Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The negative eddy

Ever had an unpleasant incident and then realised it set the tone for the rest of your day? All of a sudden you're expecting the worst, suspecting others of ill-intent, digging up old memories of difficult experiences, or even imagining new ones that haven't even happened. I call this a negative eddy. Want to know how to stop it? I've found two effective answers.

First, let's look at how the eddy works. Think of the eddy of water in your toilet. You press the flush button and a stream of water comes in, disturbs the pool and sets off a circular motion which then pulls everything it touches into the swirl. In the toilet, this is a good thing for the state of our bathroom. Thank you Sir Thomas Crapper (seriously, that's who invented the flush toilet!).



However in our body-mind, it's not so helpful. The mind swirls towards fear and stress and everything within reach is pulled into its momentum. I noticed this starkly one day at work when we'd lost a long term client for no other reason than a new executive who'd decided the way forward was cost cutting. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to find new clients for our business so losing one is extremely disappointing. 

I went to the bathroom. As I opened the door to the cubicle my mind played a mental movie that had me finding a dead person in there slumped on the toilet. Really?! No connection with reality at all. Just a fast moving negative eddy in my mind.

What's happening here is that my experience of the disappointing fact released cortisol and other stress hormones into my body. I'm now on high alert for danger. The mind goes into self protection mode - it wants to find the source of the threat, ultimately to protect me from it. But because there's nothing to run from or fight, it keeps looking. The mind has been hijacked into threat finding. If there's nothing it can respond to in the present, it will either dig up something from the past or create some kind of fiction for the future (even the next few seconds as per my entry through the cubicle door).

Cortisol takes quite a long time to dissipate from the body. So how do we release ourselves from the momentum of a negative eddy? Standing firmly on the shoulder of giants, I can offer two effective solutions:


  1. Exercise - I recently asked neuropsychologist Rick Hanson this exact question and he pointed to a solution that I've been using without realising it. He told me that exercise is possibly the most effective way to help the body rid itself of cortisol. I'm a Masters athlete and I train six times a week. When I reflected on it, I knew it to be true immediately. When I walk through the turnstyle as I leave the athletics track I know that any stress I brought in with me is always much less palpable by the time I'm walking out.
  2. Awareness - simply recognising a negative eddy as a negative eddy and watching it closely loosens its grip on you. When you can see what's happening, you can then make choices not to add to the momentum. I've found I don't take my own negativity so seriously and I'm more able to let it pass, to let the momentum just peter out of its own accord by not feeding it. I've also found telling my husband that this is what's happening is very helpful. He then knows not to take any grumpiness too seriously and he also knows I'm onto it....I'm not going to let it into the driver's seat.


One of the definitions of an eddy is a current that swirls against the stream. This is actually true of our body-mind too. Our normal resting state is not on high alert. Our normal resting state is 'rest and digest' mode. It's only when there is a disturbance of some kind that we find ourselves being buffeted around by reactive, often unconscious forces. This points to the productive capacity of negative eddies. We can actually use them for insight. Try these questions when you become aware of one:

  • What is my underlying fear here? Is it the basic need of safety, of satisfaction, or of connection? In my work scenario it was actually the satisfaction need. Losing a client meant more work to find new ones which meant less time available for my fulfilling pursuits (such as writing this blog and the Secular Buddhism Facebook Page). There was also a little touch of the safety need in there - the need to earn enough money to be ok.
  • How realistic is the fear? 
  • What can I do to self-soothe around these needs?

Gotama's teachings are all about seeing reality clearly - the causes and conditions that give rise to experience. I think this one's a powerful one to know well, to see clearly, and to manage intelligently.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Mindfulness madness

Mindfulness is all the rage. I've lost count of the number of articles I've seen and heard over the past couple of years touting mindfulness as the panacea for all life's troubles. In the past few months I've been bombarded by email reminders for a Mindful Leadership Conference which you can attend for a mere $1700. This is troubling to me and not just because of the profiteering.

Mindfulness, awareness, meditation, call it what you will, is a powerful practice with the potential to transform your life. But it's not easy. Sidattha Gotama (the Buddha) became awakened because his outstanding clarity of mindfulness led him to deep insights about the human experience. However if 20 minutes a day on the cushion was all it took to acheive this, there would have been many more Buddhas in the past 2500 years than there have been. 

