Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What your body can tell you

The Buddha's first foundation of mindfulness is the body. Know when you're breathing in; know when you're breathing out. Know when you're sitting or standing or walking or resting. Locating awareness in the body is a way of connecting with the present moment and letting go of thoughts.

A new study indicates that those sensations also can give us clues about our mood. A team of Finnish researchers worked with 700 people in three countries to map where emotions are expressed in the body. They found remarkable similarities among people about where emotions manifest in their bodies.

Neuroscientist Antonio Dimasio, who was not involved in this study, told NPR he's "delighted" by the findings. He's been suggesting for years that each emotion activates a distinct set of body parts, and the mind's recognition of those patterns helps us consciously identify that emotion.
"People look at emotions as something in relation to other people," Damasio, who is a professor at the University of Southern California, says. "But emotions also have to do with how we deal with the environment — threats and opportunities."

The next foundations have to do with how we assign meaning or act on what we find in our bodies -- mindfulness of feeling tones (like it/hate it/don't see it) and thoughts. The body, though, is the first sensor.

The sensation maps were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can even take the experiment here and color your own sensation maps. And remember those maps the next time you notice yourself clenching your jaw,

Monday, December 23, 2013

All that has a form is illusive

"Stars and Nebula" by Victor Habbick

Physicists have reported the discovery of a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality, Wired reports.

"The amplituhedron is not built out of space-time and probabilities; these properties merely arise as consequences of the jewel’s geometry. The usual picture of space and time, and particles moving around in them, is a construct," the magazine says.
In the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest printed book, written down in 868, the Buddha said:

All that has a form is illusive and unreal. When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature. - The Diamond Sutra

May it be. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Time for a pat on the back

Today is the Solstice, the day when the North Pole is at its maximum tilt from the sun, creating the
longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. I imagine that for the ancients, this marked the beginning of the new year, not some 10 days later when the ball drops in Times Square.

So maybe it's time to take stock. We associate the New Year with resolutions and intentions. Maybe we could make the solstice a celebration of our achievements.

When you deal effectively with a problem, it’s important to acknowledge this to yourself. In daily life or meditation, anytime you heal some suffering you have felt, you must recognize this. Such recognition can enable the powerful energy of joy to flare up. That could be a great focal point for further healing. The third Dodrupchen writes, ‘‘You must recognize that the suffering has actually transformed as the support of the path. Then you must feel a strong and stable stream of joy that is brought about by that recognition.’’ Tulku Thondup

We don't do this enough. We dwell on our faults. Somewhere back in time, it was important to know that we were slow runners and to develop our climbing skills so that if we couldn't outrun a predator we could get away by going up. Then religion told us for hundreds of years that we were bad, maybe born with sin already staining us before we even took a breath. And a consumer-driven culture came along with commercials that tell us the ways that we're inadequate and the things that we need to buy to make up for it.

Not much there are about acknowledging success.

The Dalai Lama says that you should evaluate your practice every 10 years to see if you've made progress. But he speaks with a consciousness that's been around for many, many lifetimes, so he can afford to stretch out the timetable. Conversely, considering your practice after every meditation session or interaction is counter-productive. Every one is different.

But once a year seems about right.

It's Buddhist tradition to end a retreat at sunrise, completing your practice as the sun peeks over the horizon and imagining that the sun's light is the merit of your practice spreading over all beings and everything equally, bringing them toward a realization of their true, brilliant, joyful nature.

So on this solstice, take stock of things you did well. Maybe there was a situation where you were responsive rather than reactive. Maybe you did something kind for someone who won't directly return it (holding doors open counts). Maybe you were generous or loving -- or maybe you just saw the humanity of another person, with all their complexities and frailties and foibles stemming from causes and conditions you don't know, rather than locking them up in a box labeled "Jerk."

Maybe you smiled. And the light of that smile touched innumerable others.

Happy solstice. May all beings, every one, be happy, be healthy, and be safe. May all beings live with ease.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Does Instagram increase suffering?

The first truth of Buddhism is that suffering is inevitable. There's birth, old age, sickness, and death -- and Instagram. Actually, according to a New York Times article, "The  Agony of Instagram," the photo-sharing app is related to the Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering.<--break->
Members of the Facebook generation are no strangers to the sensation of feeling a little left out when their friends post from that book party they weren’t invited to, or from someone’s latest transporting trip to the white sands of Tulum. Yet even for those familiar with the concept of social-media envy, Instagram — the highest achievement yet in social-media voyeurism — presents a new form of torture.
Instagram, with its various filters, allows people to post photos of their lives looking enviably
fabulous, the Times says -- creating dissatisfaction in people whose unfiltered lives are messier, less artistic. That dissatisfaction with our own lives and the belief that we'd be happy if only things were different is pretty much the definition of dukkha.

The Times reports that Fear of Missing Out, aka FOMO, or the anxiety and envy that arises from thinking everyone is having more fun than you, is a thing being looked at by researchers. Instagram is the biggest instigator, it says.

What to do, what to do? You could follow the path of renunciation and delete your Instagram account if it's that bothersome. Or use it train in mudita, joy in others' good fortune. Or transform the Instagram culture by posting affirmations.

Change your mind to change the world.

Friday, December 13, 2013

All presents are empty

Whatever holiday spirit is, I'm not feeling it.

The decorations are still in their storage boxes. Not a light has been strung, nor a seasonal candle lit. The three cards we've received are in the pile of mail that needs responses, which has its own place at the table. I've bought presents, but I always like buying presents so that doesn't make it a holiday.

My mom, who just moved to a smaller apartment and got rid of a lot of stuff, says she's not buying presents this year -- she's tired of making decisions.I always thought she liked buying presents; I saw them as an expression of love.

If there are no presents, is there no love? No, of course not. I know my mom loves me, navy-blue cardigan that I was going to ask for or not, but her decision reminds me that things have no inherent meaning, only the meaning we give them.

In Buddhist terms, the presents are empty.

That's good news. You can choose to see that pack of black socks as a sign that someone cares about you or as the cotton manifestation of a lump of coal.

