Archive for August, 2012

Sure I’m Grateful, But…

Sure I’m Grateful, But…

by Susan Downing

What are you grateful for? Think about it: are you grateful to have someone or something, maybe a circumstance or event, in your life?   Really, take a moment right now to consider this.  And when you’ve come up with at least one instance in your life where you feel gratitude, then keep reading.

Seriously.  Don’t read on until you’ve tried this!

Now let me ask you this.  When you were reflecting on this question and thought to yourself, for example, “I’m grateful that I have a job,” did you feel only your sense of gratitude, or did you feel something creep in afterwards, a “but”, as in, “I’m grateful that I have a job, but the commute is long”?  Or, “I am grateful to be able to spend time with my family, but I wish I could see them more often.”

If you sit down and make a list of things or people you’re grateful for, don’t be surprised if a “but” comes up more often than not.  I went through this process recently and was horrified at how many “buts” popped up. If I had a scale and piled up all my “gratefuls” on one side and the “buts” on the other, the “gratefuls” would tip the scales, but the “buts” are still there.  And the insidious thing about the “buts” is that they have the last word.  I’m grateful for the nice weather, but soon it will be freezing.  I love the fresh farm tomatoes, but I get really hot in the sun when I’m picking them.  And on and on.

Here’s the problem with this pattern.  When we’re focusing on how grateful we are for someone or something, we’re feeling really happy and satisfied and contented.  But when the “buts” push their way in, suddenly we shift to feeling unhappy and dissatisfied and discontented.  And since the “buts” have the last word, they tend to dominate our thinking, and the dissatisfaction they drag in with them drags us down.   All this in spite of the fact that we truly are grateful for many things in our lives,

Fortunately, we can learn to shift this pattern.  Allowing the “buts” to have the last word is no more than a habit we’ve developed, so with practice we can change that habit.  Our task is to learn how to give the “gratefuls” the last word so that happiness and contentedness become our habitual state of mind.  And then to practice that consistently.  This practice is simple, and although it’s not necessarily easy, you’ll experience the benefits both immediately, in the form of greater happiness and contentedness, and long term, as the “buts” begin to fade.

So, here’s how to do it:

1)   To start with, pick a time each day when you’ll spend a few minutes doing this practice.  It can be any time you will have a few minutes to yourself to sit quietly without being interrupted. Turn off the TV, the music, your cell phone…

2)   Close your eyes, take several deep breaths in and out and allow your body to relax, especially your shoulders.  It’s okay to slump back in your chair or lie down.

3)   Silently ask yourself, “Who or what am I grateful for?”  Don’t concentrate on trying to figure something out. Just ask yourself and see what answer comes to you.

4)   When an object of gratitude comes to mind, reflect on it.  Think about why you feel grateful or happy thanks to this person or thing or circumstance.

5)   If you begin to feel happy, or begin to smile or feel a warm sensation in your heart, then just rest in that happiness and allow yourself to continue reflecting on what about this person or situation leaves you feeling grateful and happy. Stay focused on it for another minute or two, then end your practice period.  That’s it.  That’s the basic practice.

Now, if a “but” creeps in at any point during your reflection, the first thing to do is to note that it is there.  It’s not always easy to recognize a “but”.  You may not even notice it right away.  You may notice it only when you find yourself thinking a whole string of negative thoughts about the person you identified as an object of gratitude!  You might sense a “but” or even a “No!”.  Or the “but” might take a physical form. Maybe you’ll feel discomfort in the pit of your stomach, or a pang in your heart, or sadness, or anger, or your breathing will quicken, or your muscles will tighten, or you many begin to feel antsy, as if you just can’t sit still.  All of these counts as “buts”. All of them show that you are resisting your grateful feelings on some level.

When you realize that a “but” has crept in, your task is to shift your attention immediately away from it.  This does not mean that you think, “You stupid ‘but’!  Get out of here!  How could I be thinking this way about this wonderful person?” and so on.  No.  That’s the equivalent of inviting the “but” in for tea and a chat.  No.  Just calmly but firmly turn your attention away from the “but” and back to the “grateful.”  Here are two ways to do this:

1)  The first way to redirect your mind is to remind yourself that you are grateful for your object of gratitude and reflect again on the reasons for your gratitude. Instead of being carried away by the arguments that the “but” presents, you focus your attention on these reasons for gratitude.

