community

Mentorship and meetings

Eight Step Recovery

It has been one year since the first edition of “Eight Step Recovery” was launched, and Eight Step Recovery meetings have begun to spring up. I’ve just spent the last month in India talking about 12 step programs, and how the only requirement to attend them is the desire not to indulge in the substance or behaviour of that meeting. However for many Buddhists in India, the word God, has some negative connotations. And so it was a delight to introduce people to another meeting format that may help with their recovery.

Some of you who read my blog regularly will remember I posted a meeting format a few months ago, well now that I have had the opportunity to be in Eight Step Recovery Meetings daily for the past month, they have been refined.

Below we suggest a meeting format that has been tried and tested. Many people have benefited from these meetings and we hope you will too. We have suggested several types of meeting, while always including the Welcome, Meeting Guidelines, the Preamble, and reciting the five training principles in negative and positive form in call and response and the eight steps in unison. We would suggest you have the above printed out on cards – so that different people can read them out aloud.

Decide which meeting format will work for you. We also include suggestions of how to mentor people through the eight step model.

MEETING FORMAT

Welcome

Welcome my name is …….. and I will lead the 3 minute breathing space (AGE) this evening:
Become Aware of your body… Aware of sensation in the body… Aware of thoughts… Aware of emotions…
Gather your breath on the upper lip – in the abdomen – and let the contact of the breath calm your thoughts…
Expand the breath throughout the whole body. Let me hear everyone take a deep breath and expand it throughout the body.

I would like to remind all of us of our suggested meeting guidelines:

  • If there is more than one person there are enough people for a meeting.
  • The only requirement to attend this meeting is the desire to live your life by the five precepts, or training principles to train the mind.
  • Please respect people’s personal sharing – let what you hear stay here.
  • Be kind to yourself, and in turn be kind to others.
  • Enjoy your recovery.

We invite you to introduce yourself – and why you are here this evening. Please take one minute maximum – thank you. It is also okay for you not to say anything too.
After introductions, ask if there are any newcomers, and please welcome them.

Will somebody please read the preamble?

Preamble

This Eight Steps meeting explores recovery through the lens of the Buddhist teachings, and Buddhism through the lens of recovery. (If you are attending a 12 step meeting, this can be your expression of your 11th step and if you are not in a 12 step program, it can be another way to approach your recovery.) This is an extra meeting to compliment your recovery whatever that looks like.

For the next 1 and half hours or 2 hours we are temporarily going for refuge to the three jewels. What we mean by that, is as best we can we are placing the Buddha (not the person, but what he attained), the dharma (the  teachings of the Buddha) and the sangha (the spiritual community, which is us) at the centre of our thoughts. Those of us in recovery know too well that our addiction has often been at the centre of our thoughts.
So we begin with our moral inventory. (If a 12 step person is leading, you can say, just as in step three we turn our life and our will over to a god of our understanding, we are turning our life over temporarily to these three jewels.)

If you are Buddhist practitioner then please do the Pali first and let people know if it feels strange they can just listen. If you are not a Buddhist practitioner then please just recite the English as noted below.

Always do the negatives and positives as couplets in English, as it is valuable to reflect on what we are moving away from as well as what we are moving towards.

  1. I undertake to abstain from harming life – with deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. I undertake to abstain from taking the not given – with deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  3. I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct – with open handed generosity I purify my body.
  4. I undertake to abstain from false speech – with truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants – with mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.

We will now say the Eight Steps together

Step One: Accepting that this human life will bring suffering.
Step Two: Seeing how we create extra suffering in our lives.
Step Three: Recognizing impermanence shows us that our suffering can end.
Step Four: Being willing to step onto the path of recovery, and discover freedom.
Step Five: Transforming our speech, actions, and livelihood.
Step Six: Placing positive values at the center of our lives.
Step Seven: Making every effort to stay on the path of recovery.
Step Eight: Helping others to share the benefits I have gained.

Here are several formats that can take place after the precepts and steps have been recited.
Format 1 (if you only have an hour – or you have a lot of people – we suggest you work through the steps weekly in the following way).

