rejoicing in merit

Learning to see the good in others (Day 61)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

How open are we to the good qualities of others?

Twenty years ago today, I was in the middle of a four-month retreat in the mountains inland from Alicante, in Spain. This was the retreat in which I, along with 25 other men, became members of the Triratna Buddhist Order.

It was an amazing experience to be on retreat for so long, and to be studying and practicing the Dharma so intensely. We were living in a valley in simple huts, surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and rugged rock formations that jutted above the gorse-covered earth. We ate outdoors, and meditated in a simple hall which was filled with incense and the singing of nightingales.

At this point in the retreat, one person was being ordained each night. The ordinations took place in a small building some distance from the meditation hall, and we gave a special send-off each evening to the person being ordained. Part of the send-off included a “rejoicing in merits” carried out by Suvajra, our retreat leader. Suvajra would give a beautiful account of the fine qualities of the man who was being ordained. Suvajra had this amazing ability to recognize the good in people, and so these rejoicings would often go on for some time.

Now of the 25 other men being ordained, most I loved dearly, but there were a couple who irritated me for one reason or another. I tended to find fault with their behavior, and didn’t enjoy being around them. And when the time came for their ordination, I found myself wondering, “What on earth is Suvajra going to say tonight? How can he possibly find anything of merit in this guy?”

But you know what? Not only did Suvajra find plenty to say about the people I disliked, when he rejoiced in their merits I found myself thinking, “You know, that’s true. And so’s that. And that.”

There was often an odd sense that I’d both noticed and not noticed the qualities he was describing. The qualities he was rejoicing in weren’t hidden or in any way hard to find, but I’d not allowed myself to resonate with them. I hadn’t allowed the good in.

Later, one of the other men on the retreat commented on Suvajra’s ability to see the good in others, and his own difficulty in doing so with certain individuals, and he said he’d wondered what was stopping him from seeing the good. He said he’d realized it was himself. As soon as he said this I realized that this was the case for me as well. I’d erected filters that stopped me from acknowledging others’ good qualities. Having decided that I didn’t like someone, I wasn’t willing to see anything in them that I did like. There’s a certain sense of security that comes from having people we dislike.

Sometimes when we filter out others’ good qualities we just don’t register them. They don’t fit our preconceived pattern of what that person’s like, and so those perceptions just don’t register. In more extreme cases we’ll take good qualities and imagine them to be signs of something darker: someone’s generosity is seen as them trying to curry favor, for example. We come to believe we have special insight into this person’s thoughts and opinions. So we may need to ask this person a favor, but we don’t because we “know” that they’re going to say no. Or we assume that they don’t like us and are thinking critical thoughts about us.

So how can we become more open to the good qualities of others — especially those we have difficulty with?

  • Start with the assumption that this person has positive character traits that you’re just not seeing, rather than assuming that they have no redeeming qualities. If you assume that there’s a filter you’ve erected that’s stopping you seeing what’s there, you create a gap in your filters through which reality can begin to penetrate. Unless another person is a complete sociopath, they will have some kindness, some patience, some honesty, some positive ambition.
  • And stop bad-mouthing the other person. The first thing to do, if you find yourself in a hole, is to stop digging. You won’t see the positive if you’re constantly seeking the negative.
  • Ditto for thoughts. Now you can’t just switch off your critical thinking, but whenever you realize that you’re indulging in an inner rant, just let go of those thoughts, and then with the other person well.
  • If you’re lucky, you’ll have an experience like mine, and hear a third party say something kind or complimentary about someone you have difficulty with. And if you do, don’t discount what’s said. Let it in.
  • Sometimes you’ll not like someone but another person you do respect sees something positive in them. I noticed this last year. There’s someone I sometimes work with who I find a bit wearing because he talks a lot, and I find this exhausting and keep trying to avoid him. But there’s a third colleague who I really like and admire, and I found myself surprised by the fact that she liked hanging out with this guy. That created a sense of openness in me, which helped me to feel more tolerant.
  • Remember that this person that we tend to judge is, at a very deep level, just like us. They want to be happy. They find happiness elusive. They don’t want to suffer. They suffer all too often. Recognizing this opens us to our own vulnerability, and this sense of tenderness helps us not to judge others.
  • Based on that, recognize that others’ intentions are often good, even if the execution doesn’t agree with you. The person who talks too much is perhaps seeking a sense of connection, a sense of security, an escape from loneliness. Try to see past the behaviors you don’t like and allow yourself to resonate with those intentions to seek happiness.