Full and unwavering mindfulness is stupendously difficult to achieve.  It is highly unlikely that any of us will achieve all of the benefits of mindfulness without three important ingredients:
  1. an accurate understanding of how the human experience works
  2. an ethical framework based on the above, that helps keep us from fooling ourselves (among other things); and
  3. spiritual friendship - fellow travelers to help and support us on our way

Why it's so tough

There are several human tendencies that come with this body/mind that make full mindfulness difficult. The big players are:
  1. our expectation that life should only contain pleasant things. Because of this....
  2. our habitual craving of pleasure (e.g. nice food, sex, certainty, admiration from others...the list is long)
  3. our habitual pushing away of anything unpleasant 
  4. the delusion that success at #2  and #3 will produce a happy life.
The main henchman for all of these tendencies is our ego. Its superb at justifying our actions in ways that feel good and avoid feeling bad. Our ego is a master of disguise. It can even dress up as mindfulness itself. For example let's say I've been practising mindfulness and have decided that this is the ticket! Mindfulness is where my life is going, it's the new me!

Right off the bat I'm in trouble. I've started building mindfulness into my ego-approved identity. When someone at work makes a decision that sidelines me, my ego wants revenge. But because I've now got mindfulness in the 'me-brochure', I dress up my vengeful response as 'self compassion'. I was taking care of myself because that's important right? Yes it is, but revenge has no place in a mindful life because its born of ill-intent and that is harmful for both me and others. It's not a form of self care.

My ego thinks that revenge will somehow protect me. Its very short sighted, fear driven and reactive. However its also very clever. Its devious at sneaking its way into the role of navigator of our lives. We need some powerful aides to see through its disguises on this journey to full mindfulness.


The help we need

Requirement #1: a clear understanding

In contrast to the belief listed in #4 above, Gotama taught that the path to full human flourishing is one of accepting the whole array of experiences that we encounter. That's not to say we do nothing to change difficult circumstances, but we accept first, then respond from the value of non-harm.

The vast majority of our unhappiness is self generated. The desperate clinging to pleasure and the desperate avoidance of unpleasantness are themselves the problem. It is not the achievement of a perennial state of pleasure that leads to a fulfilling life (and good luck with that!). It's the letting go of the expectation (#1), the clinging/aversion habits (#2 and #3) and the belief (#4) that lead to full flourishing as a human being. 

If we don't see this, any mindfulness we think we have, will have a false floor. It won't penetrate deeply to the root of our suffering. We will make erroneous connections between cause and effect in life. I'll blame my experiences on things 'out there' (e.g. the devil, luck, other people) rather than the interplay of the world, my senses and the patterns 'in here' (including my habits of clinging and aversion).


Requirement #2: an ethical framework

In the situation with my workmate described above, my ego is very likely to accept the self deception which means I won't look at my actions honestly. When I portray myself as having certain qualities and I act in ways that contravene that picture, I feel cognitive dissonance. That's unpleasant. But if I do what most humans do most of the time, and run from anything unpleasant, I don't look at this experience. My ego just keeps telling the "Lenore is a mindful person' story. It's only if hold my seat in the unpleasantness and have the courage to look at it honestly that I see the truth of my situation and I can grow. 

How would this play out? Gotama's sign posts would make me question my vengeful actions. I'd see myself dressing up vengeance as self compassion. I'd identify the fear that's driving me to want to behave that way. I'd feel fully the unpleasantness of the hurt at what my colleague did, perhaps the powerlessness. I'd notice the mind activity that generates those feelings. I'd get intimate with what the feelings are. I'd notice what happens in the body when those feelings are present. I'd be patient and kind to myself while I sit with this. I'd do what I have to do to re-energise and re-encourage myself. Then when I feel the fear has subsided, I'd think about what fear might be driving my colleague. I'd get creative in designing options for a response that cares for us both.

Humans don't do this naturally. Our egos ride in on the coat-tails of all sorts of experiences. They think they are our protector. They are very misguided. But they are also very wiley. We need more than just a meditation practice to deal with this part of ourselves. We need an ethical framework to jab us in the ribs when our egos sneak into the navigator's seat. We need signposts to make us sit up and look at what we are doing. 

Many spiritual traditions contain signposts such as not killing, not stealing etc. however these are often rules to control behaviour through shame. They are more like hand rails that stop people straying than sign posts to consider closely. Rarely are people mindful of the drivers of their 'good behaviour' in this paradigm - fear and shame. Gotama's framework is not about controlling behaviour through shame. 

Gotama's teaching is about looking deeply at experience and seeing for ourselves the effects of our choices. So for example the signpost to 'only take what's freely given', or positively stated, to 'practice generosity', is not a commandment. It's an invitiation to look closely at what happens for us and for others when we do this. Similarly, it's an invitation to look closely at the effects when we DO take what's NOT freely given. No lightning bolts from heaven, no judgment....just notice. What happens? How do you feel? What happens to your relationships with the people you take from? Without these signposts, our egos can navigate us WAY off track, dressing up all sorts of unhelpful behaviour as justified or even admirable.


