As long as a society protects…the vulnerable among them, [it] can be expected to prosper and not decline. --The Buddha
My 95 year old friend in South Africa was telling me about the bird lice infestation of her tiny apartment, and the bites and rashes she was suffering all over her face and chest. She’d found half a bird’s nest behind her wardrobe, and while trying to move the wardrobe, it fell apart because termites had eaten through it. Too afraid to sleep on her infested bed, she asked the manager of her old-age-home complex if she could sleep in one of the vacant flats while her place was being fumigated; the person said no. So she ended up sleeping, for a few nights, in a chair out in a cold corridor leading to her flat.
When I was speaking to her, she was sitting in the armchair in the midst of her devastated home: her clothes lying outside near her front door, and her other possessions strewn around her. She said to me in an exhausted voice: “I wish I could die”. This feisty intelligent woman wanted to report the incident to the local newspaper, but was also afraid to make a fuss because she could be kicked out of her home.
This heartbreaking struggle of the elderly to keep a home, survive, be seen and respected is occurring in California too. Here seniors have to choose between paying for rent, for medical expenses, or eating. Landlords force out lower-rent-paying seniors to get in higher paying renters, which unfortunately makes seniors destitute. What does the ill treatment of our most vulnerable populations: the elderly, the young, and ill within our society say about us?
Then this week the White House proposed an almost 20% tax cut for corporations. Budget proposals have already been announced to cut social service programs like “Meals on Wheels”, children’s school lunches, and women’s health services. Not to mention the devastating budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency. This means money will be given back to businesses, and taken away from the neediest populations.
We are interdependent beings who live on one planet. The fate of one affects us all. If you suffer, I suffer. If the planet is ill, I’m ill.
Everything we do and, for that matter, all we buy is so we can be happy. Contrary to common belief, to become truly happy, we should think of others. This is counter intuitive but here’s how it works.
All beings want to be happy. No one wants to suffer and yet we all do.
When we think only of ourselves, we become unhappy. This doesn’t mean we should never think of ourselves, or always prioritize others needs over our own. Our responsibility is also to take care of our survival. But if we focus only on always fulfilling our own desires and wants over the needs of others, then we inadvertently increase our suffering.
Desire breeds more desire. We know how quickly the glow fades after a purchase of a new car, or handbag or after a delicious meal or fancy holiday. The happiness we gain from possessions and externally is by nature temporary: company shareholders always wanting bigger profits, children wanting more toys and games, parents wanting the latest gadgets and fashions and on it goes. When our desire for more, bigger and better overruns our willingness to share, aid and benefit the less fortunate, then we grow increasingly unhappy.
Our ego and its wishes become primary when we cherish ourselves. This mindset makes us greedy, competitive, possessive, and aggressive in our struggle to have the most, and remain the best. To maintain position, possessions and power, we lie, cheat, steal and so on. This drive increases our misery because we are constantly worried and agitated about losing what we have. Ironically, we set out trying to achieve whatever it is we think will make us happy, and inadvertently increase our suffering.
On the other hand, our sense of well-being, peace and joy increases when we help others. Reflect back on the times when you were most satisfied, pleased and happy. Most often it is when we did something nice for someone, or lifted up another person. Notice your feelings the next time you allow someone to go ahead of you in a queue, or you help a coworker on a project, or you cook a meal for your sick neighbor, or you give someone the benefit of the doubt. These concessions don’t diminish us. They reveal our innate compassion.
As social animals, compassion is in our nature. When our mind and heart expands, we naturally open up, connect and stretch beyond our comfort zone. We recognize the pain and feelings of our fellow beings because it is our shared human experience. At the end of the day, we are all struggling to rise above the pain of living in a world that is unsettling and challenging.
If we tap into our deepest self, we’ll reconnect with our natural empathy, kindness and compassion. After all, our shared experience is both pain and joy. Our willingness to honour this side of our nature will not only make a difference in someone’s life but will also bring us joy.
May your compassion bring you lasting peace and happiness.
The other day at Home Depot, two men got into a heated argument over who had broken the queue. One of the men, a giant over 6ft, stalked over to the shorter man, and looming over him challenged and swore him. The shorter man, visibly pale, but furious tried to act macho as he weakly parried insult for insult. I watched horror stricken, hoping they wouldn’t come to blows.
When I was in India a couple of months ago, I got into an argument with a few people who I thought were trying to cheat me. I related this incident to students in my meditation class. One student asked me if I felt good after angrily telling them off. I said no because I was embarrassed at having forgotten my training and losing my cool. And my ranting hadn’t changed the outcome.The futility of anger is clarified in this quote by the 8th Century Indian Buddhist monk Shantideva:
“If something can be remedied, why get upset? If something can’t be remedied, why get upset?”
Venting my anger had only succeeded in making my body tremble, heart race, and left me feeling exhausted and impotent. I had wasted energy but had achieved nothing of benefit. I could tell my answer hadn’t satisfied her or many other students.
I’ve since thought more about her question. We assume that when we vent our anger we are at least not letting ourselves be taken advantage of and we are fighting back. These were certainly the thoughts and feelings flashing through me during my Indian altercation.
We are living in challenging times in a world and country that’s polarized, where distrust and distress are growing every day. With the daily onslaught to our civil and social rights and the loss of human life in racial attacks, there's good reason to be upset, but we should be careful not to vent our anger.
Anger isn’t bad, but it is unhealthy. Sometimes it is justified. The trouble with it though is that even if the anger is valid, becoming enraged is not a skillful response. Anger can make us feel powerful. And while it may occasionally get us what we want, as a long term strategy for dealing with frustration it isn’t effective. Anger is destructive to ourselves and others.
