, it was nothing. I’ve had much better sits. I really should meditate for longer,” we do on some level also feel pleased when we hear deserved praise.
  • If your meditation practice is unusually calm, or concentrated, or loving, or compassionate, or joyful, or anything else that’s affirming and delightful, then allow yourself to be pleased about that too. But don’t let that take the place of being pleased about the fact of having meditated.
  • When we do something skillful we should allow ourselves to feel pleased by it, and we should choose to ignore the voices that downplay what we did.

In short: If you have pleasing experiences in meditation, then enjoy them. But choose to be pleased about the very fact of having meditated. This will help motivate you to keep on practicing.

To motivate yourself to meditate, choose to be pleased about the fact of meditating

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Gratitude promotes patience

仏像I wasn’t surprised today to learn that a new study has found a connection between gratitude and patience. After all, if you value what you have, which is what gratitude accomplishes for us, then there’s less emotional need to go seeking something else.

The study, carried out by a team of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School, looked specifically at financial impatience. Financial impatience is a well-known phenomenon where larger rewards in the future are considered less important than smaller rewards in the present.

Participants in the study chose between receiving a larger sum in the future, or a smaller sum now. The researchers used real money so that the participants would experience real motivation (and real impatience).

Before they made their choice, the participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups where they wrote about an event from their past that made them feel grateful, or happy, or neutral.

The neutral and happy groups showed a strong preference for immediate payouts, but those feeling grateful showed more patience. For example, grateful people required $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas neutral and happy people required only $55 to forgo the future gain. Positive feelings alone were not enough to enhance patience, as happy participants were just as impatient as those in the neutral condition.

What’s more, the degree of patience exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt. The more grateful a participant felt after the writing exercise, the more likely they were to wait for the delayed reward.

Normally we think of the ability to delay gratification as a function of “willpower,” but in my view willpower is overrated. When I discovered how to get myself to meditate every day — something I’d struggled with for years — the solution had nothing to do with willpower. Instead, it was to do with how I saw myself. Similarly, this study had nothing to do with willpower.

To me it’s intuitively obvious that in a moment where we’re experiencing gratitude, and therefore value what we already have, we feel less need to have more, and so we’re prepared to wait for a benefit to arrive rather than grasp after it. Gratitude makes the present moment a rich experience, and so we have a reduced need to enrich ourselves right now.

The researchers point out that the implications of the study are profound, and that it could open the way to new therapeutic techniques to address human suffering.

Assistant Professor Ye Li from the University of California, Riverside School of Business Administration, said “Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.”

Therapeutic techniques that borrowed from Buddhist practices started by tapping into teachings on mindfulness. But over time, mindfulness was seen not to be enough and so teachings on lovingkindness (metta) were increasingly incorporated. The current hot thing is compassion. It’ll be interesting to watch the addition of gratitude and appreciation (which in Buddhism are closely associated with the practice of mudita, or joyful appreciation) to therapists’ tool kits.

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What do you give?

Hanson_thGiving – to others, to the world, to oneself – is deep in our nature as human beings.

When our mammalian ancestors first appeared, about two hundred million years ago, their capacities for bonding, emotion, and generosity were extraordinary evolutionary breakthroughs. Unlike reptiles and fish, mammals and birds care for their young, pair bond (sometimes for life), and usually form complex social groups organized around various kinds of cooperation. This takes more smarts than, say, a fish laying a swarm of eggs and swimming away – so in proportion to body weight, mammals and birds have bigger brains than reptiles and fish do.

When primates came along about sixty million years ago, there was another jump in brain size based on the “reproductive advantages” (love that phrase) of social abilities. The primate species that are the most relational – that have the most complex communications, grooming, alpha/beta hierarchies, and so on – have the largest cortex (in proportion to weight).

Then early hominids emerged, starting to make stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. Since then, the brain has tripled in size, and much of this new cortex is devoted to interpersonal skills such as language, empathy, attachment to family and friends, romance, cooperative planning, and altruism. As the brain enlarged, a longer childhood was required to allow for its growth after birth and to make good use of its wonderful new capabilities. This necessitated more help from fathers to keep children and their mothers alive during the uniquely long juvenile phase of a human life, and more help from “the village it takes to raise a child.” The bonding and nurturing of primate mothers – in a word, their giving – gradually evolved into romantic love, fathers caring for their young, friendship, and the larger web of affiliations that join humans together. Additionally, our ancestors bred mainly within their own band; bands that were better at the give-and-take of relationships and teamwork out-competed other bands for scarce resources, so the genes that built more socially intelligent brains proliferated into the human genome. In sum, giving, broadly defined, both enabled and drove the evolution of the brain over millions of years.

