mudita bhavana

Gratitude for the teachings and teachers (Day 75)

100 Days of LovingkindnessSo you’re here to learn something about meditation. From me, a person who enjoys sharing his experience. Perhaps you’re grateful that I do that. I’m grateful you’re here.

I learned meditation from many people, the first of whom was a man called Susiddhi, another Scot, who was teaching at the Glasgow Buddhist Centre in Scotland. And now that I think about it, I am very grateful for what he taught me, and I’m grateful to the many other teachers I learned from, who often taught each other. This process of teachings being passed on isn’t a linear process of teacher to student. Teachers are also students of each other. Often students teach their teachers. So I’m going to say “thank you” to all these teachers, including the teachers who have been my students.

Most of those people who I learned meditation from learned to meditate, originally at least, from Sangharakshita, an Englishman who went to India to become a Buddhist monk. Now I’m very grateful indeed to Sangharakshita for having gone to India, and for having explored meditation there, and for having sought out a number of teachers, some of whom were Indian, several of whom were Tibetans who had recently left their homeland in order to escape the Chinese occupation and the persecution of their religion, and one Chinese man who happened to be living in Kalimpong. And I’m grateful to all of Sangharakshita’s teachers for having passed on meditation instructions along with their other Dharma teachings. Thank you, Sangharakshita. Thank you, Dhardo Rinpoche, Yogi Chen, and all the other teachers who spent time with him.

And I’m very grateful to Sangharakshita for having returned to Britain after something like 16 years in the East, and for having set up what was at first the Western Buddhist Sangha, but which became the Western Buddhist Order, and is now the Triratna Buddhist Order, of which I’m a part.

I often wonder what my life would be like without the Dharma, and without the spiritual community of which I’m a part. I was a difficult person in my youth, and I’m not sure any of the other Buddhist organizations that were around in my young adulthood could have offered me the challenge and the friendship that I needed. We’ll never know. But when I think of all the people who helped me, even though I made it hard for them to do so, I’m very grateful indeed. There have been times I’ve choked up and been unable to talk while expressing my gratitude. Thank you to all the people who have helped me and challenged me to grow.

I often wonder what my life would be like without the Dharma, and in fact wonder if I would even have a life. I was prone to isolation and despair when I was younger. Two of my friends, one of whom was my best friend for several years, killed themselves. I think it’s possible that that might have happened to me. So I’m grateful to be here, and grateful for the Dharma that made it possible for me to be here.

And the Dharma made it not only possible for me to be here, but possible for me to live more happily, and to be a better person — easier for others to be with, and less prone to making others suffer. I’m much happier and kinder as a result of my Dharma practice.

And this Dharma, which I’ve immersed myself in, and which was made available to me because of the actions of a maverick monk from England who decided he was a Buddhist at the age of 16 and who spent 16 years living and teaching in India, goes back, of course, all the way to the Buddha himself, 2,500 years ago. How many teachers are there between the Buddha and Sangharakshita? We’ve already seen that the process of Dharma “transmission” (I use the scare quotes so that what I’m saying won’t be confused with the linear Zen idea of transmission) isn’t linear. The route back to the Buddha isn’t like a river flowing straight to the ocean, but like entwined braid of criss-crossing streams. The number of teachers between me (or Sangharakshita) and the Buddha is literally uncountable. How many people there are for me to feel gratitude for? There’s no shortage!

And there’s the Buddha himself. One of the things I most admire about him, and that I’m most grateful for, is that he refused to settle. He said he felt a “thorn in the heart,” and he didn’t settle for putting up with that. He had a comfortable life, even if he wasn’t the prince that legend makes him out to be. He didn’t settle, and went off wandering. He attained deep states of meditation with Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, and could have settled for those spiritual accomplishments, but he didn’t. Nor did he settle for becoming a leader of either man’s group. He explored asceticism, and didn’t settle. And then he rediscovered the jhanas, and didn’t settle for those, either, although he realized that these were the path to awakening. And he didn’t settle until he’d found the thorn in his heart and plucked it out. He could have just enjoyed the rest of his days peacefully meditating, but again he didn’t settle, and spent 45 years relentlessly wandering and teaching. How fortunate for us! Or for me, anyway. I’m deeply grateful for his perseverance, and even though he’s long dead I say “Thank you,” and bow deeply. Gratitude turns naturally into puja, or devotion.

