kindness

Trance of “Unreal Other”

grass and dew drops and ladybirdsThe truth is: without a genuine willingness to let in the suffering of others, our spiritual practice remains empty.

Father Theophane, a Christian mystic, writes about an incident that happened when he took some time off from his secular duties for spiritual renewal at a remote monastery. Having heard of a monk there who was widely respected for his wisdom, he sought him out. Theophane had been forewarned that this wise man gave advice only in the form of questions. Eager to receive his own special contemplation, Theophane approached the monk: “I am a parish priest and am here on retreat. Could you give me a question to meditate on?”

“Ah, yes.” The wise man answered. “My question for you is: What do they need?” A little disappointed, Theophane thanked him and went away. After a few hours of meditating on the question and feeling as if he were getting nowhere, he decided to go back to the teacher.

“Excuse me,” he began, “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my apostolate during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?”

“Ah, I see,” answered the wise man. Then my question is, “What do they really need?”

Like so many of us, Father Theophane had assumed that true spiritual reflection focuses on our solitary self. But as the wise man reminded him, spiritual awakening is inextricably involved with others. As Theophane focused on the needs of those he had been given to serve, he would recognize their vulnerability and longing for love—and realize that their needs were no different than his own.

The question the wise man suggested was wonderfully crafted for awakening in Theophane the true spiritual depth that comes from paying close attention to other human beings.

Like Theophane, whenever we are caught in our own self-centered drama, everyone else becomes “other” to us, different and unreal. The world becomes a backdrop to our own special experience and everyone in it serves as supporting cast, some as adversaries, some as allies, most as simply irrelevant. Because involvement with our personal desires and concerns prevents us from paying close attention to anyone else, those around us—even family and friends—can become unreal, two-dimensional cardboard figures, not humans with wants and fears and throbbing hearts.

The more different someone seems from us, the more unreal they may feel to us. We can too easily ignore or dismiss people when they are of a different race or religion, when they come from a different socio-economic “class.” Assessing them as either superior or inferior, better or worse, important or unimportant, we distance ourselves.

Fixating on appearances—their looks, behavior, ways of speaking—we peg them as certain types. They are HIV positive or an alcoholic, a leftist or fundamentalist, a criminal or power-monger, a feminist or do-gooder. Sometimes our type-casting has more to do with temperament—the person is boring or narcissistic, needy or pushy, anxious or depressed. Whether extreme or subtle, typing others makes the real human invisible to our eyes and closes our heart.

Once someone is an unreal other, we lose sight of how they hurt. Because we don’t experience them as feeling beings, we not only ignore them, we can inflict pain on them without compunction. Not seeing that others are real leads to a father disowning his son for being gay, divorced parents using their children as weapons. All the enormous suffering of violence and war comes from our basic failure to see that others are real.

In teaching the compassion practices, I sometimes ask students to bring to mind someone they see regularly but are not personally involved with. Then I invite them to consider, “What does he or she need?” “What does this person fear?” “What is life like for this person?”

After one of these meditations, a student approached me to report that a wonderful thing had happened since she’d begun doing this practice. When seeing colleagues at work, neighbors walking their dogs, clerks at stores, she’d been saying in her mind, “You are real. You are real.”

Rather than being backdrops for her life, she was finding them come alive to her. She’d notice a gleam of curiosity in the eyes, a generous smile, an anxious grinding of teeth, a disappointed and resigned slope to the shoulders, the sorrow in a downcast look. If she stayed a moment longer, she could also feel their shyness, their awkwardness, or their fear. She told me, “The more real they are to me, the more real and warm and alive I feel. I feel a closeness in just being humans together. It doesn’t matter who they are … I feel like I can accept them as part of my world.”

When we stop to attend and see others as real, we uncover the hidden bond that exists between all beings. In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes:

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

We are all journeying through the night with plans, breathing in and out this mysterious life. And, as my student discovered through her practice, the more we can learn to pay attention to others, and truly see them as “real,” just like us, the more we can allow the “tender gravity of kindness” to naturally awaken and bloom.