Consequently, we swim in a sea of generosity – of many daily acts of consideration, reciprocity, benevolence, compassion, kindness, helpfulness, warmth, appreciation, respect, patience, forbearance, and contribution – but like those proverbial fish, often don’t realize we’re wet. Because of the brain’s negativity bias, moments of not-giving – one’s own resentments and selfishness, and the withholding and unkindness of others – pop out with blazing headlines. Plus modern economies can make it seem like giving and getting is largely about making money – but that part of life is just a tiny fraction of the original and still vast “generosity economy,” with its circular flows of freely given, unmonetized goods and services.

When you express your giving nature, it feels good for you, benefits others, prompts them to be good to you in turn, and adds one more lovely thread to the great tapestry of human generosity.
How?

Take care of yourself. Don’t give in ways that harm you or others (e.g., offering a blind eye to someone’s alcoholism). Keep refueling yourself; it’s easier to give when your own cup runneth over – or at least you’re not running on empty.

Prime the pump of generosity. Be aware of things you are grateful for or glad about. Bring to mind a sense of already being full, so that you’ll not feel deprived or emptied out if you give a little more.

Notice that giving is natural for you. You don’t need to be a saint to be a giving person. Generosity comes in many forms, including heart, time, self-control, service, food, and money. From this perspective, consider how much you already give each day. Open to feeling good about yourself as a giver.

Give your full attention. Stay present with others minute after minute, staying with their topic or agenda. You may not like what they say, but you could still offer a receptive ear. (Especially important with a child or mate.) Then, when it’s your turn, the other person will likely feel better about you taking the microphone.

Offer nonreactivity. Much of the time, interactions, relationships, and life altogether would go better if we did not add our comments, advice, or emotional reactions to a situation. Not-doing is sometimes the best gift.
hardwiring
Be helpful. For example, volunteer for a school, give money to a good cause, or increase your own housework or child care if your partner is doing more than you.

Do your own practice. One of your best contributions to others is to raise your own level of well-being and functioning. Whatever your practice is or could grow to be, do it with a whole heart, as a daily offering to whatever you hold sacred, to your family and friends, and to the widening world.

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Appreciation and impermanence (Day 73)

100 Days of LovingkindnessJack Kornfield, in his lovely Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, says “The trouble is, you think you have time.” He doesn’t say what we don’t have time for, but presumably he means that we put off important things because we assume that we can do them later. The trouble is, there may not be any “later.”

Recognizing that our time here is short can help us appreciate life more. I opened my book, Living as a River, by discussing how an awareness of impermanence can enhance our appreciation of our loved ones. When married people were asked to reflect on the death of their (still living) spouse, they found that they could more easily overlook their partner’s flaws — those socks on the bedroom floor seemed less significant — and found it easier to appreciate their good qualities. You might think that reflecting on death would be a downer, but in fact an awareness of impermanence enhances appreciation.

This applies to everything in life, including our lives themselves. One of the things the Buddha encouraged us to do was to reflect on our own impermanence, and how old age, sickness, and death are inevitable. And in the light of that we reflect that we’re responsible for our own lives and our own actions. He was saying, in essence, life is short, make good use of it. When people hear this they sometimes think it means “life is short, have as much fun as possible.” But that’s a rather alienated view, I think. If you really take on board how short life is, you’re forced to recognize what’s truly most valuable in your life. And for most of us that’s experiencing and giving as much love as possible, and doing things that are meaningful. “Fun” comes pretty far down the list, if it’s there at all.

Being aware that each breath you take is impermanent makes it seem more significant and worthy of attention. Notice your breathing, aware that each breath comes only once. Each breath is unique.

In fact, as you pay attention to your breathing, notice how each moment is unique. That moment and that moment and that moment — each one is there so fleetingly. Each one is precious. This may sound like a platitude until you “get” it. Then it’s a simple and profound truth: each moment is precious.

But let’s think again about those around us, about those close to us, about those we’re connected to with ties of blood or love, about those who barely register as feeling beings, about those we don’t like or can’t stand to be around. You’re going to die. They’re all going to die.

Life is unpredictable. You have no idea if you’ll ever see them again, or if they’ll ever see you again. The people you see today — this may be the last time you see them. And maybe you should behave as if this was indeed the last time you were going to see them. What last words would you like them to remember you having said to them, should you die tomorrow? What last words would you like to remember having said, should they die tomorrow?

Look at those people, as if you’re never going to see them again. Let yourself feel vulnerable and tender. And let yourself feel affection for them. Let yourself appreciate their basic goodness. Let your judgements and your tendency to focus on the negative fall away, and recognize that you’re surrounded by good people who are struggling to be happy. Let yourself love.

The trouble is, you think you’ll have time to love later, and you might not, so behave as if you don’t have time to waste, and let yourself love — now.

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)

puzzle game solution head silhouette mind brainIn 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.

100 Days of LovingkindnessSimilarly, 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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