ill will

Forgiveness as a practice of compassion

A post-it note on a wooden desk, reading "sorry"

One of the emotional drivers of cruel and unkind behavior is resentment. Resentment is when we hold onto past hurt, locking ourselves into a pattern of blame. Unable to let go of the past we keep bringing up a memory of someone hurting us, betraying us, or failing to protect us. Every time we do so we experience the hurt anew. And every time we hurt ourselves we feel a renewed burst of ill will.

There’s something about this that I’d like to clear up, and that’s the misapprehension that we somehow store old emotions in the subconscious, from where they make appearances from time to time. This model dates back to Freud, at least, and is based on a model of emotion that we now know to be wrong. It’s a tempting view, however, especially given that we often, as I’ve described above, experience the hurt accompanying an old memory. But what’s actually happening, according both to Buddhist teachings on the mind and modern psychology, is that the feeling of hurt is being recreated over and over again, every time that the memory is triggered. Every time you feel the hurt, it’s a new hurt. Every time the hurt gives rise to anger or self-hatred, it’s a new emotion that you’re experiencing.

Also see:

We get trapped in cycles of resentment instinctively. It’s not exactly something we plan to do. It’s a habit we share with other animals. A favorite example of mine is crows, who develop resentment against researchers who have caged and banded them. They can maintain these attitudes—which involve scolding calls, accompanied by wing- and tail-flicking, and mobbing—for years. The signs of resentment they show spread through entire communities and can grow over time as new members of the community learn from others.

The example of the crows is a good reminder that we don’t choose to have resentment as part of our emotional make-up. It’s part of our genetic inheritance. And so it’s pointless and needlessly painful for us to blame ourselves for the mere fact of being prone to resentment.

We can also learn from the crows that resentment is about both punishment and protection. We want to punish those who have hurt us or those close to us. We want them to know they have done something unacceptable. The aim is to stop them from repeating the hurtful act. We’re trying to change their behavior. (Notice that we’re once more back to Punishment Culture.)

Resentment can be painful for those it’s directed at, but it’s certainly painful for us. In fact in many cases it causes us far more suffering than it causes the other person. There’s a saying in AA that resentment is like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the other person to die. A much older saying from the Buddhist tradition is that resentment is like picking up feces to throw it at another person; you might make them smell but the only person guaranteed to be punished is yourself.

These are useful reflections to bear in mind, because they help make resentment look less attractive. When we catch ourselves in the midst of resentful reactivity, we can help weaken the emotion by reminding ourselves of its consequences.

Forgiveness is the opposite of resentment. Forgiveness is a willingness to let go of ill will. And we can do this both because we want to stop hurting another person and because we want to stop hurting ourselves.

It can hard for us to forgive because we think that to keep ourselves safe we have to keep reminding the other person that they have transgressed so that they don’t do it again, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that this person has the capacity to hurt or harm us. For the first part of that we maybe need to ask ourselves, how much punishment is enough if we want the other person to know we’re upset that they hurt us? Do they already know? If not, will they ever? What would you need from them in order to be sure? Might you have already received it? Or received as much as you’re going to get? Is maintaining the resentment worth the pain you’re causing yourself?

It’s good to remember that you don’t need ill will to protect yourself from another person. If they have the potential to hurt you, you can simply know that, and be on the look-out for signs that they might do so. You can keep your guard up (if that’s needed) without hatred or resentment, simply by knowing. You can trust yourself on this.

However you don’t have to trust the other person. if they’re untrustworthy, remember that. Don’t give them your trust. Resentment doesn’t need to be involved.

Having talked about untrustworthy people who want to hurt or harm us, in my experience a lot of resentment is against people who have no ongoing desire to do us wrong. They may even be people we love and who love us. Especially in those cases, since loving relationships are so precious, I suggest being quick to forgive.

The self-compassion practices I’ve outlined are ideal for helping us let go of resentments:

  1. Recognize you’re causing yourself suffering.
  2. Drop the resentful story.
  3. Drop down into the body, find your pain, and accept it.
  4. Offer compassion and reassurance to the suffering part of you.

In this way you help heal the unhealed hurt, so that it ceases to ask, over and over again, to be protected by your ill will — a form of protection that can never truly protect you. Self-compassion gives our hurt the protection ill-will promises but can never deliver.

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To be less conflicted with others, be less conflicted within yourself

Photo by Natalie Collins on Unsplash

When we experience conflict with or ill will toward another person it’s obvious that there’s something about them that causes us pain or discomfort. But it’s less obvious that it’s the feelings that arise within us that are key; when we have hateful or critical thoughts we’re reacting not directly to another person, but to our own pain.

Our ill will toward another person is really an inability to deal with feelings within ourselves that we find uncomfortable.

The purpose of hatred is, ultimately, to drive away the supposed source of the problem: the other person. If we’re unpleasant to them, we assume, they’ll go away and leave us alone. But this doesn’t work when we’re bound to each other by social ties and we’re stuck with those to whom we have feelings of ill will. And ill will does nothing to deal with the real source of the problem — our inability to accept parts of ourselves that are in pain. Not only that, but it is itself painful. If we look at our experience when we’re full of hate, we’ll see that it’s a tight, conflicted, unpleasant state to be in. And acting based on ill will leads to conflicts that come back to bite us. Ill will is like a toxic medicine that only makes the disease worse.