You may find that the “but” doesn’t go quietly, but instead keeps butting back in.  Don’t worry. That’s natural.  You’ve built up this habit of thought over many years, so the “buts” won’t give up in three minutes.  Keep at it and don’t be discouraged.

But what if that doesn’t work?  What if, despite your best efforts, you consistently find you’re unable to end your practice session on a grateful, happy, contented note?  If that’s the case, the second way to move your mind away from the “but” is to use a mantra or prayer:

2)  Begin your practice as above, by calling to mind an object of gratitude.  When a “but” comes in, and you’re unable to shift your mind away from it, recite a mantra or prayer for a short while (30 seconds or a minute or two) and then try again to shift your mind.  Repeat this as needed until you’re able to focus on the object of gratitude once again.

The key here is to distract your mind from thinking about the “but” so that you can feel grateful and happy and content again and end on that note.

Once you are able to stay focused on your object of gratitude for several minutes or more, by which time you will probably be experiencing some warm, happy feelings.  End your practice period while you are still feeling this way.

But what if you find you can’t end on a happy note, even if you’re using a prayer or mantra to help?  Then shift to an object of gratitude that doesn’t bring up a “but”. When you do this practice, you’ll find that different objects come with stronger or weaker or no “buts”.  And although practicing on the ones with the strongest “buts” will really benefit you down the line (and I’ll write about that in my next post,) when you’re starting out, it is a wonderful idea to focus on those that are “but-free”.

You’ll know when you find one of these, because you’ll be able to just sit there and feel really happy and content.  And that is the point of this practice – to allow feelings of happiness and contentedness to bubble up by focusing on feeling grateful!  So, don’t ever chide yourself for having a hard time finding an easy object of gratitude.  Just do the exercise until you find one. Be grateful that you’ve done so, and stay with it.  Enjoy it!

Do this practice at least once a day, and even more if you feel like it.  You can do it anywhere, any time.

By engaging in this practice, we gradually create a new habit of mind. As we get better and better at letting the “gratefuls” have the last word, we find that although the “buts” still show up, we find it easier to redirect our attention to the “gratefuls” and to keep our focus on them.  Over time, we notice that the “buts” begin not to shout quite as much.  Then, we notice that they still come around, but leave without a fight.  Then, finally, they seem to lose interest in showing up at all, because we’re too busy being happy to pay them any mind. In other words, thanks to this practice, we move from “Sure I’m grateful, but…” to “I’m grateful,” to “I sure am grateful!”




by Jeffrey Brooks

The young fisherman stood on the deck of the boat and watched his home island recede into the ocean, sink down over the horizon, and vanish.

The wind moved their boat fast across the open water. Soon the time would come to cast their net over rail and into the sea. Down below the fish were swimming. All the men aboard the boat had seen the fish swimming together and eating each other as they swam in the coral at the edge of their islands.

Some fish gave up their lives so the other fish could live.

The fish these men would catch today would give their lives so the people at home could live. His father and grandfather and generations of fishermen since the beginning of time had risked their lives and sacrificed their lives so the people on the islands could live.

They couldn’t grow rice or potatoes in the sandy islands in this part of the sea. They couldn’t graze flocks of sheep or goats like they could in other places. Everyone at home depended on the catch these fishermen would bring back.

Sometimes storms would come. Sometimes the fish wouldn’t be there. You never knew, when you ventured out, what you would encounter.

Sometimes pirates would sail up and try to take the crew to sell as slaves, and take the fish for their own food, and take the boat to use for themselves. They would come on board with blades and hooks and you would have to be ready to kill them. The fishermen had blades and poles and hooks on board too, for fishing. They could be used against the thieves. But you had to know how to do it. You had to practice. Your life depended on it. The lives of all the people you have ever known depended on your safe return with a hold full of fish for them. And your loved ones would be unhappy if you disappeared at sea.

If the pirates did not come, if the typhoons didn’t blow, if the fish were running where they should be, then all would be well.

The young fisherman sat on the deck running the net through his hands. He looked for tears. The net had to be repaired every time they used it. And then cleaned and hung to dry at night. A little tear could become a big tear and the catch could be lost. A net left wet and dirty on the deck at night would be eaten by rats. If the net was sound then the weights and floats could be set just right to hold the net in position as it flew through the air and drew through the water.