Requirement #3: spiritual friendship

Another essential aide in this very difficult mission, is the company and friendship of fellow travelers on the same path. Gotama spoke of this way of life as 'swimming against the stream'. It's not easy! (Did I mention that already?) We need other travellers to help buoy our spirits in difficulty, to help keep us honest, to energise us, to help grow our wisdom through sharing experience and questioning us. Once again, a meditation practice alone is not enough unless perhaps you're already in the vicinity of Buddha-hood.

False advertising

Gotama's view was that there were two things needed for awakening in life. One is serenity, and the other is insight. You can indeed achieve serenity through meditation, even without any of the aides above. This has its benefits, especially with regard to stress. That's a good thing and worth doing in its own right. 

However in the current mindfulness madness I'm not hearing any caveats about the challenges of mindfulness. I'm not hearing anything about the importance of wisdom, of ethics or spiritual friendship to genuinely practising mindfulness as opposed to co-opting it into my 'me-brochure', my identity, which is driven by ego.

Theoretically, if any individual could wave a magic wand and instantly become as mindful as Gotama himself, they would likely find themselves arriving at the same ethical conclusions as he did. Causing harm, shutting down your compassion, and allowing your ego to drive your life is bad news. However full unadulterated mindfulness is bloody difficult! In the coverage I've seen so far, you could be forgiven for thinking that all it takes is 20 minutes of sitting quietly on a cushion every day and I'll become the next Buddha. Nup. That's just the start.

Honest advertising: priceless....and messy

Anyone who's practiced the dharma seriously will know that when you become more mindful you start seeing a lot more. Not all of it is pleasant. Mindfulness brings you face to face with all of life, not just the nice bits. You see and feel everything more clearly. Yes this includes joy and calm and energy and clarity and love. However it also includes pain, disappointment, shame, fear, hurt, embarrassment, loneliness, grief, guilt, anger...you name it. It brings you up close and personal with the whole catastrophe of life, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Ultimately, if you keep going, there'll be less of these unpleasant things because they are often side-effects of letting our egos do the navigation. However to get to that point you have to look at them and be with them closely. It's not for the feint of heart. There's nothing I've seen in the advertising for the Mindful Leadership Conference that says any of this. Those motivated by a desire to flee unpleasantness are going to be bitterly disappointed. They may discard mindfulness and all its potential because it doesn't deliver as instantly or easily as the brochure and speakers suggest. Mindfulness-lite won't produce the big shifts that are being advertised in press coverage of mindfulness. Yet that's what seems to make the tabloids, brochures and conferences.

Living mindfully is an incredibly powerful choice to make. However we need to be realistic. Our egos are terrified of losing control and true mindfulness disempowers ego. It takes more than 20 minutes a day on a cushion to free ourselves from its grip. If we want the benefits, we have to walk the path. That requires an accurate understanding of how experience works, ethical signposts to stop us falling into ego-deception, and the company of fellow travelers. It requires wisdom from insight meditation as well as serenity from concentration meditation practices. It also requires a commitment to keep walking through our mud puddles regardless of how messy it gets. 

Now, who wants to hand over $1700 for this?

Friday, May 16, 2014

The company you keep matters

I've decided to make my blog posts shorter. This might mean I write them more often. They'll definitely be quicker to read. Let's see how we go....



I recently quit  my running squad and left my coach. It was a difficult decision because I loved the sense of camaraderie and belonging that came with being in the group and my coach was generous with his time and advice. 

Sport's a funny thing. It throws together people from all walks of life who can have very little in common other than love of the sport. This group was no exception. It was a mixed bag of personalities, values, skills and aspirations in life. Mostly I accepted them the way they were and enjoyed their peculiarities. I noticed that blatant egotism was more prevalent in this group than in my usual circles, but the group was about achievement in sport, not spiritual growth and I observed it with interest.

So why did I leave? 

Besides athletics, my other passion in life is Secular Buddhism. A few months ago I began to notice the difference between how I felt on my way home from the track and how I felt on my way home from meditation. You see, there were two people in the squad who disliked me and who frequently tried to convince the coach to throw me out. (Long story, but think: year 9 school yard.) I wanted to stay in the group and so I put up with it and treated it as grist to the mill for my dharma practice. I hoped that my coach's efforts to deal with it would one day see it subside. It didn't. The more I improved at athletics, the worse it seemed to get.

That two years was a fantastic exposé of our human need to belong. Every time their hate campaign would flare up, fear arose around that need. I learnt some good things from the experience. However one of them that came late in the piece was: the company you keep matters.

In Buddhism there's a saying that your enemies are your teachers. It's true. They stimulate a whole bunch of experiences in the body/mind - often unpleasant ones - and there is a lot to learn from those experiences. For instance I saw clearly how rejection hurts, even when it's from people whose affections aren't important to you. That's motivated me to be careful when I feel like rejecting others. 

