patience

Four spiritual love languages

Ai-generated images of the Buddha and a nun, in a colorful style that looks like a painting.

Yesterday on Mastodon, which is the only social media site I use at the moment besides the private online community space I host for Wildmind’s sponsors, someone shared a link to a “love languages” quiz.

I’d heard of this concept of love languages before. The blurb on the official website, based on the best-selling book by Dr. Gary Chapman, says,

The premise of The 5 Love Languages® book is quite simple: different people with different personalities give and receive love in different ways. By learning to recognize these preferences in yourself and in your loved ones, you can learn to identify the root of your conflicts, connect more profoundly, and truly begin to grow closer.

The basic idea is that we don’t all have the same ways of expressing love to each other, and therefore we don’t always recognize when someone is showing us love, or understand how to let them feel loved. And that fits with my experience.

For example, if my partner’s way of showing me love is giving small gifts, but I don’t value material possessions and in fact see them as annoying clutter, I might not feel that she intends to show love when she gives me some tchotchke or other. There’s a mismatch in how we interpret the action of giving.

See also:

Conversely, if my partner wants me to show affection with touch, but I’m not a particularly physical person, then she may not feel that she’s being shown love when I give her praise, even though I might consider that to be a clear expression of my love for her. If I offer help, but the other person interprets this as their competence being called into question, then again there’s a mismatch. It is indeed very much as if we were speaking different languages.

I took the quiz, and was told at the end that there were five love languages:

  • Quality Time™
  • Words of Affirmation™
  • Physical Touch™
  • Acts of Service™
  • Receiving Gifts™

I learned that my preferred “languages” were the first three in the list.

(And yes, the quiz included those oddly obsessive trademark signs, although hopefully we’re allowed to talk about things like “quality time” without getting sued.)

When I reflected on my own experience of being in loving relation to others, it seemed to me that the most profound expressions of love were not included in the five languages offered above. So I thought I’d say a few words about other love languages.

My intention isn’t at all to criticize Chapman’s work, but to offer a wider and deeper perspective on communicating love, for those who might find it helpful.

1. Looking With Love

Looking with love and being looked at with love are profound forms of communication. As Jan Chozen Bays wrote in her wonderful book, “How to Train a Wild Elephant,” in a chapter called Loving Eyes: “We know how to use loving eyes when we are falling in love, when we see a new baby or a cute animal. Why do we not use loving eyes more often?”

Not only do we know how to look with loving eyes, but we know what it’s like to be looked at lovingly. It’s one of the most important communications that goes on in loving relationships, whether between partners, or parents and children, or friends.

Looking with loving eyes has become an important part of the way I practice and teach lovingkindness practice. But it’s something we can do anytime.

Although looking with love plays an important part in showing love, it doesn’t fit into the five-fold schema of the love languages. However, it seems to me to be a love language in its own right. And it’s another place where mismatches in communication styles can take place. Some people are more sensitive to loving looks than others. Some people express love through their eyes more than others.

2. Giving Honesty and Showing Vulnerability

Like everyone, I have bad habits. I get irritable at times, for example. When I’ve behaved badly like that I try to apologize as quickly as possible — often within moments. I usually try to explain what was going on in my being as the irritability arose — “I was stressed and tired, I misinterpreted what you said, old conditioning from childhood traumas was triggered,” and so on. I often say she doesn’t deserve to be treated badly. I do these things as an expression of love.

And she is very good herself at doing the same time, letting me know what led to her acting in unhelpful ways. She too does this as an expression of love.

This, to me, is one of the most profound displays of love we can offer. Giving honesty and showing vulnerability involves a great deal of trust. It too is a kind of love language — Look, I love you enough that I will take this risk!  — yet it doesn’t seem to fit at all in the five love languages schema.

There can be mismatches in language. Some people don’t like apologizing, because they think it makes them look weak, and they’ll see another person’s apologies as a sign of submission. Some people can’t receive expressions of vulnerability because their first instinct is to try to “fix” things by making suggestions, rather than listening empathetically.