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I realized I don’t have to believe my thoughts

big beech trees in spring timeOur mindfulness practice is not about vanquishing our thoughts. It’s about becoming aware of the process of thinking so that we are not in a trance—lost inside our thoughts. That’s the big difference. To train in becoming mindful of thoughts can help us to notice when your mind is actively thinking, either using the label “thinking, thinking,” or identifying the kind of thought—“worrying, worrying,” “planning, planning.” Then, becoming interested in what’s really happening right here. Coming home to the sensations in your body, your breath, the sounds around you, the life of the moment.

As our mindfulness practice deepens we become more aware of our thoughts. This offers us the opportunity to assess them and notice that much of the time our thoughts are not really serving us. Many thoughts are driven by fear and lock us into insecurity. During our residential meditation retreats, one of the biggest breakthroughs people share with us is:

“I realized I don’t have to believe my thoughts.”

Training in mindfulness allows our minds to have a choice. At the moment in which you pause and realize that these thoughts are not really serving me, you have the option to come back to presence. This process of choosing becomes more powerful as you realize how thoughts can create suffering and separation. They create an “us” and a “them.” They create judgment and end up making us feel bad about ourselves.

In those moments when you’re lost in thought, what if you could pause and say, “OK, it is just a thought” That is revolutionary. That can change your life!

Now, the key is that we approach this with a gentleness and kindness. Each time we recognize thinking and come back into the present moment with gentleness and kindness, we are planting a seed of mindfulness. We are creating a new habit—a new way of being in the world. We quiet down the incessant buzz of thoughts in our mind. We take refuge in what is true—the aliveness and tenderness and mystery of the present moment—rather than in the story line of our thoughts.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
— Wu Men

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A gesture of kindness

tara-brachThe next time you find yourself in a bad mood, take a moment to pause and ask yourself, “What is my attitude toward myself right now? Am I relating to myself with judgment … or with mindfulness, warmth, and respect?”

Typically, you’ll find that when you’re anxious, lonely, or depressed, you’re also down on yourself in some way, and that undercurrent of feeling deficient or unworthy is what’s keeping you cut off from your own aliveness, as well as your feeling of connection with others.

The way of healing and homecoming begins with what I call “a gesture of kindness.” You might for instance put your hand on your heart—letting the touch be tender—and send a message inwardly. It might be “It’s okay, sweetheart.” Or “I care about this suffering.” Or, “I’m sorry and I love you.” Often, it’s simply, “This, too.”

Sometimes, this gesture of kindness includes saying “yes” to whatever’s going on—the yes meaning, “This is what’s happening, it’s how life is right now … it’s okay.”

If you’re really down on yourself, you can also say “Forgiven, forgiven.” Not because there’s something wrong to forgive, but because there’s some judgment to let go of.

As you offer yourself this gesture of kindness, take some moments to stay with yourself, to keep yourself company. Allow whatever most wants attention to surface, and sense that you are the loving presence that can include and embrace whatever’s arising.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Then, see if you can widen your attention, and notice what or who else is floating in your heart space. Perhaps you’ll intentionally offer a gesture of kindness to a friend who’s struggling with disappointment, a family member dealing with illness, or a teen caught in self-doubt.

As you continue to practice offering yourself and others this gesture of kindness, you will discover that this response to life becomes increasingly spontaneous and natural. In time, you’ll recognize it as the most authentic expression of who you are.

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What matters most to you?

RickHansonIn every life, reminders arrive about what’s really important.

Two years ago, I received one myself, in a form that’s already come to countless people and will come to countless more: news of a potentially serious health problem. My semi-annual dermatology mole check turned up a localized melanoma cancer in my ear that needed to come out immediately. The prognosis was very positive – the melanoma was “non-invasive,” whew – but it was certainly an intimation of mortality. Hopefully this particular bullet will whiz by, but the whole experience was an uncomfortably concrete message that sooner or later something will catch up with each one of us.