We suffer when we set expectations for gifts and their meaning, when we believe that a holiday must meet certain criteria to be happy. There must be five kinds of cookies, including two labor-intensive roll-out ones, and cake and chocolates and bread. There must be ham or oh, good, not HAM-do you know how those pigs live?

When we let go of expectations and standards, when we are present with what is happening right now, leaving out how it measures up to the past we remember or the future we'd hoped for, we can find that we have enough: joy, sadness, peace, and excitement. We don't have to swing back and forth from one extreme to the next. We can just sit, like the angel that tops the tree or the elf on a shelf, and let all of those arise and pass.

We can accept that the new cookie recipe we tried, the one that required us to figure where we had left the pastry blender bought out of guilt (not necessity) at a Pampered Chef party so many years ago, did not work out perfectly. That the cookie dough base stuck to the pan far more than it stuck to the raspberry jam and melted chocolate chips and almonds baked on top of it. That basically, we have a slab of raspberry and chocolate and almonds, and a bunch of crumbs (that maybe could top a coffee cake???).

We might not have set out to make slabs of chocolate, but that's what we did. And damn, that's OK.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Drinking -- or not -- with mindfulness

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, the United States' attempt to outlaw liquor.
Supporters of Prohibition touted its passage in 1920 as a victory for public morals and health. But the law was difficult to enforce and widely flouted. It was repealed in 1933.

It brings to mind the Buddhist practice of renunciation, often misunderstood as abstaining from certain substances or actions.

As Barbara O'Brien writes:

Most broadly, renunciation can be understood as a letting go of whatever binds us to ignorance and suffering. The Buddha taught that genuine renunciation requires thoroughly perceiving how we make ourselves unhappy by grasping and greediness. When we do, renunciation naturally follows, and it is a positive and liberating act, not a punishment.
Buddhism does have precepts, which include abstaining from alcohol or other intoxicating substances. I've heard it said that one is important because it's more likely we'll break the other four when we're under the influence -- those propose refraining from killing, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct.

But the precepts aren't a law like Prohibition or moral imperatives like the Ten Commandments for lay people, they are considered trainings that help us learn how our minds work and lessen grasping. Merely following the precepts, without contemplating your own reasons for thatm is blind faith, which the Buddha discouraged.  Don't take my word for anything without testing it out for yourselves, he told his followers.

So the issue, for those of us who aren't monks or nuns, is not entirely abstinence; it's our relationship to alcohol. What do we want when we reach for a drink? To feel less self-conscious? To fit in? To release tension? Does drinking provide that? Does it have other effects? What is our intention in choosing to have a drink?

And then there's the physical experience -- what does the desire for a drink feel like? The first sip? Do you taste it or just drink for the effects? And speaking of those effects -- how aware are you of what happens to your body and mind? Is there a point where you lose awareness of all that? What happens then?

It's holiday party time. You can choose to abstain from intoxicating substances, whether you've taken the precepts or not. But the practice is not mere abstinence -- the practice is to know what that experience is for you.

A friend of mine summed it up in a post she made on Facebook:

Profoundly grateful tonight on this, the 28th anniversary of my sobriety. It is a continual reminder of how grace is rooted in imperfection, and yet, shines through it.
Know your imperfections and be grateful for them. That's the crack where the light gets in.

Friday, November 29, 2013

At the crossroads of Buddhism and feminism

I am a feminist. And a Buddhist. If I were to make a Venn diagram of my identities these two would
have a lot of overlap. I think of identities, though, as a collection of translucent discs, floating in a viscous space, moving deliberately through the thickness of reality. Various identities line up or overlap -- mother sister daughter wife boss employee teacher student feminist Buddhist smartass observer -- for some space, then slide off.

These two, though, hang together. Both ask me to question whether the identities are inherent or assigned, whether the contrails of expected behaviors and beliefs are mine, arrived at through experience, or cultural, created by external entities.

Sometimes they align, when I look for the truth of who I am -- and discover that it is pure potential. The limits are not inherent. The limits are constructs.

Sometimes there's friction, like when Buddhism says
nuns have more rules than monks
the most senior nun comes behind the most junior monk
the best a woman practitioner can hope for is to be reborn as a man -- who then can hope to achieve enlightenment
men's stories are preserved and taught
men's perspective is the authoritative view
men's voices are louder and dominate the discussion.

The Buddha taught that the path to liberation involves giving up your limited, constricted view of a singular, solid, and permanent self. But to ignore the interaction of identities, the friction that results when truths rub against one another is to invoke ignorance, to bypass the places where dissonant voices cry to be heard, to pretend that the charnal grounds of our past don't matter.

It is said that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, receiving in exchange his fierce ability to articulate the blues.

Here at the intersection of Buddhism and feminism, we can reclaim our pure potential, look at what limits us, and move on down the path to liberation.

If women approach the understanding of Dharma differently and forge new approaches to practice, this may be a strength. ... Given equal education and opportunity, it is likely that women will contribute fresh insights, including practical ways of integrating Dharma in daily life, for example, the ethical development of children, healthy approaches to caregiving, and compassionate means of social service. Women can help expand the concept of intensive practice beyond the monastic limits imposed by certain traditions, providing greater affirmation of lay practice. Women may put their communications skills to work, developing new, more accessible ways of expressing the Dharma. They may put their organizational skills to work, developing more egalitarian structures for Buddhist and other institutions.
--Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Friday, November 22, 2013

You are the eyes of the world

Every morning I make the aspiration "to look at the world with eyes of compassion." I say this as I look in the mirror just after getting out of bed, and I remind myself that it includes how I see myself -- now, with my bedhair pushed into a fauxhawk from the way I sleep and throughout the day when I find myself seeing with eyes of judgment or anger or insult or snark.

Sometimes, when I have time to ponder, when I'm sitting in traffic or listening to office sniping, I think: How would this look through the eyes of compassion?

Based on recent news reports, I think I could ask myself: What would Pope Francis see here?