Until we are able to deal skillfully with our own pain, we’ll continue to have aversion to it, and therefore to others. If, on the other hand, we learn to accept our own uncomfortable feelings, we’ll no longer need to have hatred.

When we’re cultivating compassion in meditation, there’s a stage where we call to mind someone we experience conflict with, or dislike, or feel critical of. I suggest that as you bring this person to mind, you check in with your body to see what kind of response you’re having toward them. Often you’ll find that there’s physical discomfort around the heart or in the solar plexus. This is the unpleasant feeling that we’re trying to push away. This is what we need to accept and respond to with compassion.

You can notice the discomfort, and accept that it’s OK to feel it. You can even tell yourself, “It’s OK to feel this.”

You can wish your discomfort well, and give it reassurance: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I love you and I want to be happy.”

As you do this, you may notice that you can bear your discomfort in mind without ill will arising. However, if critical or hateful thoughts arise, just turn your attention once more to your actual experience of the body and to the painful feelings that are arising there. Keep accepting that it’s OK to have those feelings. Keep offering them reassurance and compassion.

Once you’ve done this—and it may only take a few seconds—you’ll find that it’s easier to turn your attention in a compassionate way to the person you find difficult. And you may find that you can respond to them in a “cleaner” way. It may be that there’s something about their behavior that’s not working for you in the long term. Maybe you need to ask them to look at this and ask them to change. But now you can do so with less of an “edge,” and in a way that’s more empathetic and that takes into account both your feelings and theirs.

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Regard suffering as a mindfulness bell

Here’s a funny story for you.

One of the things we do to fund our activities at Wildmind is selling meditation supplies, which means that our office is also a mini-warehouse, stocked with incense, Buddha statues, meditation cushions — and mindfulness timers.

One day my work kept getting interrupted by a bell that would go off from time to time. The first couple of times it was no big deal. I thought that someone had perhaps jostled a wind chime, which will happen when stock’s being moved around. But as the sounds continued to happen, it became an annoying interruption.

The puzzling thing was that no one seemed to be doing anything that could be making this noise. I asked around to see if anyone, for example, had some app running that was creating a chiming noise, because I was trying to write an article and the interruption was really bothering me. It turned out that everyone else was also being disturbed and had been wondering what the noise was. In fact they’d all assumed it was the result of something I was doing!

Eventually we realized that one of the mindfulness timers we stock had somehow been switched on, and it seemed that the offending item was one that was boxed. The trouble was, which one? There was a pile of perhaps two dozen boxed meditation timers, and the bell would only ring once every few minutes. And by the time someone had dashed over to the place the timers were stored, the sound had already stopped.

It became my mission to find out which timer was ringing. This involved splitting them up in a process of eliminating non-offending timers. To cut a long story short, I finally tracked down and deactivated the timer that had been interrupting us, and we were all able to work undistractedly. The whole episode was very disruptive, not just because the bell had been interrupting our work, but because it had taken so much effort to switch the timer off.

The ironic thing, of course, is that the random bell was supposed to be an invitation to practice mindfulness — to stop what you’re doing and to spend a few moments tuning into the breath, to relax, and to let go! None of us had remembered to be mindful when we heard the bell ringing! In fact we’d all rather unmindfully been irritated by something that was supposed to me a mindfulness tool!

One trivial thing to learn from this is that something like a mindfulness bell only works when I have the expectation that it will. Unless, when I hear the bell, I have an assumption “this bell is intended to help me be mindful” it’s not going to function as a prompt for mindfulness.

But something I wonder is, why don’t I regard every annoyance as a mindfulness bell! Ironically, as I was writing this article I kept being interrupted by a co-worker who needed my advice on a number of questions. It dawned on me that I could use these interruptions to my routine to mindfully check in with myself. And the other week, when I found myself irritated by some software that didn’t function as expected, someone pointed out to me that I could be grateful to the company concerned because they were giving me an opportunity to become mindful of my impatience. I think that’s a brilliant idea, and something I need to work on.

Basically, I’d like to train myself to see the experience of annoyance as a mindfulness bell — letting it jolt me into a deeper awareness of myself. When I find I’m irritated by something, instead of going on a rant I can drop down to the level of feelings, recognize that the feeling of frustration I’m experiencing is a form of pain, and then send compassionate thoughts to that pain.

PS. Yes, I know that Quasimodo never said “The bells!” but I couldn’t resist the temptation to use a photograph of that character.

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21 ways to turn ill will to good will

wooden wall painted with slogans of kindness, such as "love and kindness are never wasted"

Here we give up angry, punishing reactions toward others, animals, plants, and things. If such attitudes arise, we resolve not to feed them, and to cut them off as fast as we can.

The Buddha placed great stress on the importance of releasing ill will. In the extreme, he said that even when we are being grossly mistreated by others, we should practice good will toward them, and wish them the best.

