Friday, February 28, 2014

Swiffering your psyche

In the Tibetan calendar, Sunday is Losar, the start of a new year (the year of the wood horse). Losar's eve -- today -- is celebrated not with confetti and crystal balls but with cleaning, wiping away the outward schmutz of the old year.

A Losar shrine
According to, a Tibetan culture website:

Losar-related rituals are actually divided into two quite distinct parts. First, we close out the old year and bid goodbye to all its bad aspects and negativities, with activities that center on the eve of the last night of the year, the 29th day – Nyi Shu Gu – of the Tibetan calendar.

Only after that do we turn our attention to welcoming the Losar –  the “new year”  – and inviting all good, auspicious things into our homes and our lives.
For Tibetan Buddhists, the cleaning extends to the psychic and energetic aspects of existence, as well as the altars and kitchens. The 10 days that precede today (the eve being a neutral day) are said to be a time of heightened experiences of what might be considered bad luck: lost keys, smashed fingers, petty arguments.

Shambhala teacher Lodro Dorje writes:

Outwardly, this negativity manifests as discord, opposition, desires, accidents. Inwardly, it manifests as emotional fixations, sickness and unbalanced inner energy in the psycho-physical body. Secretly, it manifests as fixed beliefs concerning ourselves, and the reality of subtle and spiritual aspects of existence. For instance, we might think that the psychic and spiritual forces of life are solidly and definitely external from our own awareness. Or we might think that such dimensions positively don't exist and don't function at all. Both extremes create trouble for us.
Thinking that they do exist is a problem and thinking that they don't exist is a problem? Now, that is a problem. Or maybe the thinking is the problem.

You know how to clean the house. How do you spring clean your mind?

The traditional remedy is to increase practices to please the dharma protectors or dharmapalas.

But maybe you think that's the equivalent of leaving sugar water out for the faeries. Or socks for the house elf. You just want a nice Swiffer for the psyche.

Lodro Dorje offers four thoughts:

1) Keep your conduct straightforward and kind.

2) Be open to the fundamental nature of awareness, which is the same in you as in the enlightened beings.

3) Maintain your meditation practice so that you can "tame, ride, and transmute" your personal energies.

4) Pay attention properly to the details of life.

And watch your consumption of rice beer.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Real Happiness: How to answer the phone

One day I got home from work and found the electricity was off. I reported it to the power company, which gave me an estimate of 90 minutes or so, but when I called back at that time to check, it wasn't even listed as an outage.

I spoke to a representative, who informed that one of the two circuits in my house was working so I had half power, which was not considered an outage and also was not considered a priority. There was no estimate on restoration.

The thing was, the circuit that wasn't working powered everything important -- stove, refrigerator, heat, sump pump. I could sit in my family room and watch TV, but that was about it. What I wanted to do was get warm and cook food. That was impossible.

I did not take it well that my functional outage didn't qualify as an official outage. I expressed that clearly. I suppose you could call it outage outrage. My call was transferred. And my steaming righteousness was met by the kindest customer service representative I've ever encountered. Grace had a musical voice and a soft, pleasant attitude. She empathized. "It's awful, isn't it?" She made typing sounds. She promised to look into it and call me back. I didn't believe her, but my anger was disarmed. My concern was heard and acknowledged.

Remarkably, she did call back, still full of good will and good nature. And she had an estimate. And the power came back on.

My outrage, I saw, was more about having my concerns dismissed than about the lack of electricity. I knew it wasn't urgent and that it might take time, but I wanted the electric company to acknowledge that it was real.

I thought about this while reading the chapter on communication in Sharon Salzberg's "Real Happiness at Work." She writes: How we communicate has everything to do with maintaining well-being and harmony at work.

She suggests using the Buddha's criteria for right speech: Is it true? Is useful at this moment? Can it be said in a kind way?

I work at a newspaper, and part of my job is taking calls from the public -- everything from tips on  political corruption or decisions made in secret to questions about a notice of a church supper. At times, it is inconvenient to answer the phone, but you almost always do it because you don't know what information might be offered.