The net was woven from cords made by hand from plants that grew on the island. The fibers were pulled from the stems of these plants. The fibers were twisted together to form strings. The strings were wound to form cords. The cords were braided to form ropes. The ropes were tied in intricate patterns of special knots at regular intervals to form the nets.

The young fisherman on the deck found a tear in the net. He pulled the frayed ends together and cut them clean. He spliced new cords to it.  Using his spike and needle he pulled the ends and wove the net quickly, evenly, with no billows or puckers or breaks. Just like he learned to do, on the beach back home, when he was a boy, when the old fisherman back from weeks on the water, unloaded the frayed nets on the beach for repairs at the end of the season.

When his father showed him exactly how to do it.

When his father told him “Do it well at first. You’ll do it fast soon enough.”

Now he did it fast. And soon enough it was done.

Together the crew wet down the net to soften the ropes, and spread it out on the deck. Together they lifted it up above the rail and one by one in rapid succession threw the net onto the pulsing sea, drops of water flying off each knot as the net flew through the air, in each drop a glimpse of the sunlight, and the boat, a small piece of the sea, in the air, flying up and then down, returning to the sea, mirrors of the weathered faces of these men, their ship, and the sky falling into the water with the net, and vanishing, only the six long lines leading from the boat to the surface of the opaque water hinting at what was below, where the net might be, and the droplets, like the moment, gone for good.

Each moment in our lives reflects all the connections we have to other people. If those connections are torn we can repair them. If there is a great tear then we can take time and work hard to fix the whole thing. If we ignore the small tears they become big tears. If we neglect this work then our whole connection to the rest of the world will be consumed.

Now there are many people tearing at our relationships with the people around us: indicting races, consigning nations to hell, substituting things for families.

If, in the olden days, the fishing nets were lost at sea, then the islanders were lost too. Now when our neighbors, our friends or our family members do not please us, we cannot afford to turn our backs on them.

Our only choice is to understand them, restrain them from evil as skillfully and vigorously as necessary, persuade them when we can, loving them when possible, and little by little, with courage and kindness, repairing the torn net we haul in at the end of each day.


From Daycare to Afghanistan

From Day Care to Afghanistan

by Susan Downing

My son Michael started day care when he was not quite a year old, and he spent every day of his first year in the company of either one or both parents, with a few hours here and there being tended by his grandmother, my mother.  At first, I didn’t feel totally comfortable leaving him with her.  Like all new mothers, I feared that my own mother, despite having far more child-raising experience than I, might not really be competent to care for my precious infant.  And so, when I was away from Michael, or Mikey as we called him then, and still occasionally do, I would always feel a little tug of anxiety.  As soon as I got home, I’d ask my mom for every possible detail of how the two of them had spent their hours together.  I didn’t want to miss anything. But gradually, after leaving the baby with her a number of times, I stopped worrying that something would go wrong in my absence and settled into a calmer frame of mind.

When Mikey started going to day care for a few hours a day, I didn’t cry at the door when we’d say goodbye the way he sometimes did, but in the course of the day, I would find myself wondering how he was doing: how long he’d cried after I’d left, whether he’d eaten enough, whether he’d napped, and so on.  And it didn’t matter that the woman who took care of the infants was the most wonderful care-giver you could ask for.  I would still sometimes worry.  After all, one hears horror stories about day care providers…  But before long, both of us grew accustomed to this new stage of life.  It got to the point where Mikey would barely wave goodbye, because he would rush off to play with his new friends as soon as we got to day care in the morning.  And I was also no longer plagued with worries about him.  We’d adjusted.

Almost 24 years have passed since those first day care days that were marked with tears and anxieties, and in these years, Mikey has moved through all the stages that come with growing up: from day care he went to kindergarten, from there to a new school in first grade, then a new class and new teachers and new friends each year, all the way up through high school.  Each new school year came with its own anxieties. Would the teacher be good? Why did they separate him from his closest friend this year?  How hard would AP English end up being?  Which colleges should he apply to, and where would he get accepted?

The day Mike’s dad took him out to Chicago to get him settled into his college dorm room was a tough one for me.  It was a little bit like leaving him with my mom for two hours, or dropping him off at day care for four hours or school for 6 hours, but it felt like a much bigger transition.  He’d be living far away, I wouldn’t see him every day, and I had absolutely no idea who all these people were he’d be living and studying with.  If something went wrong, getting there would be a lot more complicated and take a lot longer than driving down the block to the day care center.