To be sure, that does not mean turning a blind eye toward injustice and mistreatment – of ourselves as well as others – nor does it mean turning our back on skillful actions of protection, advocacy, and betterment. It is perfectly appropriate to defend yourself, assert yourself, pursue your own interests – and to do all that on behalf of others, too – as long as all that is done in the spirit of wisdom and good will. This stance is seen pointedly and poignantly in the Dalai Lama’s reference to “ . . . my friends, the enemy Chinese.”

Of course, in daily life, practicing with ill will is often extremely difficult – especially when we feel we’ve been truly wronged. For help, please see, “21 Ways to Turn Ill Will to Good Will.” As a summary, those ways are listed here:

  1. Be mindful of the priming.
  2. Practice non-contention.
  3. Inspect the underlying trigger.
  4. Be careful about attributing intent to others.
  5. Put what happened in perspective.
  6. Cultivate lovingkindness, compassion sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
  7. Practice generosity.
  8. Investigate ill will.
  9. Regard ill will as an affliction.
  10. Settle into awareness of ill will, but don’t be identified with it.
  11. Accept the wound.
  12. Do not cling to what you want.
  13. Let go of the view that things are supposed to be a certain way.
  14. Release the sense of self.
  15. “ . . . ill will is suppressed by the first jhana based on lovingkindness and eradicated by the path of nonreturning.”
  16. Resolve to meet mistreatment with lovingkindness.
  17. Cultivate positive emotion.
  18. Communicate.
  19. Have faith that they will inherit their own karmas one day.
  20. Realize that some people will not get the lesson.
  21. Forgive.
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Get out of the war

Tibetan monks in a vigorous debate

What are you fighting? By “war” I mean here a mindset, not combat between nations with tanks and bombs. The “war” I’m referring to is an attitude of conflict and animosity toward a person, object, or condition. Parents can feel at war with a misbehaving teenager, and certainly vice versa. Neighbors quarreling over a fence. Spouses edging toward divorce; divorced parents continuing to battle over holidays. Someone stuck in traffic, at war with other drivers. Ideologues reviling the other side. Kicking the chair after stubbing a toe against it.

The summer when I was 16, I worked as a camp counselor beside the Pacific Ocean, and there was a lot of skin diving (without scuba gear) into the forests of kelp. One time I foolishly swam into a thicket of kelp, thinking there was clear water just on the other side, but there was only more seaweed, with thick orangish leaves and long strong vines reaching up from the seabed below. I was trapped, running out of air, and began to panic. I battled the kelp, thrashing and jerking, which only wrapped it more tightly around me. After I don’t know how long, a clarity came over me and my war with the kelp ended. My diving mask was around my throat, my snorkel ripped out of my mouth, and I’d lost a fin. I slowly disentangled myself from the kelp rather than fighting it, working my way upward, finally clearing it, seeing the bright silver surface of the ocean above my head, and rising up to it and then the precious air.

We need to be able to stand up for ourselves, deal with tough things – including nearly drowning – and change what’s wrong and uphold what’s right. But when we do this while also caught in anger like a swimmer caught in kelp, that’s not good for us or others. A mind at war feels bad, full of irritation and fear. The body revves up, accumulating the gradual wear and tear of stress activation. Perceptions and beliefs get biased and defended. Reactions are turbocharged. All this prompts others to go to war with us, which then drives vicious cycles.

Getting caught in the mind of war is understandable and all too normal. The capacity and sometimes inclination to go to war are a part of human nature (amidst many other parts, including empathy, restraint, altruism, and love). Next, this part of a person is shaped further by culture, economic hardship, childhood, and life experiences. Then psychological factors get involved, such as identifying with your “case” against others, vengeance, holding onto grievances, or a general mood of reproach.

But whatever its causes, still, a mind at war is the responsibility of the person who has it.

How?

Recognize the causes. Be aware of the emotional payoffs in being at war, and the inner justifications. How did your approach to conflict get influenced by your upbringing and life experiences? Do you go to war because you don’t know another way? As you understand these causes more deeply, they’ll have less power over you.

Recognize when you’ve slid into war mode. Notice the tension and activation in the body, the righteousness and rigidity in the mind, the tangles of recurring conflicts with others. Be very aware of the experience and the impact on others, including innocent bystanders such as children. Considering all these costs, ask yourself: Do I really want to be at war here? Then make a choice. This moment of sincere choice is key. Without it, the momentum of war takes on a life of its own.

Pick a particular situation and imagine being strong and taking care of things without going to war, without throwing the hot coals that burn both others and yourself. How could you be firm and clear without slipping into righteousness or antagonism? Imagine someone who embodies this combination of strength, moral confidence, self-control, and non-reactivity to the warlikeness of others (two models for me are Martin Luther King, Jr. and Aung San Suu Kyi); imagine how this person might act in your situation, and see if you could be more like this yourself.

Take care of your real interests as best you can. If appropriate, try to repair with the other person (“non-violent communication” is a good approach). But if the other person ignores or punishes your efforts at repair, that’s not a good sign. Then if you can, name and try to repair the lack of repair – and if this effort is blocked as well, that’s a really bad sign. You may need to shrink the relationship – at least inside your own mind, if you can’t do this outside in the world – to the scale that is trustworthy and safe for you.