The Buddha said, “we will NOT BE punished FOR our anger but BY our anger.”
If we use lashing out, avenging, or swearing as a response in stressful times, we strengthen the habit. As the habit strengthens, our tolerance weakens, and it will take less and less to upset us. Then the time and space in which to process and decide how to act will drastically decrease. And so this spiral will tighten.
A mindful attitude can reduce the duration and level of our anger. Begin by:
Reigning in the anger habit is difficult. It will take time, so be patient with yourself. Know that you will forget and react in a habitual way. Practice self-forgiveness. And remember constant practice will bring about the desired change.
May you be free from anger’s destruction.
A couple of weeks ago my cousin’s leg had to be amputated. She had just turned 42. Thinking she was being admitted to have her toe removed, she was told her foot will have to be taken off instead. After that operation, she learned her leg had to be amputated. With my cousin in South Africa, and me in the U.S., I found worrying about her didn’t help. All it did, was leave me exhausted from lying awake imagining her fear and worry.
Worrying contrary to belief doesn’t prevent our worst imaginings from occurring or from some tragedy worsening. It does, however, increase our anxiety. We may be accustomed to worrying but may not know its definition: worrying is being deeply concerned about a problem or a situation where our thoughts are looping around “what’s going to happen?” These kinds of thoughts increase anxiety.
Stress causes us to become anxious, and in small doses is considered normal even a healthy response. But worrying too much causes us to overreact to stress or any uncertainty, and that is detrimental to our overall health. We lose sleep, appetite, the ability to enjoy what happening in our lives, and the ability to be present.
I decided to redirect my energies to more beneficial practices instead. I chose to do two kinds of meditation for my cousin. These are compassion and loving kindness meditations. As our country and the world is in turmoil now, we can choose to do these meditations for all the people who are suffering fear, worry, sadness, anger, and disappointment in this uncertain time, as well.
Both these meditations can be challenging. They could bring up our own feelings of fear, anger and resistance. It is important to do ONLY what you are able to do. Go slowly. If you encounter a mental or emotional block to doing these practices for someone else, then make yourself the object of the meditation. Extend kindness and compassion towards yourself and consider all the people who may also feel as you do. Be gentle and mindful as you undertake these practices.
Loving Kindness Meditation (Mentally repeating good wishes for someone):
Tonglen (Taking and Sending Meditation):
This compassion meditation strongly awakens our ability to feel and take on the suffering and pain of others. It challenges our tendency to reactively avoid the unpleasant and only grasp the pleasant. The practice is to breathe in the suffering of another person, and send out relief and benefit to the person on an exhalation.
Do this meditation for the ill, a person in pain, and someone who is dying or dead. You can do it for yourself when you are in pain. Tonglen can be done in sitting practice or on the spot anywhere anytime.
Practice these techniques anytime you feel especially rigid in your thoughts, feelings or when worry is beginning to set in. Doing these practices empowers us to be a comfort and strength to the people and situations that need us.
May we be calm and centered to help those in need.
A student in my meditation class said that she strived to always be positive and struggled with thinking about life’s negativities. Her remark alluded to, what I suspect, is many people’s coping strategy in a world that is increasingly overrun by outspoken negativity and discord, and outlandish fear. But is it wise to willfully blinder our full view of life?
Without a doubt, an optimistic outlook is an extremely good habit to develop. Thinking positively and filling our hearts and minds with a cheerful attitude is beneficial to our overall well-being: we feel happier, calmer, and more peaceful. And if you ARE going to think, then it is certainly a wiser use of time to supplant rumination, recrimination, and resentment with thoughts of forgiveness, tolerance, and kindness.This is the aim of meditation practices.
Believing, however, that a positive mind state is achieved by avoiding life’s unpleasant or painful experiences is diametrically opposite to both life and meditation’s goals -- to awaken and cut through ignorance. In other words, in life and meditation we are training the mind to grow wise and skillful in dealing with life situations. Why then do we struggle to openly face all of life’s experiences?
Our unconscious habit is to shift away from discomfort and to gravitate towards comfort.
When I awoke this morning, the house temperature was around 58 degrees Fahrenheit or 12 degrees Celsius. I turned on the tap, and I felt ice cold water hit my cupped hands. Without a thought, I turned the handle towards the hot water side. We do these kinds of actions constantly throughout our day: if we are cold, we turn on the heat or add layers; if we are hungry, we immediately reach for a snack; if our body tightens up sitting in one position, we shift our weight; if we have an itch, we scratch it. This is not to say we should not enjoy life’s pleasures or make ourselves comfortable. The point is our tendency is to only want pleasant experiences and to avoid unpleasant ones.
We are constantly judging and challenging our experiences: thinking that a situation is wrong or shouldn’t be happening causes us to suffer and be stressed out. We try to prevent unwanted experiences from occurring by scheming, worrying, and resisting, but they occur nevertheless.
Life has good and bad experiences.
We can’t control what arises, but we can control how we think about it. We are empowered when we acknowledge the things we struggle with, because the willingness and ability to clearly see the issue at hand prepares us to deal with it. When we know, we can’t be broadsided. Moreover, it is only in actually forging through a challenge that we discover our resilience and strength.
A genuinely positive mindset is the result of being aware of life’s pain and being able to skillfully deal with it.
We train the mind to be optimistic and simultaneously clear-seeing:
Acknowledgement and acceptance of the good and bad in life cultivates mental and emotional stability and lessens our judgmental mindset. Experiencing life in all its complexity from a centered, open perspective is the wisest, most genuinely positive way to live a happy, peaceful life.
May you see clearly with a positive mind and heart.