3. Showing Patience and Forgiveness

The expressions of love that I most appreciate from my partner are when she is patient with me and when she forgives me. When she does those things I really know I’m loved.

When we accept each other as imperfect, and forgive each others’ missteps, we give each other permission to be ourselves, which is an enormous gift. We see ourselves and each other as works-in-progress, which liberates us both from being afraid we’ll never change and from having to pretend we’re perfect. And we also know that the other person is working on their stuff, which offers immense reassurance.

Patience and forgiveness are also languages through which we show love.

There could be mismatches here, too. One person might show patience and forgiveness as an act of love, while the other person takes it as a sign of having got away with something; they aren’t able to reciprocate with the humility and gratefulness that should accompany being offered forgiveness and so can’t benefit from it. Some people even see conflict as a sign of love, and think that patience is equivalent to not caring — If they really loved me they’d be angry. Some people fear being forgiving because they think it will encourage bad behavior, and so they resort to punishing, resentful behaviors, never letting the other person forget that they’ve transgressed.

4. Sharing the Path

The most powerful way I know for us to connect lovingly with each other is for us to talk about our lives and our relationships as a spiritual practice. This means sharing what we understand love to be, sharing the mistakes we’ve made and what we’ve learned, what our hopes and fears are, and in every way letting ourselves be known not just as a partner, but as a human being struggling our way through life.

It means sharing what we see our life’s purpose to be, and sharing how the relationship we have with the other person — and I’m thinking of partners here, in the main, but also some dear friendships — fits into that purpose.

This may be the deepest love language of all.

Through it, we come to see the other person in a deep way, and to see ourselves more clearly as well. We see the other person as a being who is on a spiritual journey. And we see ourselves in the same way. Sharing the path involves opening up in a deep way. It takes a lot of trust, as well as a shared commitment to growth.  Two people cannot share their paths unless they are both walking a path.

When we share in this way we become clearer about what matters most in our lives. We see ourselves in a very different way from our ordinary view of ourselves as beings who work and do chores and pay bills and relax in front of the TV in order to recuperate from all that.

Sharing the path in this way can lead to a profound sense of transcendence, where we no longer see ourselves and the other person as entirely separate, and where, even, our sense of self becomes tenuous. It is in fact a form of spiritual practice in its own right, as are the other three spiritual love languages I’ve described.

Mismatches here might arise when one person sees the point of such discussions as establishing who is “right” — who has the best philosophy, the most incisive insights, and so on. These kinds of mismatches are particularly painful, because what’s being shared and rejected is so central and important to who we are.

Four spiritual love languages

It’s possible that all this is contained in Chapman’s teaching on love languages — I haven’t read the book — but I saw not even the merest hint of it in the questions I was asked, which were all along the lines of, “It’s more meaningful for me when (a) my partner gives me a gift, or (b) my partner doesn’t check their phone when talking to me.”

It’s fine as far as it goes, but it seems to lack spiritual depth. Then again, not having read Chapman’s book, it may be I’m over-simplifying his approach.

Anyway, as someone who cares about the quality of my loving relationships, and who falteringly works at being a better friend, parent, and partner, I wanted to share a little of what I regard as important where it comes to communicating love.

These four spiritual love languages are areas where we need to learn to speak in ways that others who communicate differently can understand. And we need to learn to listen too, so that we can decipher others’ languages and realize that we are loved, and learn to respond to them, so that the other feels loved too.

Are there other things you would consider “love languages” that aren’t in Chapman’s book or in this article? Why not tell us about them in the comments below?

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“All people and all circumstances are my allies.”

All people and all circumstances are my allies

In an interview, Lynn Jurich, the founder and CEO of the solar energy company, Sunrun, said:

Every morning my meditation is: “All people and all circumstances are my allies.” I repeat it every morning: “All people and all circumstances are my allies.”

This struck me as a deeply wise and self-compassionate saying. It also struck me as being one that’s very much in line with key teachings from the Buddhist tradition.

Normally we don’t think of all people and all circumstances as being our allies. Often we experience ourselves as being in opposition to others, and see circumstances as being against us, or at least not being as we would want them to be.