Bottom-line, look to the war as it happens inside you rather than getting swirled into the accusations, positions, threats, and recriminations around you. See the suffering in the other people and yourself, and see if you can have compassion for all parties. The world outside may not change. But if you end the war in your own head, you’ll feel better and act better. Which just might help the world around you to change for the better as well.

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Dealing with resentment (Day 47)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Resentment is seductive. We assume on some level that it’s going to help us, but it doesn’t. It just causes us pain.

This is something that just about all of us need help with.

1600 years ago, a compiler of and commentator on Buddhist texts called Buddhaghosa put together an extraordinary “tool kit” of ways to deal with resentment. I was recently looking at this guidance, which is part of Buddhaghosa’s encyclopedic work on meditation, The Visuddhi Magga, or Path of Purity, and thought it was so fresh, well thought-out, and relevant that it was worth restating some of what he had to say.

Twelve techniques for getting rid of resentment

1. Lovingkindness practice

This one’s pretty obvious — if you’re a meditator at least. You can simply call to mind the person you’re resentful of, and cultivate good will toward them. We have a whole section of this site devoted to teaching the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice, so I won’t say much about that here, except that it does work! When I first started practicing meditation I had a lot of problems with resentment, and I was often surprised by how quickly my anger and resentment toward someone would just vanish.

2. Reflect that resentment is never justified

Buddhaghosa suggests that we “reflect upon the saw.”

This one needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a “Simile of the Saw” in the early Buddhist scriptures, where the Buddha says that even if bandits brutally sawed a person limb from limb, “he who entertained hate in his heart would not be one that carried out my teaching.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what the provocation is, hatred is never justified. The mind can go “but … but …” as much as it likes, but hatred remains a negative emotion that destroys our happiness, causes suffering for others, and prevents us from experiencing peace.

Pretty much all of us, though, carry around the idea that there’s such a thing as “righteous resentment.” And we assume that hatred is justified. We tell ourselves stories about how bad the other person is, and this seems to make it natural for us to hate them. What we’re not doing is taking responsibility for our ill will. It’s our interpretation of other people’s actions that makes us hate them. We cause our own hate.

Don’t take the parable of the saw literally. Of course (unless you’re an advanced practitioner of superhuman stature) you’d experience hatred toward an aggressor who was torturing you. That wouldn’t mean that you weren’t a Buddhist — but it would mean that in the moment of hatred you would not “be one that carried out [the Buddha’s] teaching.” The point of the parable is simply to undermine the idea of “righteous resentment.”

Incidentally, some Tibetan monks and nuns who have been brutally tortured by Chinese security forces have avoided developing hatred toward their tormentors by means of compassion — reflecting that their torturers are building up bad karma for themselves.

3. Winning the real battle

Hot on the heels of the advice to reflect on the parable of the saw is an admonition to reflect that in developing hatred you’re actually giving a person who hates you what they want. (This is assuming that the other person hates you, which isn’t always the case.)

What does a person who hates you want for you? Bad stuff, that’s what. Buddhaghosa points out that hatred makes you ugly, causes you pain, destroys your good fortune, causes you to lose your wealth (or not to create any, perhaps because you’re distracted), detracts from your reputation, loses you friends, and leads to a bad rebirth. This is all bad stuff.

Someone who really hated you might wish all these things on you, and here you are doing them to yourself! You’re handing your hater victory. You’re doing him or her a favor. And by getting angry at an angry person, Buddhaghosa says, you become worse than them, and “do not win the battle hard to win,” which is of course the battle with yourself, to remain happy and unruffled.

So basically, we reflect here that true victory can’t come from getting angry at an angry person. That’s defeat. Victory comes from remaining calm, loving, and equanimous.

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4. “Accentuate the positive”

Buddhaghosa suggests that we think about something positive in the other person, so that you can “remove irritation.”

This works, too. Resentment doesn’t like complexity. When you bear in mind someone’s good points — even things (dammit!) that we admire — it’s harder to keep the resentment going.

5. Develop compassion

But if you can’t think of anything positive about the other person, or if they truly don’t have any positive qualities (although that’s almost impossible) then you should develop compassion toward them. In Buddhaghosa’s world view, a person with no redeeming qualities is bound for the torments of the hell realms, and is therefore worthy of our compassion. I should stress that in Buddhism the hells are not permanent and are not punishments — they are simply places where we are reborn for a while as a result of our actions. Buddhist hells are a kind of “fat farm” where we burn off our bad karma.

6. Notice how you’re causing yourself suffering

As Ann Lamott points out, resentment hurts us. Buddhaghosa offers many reflections along those lines:

If another person has hurt us, why should we then hurt ourselves? In your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness, so why not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable? If another person has done something we disapprove of, then why do something (like getting angry) that we would also disapprove of? If someone wants you to get angry, why give them the satisfaction? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself. The thing you got angry about is impermanent and in the past. So why are you angry now?

He’s kind of unrelenting, that Buddhaghosa.

7. Reflect that all beings are the owners of their karma

This is a common reflection in Buddhism: all beings create their own actions (kamma) and inherit the consequences of those actions. The other person may have done things that are unskillful, and those actions will cause them suffering. So what’s the point of you doing exactly the same thing, by acting out of the unskillful state of resentment? It’s like picking up a hot coal to throw at the other person. You may hurt them, but you’re definitely going to hurt yourself.

