People we share social space with can pose challenges for our kindness project. They may do things to us or to people we care about that we don't like. They may not do things we do want them to do, like love us or try harder to make us happy. They may simply disagree with us. We can totally misunderstand situations and blame someone unjustly. In the 7th grade I got upset with a friend who didn't greet me in public and later learned she needed glasses.
We have been practicing with kindness for friends and likable or neutral strangers for the last week. This week we begin the work of managing our ill-ill for objects and people we view as giving us a problem. You know who they are. Ill-will is a pretty clear experience when we have it. Today we begin just noticing ill-will when it arises and letting ourselves mindfully be with it without intervening. Where is it in the body? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? Just notice it and stay with it to experience it fully. Before you act, explore in your heart/mind whether it is an experience you want to cultivate and maintain or one that you want to prevent and abandon? The rest of this third week of the Boundless Heart Project, we will be examining kindness in situations in which we have some resistance to being kind.
This four-minute clip with Tara Brach is excerpted from a longer talk and included in the Palouse Mindfulness course. In this case, the irritation is with monkeys. Sometimes it is easier to see how stuck we are and to make adjustments when the things we are mad at are not human. Strangely, we can also get angry with inanimate objects like our toasters or cell phones, as if that made any sense. Tara shows us this tendency and offers some insights.
Those of you who have taken MBSR with me will recognize this poem as one of my favorites. I was surprised to find this clip of Wayne Dyer reading it. Here is the written version so you can follow along with his reading.
The Cookie Thief
by Valerie Cox
A woman was waiting at an airport one night,
with several long hours before her flight.
She hunted for a book in the airport shops,
bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.
She was engrossed in her book but happened to see,
that the man sitting beside her, as bold as could be.
grabbed a cookie or two from the bag in between,
which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.
So she munched the cookies and watched the clock,
as the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,
thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice, I would blacken his eye.”
With each cookie she took, he took one too,
when only one was left, she wondered what he would do.
With a smile on his face, and a nervous laugh,
he took the last cookie and broke it in half.
He offered her half, as he ate the other,
she snatched it from him and thought… oooh, brother.
This guy has some nerve and he’s also rude,
why he didn’t even show any gratitude!
She had never known when she had been so galled,
and sighed with relief when her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings and headed to the gate,
refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.
She boarded the plane, and sank in her seat,
then she sought her book, which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise,
there was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes.
If mine are here, she moaned in despair,
the others were his, and he tried to share.
Too late to apologize, she realized with grief,
that she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.
If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher. - Pema Chodron -
In cultivating kindness for difficult people, we don't have to start with the most difficult ones. When we practice everyday mindfulness, we try to work with what is in front of us in this moment. If we are sitting in meditation, it is helpful to work with someone who is only mildly annoying. Some people are only irritating, they don't really do any harm, but we judge them anyway. It is our judging that is the problem, not what they are doing. As we practice kindness for difficult people, we begin to see our own comparing mind at work. Then, we can easily lapse back into judging ourselves negatively for being judgmental. If we have practiced letting go of self-judgment when we practiced kindness for ourselves, we can begin the practice of letting go of judging others.
Perhaps there is someone in your life that you would like to be less annoyed with. Start there. You have the intention to be kind to them. You may notice whether some days or under some circumstances, either you are more annoy-able, or they are more annoying. Be curious. Investigate. Which is it?
I remember this story from a stress management workshop over 30 years ago.
A woman came home tired and irritable from her long day at work. Her 5-year old daughter began clamoring for attention. Mom had had it and she snapped at her. The child looked up at her mom and said. “Mom, are you all right? I was just as naughty yesterday and you didn’t get mad at me then.”
This link will take you to a page that introduces the practice of meditating with unpleasant emotions from Dr. Dave Potter at palousemindfulness.com. On the page is a link to a 23-minute guided meditation. It is a very basic introduction and you can listen here or read the transcript here. You can also find it here on Insight Timer,
I know this is animated and in the children's section, but it is only 4 minutes and 19 seconds long and it will give you an opportunity to explore the experience of ill will with your mindfulness practice. I found it hard to watch because the kid was so obnoxious. If you watch it mindfully through to the end, you will see at least one of the tactics that we can use to deal with ill will for others, taking a curious and broader point of view. It can also illustrate the subjective experience of ill will if his behavior annoys you as much as it annoyed me.
