Saturday, August 23, 2014

I can't make you happy

The happiness or suffering of others is the result of their actions and not my wishes for them.

This was my mantra, and it was an important part of my path.  I grew up believing that my role was to make people happy, and my value was tied to whether I was successful at that. So Buddhism was a revelation in that it proposed that I have my own intrinsic value and that everyone is responsible for their own happiness.  I can't make you happy -- you have to make that choice. I can try to act ethically, with kindness and compassion, but I can't control whether that makes you happy.

So why metta, why wish for another's happiness, safety, health, and ease?

It's about training your mind, opening up to the common experience of sentient beings, loosening your grip on the solid people you project the wishes onto, letting go of your own definitions of what that means.

Metta is about letting go.

May you be happy -- however that manifests for you. You don't have to meet my definition of happiness. YOU DON'T HAVE TO SMILE. I wish that you have happiness that's not tied to a new iPhone or a text from your crush, that you find a deeper source of contentment that lasts, that you see that happiness is not tied to external circumstances. May you find that, in your time and your way, which may not be mine.

May you be safe -- I have adult children; I learned a long time ago that I can't control whether someone else is safe. With kids, ultimately, all you can do is hope that you've passed on enough information so that they avoid those dangers that are avoidable. Then trust. May you avoid the risks you can and not be so frightened of the ones you can't that you get paralyzed.

May you be healthy -- and may you have ease with whatever level of health you have. (See safety.)

May you live with ease -- I hope that you can find a way to accept what you cannot change and to change the things that you can. And the courageous wisdom to figure out which is which.

I can't make you happy or keep you safe or give you health or put you at ease. But I hope that you find it. May I create the conditions that will enable you to uncover that in yourself.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Kindness in the news

We crave stories of kindness. How else can you explain why a photo of a grocery store worker tying an elderly man's shoelace goes viral?

There are scary things happening all around the world today, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Iran and Syria and, seemingly, everywhere.

But there are also good things happening. Often those things are small actions performed by an individual -- like the grocery clerk -- while the scary things are big, like thousands of people trapped on a mountain or an angry crowd facing police cloaked in padded gear.

If you look only at the big things, it's easy to be overwhelmed by anger and despair.

If you look only at the small things, you can become a delusional Pollyanna, radically accepting the status quo when wisdom sees that the situation needs to change.

To me, Buddhist teachings often come back to balance -- finding the pivot point that holds the awareness that people and the situations they create are both kind and mean, avoiding the traps of despair and elation, seeing the good and how to mobilize it to work with the bad.

Anger is a contagion. It spreads in a flash. When met with anger, it roils and builds.

When met with kindness, it dissipates. The situation in Ferguson changed dramatically when the militarized police were taken out of the equation. Hugs replaced hate when highway patrol officers with visible faces and no body armor took over from the padded, helmeted local police.

Of course, the situation is more complicated than that in Ferguson and there are many things to be looked at and addressed. It's impossible to do that in the confusion of anger, which locks everyone into their own view.

Robin Williams' death also stirred up lots of emotions this week, not just grief but anger and hurt over the comments around suicide, addiction, and depression. And it brought stories of his great kindness behind the scenes, like this tribute from Norm Macdonald.

Kindness is all around. When you practice metta, you train your mind to notice it. And you train yourself to respond kindly. Practice in meditation is all about training your reflexes to respond in the post-meditation world.

Kindness is contagious. Here is a story, a true poem, by Naomi Shahib Nye, of what kindness can do. It's describes what happens at an airport gate during a flight delay when passengers and crew became a community rather than adversaries:

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This 
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that 
gate--once the crying of confusion stopped--seemed apprehensive about 
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other
women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Release your heart

Today is a full moon. I could tell even before I checked the calendar, based on the phone calls that came in to the newspaper where I work. That's not unusual -- the callers range from those with tomatoes that resemble Richard Nixon to ones who tell you they're wearing tinfoil on their heads while they talk on the phone about conspiracies.

Friday's calls had a different quality than the usual lunacy, though. The callers wanted to tell me about kindnesses they'd experienced. And they simply wanted to share their gratitude and joy -- they didn't even launch into the usual rant about how we only report bad news and how about writing something good for a change.

One was a big deal: A woman was lying on a downtown sidewalk in May, and another woman stopped to check on her, then called 9-1-1, saving her life. The woman didn't remember any details but wanted to thank her unknown helper. She couldn't write a letter to the editor because, she said, she had a stroke and "all I can do is talk."

Another caller praised a newspaper customer service worker, who had driven to her disabled brother's home to hand him a newspaper after a delivery snafu. Getting the newspaper is the highlight of his day, she said (giving me a highlight for my day), and getting a special delivery gave him great joy.

The calls reminded me of the importance of developing an attitude of kindness, seeing the small ways that the world supports us rather than focusing on the insults.

The magic of metta practice is not that it makes us more loving toward the person we love or tolerant of the annoying person. It is that it turns our mind. We begin to see everything with the wide eyes of compassion rather than the narrowed eyes of judgment.