As a former Roman Catholic, I have no fondness for the institutional church or the office of pope. But the current holder of that title sometimes blows the roof off my heart.

Here he is, on Wednesday, looking with the eyes of compassion at a man with what is described in news reports as "a severely disfigured face." He is looking directly into whatever face there is, with no apparent sense of recoil, no lean-back, no aversion.

The Pope invites the sick and suffering to meet him after his Wednesday general audience.

What an extraordinary thing to see everyone, no matter how they look or smell or how their body functions, as worthy of kind attention. To greet them without subtly communicating distaste or averting your eyes. It's difficult to do.

Another photo of the Pope circulated earlier in which he embraces a man with neurofibromatosis type 1,which has left him with growths all over his face. His own father won't touch him, the man told an Italian magazine, but Pope Francis hugged him without hesitation.

"I'm not contagious, but he [the Pope] didn't know that," he said. "But he did it, period: He caressed my whole face and while he was doing it, I felt only love."

No words were exchanged, just the healing comfort of touch. "I tried to speak to say something but I was unable to," said Riva in a translation provided by Time. “The emotion was too strong. It lasted a little longer than a minute but it felt as if it were eternity.”
I'm deeply touched by these photos and the immense love, compassion, and lack of judgment. And seeing them I aspire to open my eyes of compassion more widely. I'm not going to start embracing people I don't know and I'll still stay as far away as possible from people with hacking coughs. But maybe I can see them more kindly.

And if one person sees more kindly, without the recoil,  maybe that can head off the aversion contagion, where everyone looks away and pretends not to see what is not pretty.

After all, as the Grateful Dead sang, you are the eyes of the world. Or, as the Buddha said in the first line of the Dhammapada, we create the world with our thoughts. We can create a world where everyone receives the attention they deserve because of their inherent humanity or we can make a world where people who don't meet some standard of beauty disappear.

Where do you want to live?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

For the benefit of which beings?

I remember the first time I saw a headline touting "mindfulness" on the cover of O, the Oprah
magazine, which also extolls the benefits of a $250 french fry maker and $300 Ugg boots. I was disconcerted. This was several years ago, and I was fairly new to Buddhist study and protective of the teachings, which didn't seem to belong in a bible of conspicuous consumption and body image. It seemed to be a misappropriation of the teachings.

But Oprah's helped popularize teachers like Pema Chodron and Sharon Salzberg, and I've come to believe that mindfulness is a good thing, no matter how it comes about. That's beneficial since mindfulness has only become more ubiquitous.

Mindfulness, it seems, has become a thing unto itself. The New York Times reports that everyone from techies to celebrities to CEOs to the Marines are practicing mindfulness, which it calls "a loose term that covers an array of attention-training practices. It may mean spending 10 minutes with eyes closed on a gold-threaded pillow every morning or truly listening to your mother-in-law for once."

The Times credits Thich Nhat Hanh, as "the Vietnamese Buddhist leader who introduced mindfulness to westerners (Google got first dibs on him as a guest speaker)" but focuses on how technology companies are using mindfulness.

Walter Roth, 30, chief executive of a tech start-up called Inward Inc. ... (said) mindfulness has made him more competitive. “Not only do I put fewer things on my to-do list but I actually get them done and done well. It’s like I’ve learned that to be more successful and accomplish more, I must first slow down.”
In response, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship points out that the Buddha didn't intend mindfulness to be divorced from ethics and wisdom. It also quotes Thich Nhat Hanh, noting that he called for people
to use mindfulness as a basis for engaging in the world. "When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time… You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing," he is quoted as saying.

(What that seems to prove is the emptiness of Thich Nhat Hanh -- there is no single, unchanging TNH.)

What is the right view of mindfulness?

Is there one?

David McMahan, a professor of religion at Franklin and Marshall College, says mindfulness may be becoming "a folk religion of the secular elite in Western culture." McMahan, who studies the role of social and cultural context in meditation, tells Tricycle magazine:

Right now, for the first time ever, we have contemplative practices derived from the Buddhist tradition that are being practiced completely independently of any Buddhist context. Secularization has filtered out what we would call “religious elements.” It is those religious elements, those ethical elements, and those intentions that have always formed the context of meditation and that have made meditation make sense. Otherwise, what sense does it make to sit down for half an hour and watch your breath? Somebody has to explain to you why that matters, why it is a good idea, and what it is actually doing in the larger scheme of things.

When meditation comes to the West completely independently of that, it is like a dry sponge; it just soaks up the cultural values that are immediately available. So it becomes about self-esteem. Or it might be about body acceptance or lowering your stress. It might be about performing lots of different tasks efficiently at work. It might be about developing compassion for your family. A whole variety of new elements now are beginning to form a novel context for this practice, which has not only jumped the monastery walls but has broken free from Buddhism altogether.
Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen, he says.

That's true with everything. We can't ever know with certainty what will happen. We may be able to predict the result of a particular action, but interdependence means that ripples out and has consequences that may be far beyond what we expect. Which is why, as a Buddhist, I try to live with the intention of non-harming. Intention is paramount because it sets the direction for actions.

One practice is to start the day by setting an intention: to be patient, to be kind, to be generous -- and to focus on that area. That makes it more likely that actions will incline in that direction by at least making us aware. And that's where mindfulness comes in. Having set an intention, we become more mindful about how we bring that into a situation.

For me, mindfulness practice inevitably leads to ethics and compassion. If you pay attention to what
you're doing, you must see how that affects others. And if you see how it affects others, your heart opens to them.

The vast intention, in Buddhism, is to be of benefit to all beings. That sounds overwhelming at first, but when you practice the intention becomes natural. Does that mean it's easy to make every action support that? No, but it's more likely than if you don't try.