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

Read More

Accepting compliments as a spiritual practice (Day 57)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Are you able to see your own good qualities? Many of us, apparently, have difficulty doing this.

What happens when someone offers you praise for something you’ve done, or pays you a compliment? What’s your response? Obviously this is sometimes very welcome, but lot of people find this to be a rather uncomfortable experience. They mentally or even physically squirm, and offer up self-deprecating rebuttals, saying it wasn’t such a big deal, or that someone else could have done it better, or pointing out flaws in what they did. Sometimes people feel like they need to pay a compliment back when they’ve been given one, as if a burden has been placed on them which must be discharged as soon as possible. Often people are in such emotional turmoil when paid a compliment that they don’t do the most obvious thing, which is to say “Thank you.”

One woman wrote in a discussion forum, “I won some academic awards a few years back and got lots of positive attention around it, and my response was to fall into a depression – some part of me couldn’t accept that I deserved any of the congratulations or compliments.”

We sometimes won’t allow other people to praise our good qualities because we’re not willing to see them ourselves. We think, like this woman, that we are undeserving. So having a negative self-view is one reason why we might not be able to see our good qualities or rejoice in our achievements. This lack of self-confidence can be helped by cultivating mudita — joyful appreciation — but it also makes cultivating mudita more difficult!

Another reason can be distrusting others. Another woman said she felt like running and hiding when she was paid a compliment, and commented, “I think its because I don’t believe the person saying the compliment, and I feel like they have some ulterior motive.” This is doubly unhelpful, since not only are we refusing to accept that we have a good quality, but we’re discounting someone else’s good actions, and treating them with suspicion for doing something skillful.

As it happens, the Triratna Buddhist Community, of which I’m a part, makes a practice of “rejoicing in merits,” which is a translation of a traditional term, anumodana, which is in fact hard to translate. “Merits” here means “good qualities.” Often after a period of spending time with people on a retreat, there will be an opportunity to rejoice in the good qualities of each person on the retreat, or for each person in a smaller group — for example if people have spent time in study groups. So each person has a turn of being rejoiced in, and each other person will share something that they found admirable in this person.

So this is quite a practice! If one person paying you a compliment makes you squirm, how would you feel about a whole room full of people doing this?

Well, the good thing is that this practice of rejoicing in merits helps us to drop all the defensive habits we have around receiving compliments. It’s made quite explicit in the practice of rejoicing in merits that we need to learn how to accept compliments graciously, and when we let go of our defensive strategies we find that we actually let the compliments in.

So here are a few pointers to help you accept a compliment:

  • Don’t squirm or deflect. If you feel uncomfortable, just allow that discomfort to be there. Don’t do or say anything (screwing up your face, turning away, putting yourself down) that discounts the praise. Breathe!
  • Smile. It’s discounting to the other person if you screw up your face or shrug. Look them in the face and smile.
  • Take it in. Mindfully listen to the other person, and realize that the most important thing is to receive the message you’re being given. Someone is doing you a favor, and the skillful thing to do is to give them your attention wholeheartedly.
  • If you blush, you blush. It’s a physiological phenomenon that’s outside your control. Don’t see blushing as a sign of weakness.
  • Receive in order to give. Rather than feel that you have to give a compliment back (which discounts the compliment you’ve been given) recognize that graciously accepting the compliment with a “Thank you” and a smile is the best repayment that you can offer. But complimenting the compliment is fine! If you say something like “Thank you. That was a lovely thing to say” then you’re acknowledging that the compliment-giver did a good thing rather than discounting it.
  • Share the credit only after you’ve accepted it. If you’ve been praised for something you’ve done, but you know Susie (or whoever) should share the credit, make sure you accept the compliment before saying “Actually, a lot of the credit should go to Susie.” If you jump straight in with passing the compliment on to Susie, then you’ve refused to accept it.
  • Accept that the message may be true. You may not want it to be true that you’re good at doing a certain thing, but if it’s true it’s true, and it’s wiser to accept that as a fact. And having a good quality pointed out to you can help you to develop that good quality. And that’s a good thing, right? Your view of yourself can substantially change in very positive ways if a compliment is pointing out something about you that you hadn’t recognized before.
  • But don’t take credit where credit’s not due. If you genuinely had nothing to do with the thing you’re being praised for and the praise is therefore based on a misunderstanding, you can still thank the person giving the compliment (after all they are acting with kind intentions) but let them know that it was someone else who deserved the credit. It’s dishonest to accept praise that doesn’t belong to you. But I stress that this should only done when you genuinely didn’t do the thing that’s being praised.

