Archive for August, 2009

How others see you

We are often told we shouldn’t be concerned about what others think of us. I think that – like most things – there are two ways of looking at this. If we live our lives on the basis of “what will people say?!” to the detriment of doing what we want to do to be happy, to fulfil our dreams and to be ourselves, I think it is a bad thing – or at least a sad one. However, if other people have a positive image of us, then why would we not think it was a good thing to take some of that on board? The problem is that in my experience we generally tend to believe the negative and not the positive. If a person speaks badly of us and we find out, we are generally hurt because the child inside says that if somebody said that about me then it must be true. If we hear a person talk about us as a really wonderful person, we tend to think they must be deranged, or they don’t really know us, or they must want something from us.

Ideally we try to be and to behave like a person we would like to be part of our lives. If we are strong and have healthy self-esteem we can roll with the punches, knowing that if someone does speak about us, whatever they say they are expressing their opinion, full stop. They may or may not be right in what they point out. If we look inside ourselves, we’ll probably know quite well whether what they said was accurate. There is a problem with taking others’ negative opinions and comments and internalising them, reinforcing them to ourselves and making ourselves feel steadily worse. If we are going to take notice of what other people think of us, it would be good if we made room for the positive opinions and comments we get as well, which we are so much more likely to dismiss.

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I spent years trying to “create my own reality” and feeling slightly frustrated at the fact that all my reality creation didn’t seem to be affecting my reality that much and was actually making me feel worse for the fact that I thought I must be doing something wrong. I’d got my head round the fact that my reality was my world as I saw it and experienced it, but it took a while for it to seep in that whilst I could certainly change my attitude to things that happened to and around me, there were plenty of things that I didn’t seem to have any control over at all.

Eventually I realised that actually what I wanted to be able to do was control events around me so that I could avoid negative feelings. Difficult. Difficult and counter-productive, not to mention a long way removed from reality. So I decided to start over and see whether I could get to a position that was more viable and connected with reality. The preface to Charlotte Joko Beck’s “Nothing Special: Living Zen” helpfully provided the following:

“Living Zen is nothing special: life as it is. Zen is life itself, nothing added. … When we seek … the fulfillment of our fantasies, we separate from the earth and sky, from our loved ones, from our aching backs and hearts, from the very soles of our feet. Such fantasies insulate us for a time; yet in ten thousand ways reality intrudes, and our lives become anxious scurrying, quiet desperation, confusing melodrama. Distracted and obsessed, striving for something special, we seek another place and time: not here, not now, not this…

“Living Zen means reversing our flight from nothingness, opening to the emptiness of here and now. Slowly, painfully, we reconcile to life. The heart sinks; hope dies. “Things are always just as they are”, observes Joko. This empty tautology is no counsel of despair, however, but an invitation to joy. … Abandoning magical thought, awakening to the magic of this moment, we realise in dynamic emptiness the grace of nothing special … living Zen.”

Steve Smith, Claremont, California, February 1993

Starting from the position that things are as they are is actually a better springboard than living in a castle in your head. Nobody is saying you shouldn’t think positive; nor is anyone suggesting you should catastrophise. But whatever you do, start by letting reality in. You’re going to have to let it in sooner or later, so why waste time, effort and feelings staving off the moment? I believe that seeing things as they are is better for you than insisting on believing them to be as you would like them to be. Sometimes reality is too harsh and too difficult to be let in all at once, but the door has to be ajar so that it can come in when you’re ready.

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“A lecturer, when explaining stress control to an audience, raised a glass of water and asked, “how heavy is this glass of water?” Answers ranged from 20g to 500g.

The lecturer replied…

“The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long you try to hold it. If I hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. “In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

He continued…

“And that’s the way it is with stress control. If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won’t be able to carry on.” “As with the glass of water, you have to put it down for a while and rest before holding it again. When we’re refreshed, we can carry on with the burden. So, before you return home tonight, put the burden of work down. Don’t carry it home. You can pick it up tomorrow. Whatever burdens you’re carrying now, let them down for a moment if you can. Relax, pick them up later after you’ve rested. Life is short. Enjoy it!”