The other person, if they are angry with you, is causing themselves pain. It’s like, Buddhaghosa says, them throwing a handful of dust into the wind. They may be aiming at you, but it’s their eyes that will end up smarting.

Reflecting in this way we can untangle our respective lives. The other person’s faults, real or imagined, are no longer an occasion for us to exercise our own faults.

8. Reflect on exemplars of patience

Buddhaghosa goes a bit over the top with this one, devoting almost as much time on this method of dispelling resentment as he does on all the others put together. His approach is to remind us of various past lives of the Buddha, or jataka tales, as they’re called. These are mythological stories about the Buddha’s previous lives, as he developed the qualities of compassion and wisdom that led to his awakening.

I’ve found that being in the presence of someone who is very patient causes me to let go of my resentments. I had a good friend in Scotland who I never — not once — heard say an unkind word about anyone. Sometimes I’d be bitching about someone else, and my friend would just come in with some wise and kind word about the other person’s life that would put everything in perspective and leave me feeling a bit petty about having ranted. Even now, just calling that friend to mind helps me evoke a sense of patience.

9. Reflect that all beings have been your dearest friends and relations in a previous life

I’m not big on past lives, or in belief in rebirth generally, but if you do take that kind of thing seriously, then Buddhaghosa’s advice is to remember that because of the beginninglessness of time, every being — including those you get most pissed off with — have been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, and daughter. When that person was your mother, they carried you in their womb, suckled you, wiped away your snot and shit, and generally lavished you with love. And we can reflect, Buddhaghosa says, thus: “So, it is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being one of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that rely on assuming that rebirth is a reality rather than a myth, or perhaps a metaphor, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each reborn in every moment. Each moment we die and are reborn.

Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth. In fact, each perception is a kind of birth. It’s the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each contact that we have with another being is part of this process. Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, even think or someone, a new experience arises and a new being is born. So in this way, all beings that we have contact with are our mothers. Each being we have contact with in this moment helps give birth to the being that exists in this moment. And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers.

10. Reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness

You can reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness, and how you’ll deny yourself those benefits by indulging in resentment. What are the benefits? Well, it’s worth reflecting on that through examining your own experience, but here’s Buddhaghosa’s list, which comes from the scriptures: You’ll sleep in comfort, wake in comfort, and dream no evil dreams. You’ll be dear to human beings and to non-human beings. Deities will guard you. Fire and poison and weapons won’t harm you (although that seems unlikely, to say the least). More plausibly, your mind will be easily concentrated. You’ll be reborn in a pleasant realm (or at the very least the future you that arises will have more a pleasant existence than the being that would have arisen had lovingkindness not been a part of its previous existence).

Some of these are plausible. There is scientific research showing that there are health benefits, and mental health benefits, from practicing lovingkindness meditation. Friendly people generally seem to have a more pleasant experience of the world, with less conflict and more fulfilling experience of others. You’ll deny yourself these benefits if you indulge in resentment. Resentment is the saturated fat of emotions, clogging the arteries of our happiness.

11. Break the other person into tiny pieces

Mentally (not physically!) we can dissolve the object of our resentment into various elements, asking ourselves what exactly we’re angry with. Is it the head hairs, the body hairs, the nails, the teeth, etc? Is it the solid matter making up that person, the liquid, the gas, the energy?

This might seem a little silly. In fact it seemed silly to me, right up to the moment that I tried it. There had been resistance to the idea, because I thought, “Well, of course I’m not angry with any of those things, I’m angry with them — with the person as a whole. But setting that resistance aside, and just reflecting on the bits that make up a person takes you away from the thought of them “as a whole” and you temporarily can’t be angry with them!

As Buddhaghosa says, “When he tries the resolution into elements, his anger finds no foothold, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle.”

He’s right.

12. Give a gift

This one’s delightfully straightforward and earthy. If you give the other person a gift — especially something you value — then you break the dynamic of your resentment. You shake things up within yourself. You have to think of the other person as a human being with needs. You have to think about what they might like. You stop your mind from going around and around in the same old rut of complaining. You have to let go of your damned pride. You have to take a risk. You have to make yourself vulnerable.

And giving to the other person changes the dynamic of the relationship. If there’s mutual resentment, then you may shock the other person into seeing you differently.

Buddhaghosa points out that giving naturally leads to kind speech:

Through giving gifts they do unbend
And condescend to kindly speech.

Of course you may be thinking something along the lines of, “Wait! I hate this person; why on earth would I give them something?”

But that just brings up another question. Do you want to end your resentment?

Well, do you?

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Transform ill will

Fist of fireGoodwill and ill will are about intention: the will is for good or ill. These intentions are expressed through action and inaction, word and deed, and-especially-thoughts. How do you feel when you sense another person taking potshots at you in her mind? What does it feel like to take potshots of your own? Ill will plays a lot of mini-movies in the simulator, those little grumbling stories about other people. Remember: while the movie is running, your neurons are wiring together.