The interviewer asked Jurich whether she’d see even her business competitor, Elon Musk, as an ally. She said he would, citing the fact that he runs his own solar electric company out of a concern for the climate.

Perhaps the interview was curtailed, or perhaps Jurich thought one example was enough, but there are of course plenty of other ways that she could see Musk as an ally. For example, if he comes out with an improved solar project or a great advertising campaign, then that encourages Jurich’s own company to do better. If she feels jealous of Musk for his successes, then there’s something to learn there about the painful nature of jealousy and the need for patience.

An Old Teaching

Jurich’s “All people and all circumstances are my allies” may even have come from the Buddhist tradition. Certain Buddhist teachings emphasize the practice of meeting adversity as an opportunity to learn.

For example, the 8th century Indian teacher Shantideva wrote:

…just like treasure appearing in my house
Without any effort on my behalf to obtain it,
I should be happy to have an enemy
For he assists me in my conduct of Awakening.

And because I am able to practice (patience) with him,
He is worthy of being given
The very first fruits of my patience,
For in this way he is the cause of it.

Shantideva’s view is that without adversity it’s impossible to develop patience. You should therefore be grateful to have an enemy.

A later formulation of this principle, this one from Tibet, says, “transform all mishaps into the path of awakening.”

But Jurich’s form of this teaching is more appealing to me because it encapsulates so much, so neatly, in just eight words. It’s perfect, in fact, for memorizing and using as a “mantra.”

Creating a Meditation Practice

Jurich is a meditator, and she’s said that she’s brought “All people and all circumstances are my allies” into her morning meditation practice. This is a vital step, because we can read advice like this and get a pleasant glow from encountering the idea, but not put it into practice. To take a teaching like this on board we really have to etch it into our brains through focus and repetition.

Here’s a test: if you close your eyes right now, can you remember Jurich’s mantra, word for word? Or do you just remember the general idea? The problem is that our attention moves on, and we forget not just the form of the words, but even the message they encapsulate.

If you don’t make an effort to remember this phrase by repeating it in a focused way, you’ll forget all about it.

So first try memorizing the words. See if you can get it exact. Then leave it a few minutes and try again. Test to make sure that the phrase is actually stored in your long-term memory. You may have to do this many times before they stick.

Next, find five minutes in which you can close your eyes and turn this teaching into a meditation. Just drop the phrase “All people and all circumstances are my allies” into your mind. Let the words just sink in. Then say them again. Sometimes, as you’re doing this, briefly remember people and circumstances that try your patience. Don’t go into the whole background, justifying to yourself why you’re angry. Just remind yourself of some challenge, and remind yourself, “All people and all circumstances are my allies.” This person is not an enemy, but an ally. This circumstance is challenging, but it can help me learn and become a better person.

Making This Your Life

Let’s say you keep doing this practice for days, weeks, even years. Probably a lot of the time you’ll still get angry with people or things, and then catch yourself. “Oh, yeah. ‘All people and all circumstances are my allies.’ ” Perhaps sometimes you’ll be aware that you’re getting into a situation that’s likely to be challenging, and you’ll be able to go into it with your heart open, knowing that it’s an opportunity to learn.

I’ve only just begun working with this mantra. I’ve been memorizing it, turning it into a meditation practice, and putting it into practice. But already it’s helping me to feel more at peace with the challenges of my life. Even as I’m writing this article I’m being interrupted repeatedly by my son’s near-constant questioning. And I remember that these interruptions are my ally. They give me an opportunity to maintain love rather than express irritation. They give me an opportunity to communicate more skillfully, and to learn from my mistakes when I fail to do so. They give me an opportunity to be a better person.

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Poison in the sugar-bowl

Many, many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I was at the apartment of a newly divorced woman I’d just started dating when her ex dropped by unexpectedly. Awkward! Especially since she had just popped out of the house and wouldn’t be back for a few minutes!

Trying to be a good host, I offered him a cup of coffee. He accepted. I imagine he was grateful that we could diffuse this tense situation through a little social ritual.