To expand on that last point, after having attended one Buddhist center for several years, I started to visit another one some distance away. Several of the people there complimented me on being kind and friendly. Now this was a complete surprise to me, because in the group I’d been practicing in before, I had a reputation for being prickly and unfriendly. It turned out that I’d been changing, but that the people I’d been hanging out with for years had failed to appreciate those changes. Seeing me afresh, my new community could see me as I was, not in terms of a personality I’d outgrown years before.

Now having my own kindness and friendliness reflected back at me was a big deal. Not only did it allow me to see myself better, and allow me to feel better about myself (believe me, it’s much nicer to have the people around you think you’re kind and friendly than to think you’re defensive and unfriendly), but it encouraged me to deepen those qualities. It’s hard to deepen a quality that you don’t realize you have. So this was a real turning point in my life.

Receiving genuine compliments can be a deep practice that brings about profound changes.

Now for the sake of completeness, let’s say that someone is trying to manipulate you by paying you a compliment. (It happens. My daughter started trying to do this with me when she was about four years old: “Daddy, I love you!” — pause “Can I use the iPad?” Fortunately she’s outgrown this.)

But sincerely accepting a compliment actually makes it harder for you to be manipulated. If someone is paying you a compliment so that you’ll pay them one back, then simply accepting the compliment and saying “It was kind of you to say that” isn’t playing that game. If they’re paying you a compliment so that you’ll then do them a favor, then once again the confidence you get from accepting the compliment gives you the freedom not to fall into the trap of thinking that you have to “repay” them. You can accept the compliment and decline the invitation to “help.”

Read More

A living web of gratitude

dew-covered spider web

What do you feel when someone thanks you for something? For a comment in a meeting, a task done at home, an extra step taken, an encouraging word.

You probably feel seen, appreciated, that you matter to the other person. Maybe a little startled, maybe wondering if you really deserve it, but also glad. Personally, this is how it is for me.

Turning it around, when you say “thank you” to someone, it’s a small moment with big ripples: a confirmation of a deep and wonderful truth, that we all depend on each other, that we are all joined – across dinner tables and across the world – in a web whose threads are innumerable acts of giving.

For example, often when I eat a meal I’ll take a moment to imagine the details of how that tomato or rice was grown and then transported onto my plate, including the people who walked the fields to plant and eventually pick it, and the man or woman who drove the truck that carried it to the store where I bought it. Those folks do not know me, but they’re real people, working hard, hoping for a good life, worrying about the people they love, extending themselves in their jobs, giving me something extra, all this woven into the food that’s entering my blood, my bones: thank you.

You can’t possibly say thank you to everything you’re given. No one can. So when you do say thanks, it’s a token of your appreciation for the larger whole, joining you with that whole. It will make you happy to open to the giving coming your way each day.

And in giving thanks to the people in your life, you open the door to receiving their thanks in turn. In your home or company, a nice circle, a step toward a culture of gratitude.

For starters, it’s hard to give thanks if you’re uncomfortable acknowledging that you have received something. Perhaps you don’t want to feel indebted, or don’t want to look needy. Maybe it’s simply embarrassing. These feelings are normal – but they can sure get in the way of being thankful.