This evening we will focus on Step One: Accepting that this human life will bring suffering.
What does it mean for you to accept that this human life will bring about suffering, in the context of your dis-ease?

This evening we will focus on Step Two: Seeing how we create extra suffering in our lives.
How do I create extra suffering in my life?

This evening we will focus on Step Three: Recognizing impermanence shows us that our suffering can end.
What do I need to let go of in my life today?

This evening we will focus on Step Four: Being willing to step onto the path of recovery, and discover freedom.
How willing am I to step onto the path of recovery today? or What is one aspect of freedom I have discovered since being on the path of recovery?

This evening we will focus on Step Five: Transforming our speech, actions, and livelihood.
How can I begin transforming or continue to transform my speech, or actions, or livelihood? Just choose one to focus on.

This evening we will focus on Step Six: Placing positive values at the center of our lives.
What are some of the things that tend to occupy my thoughts ? What is the impact of having these thoughts at the center of my life?

This evening we will focus on Step Seven: Making every effort to stay on the path of recovery.
How can I make more effort to stay on the path of recovery?

This evening we will focus on Step Eight: Helping others to share the benefits I have gained.
What could I do this week to help share the benefits I have gained?

Format 2 – for longer meetings of 90 minutes to two hours.

For the next few weeks we will be exploring Step One. We will discuss every exercise, one exercise a week, and when a meditation or reflection comes up, we do the practice and discuss it after. We will work through each step in this way, until we get to the end of the book, and then begin again.

Format 3 – can be done in the shorter meeting and the longer meeting.

Format 4 – Book Study meeting:

Participants begin from the beginning of the book. They read a section for 15 to 20 minutes, and then discuss the text. When a reflection or meditation comes up, either listen to it from the book website or somebody lead it – and then discuss. Mark the page you finish on at each meeting, so you can begin from the correct page at the next meeting.

There are several ways of doing this. You can work through the book chronologically, beginning with the foreword, or you can ask someone to select a text that they would like to focus on. If the group is closed then it is appropriate to ask people to do reading at home and come prepared. However, there will be meetings that are open and people will drop in or not turn up every week, which is perfectly fine. Both kinds of groups can work. If it’s the latter we advise each week someone will need to read a piece of the book out, or as a group you can pass the book around and read from it for ten to fifteen minutes and then discuss the topic.

You can be creative with the formats – although every meeting needs to begin with the AGE, the welcome, the introductions, the preamble, and reciting the training principles and the Eight Steps. Some meetings you may like to introduce a speaker, by asking someone to tell their story of recovery, abstinence, sobriety and their connection to the Buddhist teachings.

ENDING THE MEETINGS

We ask the meetings are ended in the following way:

Transference of merit said in unison. We offer a couple of versions, and of course you may know other Buddhist versions of this text.

Version 1

May the merit gained
in my acting thus
go to the alleviation of the suffering
of all beings.
My personality
throughout my existences,
my possessions,
and my merit in all three ways
I give up without regard
to myself
for the benefit of all beings.
Just as the earth
and other elements
are servicable in many ways
to the infinite number of beings
inhabiting limitless space,
so may I become
that which maintains all beings
situated throughout space
so long as all have not attained
to peace.

Version 2

We come together in fellowship,learning to recognize and let go of our unskilled words, thoughts and deeds,quieting our minds through meditation and supporting each other on our path to freedom from suffering.
May the merit gained in my acting thus,go to the alleviationof the suffering of all beings.

Three minute breathing space, AGE (ask someone to lead this).

Ask for Dana (voluntary financial contribution) – nobody is paid. Dana is an act of generosity, showing an appreciation of the Buddhist Teachings. However there is no suggested fee, and nobody is turned away. There is no price to attend a meeting. And nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable if they don’t put into the pot. Just as recovery is a process, so is the act of generosity. Dana will pay for your meeting space, for materials, books, non-alcoholic drinks, and anything else you need. If you have a surplus, you might wish to give money to a participant who wants to attend a recovery retreat.