He asked for sugar with his coffee, and I wasn’t familiar with where it was kept. But after a little searching I found a sugar-bowl and, as requested, measured out two heaped spoonfuls into his mug. He took one sip and his face contorted into a look us disgust. It turned out that the “sugar” I’d given him was actually salt! Now, having apparently tried to poison my girlfriend’s ex, I felt really awkward! I was convinced he’d think I’d done this deliberately.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that it’s possible to confuse two things in a way that has unpleasant results. And this happens with spiritual practice even more than it does with unlabelled bowls of white granular substances.

The Buddha once talked about wrongly understanding the teachings as being like grabbing a snake by the wrong end. If you need to pick up a snake, you want to take a firm hold of it just behind the head. Grab it by the tail and it’s going to loop around and bite you.

So what kinds of snake do people grab by the wrong end? (Or to put it another way, what kinds of salt are people putting in their coffee thinking it’s sugar?) Here are just four.

1. Misapplied Non-Attachment

Non-attachment means being aware of your own clinging and desires (e.g. wanting to have things your own way) and letting go of them. In our daily lives we can practice non-attachment in many ways: for example letting go of your compulsion to speak about yourself and choosing instead to listen empathetically to another person.

Non-attachment doesn’t mean “not caring,” or emotional detachment, which is how some people think about it. Equating non-attachment with not caring is usually self-serving. The environment? Well, everything’s impermanent anyway, so what does it matter if species go extinct and people’s crops are ruined by drought?

True non-attachment helps us to see our emotional avoidance strategies, and to set them aside so that we can truly care. Genuine compassion, caring about others’ suffering just as we care about out own, is a form of non-attachment.

2. Fake Patience

Maybe you stay with a partner who’s unsupportive, or you have a friend who talks nonstop and won’t let you get a word in sideways. And you never challenge them, because you’re practicing “patience.” After all, haven’t we had it drummed into us that we can’t make the world into a perfect place, and that it’s up to us to change.

But the thing is that that partner’s unsupportiveness isn’t making them happy, and neither is the friend’s logorrhea. Quite possibly neither of them wants to be asked to change (generally we don’t like change), but both of them would be more fulfilled if they did.

Sometimes you’re doing both yourself and others a favor if you’re more demanding and less “accepting” and “patient.”

3. Spurious Kindness

Lots of people are caring and compassionate when it comes to others, but are harsh and critical when it comes to themselves. And yet Buddhist teachings say that we can’t really have kindness and compassion for others unless we relate to ourselves kindly and compassionately first. What’s going on?

At one time I assumed that the Buddhist tradition was wrong on this point, but as I learned more about practicing empathy I realized that the traditional teaching fits my experience. I realized that a lot of the time when I thought I was being compassionate toward others I was either being “nice” to them because I wanted them to like me, or I was being “good” so that I could feel good about myself. And both of those things arose out of me not liking myself and not being kind to myself.

As I learned to have more self-empathy, I found that this empathy, and the compassion that arose from it, naturally flowed toward others. What do you know? The tradition seems to be right, and a lot of what I had thought to be kindness wasn’t really kindness at all.

4. Misunderstood Karma

The teaching of karma (which, incidentally, is not as large a part of the Buddha’s overall teaching as most people seem to think) was really meant as something we applied to ourselves. You want to be happy? Look at what you’re doing, since it can either create ease or suffering, peace or turmoil.

Later Buddhists were less interested in Buddhist as a form of practical psychology and more interested in Buddhism as a theory that explained everything — something that the Buddha himself would have found utterly alien.

One of the consequences of this is that Buddhists often misuse the teaching of karma in order to validate their judgements of others: People are suffering? Well, they must have done something to deserve it. And so why should I feel compassion for them? If we really understood karma in this situation we’d be looking at our own reaction to others’ suffering, would realize that judging others is something that creates pain for us, and would find instead a more compassionate way to relate.