When all this happened back in June, 2011, it was like there was three layers to my mind. The top was focused on problem-solving. Beneath that there was a furry little animal that was upset and wanted to curl up with loved ones. The bottom layer felt accepting, grateful, and at peace.

Naturally enough, after the bullet passes – maybe taking a bit of your ear with it! – you reflect on your life, both past and to come. Of course, you don’t need a health scare – which in my case was small potatoes compared to what so many people around the world must deal with – to consider what you care about most. Then you appreciate the things you’ve honored so far, and you see where you could center yourself more in what’s truly important to you.

While it’s good advice not to sweat the small stuff, we also need to nurture the large stuff.

There are many good reasons to do so, from simply enjoying yourself to recognizing the truth that one day you’ll have just A Year to Live, the title of Stephen Levine’s haunting book. You’ll never know when you step over the invisible line and the countdown begins – 365 days left, then . . . – but you can know, before and after you cross it, that you’ve remembered the big things.
How?

A Few Questions
In this life, what do you really care about?

Looking back, what has mattered to you? Looking ahead, what do you want to keep on the front burner?

Consider this well-known suggestion: imagine resting comfortably in your last few days and reflecting on your life; what do you want to be glad that you felt and did, that you made a priority?

Some Big Things
I’ll offer here some things I’ve been thinking about lately. See what fits for you, and add your own. Here we go.

You. The sweet soft vulnerable innerness upon which both the chocolate kisses and sharp darts of life land. Your own well-being. What you make of what the poet Mary Oliver has called “your one wild and precious life.”

Love in its many forms, from compassion and small acts of kindness to passionate romance and profound cherishing. The people who matter to you.

Tasting – with all your senses – whatever is delicious in this moment: a ripe banana, birdsong, the curve of a highway railing, the lips of a lover, being alive. . .
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Practice. Helping yourself routinely to deepen in awareness and to pull weeds and plant flowers in the garden of your mind.

Karma yoga – a Hindu term that means skillful action toward wholesome ends, engaged as practice, imbued with a sense of union with whatever is sacred to you. This includes taking care of details that matter, and appreciating the power of little things to add up over time for better or worse.

Letting go. Exhaling, relaxing, changing your mind, moving on, disengaging from upsets (while also standing up for things that matter).

The thing(s) you keep putting off – perhaps speaking your mind to someone, writing that book, returning to the piano, making time to exercise, or seeing the Grand Canyon.

Being, making time for hanging out with no agenda. Rather than doing, the addiction of modern life. Doing crowds out being like cancer cells crowd out healthy ones.

Remembering to remember the big things. And to act upon them. Before it’s too late.

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Live well: Metta meditation helps you see world in kinder way

Jen Mulson, The Gazette: We all could use a lot more metta in our lives.

The Pali (a Middle Indo-Aryan language) word means loving kindness. Metta meditation is a practice that allows you to generate feelings of goodwill and love for yourself, your loved ones, those you feel neutral about and those you find difficult.

Pat Komarow, a local yoga and meditation teacher, will guide a metta meditation at Buddha Day at Marmalade at Smokebrush on Saturday. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to attend.

“It’s so powerful because it’s unconditional,” she said. “It’s foreign to the Western world…

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Buddhism’s big week: Dalai Lama’s visit shines light on its many flourishing forms

Like many Westerners, Mary Bennett turned to Buddhism when the faith of her childhood stopped working for her.

She still wanted a spiritual practice, but one that valued questioning.

“Buddhism encourages you to investigate every piece of information you’re given, and that really appealed to me,” said Bennett, who works in Madison in the field of health care advocacy. “All of us want to be good people, but how? Buddhism provides a path and instruction on how to gain wisdom and compassion.”