"I used to think that if I didn’t hurry up, I would miss something. Now I realize that when I am in a hurry, I miss everything." - Dave Peterson
To have patience takes a commitment to creating the most important resource you can have, time. Being in a hurry easily leads us to have ill-will toward anything that we perceive as getting in our way. Seminary students on their way to teach the story of the good Samaritan were less likely to stop and help a person in obvious distress if they were made to think that they were late. Walter Mischel, psychologist at Columbia University, found that children who were better at waiting and not grabbing and eating a marshmallow right away were more successful later in their lives. I prefer the feeling of not being in a hurry. I have noticed that when I am late on my drive to work, the level of my irritability with traffic is higher than when I am not in a hurry. If I am not late, I have patience and can even let traffic merge in front of me if they seem to be in a hurry.
In the spiritual traditions of Asia, patience is not just a virtue, it is an austerity. It is thought to be so difficult that to practice it reflects great self-discipline. In today’s world where everyone is always busy, waiting patiently is often viewed as a waste of time that could be spent making money. Isn't peace of mind worth the price of learning to be patient? It is for me.
Here is another of talk with one of my favorite monks, Ajahn Brahm from the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. This is a typical hour-long dharma talk. Having the patience to just listen to anything for an hour is spiritual practice. In the discussion, Brahm actually described the talk as an entertainment so perhaps that re-frame will give you the ability to listen through to the end. It is also spiritual practice if you listen while you are walking, pulling weeds or driving. It will be subtly changing your brain for the better.
I searched 'guided meditations for patience' on YouTube and there were so many that I thought I would just give you the link to the search and let you pick for yourself. Here is the link to the you-tube search. And if you use any of the apps like Insight Timer, Calm, or Headspace, simply type 'patience' in the search bar. Be patient. something will strike you as just right for you.
There is a big difference between being 'nice' and being 'kind'. Being nice is about protecting your own ego while being kind is about actually caring for the other. Acting nice is inauthentic and would not be considered a virtue except by parents of young children when the children are squabbling and you hear the parent say. "Now, Now. Be Nice." Kindness as a virtue implies the intention and motivation to be kind.
But what if you want to be kind and you don't feel like it? What if you come to believe that caring about others is the right thing to do and you really want to do the right thing? And yet, you don't want to be kind to them. Where do you start? One place is training the mind with kindness meditation, metta bhavana. In metta meditation, we encourage the experience of kindness by reflecting on situations in which we already experience the feeling of kindness. This has been the focus for the last 2-1/2 weeks. Metta practice makes the brain more likely to default to kindness.
A second practice is that you may choose to be nice to someone you don't like as an exercise in kindness. Here are some ways being nice can help you be more kind.
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle". Abraham Lincoln
Another one of my favorite meditation teachers is Pema Chodron. Pema teaches in the Shambhala tradition, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism. She offers us a couple of ways to practice with being kind. Her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa coined a term that describes one of the problems with being too nice, idiot compassion. We know this problem as enabling. In order to avoid discomfort to ourselves or others, we do not confront a difficult situation. In a problematic relationship with a narcissist or addict, setting boundaries is kind. In this article, How to set Boundaries, Brene Brown, a contemporary self-help guru suggests some reasonable ways to set boundaries.
Sharon Salzberg voices this animated clip from the Happify website and app that illustrates just how easy it is to not notice so many of the people we encounter during our usual routines. As always, Sharon's voice is soothing and resonant. The caliber of teachers at Happify is astounding and includes several notables in tn the field of mindfulness like Sharon Salzberg, Rick Hanson, Barbara Fredrickson, Shawn Achor and more.
And speaking of Happify, here are some some fun cartoons about 'unlightenment' from Cathy Thorne.
"It isn't the first angry words that start a fight. It is the angry words spoken in response. Before the second person spoke, it was simply one person speaking angry words."
I have lost the source of this quote but it has been floating around on my desk for 25 years and it helps me illustrate the importance of mindfulness and non-reactivity with my patients. Buddha was very clear that speech needed to be carefully regulated to avoid causing harm. Right speech is a whole step on the Eight-fold Path and includes much more than the aspiration to speak only what is true. When I teach about right speech, I usually do it with an acronym, T U K; True, Useful, and Kind. Most everyone recognizes that we are best served in the long run by telling the truth. We also understand that we can only tell the truth as we know it and at times we may be mistaken because our source of information was inaccurate or our memory failed us. Accuracy is not the only characteristic of appropriate speech.