And then he shared some ways of dealing with the burdens of life…

  • Accept that some days you’re the pigeon, and some days you’re the statue.
  • Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them.
  • Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.
  • Drive carefully. It’s not only cars that can be recalled by their maker.
  • If you can’t be kind, at least have the decency to be vague.
  • If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.
  • It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.
  • Never buy a car you can’t push.
  • Never put both feet in your mouth at the same time, because then you won’t have a leg to stand on.
  • Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance.
  • Since it’s the early worm that gets eaten by the bird, sleep late.
  • The second mouse gets the cheese.
  • When everything’s coming your way, you’re in the wrong lane.
  • Birthdays are good for you. The more you have, the longer you live.
  • You may be only one person in the world, but you may also be the world to one person.
  • Some mistakes are too much fun to only make once.
  • We could learn a lot from crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty and some are dull. Some have weird names, and all are different colors, but they all have to live in the same box.
  • A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour.”

Source: Progesterone Therapy: http://www.progesteronetherapy.com/stress-control.html – author unknown

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Conventional wisdom about tolerance varies – some people seem to think that we become less tolerant as we get older, perhaps finding fewer reasons to compromise or to dilute our strongly-held views; others think that the longer we are on the planet the more we have the capacity to be more aware, and therefore by definition, more tolerant. There are probably as many examples of one as of the other …

Recently I visited an elderly friend (she is 89 and nearly blind) whom I’ve known for over 30 years. She is a bright and independent lady, erudite and witty, and in the early years of our acquaintance I suppose it was her obvious sense of knowing what she knew to be right and proper that was her trademark. She knew what she knew, and she knew it was right and proper. There were things that could not possibly be right, ever, and they could be as much in the realm of language and grammar as in social behaviour and personal choices. 

My friend used to talk a lot about her family, to anyone who would listen. One negative take on this was that sometimes you had the impression she only asked after others to have a springboard to talk about her own family. I remember the day, years ago, when she mentioned in passing that one of her grandsons had revealed his love for a male partner. I could sense the struggle – her outrage and disbelief, her love for her grandson and the impossible position she found herself in, with a member of her beloved family on the wrong side of her particular set of rules, prohibitions and beliefs about what was right or appropriate. My friend, who had been quick to be judgemental of others, was now having to re-examine some of those judgements at close hand.

How she dealt with the struggle I don’t know. All I know is that on my recent visit she expressed how glad she was that her various family members were well and happy, and fulfilling their potential. When she went through their names, and got to the grandson in question here, she made a point of mentioning, “he’s gay, you know”, and proceeded to talk about him with the affection I would have expected, and about his wonderful partner (who was both male and happened to be of a different colour and culture from her grandson) in the sort of terms that had me smiling inwardly. She’d obviously got through her struggle, and come out with a score that looked to me like: Tolerance 1 Judgementalism 0. I took that as being a sign of hope.

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Buddhism is not a belief system. It’s not about accepting certain tenets or believing a set of claims or principles. … It’s about examining the world clearly and carefully, about testing everything and every idea. Buddhism is about seeing. It’s about knowing rather than believing or hoping or wishing. It’s also about not being afraid to examine anything and everything…

The Buddha himself invited people on all occasions to test him. “Don’t believe me because you see me as your teacher,” he said. “Don’t believe me because others do. And don’t believe anything because you’ve read it in a book, either. Don’t put your faith in reports, or tradition, or hearsay, or the authority of religious leaders or texts. Don’t rely on mere logic, or inference, or appearances, or speculation.”

The Buddha repeatedly emphasised the impossibility of ever arriving at Truth by giving up your own authority and following the lights of others. Such a path will lead only to an opinion, whether your own or someone else’s.

The Buddha encouraged people to “know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong. And when you do, then given them up. And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.”