It’s a big week for Buddhism in Madison — one of many in the last four decades because of the…

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Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and me

Poppy Damon, Varsity, Cambridge, UK: ‘Whether one believes in a religion or not and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.’ Dalai Lama
When I was 14 I skipped school. It wasn’t to go drink VKS in the park like other ‘kids my age’. I went see the Dalai Lama speak at the ‘Burswood Dome’ in Western Australia, a venue graced by the likes of Elton John and boasting a humungous casino complex. In light of his recent visit to Cambridge and the very valid and interesting discussion that it has caused (for once)…

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Bringing kindness to mind (Day 1)

Lotus, isolated on whiteIn one of the Buddha’s teachings on purifying the mind, he said that the basic attitude we should be cultivating can be summed up in the thought:

‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease.’

Traditionally this kindly and loving attitude starts with how we relate to ourselves. If we carry around a harsh attitude inside ourselves, in the way we talk to ourselves internally, then it’s harder for us to have kindness for others.

So apart from doing some sitting metta practice today as part of 100 Days of Lovingkindness, I’d encourage you to cultivate kindness toward yourself throughout the day.

The phrases I most often use in cultivating lovingkindness towards myself are:

  • May I be well
  • May I be happy
  • May I feel at ease

Try saying those to yourself now. Let the rhythm of the words sink into your mind. Build that intention to be kinder!

And see if, throughout the day, you can keep coming back to dropping those thoughts into the mind at odd moments. I was doing it this morning as I was walking to the office. From time to time as I’ve been writing this article I’ve paused for a moment and dropped in one of the phrases. Every time I do it, I feel happier. Now I’ve been doing this practice for 30 years, so you may or may not feel happier, kinder, and more at ease as you repeat these phrases, but they will have an effect, and often quite quickly.

Apart from anything else, these phrases, when we have them running through our minds, reduce the normal stream of thoughts — often critical or self-critical — that tend to bubble up all day long. With less of that critical thinking going on we feel happier.

But the phrases also work in their own right, not just because they reduce critical thoughts. Every time you are dropping one of those thoughts into the mind, you’re strengthening your desire to be kind to yourself. And this has effects. When we use particular parts of the brain repeatedly, those parts actually get bigger. So when you cultivate loving thoughts for yourself, you’re strengthening pathways in the brain, and bringing about long-term change. You can trust this process! It works.

So keep coming back to these thoughts at odd moments. You’ll forget to do it for long periods. That’s all right. Every time you do actually remember, you’re building an intention to be kind to yourself. And that’s going to benefit not just you, but everyone you’re in contact with.

What are you doing to be kinder to yourself today?

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post :: See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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Apology as a spiritual practice

Yesterday I lost my temper with my daughter and yelled at her. I even snatched out of her hands the baby monitor that she and her brother had been using to make a noise with.

I’m not proud of losing my temper. In fact I’m ashamed when that kind of thing happens.

It’s true that I’d asked her several times to stop, but that’s still no excuse.

It didn’t help either that I’d been trying to get a little work done in the living room and was trying hard to stay focused on a message I was writing. But that’s no excuse either.

I messed up. I communicated in an unskillful way and shocked and distressed my little girl.

These things are going to happen, though, so I don’t beat myself up about them. Saying I feel ashamed doesn’t mean I think I’m a terrible person, but simply that I recognize that my action was wrong. I feel ashamed, not guilty. Unfortunately, things like this are going to happen again, though. That’s just how things are.

What I did get right, I think, was that I apologized swiftly. That’s something I try to do. When I have my little outbursts they take me over for just a split second, usually, but then what seems to happen is that I return almost at once to a more ethical perspective. And when I’ve hurt someone, especially my kids, I let them know that I regret my actions. Often the apology comes mere moments after the thing I’m apologizing for, as it did this time. And my daughter was instantly fine, and harmony was restored.

This incident was fresh in my mind when I came across a passage in an article by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on lovingkindness (or as he prefers to call it, goodwill). I’m reproducing it here, reformatted to help bring out more clearly the points he makes.

As for the times when you realize that you’ve harmed others, the Buddha recommends that you understand that remorse is not going to undo the harm, so if an apology is appropriate, you apologize. In any case, you resolve not to repeat the harmful action again. Then you spread thoughts of goodwill in all directions.