Some of the secular mindfulness training seems to be aimed at benefiting individuals or corporations. Will that inevitably lead to ethics and compassion?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A father meets hatred with love

The Buddha said that hatred never destroys hatred -- only love can do that. But it's hard not to hate people who hurt people, especially when the ones they hurt are children, especially when they hurt our children. That's what makes a letter written  by the father of a teenager who was set on fire on a bus so extraordinary.
Sasha Fleischman, a teenager who identifies as agender -- neither male nor female, was wearing a skirt when he was set on fire, apparently by another teen, after he fell asleep on a bus. Speculation has been that the act was a hate crime, brought on by Sasha's failure to conform to the conventional gender binary.
Remarkably, his father, declines to make that leap. Karl Flieschman, a kindergarten teacher, wrote a letter to the community at the school where he teaches. It's been widely distributed on the Internet and should be read by everyone.
I think it's really important to keep in mind that none of us can know the mind, motivations, or intentions of the person who set flame to Sasha's clothing. Oakland Police have a 16-year-old high school student in custody, based on video camera footage from the bus. As far as I know, police are the only people who have viewed the footage. I certainly haven't, so I can only guess at what happened. At this point, I choose to assume that this kid was playing with fire, and that he gravely underestimated the consequences of that. Others may make different assumptions, but it's important to remember that they are all just that: assumptions.
That is how you meet hatred with love.
Karl also cites the support the family has received: "I can't tell you how moved we have all been by the outpouring of loving kindness, and how helpful that has been."
He goes on to urge parents to talk to their kids about fire safety rather than hate and offers a gentle way to explain to young children (and adults) what it means to be agender.
Another aspect of this story that has gotten a lot of attention is the fact that Sasha was wearing a skirt, "even though" Sasha appears to be a boy. The fact is that Sasha self-identifies as "agender" and prefers the pronouns "they," "them," and "their" when people refer to Sasha in the third person. (English doesn't have commonly used gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns yet.)
Being agender simply means that the person doesn't feel that they are "either a boy or a girl." I realize that this is a concept that even adults have difficulty wrapping their heads around. (My wife and I frequently slip up in our pronoun usage, much to Sasha's chagrin!) So I can't pretend that it's an issue that all young children will grasp. But what they certainly can and should understand is that different people like different things.
Different people dress or behave or look differently. And that's a good thing. Sasha feels comfortable wearing a skirt. It's part of their style. They also frequently sport a necktie and vest. Sasha likes the look, and frankly, so do I. It makes me smile to see Sasha being Sasha.
As I wrote above, none of us can know the mind of the kid who lit a flame to Sasha's skirt, but I have a feeling that if he had seen Sasha's skirt as an expression of another kid's unique, beautiful self and had smiled and thought, "I hella love Oakland," I wouldn't be writing this now.
He concludes:
Again, many thanks for all of your love and kindness. Let's all take care of each other.
I hella love this family. Thank you, Mr. Fleischman, and may you always feel the love you put out into the world reflected back at you.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Dead Like You

I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.
I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.
I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.
I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.
Anguttara Nikaya V-57 (Upajjhatthana Sutta)

A memento mori is a reminder that we all will die. It's said to have originated in ancient Rome: A Roman general parading through the streets after a victory was followed by his slave, who reminded him that this glory would pass -- everyone, even generals, will die. "Memento mori," the slave would say. Remember that you'll die.

That's a key thought in Buddhism too, conveying both the truth of impermanence and the need to practice now, in this moment, while it's possible.  I am of the nature to die, one of the five reminders in the Pali Canon. In the mahayana, it's the second of the Four Reminders, following the preciousness of human birth: Death is certain, it comes without warning.

Reciting those reminders is part of the daily practice for many Buddhists. (Including me.)

But it's not the only way we can remind ourselves of that inevitability. Clocks, for instance, can be seen as reminders of how quickly our time on earth passes. Leaves turning color and falling off the trees.

Today is Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, in Mexico, a celebration that includes sugar skulls and parties. (It's actually a multiday celebration that began on Halloween and continues through the Roman Catholic marking of All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.) Those who are taking part visit the graves of loved ones, bringing food and other offerings.

I've never been big on visiting graves, and my family's graves are far away. But there are other ways to remember and celebrate them. Thanks to my mom, who's in the process of moving, I've come into some lovely reminders, including a chair from my grandparents' kitchen and a doll that my aunt made from my great-aunt's pillow case. Both are now dead.
How about you?

My mom, in the interest of paring down, was going to sell the chair and give the doll to Goodwill since it's really a beautiful piece of folk art. I took them. The doll sits on the chair next to my shrine, and they remind me of where I come from and where I'll go and the preciousness of this life. All we have are our actions. Let them come from love.

One of the forms I recite says: Everything is impermanent. This ephemeral existence is not to be wasted. My death is certain; the exact time is unknown. Knowing this, what is most important?

To me, what is most important is to not to cross things off some bucket list but to appreciate the moments I'm here, to try to be of benefit to all beings -- but at least to do no harm.

How about you?

Friday, October 25, 2013

How to study Buddhism like a Geshe

Yesterday I went to a talk by Geshe Kelsang Wangmo, the first woman to receive the advanced geshe designation in Tibetan Buddhism. Given only to monastics, it is the equivalent of a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy.

While I've never been a fan of dharma combat, which seems too tied to ego, I'd love to see her debate. She is razor sharp and lightning quick, confident and challenging but with a huge smile on her face. Her hands and arms move fluidly in expansive gestures, and her face, below her buzz-cut hair, is constantly changing expression.

Which, perhaps, demonstrates her point (in this talk at Smith College) that there is no one, singular, definite, unchanging "I" to be found. If anything, she says, there is a collection of I's -- "I should call itself we," she playfully suggests.

To get a geshe degree requires 16 years of study. She freely shares her method:

-- Listen. Buddhism was an oral tradition, and many of the suttras start out: Thus have I heard ... Be a student of Buddhism.


-- Listen with a skeptical mind. Don't believe things just because "thus you have heard..." Question question question. Break things down. Is this true? Is it true under all conditions? If you look at it another way? From another angle? Analyze. Come to a conclusion.

-- Then, most importantly, feel it. Does it feel right? If not, then it is not true for you, so don't incorporate it into your world view. But be sure you have investigated it rigorously so that the feeling is about that conclusion and not something related to it or the person who explained it.