And it’s incredibly lucky that the Dharma found its way through the centuries — found its way to us. It seems that had been enlightened teachers before the Buddha, but they were pre-Iron Age, and a society living at a subsistence level couldn’t support an ongoing spiritual community. We call these previous awakened individuals Paccekabuddhas, solitary Buddhas, not because they lived alone (as people erroneously think) but because they were isolated in time, leaving no enduring legacy. In the Buddha’s own day there was once a drought so severe that people criticized the monks and nuns for begging from householders. This was potentially a lineage-killing event. We’re lucky the sangha survived this. Buddhism was in fact wiped out in India by persecution from Hindus and Muslims, and it’s only because Buddhist scriptures were transported to Sri Lanka that we have an extensive collection of records of early Buddhism. There’s much to be grateful for.

Being grateful makes me happy. And every moment in my life is an opportunity to be grateful. I should make more effort to remember that!

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

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“A person of integrity is grateful and thankful” — The Buddha (Day 74)

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe Buddha, in Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s translation at least, said, “A person of integrity is grateful and thankful.” This is one of those thoughts that I’m profoundly grateful for because I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me. Yet searching the web for the terms “gratitude” and “integrity” brought me to an interesting book, The Gratitude Factor: Enhancing Your Life Through Grateful Living, by Charles M. Shelton.

Shelton explores this theme of integrity and gratitude. He distinguishes between thankfulness (which involves being appreciative of some specific person or thing) and gratitude (which is a deeper and more pervasive attitude to life consisting of being grateful not just for specific things but for living itself). And he observes that many people who discuss this distinction, and who value gratitude over thankfulness, see gratitude as being related to “virtue” and “integrity.”

Here’s the connection that Shelton makes:

A life of deepening gratitude requires that we commit ourselves to goodness; only people of integrity live truly good lives. Only conscience can ensure that we are women and men of integrity. Conscience is a uniquely human quality that requires us to make choices that reflect goodness, to follow thought on our choices, and to commit ourselves to the choices we make. Gratitude is linked to conscience just by the fact that we could never acknowledge, live out, or give back our giftedness unless we had within us some prior moral sense that recognizes the gracious generosity of giving and motivates us to give back in turn for what we have received.

I’ve pointed out often that the brain is modular, and not a single system running smoothly as one unit. It involves cooperation, competition, inhibition of one module by another. And so our selves are modular in exactly the same way. We don’t have “a self.” And to the extent to which the various modules in the brain are operating on conflicting assumptions, to that extent the more unhappy and conflicted our experience will be. When some parts of the brain are screaming that hanging on selfishly to what we have is the way to be happy, and another is saying that compassionately giving to another person is the way to be happy, then — stuck in this conflict — we’re not going to be happy. And in fact it’s the latter of these two parts of the brain that is right; giving creates more happiness than holding on.

So wisdom helps us to recognize what truly brings peace and happiness, and mindfulness and volition, informed by that wisdom, help us to educate the more grasping and the more aggressive parts of the brain and encourages them to “stand down” so that we can act in ways that bring about peace and happiness. Perhaps we’re enlightened when those more primitive parts of the brain are completely re-educated. Or perhaps they simply go offline, or their inputs are so weakened that they can never, after the point of awakening, have a real effect on our behavior. I just don’t know.

But the thing is that our multiple and conflicting selves become more integrated around our wisdom, so that there’s less inner conflict. The whole of us becomes an expression of, and an accessory to, that which is most wise in us. All spiritual practice involves a process of integration, which leads to “integrity,” which means “wholeness.” And this is a wholeness centered on “the good.”

Mudita — joyful appreciation, focusing on the good in ourselves and others — is one important factor in bringing about this sense of wholeness and integrity. The less we obsess about what’s wrong with the world, the less we feel out of place in the world, and the less we feel conflicted and defensive. And so our sense of existing in a state of polarization is reduced. Our sense of being an isolated “self” is reduced. Our being becomes more relaxed, more diffused. We see ourselves as essentially good, and we see our role as being to encourage the emergence of the good that is in others.

Shelton also notes:

Individuals who feel interiorly a sense of their own goodness appear to possess an integrity that flows outwardly; they claim that a fundamental stance of goodness exists in the world. For them the world is an inviting place that encourages them to spread and give away their own goodness.

As I continue to explore mudita as part of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness, that statement more and more closely resembles my own experience. I hope this is true for you as well.