Ill will tries to justify itself. In the moment, the rationalizations sound plausible, like the whisperings of Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings. Only later do we realize how we have tricked ourselves.

And often our attempts at payback just get in the way of balls already ricocheting back toward the person who sent them flying in the first place.

As I wrote in last week’s JOT, Ill will creates negative, vicious cycles. But that means that good will can create positive cycles. Plus good will cultivates wholesome qualities in you.

How?

Be Aware of the Priming
Be mindful of factors that stimulate your sympathetic nervous system – such as stress, pain, worry, or hunger – and thus prime you for ill will. Try to defuse this priming early on: eat dinner before talking, take a shower, read something inspiring, or talk with a friend.

Regard Ill Will as an Affliction
Approach your own ill will as an affliction upon yourself so that you’ll be motivated to drop it. Ill will feels bad and has negative health consequences; for example, regular hostility increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Your ill will always harms you, but often it has no effect on the other person; as they say in twelve-step programs: Resentment is when I take poison and wait for you to die.

Investigate the Triggers
Inspect the underlying trigger of your ill will, such as a sense of threat or alarm. Look at it realistically. Are you exaggerating what happened in any way? Are you focusing on a single negative thing amidst a dozen good ones?

Study Ill Will
Take a day and really examine even the least bit of ill will you experience. See what causes it and what its effects are.

Settle Into Awareness
Settle into awareness, observing ill will but not identifying with it, watching it arise and disappear like any other experience.

Accept the Wound
Life includes getting wounded. Accept as a fact that people will sometimes mistreat you, whether accidentally or deliberately. Of course, this doesn’t mean enabling others to harm you, or failing to assert yourself. You’re just accepting the facts on the ground. Feel the hurt, the anger, the fear, but let them flow through you. Ill will can become a way to avoid facing your deep feelings and pain.

Relax the Sense of Self
Relax the sense of self. Experiment with letting go of the idea that there was actually an “I” or “me” who was affronted or wounded.

Have Faith in Justice
Have faith that others will pay their own price one day for what they’ve done. You don’t have to be the justice system.

Don’t Teach Lessons in Anger
Realize that some people won’t get the lesson no matter how much you try. So why create problems for yourself in a pointless effort to teach them?

Forgive
Forgiveness doesn’t mean changing your view that wrongs have been done. But it does mean letting go of the emotional charge around feeling wronged. The greatest beneficiary of your forgiveness is usually you.

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Cultivate goodwill

Two young girls showing each other affection

As the most social and loving species on the planet, we have the wonderful ability and inclination to connect with others, be empathic, cooperate, care, and love. On the other hand, we also have the capacity and inclination to be fearfully aggressive toward any individual or group we regard as “them.” (In my book – Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom – I develop this idea further, including how to stimulate and strengthen the neural circuits of self-control, empathy, and compassion.)

To tame the wolf of hate, it’s important to get a handle on “ill will” – irritated, resentful, and angry feelings and intentions toward others. While it may seem justified in the moment, ill will harms you probably more than it harms others. In another metaphor, having ill will toward others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Avoiding ill will does not mean passivity, allowing yourself or others to be exploited, staying silent in the face of injustice, etc. There is plenty of room for speaking truth to power and effective action without succumbing to ill will. Think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama as examples. In fact, with a clear mind and a peaceful heart, your actions are likely to be more effective.

Ill will creates negative, vicious cycles. But that means that good will can create positive cycles. Plus good will cultivates wholesome qualities in you.

How?

Cultivate Positive Emotions

In general, really nourish and develop positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, and peacefulness. For example, look for things to be happy about, and take in the good whenever possible. Positive feelings calm the body, quiet the mind, create a buffer against stress, and foster supportive relationships – all of which reduce ill will.

Practice Noncontention

Don’t argue unless you have to. Inside your own mind, try not to get swirled along by the mind-streams of other people. Reflect on the neurological turbulence underlying their thoughts: the incredibly complicated, dynamic, and largely arbitrary churning of momentary neural assemblies into coherence and then chaos. Getting upset about somebody’s thoughts is like getting upset about spray from a waterfall. Try to decouple your thoughts from the other person’s. Tell yourself: She’s over there and I’m over here. Her mind is separate from my mind.

Be Careful About Attributing Intentions

Be cautious about attributing intentions to other people. Prefrontal theory-of-mind networks attribute intentions routinely, but they are often wrong. Most of the time you are just a bit player in other people’s dramas; they are not targeting you in particular.

Bring Compassion to Yourself

As soon as you feel mistreated, bring compassion to yourself – this is urgent care for the heart. Try putting your hand on your cheek or heart to stimulate the embodied experience of receiving compassion.

Meet Mistreatment with Loving Kindness

Traditionally, loving-kindness is considered the direct antidote to ill will, so resolve to meet mistreatment with loving-kindness. No matter what. A famous sutra in Buddhism sets a high standard: “Even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw… you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate’” (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 223).

Personally, I’m not there yet, but if it’s possible to stay loving while being horribly mistreated – and from some of the accounts of people in awful circumstances, it clearly is – then we should be able to rise up in lesser situations, like getting cut off in traffic or being put down yet again by a teenager.