"The only way to change is to bring it onto an emotional level," she said.

Quite a statement from someone with so much intellectual firepower.

The key to a happy marriage? Accepting impermanence

A student in the meditation class I lead once asked how I could reconcile the truth of impermanence with being married. Since nothing is permanent, how can you take a vow to stay with someone for better or worse, all the days of your life?

My answer was that impermanence doesn't mean that nothing lasts -- it means that nothing stays the same. There is no solid, permanent, singular self, and no solid, permanent, unchanging marriage.

My spouse and I have been married for 33 years, as of Oct. 25. Neither of us is the person we were then, back in our early 20s. I can't speak for him on this, but I would not have wanted to be forever 23, even young and in love and pooling our pocket change to buy dinner on Friday nights, romantic as that was. We've changed, the world has changed, the conditions of our lives have changed.

And so it goes.

Autumn is an absolute reminder of the truth of impermanence -- here in New England, the leaves are on fire, sharp tongues of gold and red reaching into an azure sky, until they let go and drift to the ground. We rake them, grudgingly, and drag them to the compost pile to decompose, creating food for future vegetable plants.

And so it goes for us humans, like it or not. We grow, we bloom, we endure dark days, cold days, and we wait for the sun. We change with conditions. We persevere. And someday, we'll drop. All earthly relationships end some day.

So why get married? You might as well as ask, why live? Why get out of bed? The day will end too, but we usually start it, often in the morning. Life will end, and we yet we continue to live it. Everything is impermanent, and yet things come into existence.

I am not the woman I was back then, and he's not that man. Our relationship's not the bright, shiny, untested, brand-spanking-new marriage it was in 1980. It's something different. It's been myriad relationships -- spouses, parents, adult children, caregivers, cared for, empty-nesters, full-lifers -- and that's how it lasts.

Accepting impermanence is key to staying married, actually. It's only by knowing that your relationship will change, your partner will change, your life conditions will change that you can stay. All of that will happen, of course, and if you fight it, if you cling to where it is at one stage or to an ideal of how it should be, it will fail.

People ask me what the secret to a long marriage is. I don't know, but I would say it's being willing to let it be new, not keeping track of how long it's been. It's seeing the person who's in front of you now, not the one who was waiting at the altar. Being willing to let them grow. And being willing to grow yourself. It may be that you grow apart; it may not.

It's impossible to live in that space all the time, especially when you're living in a household as well as a relationship. It's easier to see the other person as a role than a human -- isn't it the husband's job to mow the lawn? Change the lightbulbs? Wasn't it your turn to buy groceries? Fold laundry? That's especially true when there are other beings involved -- parents, children, pets, bosses, neighbors, friends -- and you can't find the energy to just be. Or that's how it feels.

The marriage part, the vow, is about sticking it out through those times and coming back, finding your new breath, finding your new partner. Trusting in the form so that you can rest in the emptiness, the space of possibility and acceptance.

The wedding ring that drew my meditation student's attention? It's not a wedding ring. That ring hasn't fit on my finger for years. I wear a claddagh ring; I wish I could say I'd gotten it in Ireland, but I lost that one, and this is a replacement from a jewelry store in town. My husband lost his original wedding ring and quit wearing the replacement one years ago.

The rings aren't important. Seeing the human who is or isn't wearing one is what matters.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The impermanence of leaves

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins
"Spring and Fall: To a young child" 


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Enlightenment in a cup

Enlightenment cannot be obtained
at Starbucks,
no matter what the sign says.
You can't order up
a Grande Mind
with a double shot
of equanimity
to sip
while you sit
and scroll through
the Dalai Lama's Twitter feed
and expect
to attain nirvana.

You could, perhaps,
become enlightened
by drinking tea,
any old tea,
with perfect presence,
feeling the temperature of the cup,
noting the sensation --
pleasantly warm. scorching. or neither.
Smell the aroma
and observe your mind.
Is there a memory?

A plan? A leap ahead to what comes after tea?
Lift the cup, and feel the muscles
in your hand, arm, and shoulder --
the interdependence of bone, ligament, muscle --
adjust to the weight,
move the cup toward your lips,
and taste.

And let the next sip
be new,
free from expectation,

You can eat Enlightened ice cream
without becoming enlightened.

Or you can you can touch
your enlightened nature
while eating ice cream.
Fresh. Clear. Open to the experience.
Even the headache.
If you're enlightened
you wouldn't suffer from it,
just note the sensation
and let it pass.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

This could be the last time

Tikker is a digital watch that counts down the minutes to your predicted death, based on your answers to a personal health history questionnaire.  Each Tikker watch comes with a booklet called "About Time," which guides users in calculating their lifespan, Mashable reports.

I'm curious to know how they account for the proverbial bus that hits you after you walk out of the doctor's office with a clean bill of health. Or any other accident. Life -- and death -- simply is not that predictable.

Noah Levine talks about saying good-bye to one of his teachers after having lunch. "I'd like to say, 'See you soon,'" he says the teacher told him, "but it might be never again."

This wasn't a subtle way of saying he'd contracted a fatal disease. It was a teachable moment, a recognition of impermanence. We never know, when we say good-bye to someone, what will happen before -- or if -- we see them again. Children grow up, kittens become cats, hair gets grey. Things change.

Everything is impermanent. This ephemeral existence is not to be wasted. Everyone who is born will die. My death is certain, the exact time is unknown. Knowing this, what is most important?
What's important is not to leave things undone. Don't hold onto resentments, don't hold off on a smile or a hug.

 In recent years, there's been some point in every visit with my mother where she sighs and says, "This could be the last time ..." And I reply, "Yes, it could. I might walk out of here and get run over by a bus. You might live for another 20 or 30 years. You don't know."

Would you want to? Would you feel more or less anxious if you knew exactly how many more nights you had to get some sleep? Would it enhance or detract from your ability to sleep? Would it help you to enjoy the present or project your anxiety into the future?

Tikker's creators say their goal is to help people get more out of life by telling them how much more life they have to live.