These are just a few of the ways that we misuse Buddhist teachings in ways that cause suffering for ourselves and others. It’s important to grab a snake at the right end. It’s important to make sure that what you’re putting in your mug is really sugar.

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What to do when you’re running out of patience

wildmind meditation newsMitch Abblett, Mindful: Here are suggestions for going beyond a passive view of patience to making it the crucial skill it is—one that you actively build into your daily life.

Since first published in the poem “Piers Plowman” (attributed to William Langland) in the 14th century, we’ve all had it drilled into us since childhood that “patience is a virtue.” What is striking to me about patience is that we’ve at all needed to be “told” of its importance. It’s as though we, especially in modern, Western society, need to be convinced—we need proof that patience figures large in our lives. Patience …

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Teaching millennials the power of plugging into mindfulness

Aran Levasseur, PBS: In our wired world it’s easy to extol the virtues of the web, mobile devices and social media. These time-bending technologies have generated previously unimaginable ways of searching, creating and sharing information instantaneously. Yet as our hours and days are filled with more and more time-saving devices, many of us seem to have less and less time. What is being lost in the process? As Gandhi reminds us, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

As a high school teacher I’ve noticed that most of the Millennial generation …

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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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Settling the Mind: You Have Allies

Friends showing support for each other by placing their hands together.

Meditation means settling the mind, but if you try it you’ll quickly find that this is easier said than done. Our minds are often busy and like to keep thinking about the things that stimulate and interest them. So what are our allies in settling the mind?

 Preparation

Settling is a process. You can’t sit down after you have been rushing around and expect to be calm and quiet straight away. So, if it’s possible for you, take time to prepare for meditation. Make sure the place you are sitting is tidy and beautiful. Light a candle, perhaps. Then spend time carefully setting up your meditation posture. Notice how it feels to be making this transition.

The Present Moment

Many of the thoughts that distract us are connected with the past (things that we have been doing, memories, regrets), or the future (plans, worries, fantasies). Settling the mind means focusing our attention on things that are happening right now, in the present moment. This simply means noticing the sense experiences that are arising right now: your feet on the floor, your bottom on the seat. It can also mean noticing the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing right now without being carried away by them.

Checking In

Give yourself the space to recognise, as sensitively as you can, how you are feeling and what is going on in your experience. What thoughts are present? What is your overall state of mind? That helps us see what we need to do next in the practice.

 The Body

Meditation doesn’t mean thinking about our experience; it isn’t something that happens in our heads. Awareness of the body is direct and it’s a way to become aware of our emotions and our energy, which are often wrapped up in the body. That’s why it’s a key to meditation.

Finding a Focus

We settle the mind by paying attention to something in particular: the meditation ‘object’. In principle, you can use anything, but in mindfulness meditation we usually use the breath, which is always with us and usually has a calming influence. To start with, it’s a good idea to make the object as clear and specific as possible, noticing, in detail, a particular area of the body that is affected by the breath. Your attention, awareness and energy can gather around that.

The Breath

The breath is a powerful object of meditation because it’s naturally soothing and refreshing (unless you have breathing difficulties). We all know that taking a deep breath helps you calm down. The breath connects us to the body, the environment and to the most basic elements of being alive, so it’s a key ally when we want to settle our minds.

Letting Go

Becoming quiet and settled means letting go of the busy ‘doing mode’. Even when we sit quietly, our thoughts keep going because we are still in the same mode and our minds are drawn to the stimulation and urgency these thoughts bring. Letting them go means gradually disengaging from these thoughts and feelings and finding a way to settle into our experience without trying to change it.

Interest

Our minds usually find it easy to engage with plans, activities and worries. Engaging with meditation is subtler. We need to become interested in the process of settling the mind. That might mean noticing the detail in our experience of the breath and body and it might mean including our feelings and emotions.

Finding Your Key

As you become more experienced in meditation, you will get to know the things that help you become more calm, whole and settled. That might mean the breath or the sensations of the body, as I have suggested. Or it might be something that is quite personal to you: a word or a phrase; an image; a certain kind of breathing. Some people like to count the breaths, others contact a sense of kindness. So explore what will help you connect each time you sit down to meditate.