I also learnt how much time and energy can be consumed when the body/mind feels fearful. Fear gets first priority when it comes to mental and emotional resources. This is especially true when you feel powerless. Very little of the nastiness that occurred was directed openly at me - it was bitching about me to my coach or other people. Rather than send them to talk directly to me, which I would have preferred, he'd listen, try to smooth things over and keep everyone happy. I doubted his approach would be effective but he wasn't open to input. I did actually invite the main perpetrator to come and speak with me once, which she did. I listened and addressed her concerns and it seemed to go well. I hoped that might change things. It usually does but this time it didn't.

Over time I started to see that the pattern wasn't going to change and I reflected on the impact it was having. When I came home from my meditation group I always felt grounded, joyful and energised - like my re-set button had been pressed. I felt nourished.  As I drove home from the track I felt at sea because I never knew what I'd said or done that day that would be recycled as ammunition to assassinate my character. I would hear about 'problems' second hand and would be told by my coach to just keep my head down in response. It was suffocating.

The joy that I initially felt at being part of this group gradually wore down. Even though I had good relationships with the other 15 people, the sustained unkindness from the two hate-club members undermined the joy. As Rick Hanson says, our body/minds are velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive.

As the words 'the company you keep matters' returned to me again and again, a phrase I've heard in Buddhist circles also arose: 'guard your senses'. When I first heard this I thought it was odd because the dharma requires us to build the courage to be with whatever is present. I thought that 'guarding my senses' might be a form of aversion to experience - avoiding unpleasant things. 

However what I've learned from this is to have respect and compassion for the fact that we are sensitive beings. Literally. Our 6 senses (taste, touch, smell, sound, sight and mind activity) are constantly connecting with our environment and that sense-contact shapes us. Our minds take the shape of what we rest them on. Mine was resting far too often on these troubled people and their ill will. I was pleased at how little ill-will arose in me in return - a sign of some progress maybe. However it was stressful and my body/mind often felt alert to invisible land mines always nearby. Out of compassion for myself (and my husband who has to put up with my upset) and a desire to grow kindness and joy in my life, it was time to walk away.

Siddattha Gotama (The Buddha) spoke of the importance of choosing our friends wisely*. He recommended avoiding fools and associating with the wise. He said that there's no external factor that leads to so much harm as bad friendship and no external factor that leads to so much benefit as good friendship. The company you keep matters.

I still love athletics. And I miss being part of the group. But removing myself from the company of people who practice ill will and flagrant egotism has been fabulous. I feel calmer and at liberty to deal with life's difficulties my way again. It also feels great to have time and energy back for my other love - the dharma.


*The Mahamangala sutta in the Sutta Nipata

Monday, September 16, 2013

Pride: vice or virtue?

Our ego is like Houdini
One of my chooks is named Harriet, in honour of Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. It's quite extraordinary. She and her mate Jellybean have a fabulous coop and quite a large run around the perimeter of our property. Yet if there's the slightest opening in the wire fence, she's outta that run! .

It struck me recently that our egos are a bit like Harriet. If there's the slightest opening for them to get out into the yard for a feed, they are there! By ego I mean that part of us that wants to stand on the podium in the bright lights and be admired. The part that puffs itself up like a pigeon trying to impress a potential mate.

This part of us is not bad. It's the expression of a very natural human instinct - the desire to belong. Under the surface, the rationale is that if we are admired then people will want to be with us. In evolutionary terms this was linked to survival and that need is still very much wired into our DNA. It's part of our genetic heritage and we need to own it and care for it.

The dangers
However there are two insidious dangers that lurk in our egos' shadows. The first is that the desire for power and privilege can ride in with the cavalry. Rather than simply wanting to belong we can get seduced by the 'worldly wind' of gain that tempts us when we sense that others are open to our influence. Secondly, we can get so infatuated with the pleasure of acceptance and admiration, that these things take on a life of their own. It stops being about the very natural need to belong and quietly slips into obsession with our selves - into narcissism.

An instance of this has been intriguing me for some time - that of pride. Religious traditions often speak of pride as a vice - even a deadly sin. Yet in day to day use, pride is often spoken of as a positive thing. I've long sensed that it's our ego riding in on the coat-tails of something virtuous. But then I'd also experienced it as quite a selfless and beautiful thing.

I've had quite a striking experience with this. In my mid twenties, as I began to show promise in the corporate world, a curious thing began to happen. Periodically my father would tell me he was proud of me. That had never happened before.