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

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Appreciation and impermanence (Day 73)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look in the mirror. What do you see? (Day 72)

100 Days of LovingkindnessAs we get toward the end of our period of exploring mudita, or joyful appreciation, I wanted to share this clip from Luc Besson’s “Angel-A” (2005). “Angel-A” is about an angel, played by Danish actress Rie Rasmussen, who intervenes to rescue André (Jamel Debbouze), a self-loathing scam artist on the verge of killing himself, and teaches him to love himself.

“Look at your body, battered by the lack of love and trust. Don’t you see it deserves a little care from you? Don’t reject this injured body which has supported you so long, never complaining. Tell it that it’s important, that it has its place. Give it what it deserves.”

(“Regarde ton corps meurtri par le manque d’amour, de confiance. Tu ne vois pas qu’il merite qu’on s’occupe un peu de lui? Alors ne le rejete pas se corps blessé qui t’as supporté depuis si longtemps sans jamais se plaindre… Dis-lui qu’il a son importance, qu’il a sa place. Donne-lui ce qu’il mérite.”)

Can you look in the mirror and love what you see? Can you say to yourself, “I love you”?

I suspect this is a practice of appreciation that we could all benefit from.

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

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An antidote to fear (Day 71)

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe ancient Buddhist commentary, the Path of Liberation, says of joyful appreciation, or mudita, that “non-fear is its function.” Joyful appreciation is an antidote to fear. It gives courage.

I remember precisely the first moment I noticed this in the context of cultivating lovingkindness, which is of course related to joyful appreciation, since both qualities are part of the “four immeasurables.”

At the time, I was having the New York Times delivered to my house every morning. It was one of my great pleasures to have a leisurely breakfast with a cup of tea, toast, and some intelligent analysis from the Op-Ed pages. But first I had to get the newspaper, which was tossed onto the front porch every morning by the delivery driver.

It was always an awkward moment for me walking out onto the porch in my bathrobe and slippers, with my hairy legs and knobbly ankles exposed to the world. I somehow felt judged by the passing drivers, even though I’m sure they never noticed me. And so I’d get a bit grouchy as I retrieved my rolled-up copy of the Times.

This was fear, really. It was the fear of what people thought of me, whether they judged me, whether they disliked me or laughed at me. You can tell yourself that all this is silly: that the drivers are too busy driving to notice you, that they’ll probably never see you again, that they’re probably not petty enough to care about how you look. You can tell yourself that it doesn’t matter; even if people have unkind thoughts about you, that’s their stuff, not yours. But still, there’s fear.

Sometimes I’m rather slow on the uptake, and it can take me a while to realize that I’m suffering. So it probably took a few weeks of grumpily retrieving the Times before I noticed what was going on. And my first response, once I did notice that I was suffering, was to wish the passers-by well. As drivers swished by, or as neighbors walked their dogs past the house, I’d slip into saying “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be free from suffering.”

And the fear vanished. Instantly. There was no more worrying what people thought about me. There was no grumpiness. There was just me, picking up my paper, feeling joy as I wished others well.

The thing is that there’s no room in the mind for both well-wishing and worrying. If you fill the mind with well-wishing, there’s no mental bandwidth left for worrying what people think about you.

And you can’t appreciate people and also think the worst about them at the same time. You can see people in a positive light — they’re beings who want to be happy, trying to be happy as best they can — or you can see them in a negative light, where you assume that they’re obsessed about you and your bony ankles. But you can’t do both at the same time.

And mudita — joyful appreciation — works just the same way. We can’t appreciate and rejoice in the good qualities of others and also think the worst of them. Mudita protects against fear.

And a spirit of appreciation affects not just how we see others, but how we see ourselves. So rather than focusing on our imagined deficiencies (I may obsess about my hairy calves but I’m sure no one else does) we just don’t notice those things, and instead focus on what’s positive in ourselves. Mudita is joyful, and when you’re happy you just don’t obsess about your faults.

Mudita connects us with everything positive in life. It opens us up to our full potential, and to others’ full potential. Rather than relating to our own or others’ faults, real or imagined, we see them as capable of boundless kindness, compassion, and wisdom. When we see the world with joyful appreciation, we see life as something to be lived, not feared.

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

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Having gratitude for our enemies (Day 70)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you benefit from the work I do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

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

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

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

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

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Innate purity versus original sin (Day 69)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The “magic ratio” of appreciation (Day 67)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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