Patience

Because settling is a process, it requires patience. When the sea is full of waves, you need to wait for the wind to die down before it will become calm. Gently, kindly, just keep bringing the mind back, again and again.

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Be mind full of good

Reaaching Up Into The SkyIt’s kind of amazing: right now, what you think and feel, enjoy and suffer, is changing your brain. The brain is the organ that learns, designed by evolution to be changed by our experiences: what scientists call experience-dependent neuroplasticity.

Neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that each one of us has the power to use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better. To benefit oneself and other beings.

Using this internal power is more important than ever these days, when so many of us are pushed and prodded by external forces – the economy, media, politics, workplace policies, war on the other side of the world, the people on the other side of the dining room table – and by our reactions to them.

Life is often hard. To cope with hard things, to be effective and successful, or simply to experience ordinary well-being, we need resources inside, inner strengths like resilience, compassion, gratitude and other positive emotions, self-worth, and insight.

Some strengths are innate – built into your DNA – but most are acquired, woven over time into the fabric of your brain. These lasting traits come from passing states – experiences of the inner strength – that get installed into the brain. You become more grateful through internalizing repeated experiences of gratitude; you become more compassionate through internalizing repeated experiences of compassion; etc.

So far, so obvious. But here’s the catch: without this installation – without the transfer of the experience from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage – beneficial experiences such as feeling cared about are momentarily pleasant but have no lasting value. Yikes! There is no learning, no growth, no change for the better.

Meanwhile, your brain is rapidly and efficiently turning unpleasant, negative experiences – feeling frazzled, stressed, worried, frustrated, irritated, inadequate, hurt, etc. – into neural structure. To help our ancestors survive in harsh conditions, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it good at learning from bad experiences but relatively bad at learning from good ones – even though learning from good experiences is the main way to grow the inner strengths we all need.

In effect, today our brains have a well-intended, universal learning disability because they’ve been painstakingly built over millions of years for peak performance . . . in Stone Age conditions.

Most of us are pretty good at having beneficial experiences – but pretty bad at installing them in the brain. Similarly, most therapists, mindfulness teachers, coaches, parents, and human resources trainers are pretty good at encouraging beneficial experiences in others, but pretty bad at helping them get installed in those brains; this was certainly true for me.

In effect, most beneficial experiences are wasted most of the time. The result is a learning curve, a growth rate, that is a lot flatter than it needs to be.

Poignantly, because we are not internalizing most of our wholesome, beneficial experiences – authentic moments of feeling relaxed, capable, peaceful, glad, successful, contented, appreciated, loved, and loving – we feel emptier inside than we truly deserve to feel. And we become a lot easier to manipulate by fear, consumerism, and “us vs. them” conflicts.

What can we do?

We can use the mind to change the brain for the better.

How?

Here’s the essence: Have It, Enjoy It.

In other words, have a beneficial experience in the first place – usually because you simply notice one you are already having: you’re already feeling a bit of ease, relief, pleasure, connection, warmth, determination, confidence, clarity, hope, etc. And it’s fine to create beneficial experiences, such as deliberately thinking of things you feel thankful for, or calling up compassion for someone in pain, or recalling how it felt in your body to assert yourself with someone who was being pushy.

Then, once you’ve got that good experience going, really enjoy it: taking 5, 10, or more seconds to protect and stay with it, and open to it in your body. The longer and more intensely those neurons fire together, the more they’ll be wiring this inner strength into your brain.

This is positive neuroplasticity, the essence of self-reliance: taking in everyday experiences to develop more inner strengths such as grit, confidence, kindness, emotional balance, happiness, patience, and self-awareness.

I don’t believe in positive thinking. You’re not overlooking the pains, losses, or injustices in life. I believe in realistic thinking, seeing the whole mosaic of reality, the good, the bad, and the neutral. Precisely because life is often hard – and because we’ve got a brain that’s relatively poor at growing the inner strengths needed to deal with these challenges – we need to focus on the good facts in life, let them become good experiences, and then help these experiences really sink in.