Notes on how to run meetings:

We ask that all meetings conduct abstinence of not having food, at meetings. Of course we welcome non-alcoholic beverages.
Meetings are peer led. Each group will decide on perhaps someone taking on responsibility for doing the welcome and asking people to read the preamble and lead the AGE, for a month or two. Make sure responsibility is shared.
You may want to close your meeting – this is the group’s decision. You may want to set up Eight Step Meetings for specific addictions, or more generally for substance abuse. This again is the decision of the people who set up the group.

Mentorship

The book lends itself for people to be mentored through the Eight Step Recovery. We suggest if you want to mentor someone through the book, that you have read the book and have worked through every exercise and reflection on your own or in a book study. If you take on a mentee, then it would be expected you take the mentee through every exercise and reflection, and discuss the answers. We suggest that all mentees, do the 21 meditations for recovery, which are free and available on our website. We recommend requesting that they do one every day for three weeks.
We also suggest that mentees are attending meetings. Meetings can include Eight Step Recovery, 12 step meetings or SMART recovery meetings. Additional meetings can include attending a Buddhist centre weekly, but not as an alternative while working the steps.
Here are some – questions for mentees to answer before beginning the step work:

  • Are you prepared to go to any lengths to get your recovery? If someone asks what you mean by this, then you can say are they prepared to do every
    exercise and reflection in the book. Are they prepared to give what you may suggest a go?
  • What does addiction look life in your life today?
  • What does Recovery mean to you?
  • Share your personal story of addiction. In terms of your conditioning, what you have struggled with? What are the events that have marked your addiction?

Remember there are also meditations attached to the book, so for some meetings you could choose to listen to a meditation and then discuss how the meditation was for you. There is a website listed at the back of the book where you can download all the meditations in the book for free.

Finally one breath at a time – with your recovery.

For a free sample chapter of Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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Meditation for software engineers

buddha head and computer

I’ve noticed that there are a lot of technologists and software developers on the Wildmind Community and among Buddhists generally. I don’t think it’s just by chance. Coders tend to have life habits that make us susceptible to certain problems of mind, but yet may predispose us to the skill that can address these problems: meditation. I’d like to outline those problems, highlight why we might be predisposed to meditation, and make a suggestion as to how we can improve our practice.

Although software engineering is a craft – not unlike carpentry or gardening – it’s a craft where no manual labour is involved. The raw material is pure thoughtstuff and the end product is invisible. So we are obliged to live most of our working lives in the world of abstract ideas, never laying our hands on our work. Another useful way to describe software development is that it is an editorial process. We are always working on a draft, building it out and then honing it down, over and over until we have something that is fit for purpose. And then we start again for the next release. This is a creative process and for that reason it’s intense and personal. We begin to identify with the code we produce. A third characteristic of this kind of work is that we spend a great deal of time trying to solve problems – either by studying an overall solution to a customer’s needs, or by debugging our first attempts at that solution. We move from problem to problem and use the same skillset – logic, experience, concentration – to work through each one.

Let’s look again at this combination of factors: we spend much time in abstractions; the work is intense and creative but requires collaboration with other intensely creative people; and we approach the world as a series of puzzles to solve or problems to fix. This internal regime of mind can lead to problems both inside and outside the office.

Abstractions are necessary for navigating a complex world. Without the ability to generalize from particulars and build up a mental model of reality, we could not function as human beings. But for long periods of time this is all software engineers do. We begin to mistake our abstractions for reality (whatever that might be), and in fact we fall in love with those abstractions and identify with them as completely as we identify with our hard-won solutions to complex engineering problems.

Meditation can be a process by which we return to direct experience. Some kinds of sit allow us to observe our thoughts and other mental constructs as they come and go, while we guide our attention to simpler sensory experience such as sound or the tactile sensations of the breath. By experiencing this first-hand, we can rediscover the limited nature of our abstractions and so use them better. An abstraction that is no longer fit for purpose – because things have changed over time, or because it was too simplistic – is a liability in code and in life. In code, we know that we must re-shape these structures to deal with new requirements, and we know that even if this can be a painful process, we will get into ‘technical debt’ if we don’t do it. The less identified we are with the old idea, the easier we can change or discard it, the better our code will be, and the happier we can work. Outside the office, we need to let go of old abstractions and make way for new ones all the time. We can do this if we practice agile self-development: discard ideas that have outgrown their use, confront the pain of change as early as possible in the knowledge that if we don’t, we will get deeper and deeper into emotional debt.