"I think we can have a better life, and make better choices, if we are more aware of our upcoming expiration. It gives us perspective — the little stuff suddenly doesn't seem so important anymore. That's why I see Tikker as a happiness watch," Fredrik Colting, Tikker's creator, told Mashable in an email.
The Buddha told his followers that 2,500 years ago -- but he didn't say he could tell them when the end would be. My death is certain. The exact time is unknown.

Knowing that, knowing that you're not guaranteed another chance to sit down with someone, can you see how precious they are to you now and treat them as the rare and wonderful being that they are so that you never have to wish that they knew how you felt? What would you say if you knew it was your last meeting -- would you pick at the details or let the small stuff slide?

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan famously said, and you don't need a watch to tell you that your time will come.

The poet Mary Oliver asks:

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Do it now.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Applying kindness

You can get smartphone apps to share photos with friends, tell your friends where you are, find out where they are, let them know when you're about to meditate so they can sit down too.

Now you can get an app to send them random compliments.

Kindr is an iPhone app that "users can send pre-crafted or original compliments to their friends and earn points along the way. Ready-to-use compliments include things like: 'Who always sees the glass half full?' 'Who do you admire for their dedication to their fitness?' and our favorite, 'Who's so smart that if they were turned into a zombie, they'd just seem like a normal person?" the Huffington Post reports.

The story doesn't explain why the compliments are worded as questions, which seems oddly impersonal. Or say what good the points are. Is it a competition -- the nicest person is the one with the most points? Can you redeem them for a whining binge? (It does say HuffPo will be providing content. It also provides the image at right)

The Kindr website includes a link to studies the document the benefits of kindness.

Of course, the Buddha listed them 2,500 years ago.The most ancient extant Buddhist collection of texts, the Pali Canon, identifies a number of benefits from the practicing of metta meditation, including:

One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The devas protect one. Neither fire, poison, nor weapons can touch one. One's mind gains concentration quickly. One's complexion is bright. One dies unconfused and – if penetrating no higher – is headed for the Brahma worlds.

If you're interested in practicing kindness, you could do metta, or lovingkindness, meditation. It's described here.

And if you want to get digital with it, you could just set an intention to text one compliment every day -- maybe after your metta meditation session. Make it one that you write yourself, from your heart. You'll feel good. The recipient will feel good. (Although I once, in a metta haze, texted my son, who wrote back, "Is this a generic text?") And if enough people feel good ... it'll be a movement.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Meditating with (the mind of) a kitten

Traditional meditation texts sometimes describe the unmeditated state as "monkey mind." But for the last week I've been sitting with my new kitten, and I feel like I'm seeing my mind manifested. The kitten is all over the place -- chasing a piece of paper, disappearing under the shrine, jumping sideways, kneading the mat, settling into one posture and resting.

My mind does all those things -- follows after an intriguing thought, gets lost in thought, skips from topic to topic, and finds ease and space.

All purrs are mantra.

And a piece of advice -- don't wear drawstring pants. It's like that itch you can't get out of your mind.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Four Noble Truths according to Louis C.K.

There's a six-minute video of Louis C.K. on the Conan O'Brien Show explaining where he won't buy his daughter a smartphone that's making the rounds among Buddhist types, people who usually share quotes from the Dalai Lama and pictures of nature. Why? It expresses the essence of the Buddha's teaching that life is suffering (and we try to get away from the truth of that by distracting ourselves with Angry Birds and other apps) but that it doesn't have to be:
 You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty — forever empty. That knowledge that it's all for nothing and that you're alone. It's down there.
And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching anything, you're in your car, and you start going, 'oh no, here it comes. That I'm alone.' It's starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it...
That's why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they're killing, everybody's murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don't want to be alone for a second because it's so hard.
Or, as the Buddha succinctly said: Everybody suffers. Not every minute. Not always in big dramatic ways. But, yeah, everybody suffers. (The First Noble Truth)

Why do we suffer? We want the newest smartphones to take distract us from our feelings, which may be unpleasant. But that only works for a while, so then we need something new. (The Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering is craving or desire or the belief that getting that new smartphone will give us lasting happiness.)

But the good news is: You can stop suffering (Third Noble Truth). There is a way. (Fourth Noble Truth.)

To a great extent, that way involves being able to stay with the emotion we were trying to get away from by escaping into stuff and realizing that it's not all that bad. Suffering is the fear and anxiety about what will happen if we feel the bad thing -- which itself isn't as bad as the suffering.

Louis C.K. talks about hearing the Bruce Springsteen song "Jungleland" as he's driving:
And I go, 'oh, I'm getting sad, gotta get the phone and write "hi" to like 50 people'...then I said, 'you know what, don't. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.'
And I let it come, and I just started to feel 'oh my God,'and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You're lucky to live sad moments.
And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.
The thing is, because we don't want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off or the food. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die. So that's why I don't want to get a phone for my kids.

That pretty much sums up every book Pema Chodron's ever written. But we also get bored with teachings and think we need to make it more complex. Really, though, it comes down to: Notice what you're feeling. Notice how you want to escape from it. Don't. Stay with it and see what's on the other side.

And do that for the rest of your life.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The dark side of meditation

Buddhist meditation is a way of working with your mind, which means that whatever is is your mind is going to come into your awareness. That's how you learn to work with it. But if what's in your mind is threatening? What if your investigation into thought patterns leads to unresolved trauma?

What if you can't handle your own inner truth?

The issue's come up recently because Aaron Alexis, who shot 12 people at the Navy Yard near Washington, D.C., this week has been reported to be a meditator who lived for a time at a Buddhist center in Texas.

Such violence contradicts the popular notion that meditation leads to calmness and reduces stress and anxiety. Dozens of scientific research projects have found measurable beneficial effects from meditation.

But meditation isn't a magic pill. A serious meditation practice, particularly a Buddhist  meditation practice, involves working with your mind, discerning habitual ways of reacting to conditions and circumstances, and investigating them -- where they came from and whether they're still appropriate ways to cope. That awareness can bring buried issues to light.