But after the initial period of adjustment, once again, I settled into the new state of things. I think it was because by that time, I’d had 18 years of practice at making these transitions.  It wasn’t that I’d become casual about them or that I didn’t care what happened.  Not at all. It’s just that over time, with practice, I’d gradually and improved my ability to remain calm in the face of longer and more intense forms of separation.   I started out being able to tolerate that separation calmly for only a couple hours at a time before missing him or becoming a little worried.  Then I grew able to see him off peacefully for the morning, then for the whole day, then overnight, and finally, for the entire college term.

I was lucky that he moved from stage to stage rather slowly, because that gave me time to settle in after each transition, and find my equilibrium, instead of feeling constantly caught off guard.  If, say, he’d started day care one week and then I’d had to go away on a month-long business trip the next, I’m sure I would have been a mess, one giant bundle of maternal nerves and sadness.  But that isn’t the way it happened.

Certainly, one reason I was able to remain calm in the face of each of these transitions was my growing confidence in Mike’s ability to take good care of himself.  By the time he went off to Rome for the fall of his junior year in college, I trusted his good sense and intelligence enough that I was spared sleepless nights worrying about how he’d survive on the other side of the world.

But the other reason for my equanimity was that I’d had all those years of practice, repeatedly seeing him off and having enough confidence in his safety that I had been able to develop the habit of not worrying excessively.  Or obsessively.  I learned to redirect my mind, from worry to more positive thoughts.  It wasn’t that there was never anything to worry about, objectively. There was always something I could have freaked out about, had I chosen to: he lived in Hyde Park in Chicago, for heaven’s sake, and Rome is full of crime, and planes sometimes crash, don’t they, and what if he’s riding with someone who’s been drinking… There is never not a list of things that can go wrong.

That was certainly the case last year, when Mike was going through the Marines’ Officer Candidate School – followed by The Basic School and the Infantry Officer Course. All of last year, he was under more pressure than ever before in his life, in more danger.

And that’s precisely why I am so grateful that over the years I’d been able to develop that habit of not freaking out. Although we had less contact with Mike last year than ever before, because he was often unable to call home for weeks at a time, I got used to that, too.  The slight worry I felt at the beginning of the new stage settled down and I was once again able to approach the situation with calm.

I say habit, and I talk about developing that habit, because being able to respond with calm in the face of uncertainty is not something that comes naturally to us. It takes consistent practice and effort to develop such a habit.  When the Buddha sat down beneath the Bodhi tree, vowing not to get up until he was free of suffering and misunderstanding (see Jeff’s post from last week,) he was able to respond with calm and equanimity to everything he experienced that night because of his years of practice.  He hadn’t gone straight from the palace life to the Bodhi tree.  After leaving the sheltered life of the palace, he spent years training his mind and developing his insight into the world around him.  And that practice and insight enabled him to face the destroyer of worlds with equanimity.

Now, at first glance, seeing my son off – first to day care and then to each subsequent step on his path – may seem to have little in common with the path the Buddha followed.  But in fact, it is only a difference of degree of intensity.  The Buddha succeeded in part because he had developed the ability to hold his mind perfectly steady and calm in the face of distracting and destabilizing circumstances.  And although my level of equanimity can’t yet compare with the Buddha’s, I feel I am following in his footsteps: I engage in a practice that enables me to develop a steadily growing ability to meet the challenges I encounter in life without totally losing my bearings.

I described the transitions I’ve gone through with my son precisely because they are very every day transitions, familiar to all of us. And the calm it takes to make it through them without falling apart comes with continued, conscious practice.  Each time a new, more intense challenge comes our way, we have the chance to gauge how well we’re doing beneath the Bodhi tree of our everyday life.  But more important, we have the chance to make good use of each new challenge and strengthen our habit of responding with calm and equanimity.

Along with my whole family, I’ll soon have the opportunity to strengthen my calm and equanimity even more, because this fall Mike’s battalion will be deploying to Afghanistan for six months. And while he’s facing destroyers of worlds there, we at home will be facing our own version of them, supporting ourselves and each other by relying on the precious habits we began developing back when the biggest worry we faced seemed to be whether Mikey had gone down for his nap while I was out for the afternoon.


Facing the Destroyer of Worlds

Facing the Destroyer of Worlds

by Jeffrey Brooks

Buddha sat with his legs folded up on a circle of grass, shielded by the branches of a tree. After 17 years or three countless eons of search and preparation he decided not to move from that spot until he was completely free of suffering and misunderstanding.