For the first few years I actually felt anger, sometimes even a bit of disdain when this happened. This was because, for the first couple of decades of my life, as I was emerging as a human being, I never received this kind of positivity. At that time of my life, when I wasn't convinced of my own worth, it would have really helped to have Dad reinforce it by indicating he was proud to be my Dad. That never happened - in fact the message I got more often was that he was indifferent about it. So I had to find self worth on my own - a longer and more painful journey than it might have been otherwise. Then as I began to achieve, it felt like he was taking some kind of compliment or kudos from the fact that I was achieving and that puffed his feathers.

To give some context, I'd spent most of my time at university living below the poverty line because Dad earnt too much for me to receive any governement assistance. Yet my parents gave me nothing. To be fair, they still had three children at home and school, so it's not like they were reclining in luxury but even a small amount of assistance would have helped and they gave me none. However, as they say, success has many parents. I was rather stunned when years later, in his speech at my wedding, Dad took some responsibility for my career success. It was an act of great restraint on my part that I let that go through to the keeper.

So as I saw it, when I was younger and hadn't yet proved that I was capable or worthy, when I needed to hear that he was proud of me, there was no such thing forth-coming. Once I'd proved beyond doubt that I was competent and an achiever, lo and behold, there he was lining up to have some of the glow shine his way. That's where the anger and disdain came from.

As the years went by and I started facing some of my own 'stuff', the anger subsided and was replaced by.... well.... nothing. The statements of pride continued into my thirties as my career success continued but more and more I just felt indifferent. By that time I certainly didn't need to hear such things - I'd earned my self worth the hard way but the upside was, it wasn't dependent on parental approval.

I could see that Dad got something for himself by having a successful daughter (by this time my sister was also studying medicine so there was pride flying everywhere) and that was okay. But it was a confusing experience. Part of me saw a person that was now reinforcing his own self worth with his daughters' achievements. However I'd dropped the judgment of it and could see that this might benefit him in the way that it might have benefitted me when I was younger. What I sensed though was that his pride was not really about me. It was about what my achievements said to the world about him.

What is pride?
So what is this pride thing? Is it an act of narcissism or is it a healthy process? To explore this I started by listing down as many common uses of the term as I could. Here's my list:
  1. they are a proud people
  2. I'm proud of you
  3. she takes pride in her work
  4. I'm proud of myself
  5. pride got in the way
  6. he's too proud to admit it
  7. a pride of lions
When I reflected on this I could see a theme. At its heart, pride has a feeling of being impressed by someone. However there are two quite distinct shades of this. One shade, let's call it narcissistic pride, is concerned with trying to impress others - trying to gain social kudos. The other, let's call it appreciative pride, is concerned with the appreciation of beauty or virtue. One is pigeon puffing, the other is beholding beauty. When I checked the dictionary definitions, the same themes came through.

Narcissistic pride
Looking at the list above some fit obviously into one camp or the other. There are three that seem clearly narcissistic. They are:
  1. they are a proud people - the context in which I've always heard this is that it's a group of people trying to be perceived by others as strong or self sufficient. The key here is that it's usually about trying to convey an image to gain admiration from those outside the group.
  2. pride got in the way - this usually means someone couldn't do the appropriate or helpful thing because the need to uphold a particular image of themself got in the way. Again, it's about wanting to be admired. We can sometimes inflict pain or loss on others in order to avoid the unpleasant feeling of an ego hit. Indeed many Asian cultures have the need to 'save face' built into their norms and there are negative social consequences if you cause someone, especially an elder or more senior person, to 'lose face'.
  3. he's too proud to admit it - this usually means he couldn't bear to own up to the truth, again because it would damage his projected self image. Sometimes this compounds itself when others point out the truth and the fact that we're fooling ourselves. This can damage the desired image even further. We can sometimes get quite aggressive and self delusional when this happens.
Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection
These three seem to be instances of our 'self' - the PR brochure we've constructed about who we are - getting in the way of reality. In my experience, when we're driven by the need to be seen to have certain characteristics, it's usually because we fear deep down that we don't have enough of them. Perhaps the 'proud people' want to appear self sufficient because they fear being dependent. They try to appear strong out of a fear that they might be inferior in some way. 

With the second and third example, the desired image can be anything: clever, always right, strong, funny, friendly, kind, wise, knowledgeable....the list of possibilities is long. However, whatever we have in that brochure about ourselves, we fear that not being seen that way would lead to some kind of loss. It's often the loss of respect, admiration, acceptance or liking by others because of our ancestral need for belonging. 

Ironically, it's often when we share our failures and vulnerabilities that we are more accepted, more admired and more respected than when we hide them. As part of the leadership program I run, I ask one of the past participants to come and address the group on the first day. The person talks about their difficulties, challenges, successes but also importantly, their failures in implementing what they learned from the program. The person I ask to speak is always someone who's courageous enough to share their vulnerability. There is always enthusiastic applause and heartfelt thanks given to this person by the participants. Afterwards I ask them to reflect on how they feel about the speaker. Without fail, they feel more respect, admiration, affection and acceptance toward the speaker than they did before. 