To deal with them, begin by naming them to yourself: squirmy . . . embarrassed . . . resentful . . . awkward . . . don’t want to owe anyone anything . . . Hold them in a big open space of awareness, like dark clouds in a vast sky. Don’t fight them, but gently move your attention away from them, back to your breathing and to a basic sense of being alright as a body . . . bringing to mind a sense of being cared about by someone . . . recognizing some of your good intentions in life . . . knowing one or more benefits to you of saying thanks . . . knowing what the other person has given you . . . feeling a simple sense of appreciation . . . feeling that it’s alright to be thankful . . . making it OK in your mind to express thanks.

And then be straightforward and simple, and say “Thank you” in whatever way is natural.

Many thank you’s involve little things in the flow of life, like thanking someone for passing the salt at dinner. Let these small moments matter to you. Feel your thanks in your chest and throat. When you say your thanks, try to let them show in your eyes. Life is made up of moments, beads on a golden chain; what are you stringing together? As they say in Tibet: “If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.”

Also consider where you might have a backlog of thanks, perhaps for some big things. Like saying thanks to your parents or other relatives, to old friends and new ones, to teachers and coaches of all kinds. Thanks to lovers and mates, children, pets, neighbors – even people you’ve never met, even the whole natural world. A wonderful and powerful practice is to make a list of people you want to thank directly, and then gradually move through the list. You can also certainly offer thanks in your imagination, such as to people who are no longer living, to people far away, to groups of people, to specific animals or to nature in general, or to spiritual beings or forces if that is meaningful to you.

Throughout, it is very sweet to be thankful for the opportunity to give thanks.

Read More

How to feel gratitude

carrot and measuring tape

Our minds have an inherent tendency toward finding fault. In psychology, this is called negativity bias. As psychologist and regular Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, PhD, has pointed out, this results from our evolutionary heritage:

Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

But we’re no longer hominids, and life no longer involves a struggle for physical safety and security — unless, for example, you’re in the armed forces and serving in a combat zone. So most of the time, for most of us, our negativity bias simply impoverishes us emotionally, making us think that our lives are much worse than they actually are. For we are, for the most part, blessed with wealth, security, and abundance that our hominid forebears quite literally could not have dreamed of.

Because the mind has negativity bias, though, we tend to lack appreciation for the blessings we have in our lives — no matter how abundant they are — and focus on what’s wrong, or what we think’s wrong (which is often not the same thing). And so we often walk around in a troubled and stressed state, even though basically 99.9% of our life is going just fine.

The Indian teacher Naropa described the negativity bias when he said “Samsara is the tendency to find fault.”

In order to feel a sense of security and wellbeing, we need to consciously remind ourselves of what’s going right in our lives. We need to reassure ourselves, and calm down the inner hominid who’s constantly on the alert for problems, and who often invents them when they don’t exist. In Buddhism, this practice is called “rejoicing in merit.”

  • We can offer the mind reassurance by expressing gratitude. At the start of my meditation practice, these days, I often become aware that I am in a building, safe and protected from the elements, and I say (inwardly) to the building, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that I have plumbing, and electricity, and internet access around me, and I say (inwardly) to all these things, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that my body is whole, and basically functioning. The heart is beating: “Thank you.” The lungs are breathing in air: “Thank you.”
  • Even if there is illness present I know my body has the resources to heal itself, and I say to my body, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that my senses are intact, and I say “Thank you.”
  • Even if a part of my body is in pain, I focus on the fact that it’s still functioning. I have back problems, and so I remind myself that my back is basically functioning well: it’s keeping me upright, allowing me to move around, and protecting the spinal cord. So I say, “Thank you.”

By the way, it’s important to actually make the sound of the words “Thank you” in your head. There’s something about articulating gratitude in the form of words that makes the emotion of thankfulness more real.

This practice doesn’t deny that there are problems in our lives. We may not have a job. We may be in debt. But we can balance our concern about these things with an appreciation of what’s going right in our lives.

By focusing on what’s going right in, we take our awareness away from the things that we image to be wrong, or that we imagine could go wrong, and come to realize that we are indeed blessed. When I do this simple practice, which only takes a few minutes, I feel an immense sense of gratitude and joy.

What about you?

Read More