People with depression or past experiences of trauma, for example, may find themselves feeling increasingly anxious during  meditation, no matter how much they try to focus on the moment. Or they may be plagued by intrusive thoughts, feelings and images of the past during their mindfulness exercises.
That’s why [University of Washington researcher Sarah] Bowen suggests that people with depression or trauma issues who want to benefit from meditation should try it with expert guidance.  “If you get stuck in ruts like rumination, there are ways to work with that,” she says, “It’s important to have teachers who are very familiar with meditation to guide you as you are learning.”  Experts can let people know what to expect and offer emotional support to help them through rough patches.
Extraordinarily popular (for good reason) Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron notes that "meditation is not just about feeling good ... even the most settled meditator experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity."

Brown University neuroscientist Dr. Willoughby Britton, who has published research on using meditation in treating depression, is working on what she calls the “dark night” project. Her interest was piqued after she treated two patients who had attended meditation retreats and went on one herself where she experienced mental distress, Szalavitz reports.
She eventually learned that overwhelming anxiety, fear and emotional pain— sometimes including symptoms severe enough to merit psychiatric diagnosis— are “actually classic stages of meditation”  that eastern practitioners are familiar with. But Western doctors and researchers who co-opted the practice and began advocating meditative techniques to treat mental illness were not studying them. They saw only the calming ability of meditation to focus the mind.
Meditation allows us to settle our minds and look at what's there. It won't give you a serious mental condition, but it -- alone -- probably can't treat one. And especially without guidance or grounding. I've heard Buddhist teacher Vinny Ferraro say that his mind is like a bad neighborhood -- he won't go there unarmed. The weapons he carries are meditation techniques.

The Buddha sent his first adherents out into the forests to meditate, only to have them return, terrorized by demons they thought were in the forest. Recognizing that the demons were projections of internal fears, the Buddha taught them how to do metta, lovingkindness meditation. By changing their view of the demons -- meeting them with kindness rather than fear -- the meditators found they were no longer a threat. There are other stories of meeting demons -- those thoughts that bedevil our minds -- with kindness, inviting them to tea, feeding them, not fighting them.

When I began studying Buddhism in 2006, I was depressed and anxious. Therapy and medication helped, but Buddhism and meditation provided the tools that helped move out of familiar patterns. I am deeply grateful to the path and especially to teachers who provided guidance. It took time and getting to know myself and what I could be with. For some people, jumping into emptiness can be threatening and disorienting -- sometimes you need ground -- in ways that last longer than the empowerment ceremony or the weekend retreat where you practiced it.

I practice meditation. I teach meditation. I wholeheartedly endorse meditation. But it's not all good. Sometimes it's bad. Meditation is about being aware of all that and learning how to respond skillfully.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Take joy in your joy

An important part of metta, or lovingkindness, meditation is extending that feeling to yourself. You can't fully extend love to others if you don't feel it for yourself. So you with yourself, then make the wish that others will be safe, happy, healthy, and at ease. (Some teachers start with a benefactor, then move to yourself.) This is a profound experience for many people because it's just not something we do often.

When it comes to joy, we don't go through the same process. Mudita -- sympathetic or appreciative joy -- is the third of the brahma viharas, or divine abodes, following metta and karuna, or compassion, the aspiration to take away others' suffering and give them ease. It's a logical progression.

By definition, sympathetic joy means feeling joy for others. But it seems to me that it's difficult to appreciate the good fortune of others if we don't appreciate our own good fortune. If we don't know what the experience of joy feels like, how can we share in it?

For me, William Wordsworth offers the best description of the feeling of joy: My heart leaps up. There's an energetic spark, an almost palpable feeling of lightness, of opening, of expanding out. When it's ignited by someone else's good news, it's a hug or high five that happens spontaneously, without any decision to give it. It's the fans leaping to their feet when the ball goes into the net at a soccer game.

When it comes as a result of our own good fortune, especially something we've done, we often clamp down. Are we showing off? Do we seem arrogant? Selfish? Prideful? Has our self-joy turned into an over-the-top end zone dance that's out of proportion to our achievement? Are we rubbing other people's noses in it? Or do we risk losing our joy if we make it public -- if we're too happy, we fear we're jinxing ourselves and inviting unseen forces to take it away.

So it's difficult to simply be with our joy, to rest in the feeling of lightness and openness, filled to the brim with good feelings.

My friend Maura related a conversation she had with her 98-year-old cousin, Sara, in Ireland: "Sara said what bothers her the most, looking back on her life, was that most of the time she was happy she didn't realize it." That's what we need to realize.

Scientific research suggests that we actually have three times more positive experiences than negative ones, but we remember the negative ones. There may have been evolutionary reasons for that -- our ancestors who remembered which beings or conditions were threatening and took steps to avoid them were the ones who survived. 

But we can change that. The first step is to notice moments of joy, bits of unadulterated OKness, that feeling of all's right with the world. And instead of panicking and trying to find the thing that wrong or backing away because it can't last, just be with it. Find it in your body -- maybe your back straightens when your heart leaps up, or the corners of your mouth rise. Maybe your shoulders sink because joy isn't tense.

You don't have to explain it or justify it or hide it.It won't last -- nothing does, good or bad. But soak in it as long as it's there. Become familiar with it. Know it. It'll go away, but it'll come back. And you'll be better able to recognize it when it does. And you'll get more comfortable with it, which will let it flow more easily when others share their joy.

Because research also says that sharing joy is good. Sharing joy increases it. (Note that the  study involves sharing joy with a close friend or romantic partner, who will be supportive.)

And if you hear a voice in your head whispering "selfish," consider this: Research has found that your happiness affects those around you. So far from being selfish, feeling your joy will bring joy to others -- which you can appreciate (mudita), creating the best of all possible feedback loops where everyone's joy reinforces everyone else's in the circle..