People who don’t work in the software trade and only have TV and movies to go by have been taught to believe that nerds are solitary creatures who work alone (in basements) and usually have personal hygiene issues. Many offices have examples of this stereotype and if this is true of your office, you’ll know who those people are precisely because of the fact that they stand out as exceptions. Most software developers are of course perfectly normal and sociable – and this is just as well because any software project of any reasonable size needs a team and that team will have to embody communication and emotional skills if it is to deliver. Software development is a high-pressure team sport. When deadlines are looming (that’s what deadlines always seem to do – they loom!) tempers can become worn but the need for tight collaboration becomes even more important. It’s crucibles like these that demand of us the kind of qualities that a constant meditation practice can help to develop: steadiness, patience, the ability to not take things personally, and the capacity to deal with stress without exploding or imploding.

Finally, there is our approach to problem solving. This is a very transferable skill in the sense that we can use it outside of the workplace. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it doesn’t become the only tool in our box. Life is not a software project, or if it is, it’s the worst-managed project in the history of engineering: The requirements are never clear from the start and in any case they change by the minute; the interfaces to other modules are completely inconsistent and come and go as they please; there are multiple clients, managers and bosses; the team itself changes every other day and nobody ever really agrees on a design. You can apply all the logic, experience and concentration you like, but you’re still just firefighting. The kind of problems that life throws at us cannot be traced and debugged. And more often than not, they can’t be solved either. They have to be accepted – even loved. Try that approach in the office! There is no issue tracking system that allows a problem resolution status of Accepted and Loved. In the similar but opposite way, what we find in our todo list outside work cannot always be set to Resolved or Reassigned. And yet we very often act on the habit of our working hours, and try to fix everything that comes our way, or pass it along as somebody else’s problem.

But if our choice of career can bring all these problematic ways of thinking, it also brings with it the basic tools we need to mitigate them, and first among this is concentration. I’ve recently heard a good metaphor for what goes on when an engineer is mentally working on a solution: we are building a house of cards. Each layer is built upon the one underneath, but in a gentle way so as not to destroy what we have carefully constructed so far. This is why interruptions are so frustrating. When somebody taps you on the shoulder when you are in the middle of house-building, the cards can come crumbling down in an instant. Sometimes it’s not another person who taps on our shoulder, but another thought. What will I have for lunch today? Why don’t I check the online news? In order to be productive, we have learned to some extent the importance of extended periods of concentration, and how to maintain them. When you walk around the average software house, the reason you see so many headphones and earbuds in place is not because engineers are anti-social. They are just defending themselves against the crazy but widespread policy of open-plan office space, with all the noise and distraction that this entails. Concentration, which is central to meditative practice, is something that we know how to access.

Another positive predisposition to Buddhist meditation that engineers may have is an openness to certain fundamental concepts that underpin it. One of these concepts is anatta, or no-self. Bodhipaksa has described this beautifully in Living Like a River and in many blog posts. One of the most helpful images he has used is that of the car with hundreds of people inside scrambling for control of the steering wheel. There is no single driver, but a decentralized – even chaotic – process of control-passing from one process to the next. This concept is deeply counter-intuitive to many people who encounter it for the first time through Buddhism. But to anyone familiar with computer architecture, it makes perfect sense.

An engineer’s tinkering curiosity will serve well when meditating. We’ve used the system of consciousness for long enough – sooner or later we’re going to want to understand how it actually works. I’ve heard Shinzen Young make an analogy between meditative concentration and the microscope, in the sense that if we learn how to concentrate we can look more deeply and in more detail into our experience. He might just as easily have used the idea of the symbolic debugger. Meditation can be the tool that permits us to understand how our minds work and follow its loops, uncovering problems in the software and allow us to refactor as we go.

So we have some factors in our favour, but I think we can take things further. There is a change we can make in our in order to transfer our professional skills onto the meditation cushion. As a group, we need to become emotionally smarter by learning the skill of self-compassion.