So what about the other instances? Items 2, 3 and 4 (I'm proud of you; she takes pride in her work; I'm proud of myself) seemed to have something in common. On the surface they seem to  be narcissistic pride. As the example of my father shows, 'I'm proud of you' can often mean 'my ego is puffing up by association with you'; that the light of your triumph or virtue is shining on me somehow. Taking pride in our work and being proud of ourselves can be the same process at play. Doing good work can puff the ego because I gain admiration from others; doing something I feel is virtuous can puff the ego because others see it and think well of me. This kind of narcissistic pride is the type I believe is prone to corruption into pursuit of power or self obsession.

Siddhattha Gotama's (the Buddha's) teachings point to this constructed sense of 'me' or 'who I am' or 'self' as one of the major causes of drama and suffering in our lives. Instead of seeing our behaviour honestly, as an ever-changing process that arises out of conditions (both inside and outside of ourselves), we tend to see ourselves as a fixed set of attributes - the ones we've listed in the 'me' brochure (for more on this see the post Bloody not-self). It's this list in the brochure that we're often trying to justify when we engage in narcissistic pride. I'm proud of you because you look smart. Smart's in my 'me' brochure and you're my child therefore it shows that the 'me' brochure's right. If anyone suggests otherwise (let alone points out the evidence that shows I don't always get everything right), they'll live to regret it because they are taking away my sense of worth and cutting me off from belonging. There's a sense that 'they' are depriving me of a deeply felt ancestral need. That hurts, therefore 'they've hurt me', therefore I'm justified in hurting them somehow. And funny enough, once all of this is said and done, I still feel that un-met hunger to belong. It's a painful cycle.

As I thought this through, it occurred to me that we often refer to pride as a positive thing. On the weekend of my father's funeral, one of our few national newspapers, The Australian, published a half page article in which I was featured, photo and all. Many of the people who were gathered for Dad's funeral said to me 'your Dad would have been proud'. I guess in one way they were saying they were impressed but also inherent in those comments was an assumption that Dad's pride would puff my pigeon.

It can appear that we're giving someone a gift when we say that we or others are proud of them. For people who are short of feedback from the world, maybe we are helping their momentum in a healthy direction. However at some point, when we're fully fledged beings interacting with the world we have the opportunity to earn the belief in our worth for ourselves. At that point, pigeon puffing serves as a temptation to keep relying on others for it which, unless used as an opportunity for practicing mindfulness, can keep us locked in to reactivity. On the helpful side, it becomes a flag to let us know that an opportunity to face our fears is present; an opportunity to disempower the demons that scare us into old unhelpful patterns of behaviour.

It was hard to know how to respond to the comments made at Dad's funeral because there wasn't any pigeon puffing for me, yet I knew that the people commenting were well intentioned. They thought this would feel good for me because we all know what it's like to need affirmation from others and get it - there's a sense of empathy and connection in sharing our vulnerabilities. So I just said 'yeah, I suppose he would have been'. This seemed like an honest thing to say. It didn't feel like the right time to verbalise the thinking in this blog post.

It depends on the motivation
However these three examples are not so black and white. Whether they are narcissistic pride or appreciative pride depends on what drives them. The driving force can indeed be the desire for an ego feed, but it's not necessarily always the case. To say 'I'm proud of you' can also be a way of saying 'I'm really impressed with what you did' or 'I feel admiration for you'. This often co-arises with affection for the person. To take pride in our work can mean we feel an intrinsic sense of satisfaction from doing something well. Indeed 'endogenous satisfaction' as psychologists call it (satisfaction inherent to the task) is a motivating force. Similarly, being proud of myself can mean I feel the sense of satisfaction that comes as an inherent part of behaving in a way that's consistent with my values.

A few years ago I was a dedicated viewer of Australian Idol. One contestant was affectionately known as 'Mutto' (Australians frequently add 'o' or 'ie' to a shortened name for people and things that are familiar or loved e.g. 'servo' for a service station, 'barbie' for a barbecue). Mutto was in his late 20s/early 30s - relatively old compared to the other contestants. He was my favourite because not only was he sexy, he was courageous and had a depth and sensitivity that rarely seems to go with masculine men. The night Mutto was eliminated from the show, he was beaten by a young girl, Lisa, who had sung the same song on about 5 different occasions. She was a one trick pony. She was the cutesie girlie contestant who appealed to other teenage girls because she was like them. I found her annoying. Mutto had shown far greater range of ability, gusto, courage and talent than Lisa, and had done a fantastic performance that evening. Regardless, the teenagers obviously voted more. He was eliminated. She stayed. 