Speech that is appropriate must also be useful to the person you are speaking to. One thing usefulness means is that it is offered at the right time. We all know that talking to a drunk is a waste of time and talking to someone in a rage is useless. We must wait until the person sobers up or calms down. To be useful also means we don't offer unsolicited advice. For more information on this, see my essay called "How to be helpful without giving advice." on the Bhavana Community website. Another aspect of useful speech is that is not frivolous. You may know someone who feels the need to tell you every little thing they are thinking. Children do that as they explore the world of speech, but they grow out of it. Speech that may seem frivolous, like asking "How are you?", is actually a social connection norm and is part of initiating a conversation with more depth.
The third aspect of the TUK acronym suggests we are to aspire to speech that is kind. In the teachings on appropriate speech, we are encouraged to avoid speech which is harsh or divisive. Harsh speech would be the angry words that can start a fight. These words are designed to make the person they are addressed to feel bad. Divisive speech happens when we try to turn other people against each other by spreading bad news about them. While this could be simply seen as gossip, it is malicious gossip designed to create conflict. That is not kind.
There are several systems developed by psychologists that express these teachings in a modern format. Here are three of them to explore if you are interested. For today's kindness practice, it might be helpful to pay mindful attention to your own speech to assess whether it is true, useful and kind. All three must apply.
Interpersonal Effectiveness is a content module in this application of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy developed by Marcia Linehan at the University of Washington, Seattle. Although the system was developed to use in the treatment of very severe character disorders, it is simple, effective, and backed up by scientific research that shows that the skills are useful interventions in the project of creating a "life worth living" for all of us. Many of the concepts that Marcia brought to her therapy system were adopted from her training in Buddhism. I first heard about mindfulness in a workshop with her in 1991, just as I was getting ready to take off on a sailing trip around the world. At Marcia's recommendation, I carried The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh with me and returned to it over and over in the four-years of travel. What a gift it was to have that as my travel guide.
Another system promoting interpersonal communication skills that avoid conflict comes from Marshall Rosenberg . The organization he started trains professionals in the method, and consults internationally to help people peacefully and effectively resolve conflicts in personal, organizational, and political settings. Although Dr. Rosenberg passed away 5 years ago, his organization continues to train and certify providers.
Another system for helping us avoid conflicts in speech by using mindfulness and compassion, is a system developed by Gregory Kramer called Insight Dialogue. Insight dialogue has its roots in the Buddha's early teachings on the experience and the practice of mindfulness meditation. The teachings are often offered in a retreat format to allow for community practice and skill development with each other. Gregory Kramer, the Founder and Guiding Teacher, has been developing the practice and teaching it worldwide since 1
Yesterday we explored several aspects of appropriate speech as speech that avoids conflict and we noticed that kindness is integral to skillful speech. We looked at several psychological approaches to the practices of cultivating skillful speech, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Non-Violent Communication, and Insight Dialogue. Today I want to share a bit of text from the early layer of Buddha's teachings. Here is an excerpt from the chapter (sutta) on the friend. If you want to see the whole piece, click here
"Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven? He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn't abandon you. When you're down & out, he doesn't look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with." (AN 7:35)
The main feature that I hear in this passage is that being a friend is not easy. Giving what is hard to give, doing what is hard to do, enduring what is hard to endure are expressions of the difficulty. I don't think the Buddha is telling us to put up with people who abuse us. Rather, he is suggesting that the skills of friendship are to be cultivated with mindfulness, patience and practice. A friend will cut you some slack and give you the benefit of the doubt. They will be able to see if you are doing the best you can under the circumstances. If you are not, they will be able to gently guide you in ways that will help you be a bit better. In work with couples, I often use the phrase, "Can you say that without making them bad." This is often challenging for couples who are struggling in relationship. Just asking the question is often eye-opening.
The implication of this sutta is that to be a friend, we must really get to know and understand the person we are being a friend to. That means we listen. We don't argue. "Arguments begin with an answer in mind. Conversations begin with a question." I like to use the phrase, "Help me understand" what, or why, or how. The question presumes that there is a good reason for their behavior and that you really want to know what it is. A conversation is not a debate. Debates are designed to produce a 'winner and a loser'. In a discussion, both parties can come to a mutual understanding and out of that may emerge a consensus about how to handle a difficult situation. One of our former presidents, Abraham Lincoln, said, "I don't like that man. I must get to know him better."