Communicate

To the extent that it’s useful, speak your truth and stick up for yourself with skillful assertiveness. Your ill will is telling you something. The art is to understand its message – perhaps that another person is not a true friend, or that you need to be clearer about your boundaries – without being swept away by anger.

Put Things in Perspective

Put whatever happened in perspective. The effects of most events fade with time. They’re also part of a larger whole, the great majority of which is usually fine.

Practice Generosity

Use things that aggravate you as a way to practice generosity. Consider letting people have what they took: their victory, their bit of money or time, their one-upping. Be generous with forbearance and patience.

Cultivate Positive Qualities

Cultivate positive qualities like kindness, compassion, empathy, and calm. Nourish your own good will.

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Five steps to letting go of quarreling

angry cat

It’s one thing to stick up for yourself and others. But it’s a different matter to get caught up in wrangles, contentiousness, squabbles — in a word: quarrels.

Similarly, it’s one thing to disagree with someone, even to the point of arguing – but it’s a different matter to get so caught up in your position that you lose sight of the bigger picture, including your relationship with the other person. Then you’re quarreling.

You know you’re quarreling when you find yourself getting irritated, especially with that sticky feeling that you’re just not gonna quit until you’ve won.

Quarrels happen both out in the open, between people, and inside the mind, like when you make a case in your head about another person or keep revisiting an argument to make your point more forcefully. We quarrel most with family and friends – imagine that! – but also with people on TV, or politicians and groups we don’t like. We can even quarrel with conditions in life (such as an illness or tight money) or with physical objects, like a sticky drawer slammed shut in anger.

However they happen, quarrels are stressful, activating the ancient fight-or-flight machinery in your brain and body: a bit of this won’t harm you, but a regular diet of quarreling is not good for your long-term physical and mental health.

Plus it eats away like acid on a relationship. For example, I was in a serious relationship in my mid-twenties that was headed for marriage, but our regular quarrels finally so scorched the earth in our hearts that no love could grow there for each other.

This week, try not to quarrel with anyone or anything.

How?

  1. Be mindful of what quarreling feels like, in your body, emotions, and thoughts. For example, be aware of that sense of revving up, pushing against, being right, and driving your view home that is so characteristic of quarreling. Ask yourself: Does this feel good? Is this good for me?
  2. Observe the impact of quarreling in relationships, whether you’re doing it or others are (including on the world stage). Ask yourself: Are the results good? What would my relationships be like if I did not quarrel in them?
  3. If you sense yourself warming up to a quarrel, step back, slow down, don’t do it. Try a different approach: Say only what truly needs saying; stay calm and contained, without trying to persuade the other person; don’t take any bait. If it comes to this, let the other person, not you, look over-heated and argumentative.
  4. Much of the time, you’ll realize that nothing needs to be said at all: you just don’t have to resist the other person. His or her words can pass on by like a gust of air swirling some leaves along its way. You don’t have to be contentious. Your silence does not equal agreement. Nor does it mean that the other person has won the point – and even if he or she has, would that actually matter so much in a week – or year – or so?
  5. If you do get caught up in a quarrel, as soon as you realize that’s happened, back out of it. A good first step is to get quieter. Think about what really matters in the interaction – like saying what you are going to do in the future, or finding out some key fact – and then zero in on that thing, whatever it is. Maybe acknowledge to the other person that you’ve realized you’ve gotten into a kind of argument here, but that’s not what you really want to do. If that person tries to keep up the fight, you don’t have to. It takes two to quarrel, and only one to stop it. Then when the time is right, as you can, try to repair the damage of the quarrel.

Overall, explore the sense of being at peace with the world, without a quarrel with anyone.

(The feeling of this reminds me of a saying from my wife’s childhood, which should be adapted to one’s own situation: Be a friend to all, and a sister to every Girl Scout!)

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Meditation hindrances and how to work with them

Buddha statue overlooking mountains in Himachal Pradesh

I remember my first weekend retreat at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in the summer of 1993. I took the weekend “off” from family and work obligations to learn how to meditate and take an Introduction to Buddhism class. My first meditation experience in the Meditation Hall at Aryaloka was blissful – even the outdoor birdsong quieted and the stillness was palpable.

During that first meditation class, I was excited to learn the list of hindrances to meditation: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety and skeptical doubt. I could relate to that list because I experienced those hindrances off the cushion too, to varying degrees, and regularly.

Having the list of hindrances was helpful because when I mediated and watched the antics of my mind, I had a way of working in meditation to move beyond them… sometimes.

The hindrances distract our minds with mundane thoughts that can, and often do, become obsessive. If we are obsessing about mundane issues, we are distracted from our spiritual work and spiritual progress.

Let’s explore the hindrances:

1. Sensual desire (kamacchanda)

Our meditations often reveal what we desire and crave. We sit down to meditate, to still the mind and find calm and tranquility and we start thinking about a person we are attracted to, or the aroma of the bread baking in the oven in our kitchen, or the concert we have tickets for – you know what’s on your list.

When we compulsively crave sensual pleasures (sex, food etc.) we are alienated from the depth of the here and now and from those people, places, thoughts and activities that are in the present moment. So there is nothing wrong with sensual pleasure, but when it becomes compulsive we distract ourselves from being present to the moment, being present to our lives.