I used to be impatient with people who called about notices for community events. I have bigger fish to fry than your shrimp dinner, I thought.

But then I realized that the people who called me were just as invested in their issue as I was in getting my power back. For a volunteer-run nonprofit, getting a notice in the community newspaper can be the difference between a successful fundraiser and one that doesn't cover costs. People who don't know how accessible we are might be intimidated by making that call. And communicating that I felt they were unimportant was not skillful.

Grace taught me that.

So now, when my phone rings, I take a breath before I answer. I remember that the call is important to the person making it, even if they are from a public relations firm. And I do my best to sound welcoming.

I may not be able to do what you want, but I don't need to try to make you feel worse about that.

Sharon offers three rules for mindful communication: "I" language, body awareness, and listening. All of these help us to be present in the conversation rather than projecting motivations or meanings onto it.

To quote Bill Murray, "I’d like to be just more here all the time, to see what I could do if if I were able to not get distracted and not change channels in my mind and body . . . to be my own channel, really here, and always with you. Like you could look at me and go, 'Okay he’s there, there’s someone there.'" 

Because if you're here, then I can be here. And then we can get something done.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Real Happiness: DIY Love

I'm intrigued by the idea of self-compassion. It feels foreign and exotic to me, like something people do in some remote land just discovered by intrepid explorers. Shangri-la, maybe -- tucked up in the mountains, far away from contemporary life.

Clearly, it's not a concept I learned growing up, when I was taught that God helps those who help themselves. God doesn't help those who ask others for help. Do It Yourself and do it right.

I was profoundly moved when I first encountered metta meditation. Making the aspiration that I would be happy, safe, healthy, and know ease -- the same as other people -- boggled my mind. Over time and repetitions, it opened my heart. I could see that, just like me, people I loved and those who annoyed me wanted to be happy, that those irritating things they did were not aimed at annoying me but at finding some sprig of happiness. I stopped insisting that people react the way I thought appropriate and focused on how to work with the situation.

But self-compassion remains theoretical quite often. A few months ago -- seven years after I started meditating -- I was still asking, How do I meet pain with compassion? What does that mean? What does that look like? How do I do this thing?

So I was delighted that Sharon addressed this in the chapter on compassion. This is really helpful.

Self-compassion has three components, she writes: Mindfulness, a sense of common humanity, and kindness.

This involves bringing awareness to painful emotions that "arise due to our self-judgment or difficult circumstances;" understanding that we are human and therefore imperfect, and being "warm and understanding when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism."

I've actually been working with taking better care of myself at work. Like many people, I work at a place that is under-staffed and always busy. My inclination is to take on things that need to get done because, well, they need to get done. So I've ended up with a disproportionate share of the tasks, and I work without breaks trying to get it all done. But I noticed a while back that I was starting to resent people who are good friends (a painful emotion), and I noticed that, and I decided that something had to change.

I began making it a priority to get away from my desk, at least during lunch time. Ideally, I get outside and go for a walk, which has the added benefit of cleaner air and sunlight. If the weather's bad, though -- and it has been -- at least I move away from my computer screen. That's being kind to myself.

Which leaves being human and making mistakes.

Working in a business (a newspaper) where mistakes are shared with thousands of readers and where perfection is expected, I can get into a mindstate where perfection seems like a realistic goal. It's not, though. Humans mess up, even when they do things with good intentions. I've been willing to extend that to others -- not taking personally things said by someone who's obviously under stress, for example -- but not seeing that in myself.

I lead a meditation class once a week, and I generally tell students to consider the time they spend meditating as time spent getting to know a friend. You wouldn't think twice about sitting down with someone for 30 minutes and listening to what's in their heart, but you think you don't have 30 minutes to meditate. Think of it as time you spend letting the mindbuzz dissipate and getting to know yourself, as a friend, with kind, compassionate attention.

If a friend makes a mistake, I try to help her find perspective about it's importance and to decide what to do now, not castigate her for making it. If I am being a friend to myself, I need to turn that attitude inward.

Know what you're feeling, accept that you're human, and be kind. Do-it-to-yourself love.