The message is always to examine and see for yourself. When you see for yourself what is true – and that’s really the only way that you can genuinely know anything – then embrace it. Until then, just suspend judgement and criticism.

The point of Buddhism is to just see. That’s all.

(Extract from “Buddhism plain and simple” by Steve Hagen (Penguin 1997)

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Source: Primate Brow Flash Blog, formerly at http://www.phpsolvent.com/ wordpress/?p=135

83 Problems

I might rename this site to “83 problems”. From the lecture last night at Common Ground Meditation Center, the following Buddhist parable:

An ordinary guy came to see the Buddha to get help with his problems. “My roof leaks, I don’t have enough money, my neighbors are noisy, my boss hates me, my kids are messy and disrespectful, my knee hurts and I’m losing my hair. And don’t even get me started about my wife.” and he went on to describe all his problems in great detail while the buddha smiled and listened patiently.

When the guy was done complaining, he asked the Buddha, “So, how can you help me?”

“I can’t help you”, said the Buddha.

“HUH? What kind of teacher are you?”, said the guy, “why did I come all the way here for you to tell me that? And what the hell are you smiling about?”

The Buddha said, “Everyone has 83 problems. Sometimes we fix one, but it is guaranteed that another will pop up in its place. It’s just life. I can’t help you with your 83 problems, but I can fix your 84th problem.”

“What is my 84th problem?”

“Your 84th problem is that you don’t want to have any problems.”

This is the best answer to the question that everyone asks about the Buddhist principle of unattachment: if you melt down your ego and separate the “you” from all the things around you and start to relax a little bit, then where is the impetus for action to improve the world, shave, vacuum, etc.?

Well, those are examples of the 83 problems, and they are still problems that require our attention. Buddhism helps you with the 84th problem, which is suffering over the other 83 problems. If you can approach your other problems without the computational overhead of suffering over them, you can see them more clearly and act on them with more wisdom.

If I strip the threads on a pipe while fixing a minor plumbing problem, I might decide to punch the pipes REALLY HARD because it totally sucks to strip pipe threads, especially ones that disappear deep into the floor. Life is bitter and painful and stripped pipe threads are not even the half of it, as far as I can tell. Buddhism is not practicing to ignore, avoid, or be happy in spite of problems! The practice of Buddhism is the practice of learning to embrace the problem and not suffer over it. Grief exists, pain exists, and we all will feel them. And we all must accept them and feel the full force of these problems, but to truly suffer over it, we must wish it didn’t exist. To avoid the suffering, we must accept the pain.

It is not as simple as learning that punching stuff is a bad idea. I can figure that out for myself.

I also think it means something more than “always look on the bright side of life”. Practicing aversion towards all problems and only focusing on the positive is not the answer. Finding a way to appreciate the problems as part of your life is the answer, according to the Buddha. Think of the 83 problems as the water that you swim in. Samsara

So in this weblog, I recount the 83 problems, and recognize the 84th problem as an illusion.

The parable is used in an excellent editorial about computers that used to be available at http://www.osxfaq.com/Editorial/sobek/index12.ws 

but no longer seems to be there. Another version is available at http://www.lessons4living.com/wmaz_week204.htm

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Criticism is a difficult area. Most of us can’t resist giving it, at least occasionally – some habitually – and equally most of us find it hard to take. It can be argued that it is sometimes necessary to point things out – for instance, to children – when behaviour needs to be corrected. Educating children in life is not my strongest suit so I am not going to go into that. My theory here is that criticism of adults does not work, or does not usually tend to achieve the desired result, so it is not a particularly worthwhile exercise.

Someone has upset you with their attitude to you, their behaviour, something they’ve said or done or something they’ve failed to say or do. If you tell them that they are selfish, annoying and thoughtless, the only thing that is pretty certain is that they won’t like hearing it. If they don’t like hearing it, they may either ignore what you say or decide to avoid you because they don’t want to hear any more of your criticism. What is doubtful is that they’ll go from being people you consider selfish, annoying and thoughtless to being people who are altruistic, pleasant, caring and thoughtful because you gave them your opinion of their character or behaviour. ‘Constructive criticism’ sounds better, but doesn’t necessarily achieve a much better result either.