The Buddha identified 11 benefits of lovingkindness (speaking to monks, so Buddha says "he"):

1. "He sleeps in comfort. 2. He awakes in comfort. 3. He sees no evil dreams. 4. He is dear to human beings. 5. He is dear to non-human beings. 6. Devas (gods) protect him. 7. Fire, poison, and sword cannot touch him. 8. His mind can concentrate quickly. 9. His countenance is serene. 10. He dies without being confused in mind. 11. If he fails to attain arahantship (the highest sanctity) here and now, he will be reborn in the brahma-world.
These advantages "are to be expected from the release of heart." What a beautiful phrase. If you released your heart from its constrictions, from its limits, from its cages, where would it go?

What if you looked for the kindness in the world instead of the meanness? What if you realized the ground-floor gratitude of being able to take in breath? How would that change your life?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Last month at a group meditation retreat, in silence, among people who aren't familiar with me, I was known to some as the woman with coffee -- coffee was something of a contraband thing, not prohibited but not provided. I brought my own. To others, who shared my assigned daily work of cleaning the community center, I was the one who obsessively went over the checklist each day to make sure everything got done. I was a meditator, a student, a roommate.

Without the usual social cues of speech and context, identity gets stripped down to behavior and appearance. Name and history and stories don't mean much when you aren't having conversations. And that's part of what happens when you sit in silence -- you get glimpses that identity is mutable, relational, contextual, rather than something solid that you own. The stories that we think define us carve habitual patterns that can be hard to break out of, but our minds are the only things forcing us into those ruts.

"If you're determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so. The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available." —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche 

In any given day, each of us has many identities -- spouse, pet owner, parent, householder, employee, customer, etc. -- even though we're only one person. We can't be all things to everyone but we can be many things to many people.

Seeing the multiplicity of identities and the lack of solidity in each one allows us to wear our identities loosely, leaving room for things to move in a different way. A boss doesn't always have to be authoritative; sometimes listening to others' ideas is appropriate. A parent doesn't always have to know the answer -- knowing how to look something up or being willing to try something we're not expert at can be a good lesson too.

"Misfortunes and obstacles to practice do not exist intrinsically. For something to be a misfortune for me, I must identify it as such," Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace says. If we refuse to identify something as an obstacle but see it instead as an opportunity or a challenge, we approach it differently. "We can then rebound from these calamities with courage and understanding, instead of wilting under their pressure," Wallace adds.

The Buddha said that there is no solid, permanent self or identity -- all we have are our actions, our karma. And we can always choose to act differently.  We can't chose our race or whether we have a disability that affects how we move or other visible characteristics, but we can choose how we relate to that identity, just as others choose how they relate to that in us. Do we define ourselves by what others see in us or do we focus on showing them something that's hidden? Do we chose to spend time with others who share an aspect of our identity or to vote in a bloc -- identity politics -- or do we cast a wider net?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Beginner's heart, loving heart

In his classic book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind,  Suzuki Roshi succinctly pointed to our original nature as our true nature -- unfabricated, unfiltered, disentangled from preconceptions that color our view.

"In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few," the book begins.

What if we extended that to our hearts -- if we cultivated beginner's heart? What would that be like?

If you could go back to the the firsts in your life -- the first time you drew a breath or recognized a caregiver's face, held hands, received a kindness, received a heartfelt thank you -- how would that feel? What would it be like to experience affection without all of the concepts and questions we layer onto it: What does this person really want from met? Is this The One? Will it last? Will they expect something in return?

What if we could simply see the world with an open heart, without anticipating arrows headed toward it?

I saw the phrase "beginner's heart" this week, and it stuck with me as I was thinking about the Interdependence Project's month of metta meditation in August. Metta is a practice of cultivating beginner's heart, of recognizing that underneath the labels we stick on ourselves and others is a common, untrained, open, and accepting space.

We all start out with open loving hearts, but as we gain experience we build walls. Noah Levine describes as building a papier mache shell layer by layer; each disappointment or heartache adds a piece of paper, maybe tissue paper, maybe corrugated cardboard, until the heart is well-protected. Nothing gets in or goes out. But the heart is constricted; it can't expand beyond the space the shell allows.

Beginner's heart, though, is as big as the sky.

When I do metta practice, I try to remember that each person -- the neutral one, the loved one, the irritating one -- has this heart inside them, covered over by their own layers of hurt and fear. And if I can touch my own beginner's heart and let go of whatever concepts I have about them that land them in those categories, I can reach out for that. And when my heart feels that shared space, there is an openness where love flows.

If all else fails, I think, "Well, their mother loves them." And knowing how I feel about my kids, it's possible to see them with the eye of lovingkindness rather than judgment.

In Buddhism, the heart and the mind are seen as one thing, the heart-mind, not the two distinct aspects of ourselves that Westerners generally see. We think the heart wants what it wants, and the mind knows what's good for it. The heart handles emotion, the mind does analysis. We can use that for this contemplation.

What if you could let down the defenses around your heart? Maybe for a 15-minute metta practice? Would that change the world? Or just your view of it?