This accomplishes several things.

  • It reminds you of your own goodness, so that you don’t — in defense of your self-image — revert to the sort of denial that refuses to admit that any harm was done.
  • It strengthens your determination to stick with your resolve not to do harm.
  • And it forces you to examine your actions to see their actual effect: If any of your other habits are harmful, you want to abandon them before they cause further harm.

In other words, you don’t want your goodwill to be just an ungrounded, floating idea. You want to apply it scrupulously to the nitty-gritty of all your interactions with others. That way your goodwill becomes honest. And it actually does have an impact, which is why we develop this attitude to begin with: to make sure that it truly animates our thoughts, words, and deeds in a way that leads to a happiness harmless for all.

I see apology as being a reorientation of our being toward the good. Our minds and selves are modular: some parts of us see the way to happiness as lying in selfishness and aggression, while other parts of us see the path to happiness as lying in mindfulness and compassion. When the unskillful takes hold of us, it’s crucial to re-establish as quickly as possible that this was a deviation, and to redirect ourselves toward awakening. When we try to justify what we’ve done, by rationalizing or weaseling our way out of admitting fault, we actually strengthen the unskillful within us, and end up perpetuating our own and others’ suffering.

Another way to deal with our unskillful actions is confession. Confession’s what I’m doing here, in part. When we confess we’re being honest about what we’ve done, so that we can own it and move on.

When I first did formal confession, I was terrified that the people I was confessing to (we did it in a group) would stop liking me if they knew what I was “really” like. But in fact, I discovered that they loved me more for having been honest with them. In confessing we’re not looking for forgiveness, just to have what we’ve done out in the open, rather than festering inside us. I don’t need you to forgive me; I just need you there to hear me.

The power of confession, like that of apology, lies in re-establishing our connection with who we truly want to be. It gives the reins of our being back to the wiser, kinder, and more honest parts of ourselves.

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Kindly Awareness

If your life feels like a struggle with the world, it may be that your real struggle is with yourself. But if we turn towards our experience with kindly awareness we can find the deepest kind of peace and happiness that comes from within

Mindfulness means paying attention. Simply paying more attention to our surroundings brings many benefits, but something interesting also happens when we also pay attention to the thoughts in our heads and the feelings that go with them.

Many people notice how hard we on ourselves we can be. There’s a constant commentary on everything we do, often including self-criticism, harsh judgments, chivvying and berating. That has an effect and those thoughts turn out to be closely related to stress, anxiety and depression. It’s hard to relax if you feel that what you do isn’t good enough.

That’s where kindness comes in. Noticing our thoughts helps us let unhelpful ones go rather than dwelling on them and that’s a way of being kind to ourselves. But feelings are important as well, and it’s very helpful to find techniques that help us respond to our experience with a sense of kindness.

The Kindly Breath

One way to do this is through using the breath. As we breath in we can imagine that the breath expresses a sense of kindness that enters and fills the body. Words or phrases can encourage that, so we can quietly repeat to ourselves ‘May I be well; may I be happy’, letting the words express a heartfelt wish.

In this way, kindness can be a part of a breathing meditation and it can help us to face whatever difficult situations, thoughts, feelings or sensations (like pain) may confront us.

Compassion for Others

Kindness for ourselves can open into kindness or compassion for others. Our own suffering can cut us off from others, and experiences like stress, pain or depression can make us preoccupied with our difficulties. Connecting with others can be a way out of that, and the kindness we develop for ourselves can grow into kindness or compassion for others.

In fact, one of the most popular Buddhist meditation, taught by the Buddha himself, practices is called ‘development or loving-kindness’ or mettabhavana. In this practice you develop feelings of kindness for yourself, a good friend, someone to whom you feel neutral, and someone you find difficult. Then you spread the kindly feelings to everyone in the world.

if you are interested in learning more about this practice, you can use this guide.

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