Mutto on Australian Idol
When Mutto was interviewed by the host at the end of the show, he was gracious, accepting and good humoured. It was clearly an un-just result and he was disappointed. However he was incredibly good natured about it and not the slightest bit resentful or acidic. As I watched this, the words came into my mind 'I'm so proud of you!'. This was clearly not narcissistic pride - I don't even know the guy. His virtue was in no way a reflection on me. When I thought about it some more, what I meant by those words was that I was deeply impressed by him. He upheld values of kindness and grace in a deeply disappointing situation. I really felt admiration.

As for the final item in my list (a pride of lions), in some ways it doesn't seem relevant but in one way it is. Why is a group of lions called a 'pride'? Why not a group of geese or a group of mice? Perhaps because lions are strong and powerful and we associate this with pride. In reality, it's highly unlikely lions feel pride as they are unlikely to have a notion of self. We are projecting our own associations of pride with strength and privilege onto them. However they do conform to social rules where the strongest individual receives the greatest power and privilege - things that do tend to go along with narcissistic pride in humans.

Disentangling narcissistic pride from appreciative pride
So how do we bring mindfulness to what's going on for us when we feel something that appears to be pride? How do we know whether we're pigeon puffing or beholding beauty? Whether we're reinforcing our delusion of a fixed, unassailable 'me' as advertised in our PR brochure, or whether we're appreciating virtue or intrinsic satisfaction? It's important to have awareness of this so that we can catch our Houdini-ego in the act - not to criticise ourselves, but to see our own patterns so that we can know the processes that create our unnecessary pain. So that we can stop running from the pain and get to know it. As we see these patterns clearly, they begin to diminish. This is a fundamental part of Gotama's teachings.

What's on offer here is an invitation to tune in to our motivation when we use the term pride. Here are some questions for reflection and some practical suggestions:

  1. Is there an internal swelling of self or is it an external appreciation of someone or something outside of ourselves? Is there a sense of grasping that wants to drink in more of that feeling if it could get it? Is it really a sense of satisfaction or admiration rather than pride as such? Maybe it's a mixture. How astutely aware of the feelings can we be? 
  2. More accurate language - if we find that what we're feeling is appreciative pride, try using non-pride language. If we said 'I'm so impressed with what you did' rather than 'I'm so proud of you', it would make it that bit harder for our ego to ride in on the coat-tails of appreciative pride. The same would be true if we said 'I feel really good about the results of my project' rather than 'I'm proud of my work', or if we said 'I feel good about the fact that I didn't retaliate when she provoked me' rather than 'I'm proud of myself for not retaliating'.
  3. If we find that some narcissistic pride has crept up on us, can we accept it with empathy? The quality of gentleness is important here. Can we be gentle and non-judgmental knowing that it represents a natural human desire to feed a deeply embedded human need? 
  4. Can you get curious about where it came from? Is there a part of you that is uncertain about your worth or value? See if you can honestly be with that part of yourself rather than just feeding its hunger. Lately when I recognise my ego jumping the chook-run, I think of myself as a child with my little blonde pigtails, vying for attention in a large family led by a father who wasn't terribly interested in children. I see that little girl, I smile at her lovingly, knowing the ancestral need that drives her; the need to be seen and to matter to her caregivers. I give her a hug. It's quite a powerful way to deal with it - accepting her, empathising, letting her know she's loved, attention seeking tendencies and all.
  5. If you discover there's a part of you that's hungry for power or privilege and is using position, accomplishment or reputation to get that, can you find the sense of scarcity that's driving this hunger? Can you be with that fear-of-not-enough without escaping the chook run to feed it? What are the thoughts, narratives or mental movies that play in this pen? Can you hold your seat and be with them, know them, be gentle with them? Can you start to see the effects on yourself and those around you of automatically feeding these hungers? What are the costs?

In the stories that chronicle the teachings of Gotama he is often visited by a demon named Mara. Mara turns up disguised as whatever he thinks will knock Gotama off track. How did Gotama vanquish this demon? With the simple phrase 'I see you Mara!'. When we can see and name and know the demons that lure us into automatic reactivity, they instantly begin to lose their power. It's like playing hide and seek - you find Mara and he has to leave the game. For today anyway.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Seven perils of certainty

I grew up in a family where 'robust' dinner table debate was the traditional sport. The more forcefully you argued, the more certain you sounded, the more likely it was you'd walk away triumphant. It was always stressful, as some measure of your self worth felt like it hung in the balance. But as a young person I thought it was normal.