There is a phenomenon known as the Imposter Syndrome that is quite prevalent in Silicon Valley and other centres of engineering excellence. A lot of people walk into these cathedrals as employees and feel unworthy, less smart than their peers, and expecting to be uncovered as frauds. These are smart people who are carefully selected, but yet feel that they have slipped through by mistake and that sooner or later they will be found out. I don’t know to what degree I personally suffer from this syndrome, but I’ve seen something strange happening when I’m trying to solve a problem: I feel physically and emotionally unwell until the problem is solved. When I examine the source of that stress (using mindfulness meditation as the debugger) I find fear. The fear that I am not smart enough to fix the problem or solve the puzzle. The fear that I will be found out. This fear becomes the overriding motivation to solve the problem, but paradoxically it creates obstacles and only delays the inevitable solution. I wonder how many of my colleagues go through the same thing. This isn’t a very smart way to manage one’s emotions, inside or outside the office. A more kindly approach would serve better. If we can be more gentle with ourselves then over the long run we will end up being more productive, easier to work with, and happier.

The Wildmind Community is almost half-way through 100 days of daily meditations on Lovingkindness. If you find the above description of the life of a software engineer to be accurate, or if it at least sparks that engineer’s curiosity in you to experiment with meditation, then consider this an invitation to join us.

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Love the world

Your brain evolved in three stages (to simplify a complex process):

Reptile – Brainstem, focused on AVOIDING harm
Mammal – Limbic system, focused on APPROACHING rewards
Primate – Cortex, focused on ATTACHING to “us”

With a fun use (to me, at least) of animal themes, the first JOT in this series – pet the lizard – was about how to soothe the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. The next one – feed the mouse – addressed how to help early mammalian neural systems feel rewarded and fulfilled. The third one – hug the monkey – was about weaving the sense of being included and loved into the primate cerebral cortex.

Of course, these three practices go way beyond their anatomical roots. The three primary motivational systems of your brain – Avoiding harms, Approaching rewards, and Attaching to “us” – draw on many neural networks to accomplish their goals. In fact, one motivational system can tap the two other ones; for example, you could express attachment to a friend by helping her avoid harm and approach rewards.

Lately, I’ve started to realize that a fourth fundamental human motivational system is developing out of the other three.

Whether it’s our hunter-gatherer ancestors depending upon their habitats for food and shelter, or modern folks making use of the settings of home and work, or the nearly 7 billion members of the human race pressing hard up against the limits of Lifeboat Earth: to survive and flourish, cultural evolution alone and perhaps biological evolution as well are calling us to love the world.

The world is near to hand in the matter/energy, nature, and human-made objects all around you. And then in widening circles, the world extends out to include society and culture, the planet itself, and ultimately the entire and still often mysterious universe.

When you love the world, you both appreciate and care for it. Each of these actions makes you feel good, plus they help you preserve and improve everything you depend on for air and food, livelihood, security, pleasure, and community.

During the last several million years of human evolution, our emerging species had neither much capacity for harm nor much understanding of the effects it did have upon the world.

But now, humanity has great power for good and ill, as well as undeniable knowledge of its impact on both the natural and built world. As the planet heats up and resources decline . . . and as a species – us – that evolved in part through being lethally aggressive toward its own kind (see the research on the high fraction of deaths due to violence in hunter-gatherer cultures) must now live cooperatively and peacefully if it is to live at all . . . it is critically important that a fourth major motivation guide our thoughts, words, and above all, deeds:

Love the world.

How?

In terms of the aspect of love that is about appreciating, routinely look for opportunities to enjoy, value, and feel grateful for little things in your environment.

These range from whatever is close by – soft pillow cases, flowers blooming, traffic laws, sun rising, libraries, tree shade, shared language – to the increasingly vast nested nests we all share: the internet, global institutions, oxygen/CO2 exchanges through which animals and plants give breath to each other, the incredibly rare and fortuitous occurrence of a rocky planet – Earth – surviving the early formation of a solar system to find an orbit that allows for liquid water on its surface . . . all the way out to this universe which bubbled out of nothing: the largest nest of all, the extraordinary miracle in which we make our ordinary days.