I think feedback is a more useful concept than criticism, though even then it needs to be given with care. It will not always get the result you hope for or consider obvious. It is my belief that you can’t change other people. The only area you can change is yourself. So, coming back to the person you feel is selfish, annoying and thoughtless, maybe you need to work out how that makes you feel and consider telling them that. Then you are giving them feedback about their behaviour, you are imparting information as to the effect it has on you. They have a choice as to whether to make any adjustments and if you put your message across in a way that is not actually critical, you might stand a chance of achieving a change in behaviour in the other person, if they care enough. Another option would be to change your attitude so that their behaviour doesn’t have that effect on you any longer. Yet another possibility might be for you to consider whether you want to have them as a significant part of your life at all. I think any of these three courses of action has a better chance of achieving a change in the behaviour or demeanour of another person, and/or of making you feel better in the long run (which may be more to the point), than criticising the person who has upset you in this way.

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This week I got a Gratitude App for my iPod Touch. The idea is that at the end of the day you note five things for which you feel grateful, otherwise known as a “happy journal”.

It felt rather serendipitous that an article should have been published on the subject of “how to be happy in yourself” just a few days after the start of my gratitude journal. I couldn’t have put it any better than Emma Cook did:


with particular reference to the section:

There is one negative assumption that tends to make us more miserable than any other, Williams says; a belief that undoubtedly keeps the self-help industry afloat. “It’s this tendency we all have of wanting things to be different from how they are right now. Ironically, letting go of that quest to be happy can offer a tremendous sense of relief.” (Emma Cook 2009)

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This is about relationships in the wider sense, not just life partners but also friends and family, colleagues, acquaintances, the lot.

No one relationship is going to give you everything you want whenever you want it or need it. That’s not to say you have to have multiples of each kind of relationship you have; it just means you have to accept the relationships you have for what they are and the people with whom you have them for who they are. It means accepting that in the main you can’t change people – in fact, you can hardly ever change them. The only thing you can really change is you and your attitudes and behaviour. It also means accepting that other people in your life are like planets in your galaxy, and you are just one planet in theirs. Sometimes you’ll be the main planet, sometimes you won’t. They will often have other things going on in their lives that don’t necessarily include you. So judge less and accept more when it comes to assessing people and how their words and behaviour affect you.

Don’t keep dysfunctional people or people who are bad for you and make you unhappy in your life, and if you must let them stay, perhaps as distant planets, make sure you don’t give them power to hurt you. If you are going to have people in your life, take them as you find them. Don’t demand more from them than they are capable of giving you. The reason for this is that you’re not going to get more than they can give you, and there is more pain involved in requiring it and not getting it than in not expecting it in the first place. A wise person once talked about the futility of looking for your keys under the lamppost if that wasn’t where you lost them, just because that is where the light is …

So when you need emotional support, understanding, an interested ear, whatever, at a particular time, look to get it from someone in your galaxy who is in a position to be able to provide it at the time you need it. Don’t expect every relationship to be two-way all the time or at the same time. Sometimes you’ll get the support you’re seeking from one person, and won’t be able to give support to them when they need it, but maybe someone else will. Think of it as a variation on Kahlil Gibran’s point about ‘giving unto the pool …’: give to the pool when you can and when it’s needed, and expect to take from the pool, i.e. from someone who is in a position to give to you, when you need it.

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Sometimes you get your most useful thoughts when you can’t write them down, which is annoying because they never seem to read so well when you try to recapture them later on. No harm in trying, though …

One useful thought was the application of a variation of the 80/20 rule to relationships. The idea is that if a relationship works to the tune of 80% and the person seems about 80% right for you, be content. It is not worth putting effort into increasing the 80%. If, however, the missing 20% seems so important a loss that it threatens to destroy the benefits of the 80%, then it is worth reviewing the whole.

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