Oren Sofer is the author of a new book called Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication. Click here to read a summary of the book at Mindful.org. I could not agree more with his first recommendation which is to nourish yourself before a difficult conversation to help you feel clear, balanced, and well resourced. This might mean taking a meditation break or talking to a friend.
In a clever play on words, a new organization has appeared on the internet, Karunavirus.org, to promote the spread of compassion. Karuna is both the Sanskrit word and the Pali word for compassion. I seem to find something new and inspiring here each time I look at this new site. I am always grateful to find a source of good news for a change.
Another older organization, the Charter for Compassion, was created by Karen Armstrong in 2008. Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religious affairs of all faiths and denominations. Here is her TED talk that got the project started. It has been viewed over 1.8 million times. The organization promotes compassion in a variety of ways including this course, The Science of Compassion with Emma Sapella.
This is the final day of our practice of cultivating kindness for the problem people in our lives. It takes practice in mindfulness, patience and a very strong commitment to being kind. It is an emotional challenge to avoid being reactive when someone disagrees with us or does something particularly provocative. And yet, all the world's spiritual traditions ask us to avoid returning insults in kind. In the Tibetan version of the Buddha's path, we are to do more than 'love our enemies as ourselves', as is advocated in Christianity, we are to see our enemies as our teachers. Here is the way the Dalai Lama puts it in the recently reprinted book The Art of Happiness.
“The enemy is the necessary condition for practicing patience. Without an enemy’s action, there is no possibility for patience or tolerance to arise. Our friends do not ordinarily test us and provide the opportunity to cultivate patience; only our enemies do this. So, from this standpoint we can consider our enemy as a great teacher, and revere them for giving us this precious opportunity to practice patience”
In the last couple of newsletters, we have been exploring how we can get triggered to be reactive even with friends. The sentiment in this passage takes the practice of kindness to a considerably deeper level. It also illustrates what can be accomplished with practice.
There are several teachers who align themselves with the Buddha's path in a scholarly way more than a religious way. The most widely recognized of these is Stephen Batchelor, now on the faculty at Bodhi College in England. Stephen has been a monk in both a Tibetan Buddhist tradition and a Korean Son tradition. After studying the early texts, he concluded that the core teachings in the early layers of texts were decidedly secular, not religious. His book, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World outlines his rationale for this view.
There are three other modern scholars of these early texts that I think are worth mentioning. Their writing is reasonably approachable and readily available, although not for the rank beginner. Two of them are monks in the Theravadin tradition. Bikkhu Analayo is currently the resident scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts. Many of his publications explore the practices of meditation and mindfulness. Bhante Sujato posts original versions of early texts and translations from different languages and traditions at the website suttacentral. Sujato asserts that "we let the Buddha speak for himself." Sujato has also published a 400 page text that is available free as a pdf that reviews the History of Mindfulness based on several historical versions of the early mindfulness text.
Another teacher/scholar that has contributed to my understanding of these early teachings is Andrew Olendzki. Andy was on the core faculty of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies from 1990 -2015 and between 2006-2014 as senior scholar. He has now moved to his own teaching organization at the Integrated Dharma Institute.
Once the scholars began to suggest that the Buddha's teaching could be understood outside the context of religion and examined from both philosophical and psychological points of view, it didn't take long for the secular Buddhists to organize. Much of this recent organization was on the internet although speakers, retreat opportunities, podcasts and blogs/essays began to appear in print as mindfulness practices have expanded into the secular world. Keeping track of which group is which has been challenging to me so I will give you only a couple of quick websites to check out if you are interested.
On the topic of the Buddha's teaching that asserts that kindness practice is to exclude no-one, not even the jerks and monsters, here is a 12 minute discussion from Doug's Secular Dharma. This is a video channel on YouTube with many introductory lessons about Buddha's basic teachings.
If you are looking for podcasts, the website secularbuddhism.org has over 300 of them to choose from with a variety of teachers. They even have a site search to you can explore what is posted there on the topic of kindness. Here is a 34 minute guided loving kindness meditation to give you an introduction to the site.
Another modern expression of teachings of Buddhism is also offered by Buddhist Geeks. Here's the page of their website that gives the overview and story of their evolution. We will have more to say about the Buddhist Geeks through the next week when we talk about applying the kindness practices to the planet.
"We must be purposely kind and generous, or we miss the best part of existence. The heart that goes out of itself, gets large and full of joy. This is the great secret of the inner life. We do ourselves the most good doing something for others. ~Horace Mann