In terms of the aspect of love that is about caring for, this means to me a combination of cherishing, protecting, and nurturing the world. You naturally cherish what you love; cherishing something, you want to keep it safe; once it’s protected, you want to help it flourish. (As an aside, it’s interesting that these three inclinations map to the three underlying motivational systems: the Attaching system cherishes, the Avoiding system protects, and the Approaching system nurtures; as with other aspects of evolution, new capabilities and functions draw on preceding, “lower” systems.)

SO much could be written – and has – about cherishing our world, and protecting and nurturing it, yet I must be brief here, with just three suggestions.

For a minute, an hour, or a whole week, touch natural and human-made things around you like you truly cherish them.If you cherished an orange or a cup, how would you hold it?

Protect something from harm. You could save something you might otherwise throw away, from water running in a sink to food in a restaurant. Security is a wholesome aim of the Avoiding system, which is achieved in large part by conserving what we’ve got.

Pick one thing and focus on helping it grow and thrive. Perhaps a plant, or a business, or a project at a local school, or a collaboration among some friends, or a fix-it repair at home.

At the heart of it, I experience this practice as a matter of our relationship with the world. Do we relate to it as an adversary or distant acquaintance?

Or do we relate to the world as a friend, a child, a beloved nest?

Here and there and everywhere, let’s all live in a world we love.

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Meditation on happiness

girl sitting on a doorstep, laughing with joy

Happiness – we all seek it and want to know the secret of it. Self-help books on happiness line the shelves of book shops and libraries and there are all kinds of theories about happiness.

Over the years what I thought about and desired as a means to gaining happiness have changed as I have… matured (I like the word matured better than aged). Here is my list, organized by decades.

From ages:

0-10 I wanted to be cared for, safe, nourished and nurtured to be happy (although I could not articulate all this at the time).

11-20 I wanted friendships, fun, freedom, popularity, a car and someone interesting and sexy to date.

21-30 I wanted a college education, to go to lots of parties, a satisfying career, a marriage partner, pregnancy and healthy children, and a nice house in a neighborhood with a good school system.

31-40 I wanted to further my career as a Social Worker and Educational Consultant, a happy marriage, and healthy, independent kids.

41-50 I wanted to understand what spirituality meant, to know the meaning of life, to go beyond my self and live in an altruistic manner.

51-60 I want freedom, health, prosperity, deep friendships and to simplify my life more and more.

Throughout these decades there have been some things that did not change from decade to decade, including:

  • health, love and happiness for myself, my family members, friends and all people
  • stimulating work that helps people
  • a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home
  • good friends, a happy marriage and independent children
  • peace in the world
  • that everyone have food to eat

For the past ten years, my quest for happiness has focused on things that, at younger ages, I would not have thought important, including:

  • a spiritual practice and community
  • deep friendships based on caring, trust and mutual generosity
  • a life simplified by having less – fewer material things, a small living space
  • simple pleasures – watching otters and ducks on the pond by my cottage, watching the seasons change, spending time in natural settings, cooking for friends, phone calls and visits from my kids
  • peace, tranquility, compassion, and acceptance of myself, my children, my friends and acquaintances
  • acceptance for all that is
  • living mindfully, ethically and compassionately

I realize happiness comes from what I value most, what brings me pleasure, challenge, contentment and peace.

Whatever is on your list of things or values that bring you happiness, I hope you revel in them.

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The art of ditching old friends, and of finding new ones

What do you do when you find you’ve changed — but your friends haven’t? Bodhipaksa recounts how he found himself growing apart from one set of friends, and closer to a new set who were more supportive of his spiritual quest.

I was at university when I started practicing Buddhism. I was surrounded by fellow students who were like me. We thought the height of happiness was to party, to drink, to trade insults, and to find someone to have sex with. I was at vet school, and most of us thought that meat-eating was natural and right, and that animals existed in order to be devoured. When I took up meditation I found myself changing. Over time I started to find myself more at home with the people who hung out at my local Buddhist center — people who were vegetarian, interested in philosophy and meaningful conversations, and people who valued tranquility as an opportunity to deepen self-awareness.