Monday, September 9, 2013

Anger is a (necessary) energy

Buddhists are supposed to be placid, right? In statues and paintings the Buddha is sitting implacably in deep meditation. Cartoons show wise gurus in caves dispensing pithy, if incomprehensible, advice. Popular Buddhist authors like Tara Brach and Pema Chodron and Shinzen Young talk about radical acceptance of things as they are right now, about witnessing the rise and fall of emotions as thoughts and bodily sensations and staying present with the experience.

Buddhists don't get angry, right? They may witness the arising of anger in themselves, but they don't bite that hook. Acting out of anger is unskillful. You can Google up a gaggle of articles to tell you that. It's an issue that's come up for me lately, in personal conversations and as I read about  the debate over whether nations should take action against Syria for its use of nerve gas.

That is, however, a limited and limiting view, which doesn't fit with a philosophical system that teaches that we are limitless, that our wisdom and compassion know no boundaries.

Tantric Buddhism teaches that -- as John Lydon sang -- anger is an energy. Specifically, it is the neurotic, or confused, aspect of the energy of the vajra family; the enlightened aspect is clarity, clear-seeing.

The Dalai Lama says in a recently translated interview that anger is essential to achieving social justice.

There are two types of anger. One type arises out of compassion; that kind of anger is useful. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having. For example, a good parent, out of concern for a child’s behavior, may use harsh words or even strike him. He may be angry, but there is no trace of any desire to hurt him.

...The question is a person’s state of mind or the motivation that causes the action. When we act, that act arises out of a cause that already exists in us. If we act when our inner motivation is hatred toward another person, then that hatred expressed as anger will lead to destructive action. This is negative action. But if we act out of consideration for the other person, if we are motivated by affection and sympathy, then we can act out of anger because we are concerned with that person’s well-being.
For example, he says, that if a child is playing with poison, a parent may shout or strike the child's hands to keep him from putting it in his mouth. That anger "was directed toward the child’s actions that could harm him, not toward the child himself. In such a case, it is right to take the necessary measures to stop the action, such as anger, shouting, or striking."

On a larger level, anger about social injustice is necessary, he says, but should be directed at the social injustice itself. "The anger should be maintained until the goal is achieved. It is necessary in order to stop social injustice and wrong destructive actions," he said.

What that means is that you need to keep going inside and re-examining your own motivation and intention. What situation does the anger point you to? Often we displace anger at one thing onto a more convenient target or we simply explode, shooting anger out in all directions, hitting the innocent and the obstructors. What is the wise or skillful way to act?

Rita Gross, a Buddhist teacher and former history of religion professor, spent most of her life bringing to light the ways that patriarchy has tainted Buddhism and hurt women. It wasn't an easy path, but she sees benefits for herself and others.

New Lotus, an online magazine, describes her as a faithful Tibetan Buddhist who has been "fearless in critiquing the human-made power structures of Buddhist institutions," it says, citing her "pugilistic" approach. "She can afford to be because she is acutely aware of the important difference she has made with her contributions to Buddhist-feminist scholarship."

Gross cites Buddhists teachings interpreted to mean that only males can be enlightened as at the core of the patriarchal institutions -- and her own path. “Female rebirth is necessary to have people in female bodies speak out against the injustice of patriarchy,” she insists, with an uninvested charm that only retired people can afford. “Had I not been born in a female body, I could not have likely walked the path I did, wrote the books I wrote, and made the difference that I made,” she says.

Anger isn't a problem, it's an energy. As with all emotions, it's what you do with that energy that matters.

This doesn't tell you whether Buddha would bomb Syria. He pretty much stayed away from those questions -- but he suggested that you look at your intentions, motivations, and the possible consequences and act with clarity.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Lovingkindness is good for you

Loving-kindness meditation, or metta, is a way of re-orienting our minds, of turning toward what is good, positive, and affirming, and away from defensiveness, pessimism, and criticism.

2,500 years ago, the Buddha laid out 11 benefits of lovingkindness meditation (including: you'll sleep better, you'll wake better, children and animals will love you ...) Scientific research has confirmed a number of benefits from loving-kindness meditation, nicely summed up in this post from the Kripalu blog. In even fewer words, research has found that loving kindness:
-- reduces the stress response, including inflammation;
-- rewires the brain to increase empathy and compassion ... and a feeling of social connectedness.
-- helps build personal resources for a more fulfilled life.

In traditional lovingkindess, or metta, meditation, the meditator offers to several different people the wish that they be happy, healthy, safe, and live with ease. The people include one's self, a mentor, a loved one, a neutral -- or unnoticed -- person, a difficult person, a group, and all beings.

It's easy to extend good wishes to mentors and loved ones. Science proves this too: Researchers at University of Virginia have found that humans are hardwired to empathize with those close to them at a neural level, Psychology Today reports.

According to researchers, the human brain puts strangers in one bin and the people we know in another compartment. People in your social network literally become entwined with your sense of self at a neural level. "With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves," said James Coan, a psychology professor in University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences who used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain (fMRI) scans to find that people closely correlate people to whom they are attached to themselves.

The researchers found that regions of the brain responsible for threat response are activated by the threat of shock to the self and the threat to a friend, Psychology Today explains. However, when the threat of shock was to a stranger, these brain areas showed minimal activity. When the threat of shock was to a friend, the brain activity of the participant was basically identical to the activity displayed under threat to the self.

The study gives a clue as to what happens when relationships with loved ones aren't loving and kind. "One of the most fascinating aspects of this study is the insight that someone being non-empathetic to a loved one is a reflection of lacking self-love. The realization that self-hate is neurobiologically at the root of a loved one being cruel makes it easy to feel sorry for them and empathize, instead of perpetuating a cycle of anger and disconnection," writer Chrisopher Bergland says.

He suggests responding to such behavior by bolstering self-love and "remaining empathetic towards loved ones who are hateful by recognizing that mean-spirtedness is a manifestation of self-hate."

Lovingkindness meditation is the tool we can use for both of those. It's a way to build a loving and kind relationship with ourselves, which enables us to have loving and kind relationships to others. It's also a way to see that the person is separate from the behavior -- the annoying person is, in essence, a person whose behavior bothers you.