Most of the time you take in the good will be in the flow of life, maybe half a dozen times a day, usually less than half a minute at a time. You can also use more structured moments, such as at meals, after exercising or meditation, or just before bed.

Besides being more open in general to beneficial experiences, you can look for those specific experiences that will grow the particular inner strength(s) that will help you the most these days. For example, if you’re feeling anxious, look for authentic opportunities to feel supported, protected, resourced, tough-minded, relaxed, or calm. If life feels disappointing or blah, look for the genuine facts that naturally support experiences of gladness, gratitude, pleasure, accomplishment, or effectiveness. If you feel lonely or inadequate, look for the real occasions when you are included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved – and open to feeling appropriately cared about, and valued; also look for chances to feel caring yourself, since love is love whether it is flowing in or flowing out.

Our beneficial experiences are usually mild – a 1 or 2 on the 0-10 scale of intensity – but they are real. Any single time you let these experiences really land inside you won’t change your life. But much as a cup of water is filled drop by drop, you’ll be changing your brain synapse by synapse for the better – and your life for the better as well.

And with a mind full of good, you’ll have more to offer others. Growing the good in them, too, in widening ripples seen and unseen, perhaps reaching eventually around the whole world.

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The play of causes and conditions (Day 96)

100 Days of LovingkindnessWe adopted my daughter at four months old, and I found it absolutely fascinating to watch her mind evolve. What I noticed first was that happiness was her default emotion; it was only when hunger or pain arrived that she’d become upset. How many people can you say that for — that happiness is their baseline mental state and that they only deviate from that state temporarily? This reminded me of Buddhist teachings that tell us that happiness is fundamental to the mind, and that troubling mental states are disturbances to that inherent sense of well-being.

I watched my daughter exhibit wonder. She’d just sit there and move her hands and look at them and smile, and you could see that she was alive with curiosity and delight. Just the sight and feeling of her hands moving was wondrous to her.

But then things began to change.

She was happy because she had no craving or grasping. When she was small, you could remove something from her hands that she’d picked up, and she wouldn’t protest. She’d just move onto delighting in the next experience. But then craving and grasping started to arise in her mind, and with it arose her first real experiences of self-generated suffering. Because we’d take something from her that she wanted — something she saw as a fun toy but that we saw as a choking hazard — she’d suffer agonies of despair.

The hot on the heels of craving arose anger: by the time she was two, when she was deprived of something she wanted, she was likely to have a tantrum.

This was a bit of a shock to the system, having my sweet, happy daughter taken away from me and this demonic entity kicking and thrashing and screaming. It was all developmentally appropriate, but challenging!

One of the ways I found myself rising to this challenge was recognizing that what I was seeing was the play of causes and conditions. When she was frustrated and would try to strike me or spit at me, I started seeing her as an eternally-unfolding stream of causes and conditions.

She didn’t know why she was acting this way. She was experiencing new emotions (can you imagine what that’s like?) and having to learn to deal with them. She was struggling to come to terms with moving from complete dependance to relative independence, never knowing where the line was or what her limitations were, going through phases of development as she tried to make sense of the world around her and of herself.

Oddly, I found that I could face her tantrums not just with equanimity, but with love and compassion, when I let go of the assumption that she was a “person” and saw her more as a stream of causes and conditions.

It’s funny, isn’t it? It sounds dehumanizing to regard someone as not being a person. But actually it’s the opposite. When I see her as a “person” I start immediately thinking (even unconsciously, I think) in terms of her having a fixed nature that I have to mold into the shape I want. And that brings about judgments, because molding a living being isn’t easy. There’s “resistance,” and “uncooperativeness” and “bad behavior.” And it’s hard not to be angry when you’re faced with those things (even if they’re just judgments your own mind has imposed on reality).

But when I see my daughter as a stream of causes and conditions, I see her as an evolving being, and instantly I feel compassion for her, because I see her as a struggling and growing being. And my heart opens to her, because deep down we’re all struggling and growing beings. And perhaps somehow my heart knows that the best conditions in which to be a struggling and growing being are love and compassion from other struggling and growing beings.