I started to find many (although not all) of the people that I used to hang out with at college to be rather negative and shallow. Their conversations often didn’t interest me. Since I hadn’t gone very deep in my practice, I was rather judgmental, and socially inept to boot. I experienced a lot of ill will towards people because they weren’t spiritual enough, which is rather richly ironic. This caused me a lot of pain, and probably didn’t make others happy either.

   Thinking that we’re ‘spiritual’ while others aren’t is an ego trip.

But I was relatively lucky in that I made new friends in the Buddhist community, and had a gradual switch over from one set of friends to another. I experienced tensions between the two communities I was involved in, but at least I wasn’t isolated. A lot of people find themselves in a similar situation as they begin to practice. They start to find their work colleagues gossipy and trivial. They can find that family members resent the fact that they’re changing. How do we deal with this?

I think you have some valuable spiritual opportunities when we’re in this kind of situation. One opportunity is to practice patience with your old friends. It’s good to remember that at one time you did fit in with them, and at that time presumably you had much the same conversational style and interests as they still have. Thinking that we’re “spiritual” while others aren’t is an ego trip.

Another opportunity we have is to learn to be more skilled in communication. This can have a big effect on people. I had a friend in Scotland of whom I can honestly say that I never heard him criticizing anyone at any time. In fact if he heard me being critical then he would almost always present another point of view about the person or thing I was criticizing, which shifted the perspective and really brought me up short. And he did this in a very friendly way that gave me no cause for reactivity. He never pointed out, for example, that I was being critical — he just quietly came in with a more considered point of view. I’d suddenly realize that I had been unkind and one-sided in my speech.

   We frequently overlook the positive, especially when we develop a habit of judging others.

And there’s an art as well in steering people into deeper levels of conversation. You can bring the topic back into focus when people are wandering off into other areas. You can ask questions to go deeper (basically being a good, active listener). You can challenge in a friendly way. If you’re challenging how the group as a whole communicates, then it’s far better to talk in terms of how “we” communicate rather than how “you” communicate. You can share something deeper from your own experience (although you have to be careful about this since it’s not helpful to offer up your soul to be trampled on). You have the opportunity to be, in short, a leader — the proverbial one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

We can also practice “rejoicing in merits,” or “giving positive feedback”, as it’s more commonly known. We frequently overlook the positive, especially when we develop a habit of judging others. When we’ve decided that other people are “unspiritual” we can find ourselves focusing on what we consider to be their faults, and filtering out anything positive that they do. Our perceptions of others can be very selective. People are “stubborn” when they stick with a point of view we don’t agree with; they’re “committed” when they stick with a point of view we find favor with. People are “fickle” if they change their minds and disagree with us; they’re flexible when they change their minds and support our opinions. We need to learn to see the positive in others, and also to support its development. Tell someone she’s just done something that’s friendly, and she’s more likely to act in a friendly way in the future.

   Tell someone she’s just done something that’s friendly, and she’s more likely to act in a friendly way in the future.

If, as sometimes happens, we find ourselves stuck with “old” friends but haven’t found a new community to practice with, we have an opportunity to seek out people who are more like-minded. We may have to take the initiative and to be more out-going, rather than hoping people will magically find us. If we make the first move, the magic may well happen. I had a lovely experience some years ago when I was speaking at a conference in Missoula. At lunch time someone sat beside me (because I looked friendly, he said). It turned out that he, like me, had recently moved to Missoula, he had lived in Scotland (my homeland), had an interest in the relationship between Buddhism and business (my master’s degree topic), and had like me run a retreat center. It was rather eerie, and of course we’ve been friends ever since. But I had to make the decision to go to the conference, and be open to meeting new people.

But there may be some of the people that you currently hang out with that you don’t want to maintain contacts with. That would be a very sensible thing to do. The Buddha was forever warning people to hang out with friends who would actually support and encourage what is best in you rather than undermine it. If people have a very negative effect on you, despite your best efforts, those are relationships you may want to put behind you. At the same time there’s no point in isolating yourself. You need to find a balance.

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