There he sat. And before the morning star appeared he was confronted by three vicious enemies. These enemies were sent by dark forces to destroy his good, and the blessings he could bring to all beings forever. He knew the stakes when he sat down. He knew the enemies he would face before he faced them. He had faced these same enemies countless times before but never in the ultimate battle, never before in the most extreme form in which he would face them now.

He faced seduction. This might not sound like a big problem. It might sound very good. But to understand the danger of pleasure we only need to look around and see the effect that an addiction to pleasure has on the addict and the way in which people lose their opportunity for complete and lasting happiness by exchanging their lives for things that fade and leave only yearning and pain when they have gone.

He faced war. Vast armies appeared. He was surrounded. They launched spears and razor tipped arrows in his direction. The lure of war is the danger here, not the threat of death in battle. Sometimes people describe the difficulty he faced in this extreme of adversity as a letting go of his attachment to life. But there is also the attraction to battle that tempted him. The excitement of annihilating an enemy is nearly irresistible. All we need to do is look around and see infinite examples of people irresistibly drawn into conflict, seduced by the prospect of smashing their enemy and intoxicated by the results.

In all the great books people are fighting their neighbors. The Old Testament and New, the Koran and the Mahabharata, the chronicles of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, and in everything else ever written, people are setting each other’s teeth on edge and eventually it comes to blows.

We hear in the stories that people suffered injustice and exploitation. They overcame it. They want the generations to come to remember what happened to them and what they did about it. People want the world to know what they did to restore justice to the world. There is nothing wrong with that of course.

In the way the stories are told we can tell that some think they restored things to the state of primordial harmony that existed before their enemies disturbed it. Some speak as if they brought justice into the world for the first time, redeeming the world from perpetual chaos and bringing about a golden age.

But to us, after all this time, after all those stories, and all those wonderful lives expended and terrible lives extinguished, it looks like their victories did not stick. Their great battle was followed by another; another battle between brothers; another war between neighbors; and another and another; each taking precedence in the minds of the people who fought them over the dimming battles of the past, each new story told with fresh urgency, to the generations who followed.

If we feel comfort we might wonder why people keep fighting.

If we feel miserable and humiliated we might wonder why people would tolerate their misery like mice, without fighting back.

The Buddha remained seated, in equanimity. He did not get up. He did not drift away in his imagination. His blazing laser focus did not waver or fade.

This was not because he did not care about winning or losing. He did it because he had a broader perspective than an ordinary combatant or an ordinary lover or an ordinary person has.

It was as if he was sitting on top of the highest mountain in the Himalayas or on top of Mount Meru itself and could see the way in which everything, from his eyes to the horizon, from the highest heaven to the pit of hell, was in touch and connected to everything else.

He could see them move and transform. He could see without distortion that the boundary between life and death, the boundary between blessings and suffering, the boundary between past and present, the boundary between near and far were constructed by the movement of the mind.

That is how the razor tipped arrows turned into a torrent of flower petals. That is how the demons were banished and the search for salvation through physical experience was exposed for what it was in the light of that dawn.

Because his perspective was not limited by the idea that death was the end, or that you are your body, or that personal gain and loss are the measure of a life, he could see infinitely.

He could see how wonderful your family is, your tribe is, your band of brothers is, your race is, your religion is. He could see that building connections to the rest of the beings of universe is even more so. And that the only way that this connection can be made is by training your heart and mind to understand what you share with all these beings, and how they depend for their happiness on you.

He did not recommend tolerating their wrong deeds. He did not overlook the faults or shortcomings of the people he encountered. On the contrary. He saw clearly what was going on and did everything he could do to restrain harm, to protect whoever he could, and to further justice and kindness with skill and courage.

When we hear that “the greatest warrior is the one who conquers himself”: it is this battle, waged perfectly by the Buddha, we are hearing about. It is up to each of us to take on this challenge if we are serious about our cause.

When we say “he who knows himself and who knows his enemy will win every battle” it is precisely this knowledge, the insight achieved perfectly by the Buddha, which we are encouraged to seek. This does not mean to overlook tactical skill or practical battlefield knowledge. It means that may be necessary but it will not be sufficient.

We may never know what an oracle might mean by “Know Thyself.” But we can be sure of the possibility that is open to whoever among us achieves it.