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The great teacher 8th century teacher Shantideva talked about how seeing beings in terms of causes and conditions could help us have more patience with them:

I am not angered at bile and the like even though they cause
great suffering. Why be angry at sentient beings, who are
also provoked to anger by conditions?

Just as sharp pain arises although one does not desire it, so
anger forcibly arises although one does not desire it.

A person does not intentionally become angry, thinking, “I
shall get angry,” nor does anger originate, thinking, “I shall
arise.”

All offenses and vices of various kinds arise
under the influence of conditions, and they
do not arise independently.

An assemblage of conditions does not have
the intention, “I shall produce,” nor does
that which is produced have the intention, “I
shall be produced.”

So this is simply an extension of the principles of anatta (non-self) that I’ve been discussing recently. At my best, I don’t indulge in “conceiving” of my daughter having a self. At my best I realize that her tantrums are not her, not hers, and that they are not her self.

I’m at my best when I relate to others not in terms of what I think they are, but in terms of what they can become. It’s not that I have a fixed sense of what they can be, but that I simply don’t assume that what I see is all that there is. When my daughter’s having a tantrum that’s just one particular manifestation of the causes and conditions that constitute her being at that particular time. Minutes later she may be sweet and loving. And who knows what she will become in the future?

Things go best between us when I accept her as an eternally-evolving and undefinable being, and my task as a parent is to be a compassionate presence that encourages the emergence of what is best in her.

So this again brings us to upekkha. Upekkha is not equanimity, but is the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening. It’s also the activity that helps beings to experience that peace. Recognizing that beings are not fixed, but are vortices of conditions arising and passing away, helps us to experience that peace ourselves, and to help them to move toward that peace themselves.

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Falling through suffering

featherRecently someone wrote to me and said that although he’d been making great progress in his meditation and had been experiencing at times profound peace and intense clarity, his meditation recently had become very turbulent. There can be many reasons for this, of course, but one that came to mind was when we need to shift gear in our meditation practice.

This turbulence may well have been a call to go deeper. We can get used to having a generally more positive experience, and get used to a certain ease in our practice. The mind is generally calmer, and we’re more joyful and experience more kindness. But we can become unused to experiencing difficulties, and when they come up we are profoundly disturbed. We become like the princess on the pile of mattresses: the one small pea in our experience is enough to destroy our comfort. And we become addicted to “fixing things” — trying to get our experience to be just so.

When we experience something uncomfortable in our experience and we try hard to “fix it” we end up just disturbing the mind even more. Our “fixing” activity itself becomes a source of disturbance. A good analogy for this is catching a feather on a fan; the more effort you make the more the feather flies away from the fan.

So when the mind is disturbed like this, we can work on developing more equanimity. Let go of aversion. It’s OK not to feel good. Let go of any craving for peace and joy. We can find a complete acceptance of the fact that things don’t feel good.

100 day meditation challenge 080And the ironic thing is, when we completely accept not feeling good, then amazing things happen. We can rest with our discomfort, just letting it be there. As we stop resisting it, stop thinking that things should be otherwise, stop thinking that it’s a bad thing that we’re experiencing discomfort, our suffering starts to thin out.

We find that we start to “fall through” our suffering and come out into a place of joy and calm. The discomfort may vanish. Or there may still be discomfort present, but we’re fine with that.

It might be tempting to see this as just a sly way to “fix” things, but I don’t think it is. It’s a completely different paradigm.

Now I’m not saying that we should never try to fix things, or never try to change our experience. Often we need to do that. You’re anxious? Take a few deep breaths to calm down. You’re angry? Cultivate lovingkindness. You’re craving something? Think about the drawbacks and deficiencies of the thing you’re craving. This is all “fixing.” But you may, at some point, find that your fixing activities themselves are as much a source of disturbance as the problems you’re trying fix. And at that point, just stop trying to fix, and just be with your suffering. And then fall through it, and find peace on the other side.

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