When we become aware of  sensual desire we can bring our awareness back to the focus of the meditation. We can look at what we desire and see through our projections and unrealistic expectations. We can look at what discomfort might be beneath the compulsive desire. For instance, when we are distracted by thinking about someone we are attracted to, we may be distracting ourselves from looking at something that is troubling us in our relationships, or disappointment in not achieving a goal, or something we are concerned about. We might ask ourselves “What am I distracting myself from?”

Guarding the doors of the senses is a way of working with sense desire. This involves recognizing what situations, images and thoughts create sensual desire and avoiding them. For instance, when on a retreat or when meditating in a group, avoiding conversations just before the meditation.

2. Ill-will (byapada)

Ill will, or aversion, like sensual desire, obstructs our ability to be mindful and free and alienates us from kindness. We feel constricted and reactive rather than open-hearted and expansive.

Ill will can be sparked by:

  • remembering what we heard a friend say about us that was hurtful
  • going over an angry interchange with a relative
  • wishing we had something that someone else has (a material possession, a relationship, confidence, teaching ability etc.).

We can work with this hindrance by questioning the ill will, noticing the effects on our bodies, how it affects our energy and what it might be covering up such as frustrated ambition, fear, embarrassment or protection from feeling disappointment.

When we are aware of ill will, being attentive to it and stopping ourselves from fanning its flames will help it to dissolve and build confidence in our ability to be present and mindful.

When working with ill will, I realized I have sometimes reacted to someone or a situation, and come to see that the ill will was centered in my own story line or way of interpreting someone’s action or comment. Working with ill will offers the opportunity to have compassion toward myself and other people.

Practicing and cultivating loving kindness, empathy, equanimity and meditating on karma are good antidotes for ill will.

3. Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)

Sloth is a lack of energy and alertness to keep interested in the focus of meditation. We feel drowsy and sleepy and it feels as though our vitality and effort are limited.

Torpor is a lack of mental energy. The mind is dull or easily drifts in thought. This hindrance may be a result of discouragement, frustration, boredom, indifference, hopelessness or resistance.

Sloth and torpor may be overcome by consciously arousing more energy by walking meditation; sitting up with a more erect, energized posture; opening the eyes; washing the face with cool water; opening a window or bringing curiosity and finding interest in the object of meditation.

Bringing curiosity to why we are feeling sloth and torpor, understanding how particular thoughts, beliefs, and evaluations feed into the hindrance can be helpful.

Being mindful of what we eat before meditation and how what we eat affects our energy in meditation, reflection on impermanence and the importance of practicing here and now, reflecting on a dharmic topic that inspires us are all ways to work with this hindrance.

4. Restlessness and worry, anxiety or remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)

This hindrance manifests as being unable to settle and concentrate due to a physical feeling of wanting to move the body and is accompanied by memories and thoughts about things we are worried about or feel remorseful for.

We may feel agitated and restless, unsettled and uncomfortable. It takes courage, patience and discipline to stay with discomfort and explore our thoughts and actions to understand what triggers them (frustrated desire, pent-up aversion, fear and resentment, or dissatisfaction).

I have found reflection, writing in a journal and talking with spiritual friends helpful in working with this hindrance. Walking meditation, yoga and exercise are also helpful when dealing with restlessness and worry; and confession is beneficial when dealing with regret and remorse.

Remembering how it feels to be still and calm may help. Remembering to consciously breathe or focusing on the ongoing rhythm of breathing, can calm the body. The more attention that is given to breathing, the less attention is available to fuel the restlessness or worry.

Strong opinions about what is or is not supposed to be happening, judgments of what is “good and bad” seldom lead to calm. Attachment to a self-image can be agitating. It can be liberating to realize that we don’t have to believe every thought we have.

5. Skeptical doubt (vicikiccha)

This hindrance manifests as uncertainty about meditation (“Does meditation really work?”) and in one’s ability (“I’m not good at meditating.”) and culminates in a lack of confidence.

Some doubt inspires action and the impulse to understand, encourages deeper investigation and can be healthy.

Doubt that hinders meditation is a doubt in the practice, in the Dharmic teachings, in one’s teachers, and/or in oneself. When doubt involves uncertainty about the practice or the teachings, it is helpful to study and reflect on the Dharma itself.

Questioning deeply held beliefs, attending to unresolved feelings, challenging ingrained convictions about self-identity, remembering something that inspires us in the practice (such as a teaching, a person, or some experience you have had in the practice) can all help to dissipate doubt.

Working with the hindrances can help us to answer the following queries:

  • Where do I put my attention?
  • What thoughts and actions cause my mind to fixate its attention on what I want or don’t want?
  • How can I apply mindfulness rather than allowing this mental activity to continue?
  • How can I work with this impulse of preoccupation and obsessive thinking?
  • How can I bring curiosity and exploration, understanding, kindness and non-reactivity to my meditation practice?

Working with the hindrances can strengthen our faith, our firm conviction in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and remind us of why we meditate and practice ethics and how much we value our practice.

Faith gladdens the heart, clears away the hindrances and breathes life into our efforts to continue our path to freedom.

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