I remember feeling curious whenever a visitor was present for one of these arguments. They didn't always join in, and if they did, it often wasn't for long. It was an exception to this when my parents had a rip-roaring stoush with my Nanna about religion. My father, Nanna's eldest son and apple of her eye, had converted to Catholocism before marrying my mother. Nanna was Anglican. They all promoted their positions with certainty and vigour. My Puppa, who rarely said anything, sat over by the pot belly stove with tears in his eyes.

Unsurprisingly I left my home of origin with self assured debate as my weapon of choice when I felt threatened. This engendered a certain amount of fear in others, even my friends - it was often experienced as aggression. One of the effects of this was that people were less likely to challenge me. At the time I mistook that as an indicator of my own strength and superiority. It took me a long time to realise the negative impact it had, both for others who felt at risk from it, and for myself as it kept me from learning and distanced me from other people.

In my early twenties I was lucky enough to come across a profound teacher and role model at The University of Queensland, Bob Dick. Bob taught us about process: intrapersonal process (what goes on inside of us); interpersonal process (the dynamics between people and groups); and systems process (the effect that is exerted by the systems you are part of at the time). Not only was Bob an expert in this stuff but he was a wise person and a wonderful role model. He demonstrated something I'd never seen before: confidence amid uncertainty.

What I observed in Bob was an incredible humility from an incredibly knowledgeable, capable, wise person. He'd openly say so if he didn't know something - without any sense that this was an inadequacy. He'd say something like 'I don't know for sure but my guess would be........'. There was never any officiousness or command or authority in his tone. If he knew of some disconfirming evidence, he'd share that too. When sharing his knowledge he'd often attribute it to the source - the researcher or practitioner from who he'd learnt it, rather than stating it as a fact coming from his own wellspring of unquestionable rightness. I found this intriguing.

What was also intriguing was that Bob had a long and ever-growing line of people who attested to learning more, and more meaningful lessons from him than all of their other university lecturers put together. In fact he had a reputation as a bit of a 'guru' within the university. He was not terribly comfortable with this, I guess because it inferred that he was the source of all knowledge whereas his whole method of teaching used self directed learning principles. He knew the most powerful source of learning was self discovery and he loved nothing more than his students discovering for themselves the material he taught. To this day, in the Australian business community I bump into people who've been taught by Bob and still see him as one of the most important teachers they've ever had.

Peril #1 - less learning
Over the course of the next decade as I was building my career in the corporate world, I noticed that I tended to learn in isolation. I did a learning tactics inventory once and it showed that I was off the scale on 'action' as my learning tactic which meant I jump in and have a go and learn my way through things by doing them. That's helpful. What was less helpful was that I was at the bottom of the scale on 'accessing others'.
(It's a monkey in the asteroid bunker)

That rang true with my experience. I almost never asked others for their experiences or views because, essentially, I was certain that mine were better. I became aware of a lot of learning that I left on the table because of this. I was over-certain about the superiority of my own thinking. 

This is common among people who are good problem solvers. They've had a lot of reinforcement that their way of thinking and problem solving is effective, so they become impervious to input or learning from others. When we think we know best, we can miss out on learning. In hindsight, like Bob, the most knowledgeable and wise people I've ever known are the opposite of this: humble, open to new input, believing that wisdom can come from anyone. Their egos and identities don't get in the way of learning.

Peril #2 - unnecessary conflict
My finishing school for some of Bob's lessons came from my husband Matt. For the first few years we were together I'd sometimes find myself confused about why we wound up in an argument. When we got to the bottom of it, we discovered a pattern. I'd be 'thinking out aloud' about an issue that affected both of us. I didn't say that I was thinking out aloud but that was my intention. In my mind I hadn't decided whether what I was saying was true, I was just 'putting it out there' to test it and see if it held up.

However the tone of that 'thinking-out-loud' was very much a tone of certainty - as if I was sure of what I was saying and not open to being questioned. If it was something Matt disagreed with he felt that in order to have his view considered, he had to put forward an equally certain case. I honestly didn't realise that this is what I was doing. My history had left me with a habit of speaking with certainty - it was just the way my thoughts came out when I wasn't paying attention to the way I was communicating.

Peril #3 - less trust
Ironically, in the past decade, as I've worked on being more truthful about my levels of certainty, Matt has shown a tendency to speak more certainly about things than is warranted. As with all things, there are particular conditions that bring this out. I've noticed that it's when he's feeling overwhelmed with work or lacking in headspace. I suspect the payoff for him is that it might ward off further demands on his headspace by having to consider or articulate multiple possibilities rather than the 'one right opinion' he's expressed. Faux certainty removes the need to consider alternatives. It's less cognitively demanding.

However the down side is, I feel less trust in him when he does this because in these instances I know he's not really certain. I feel disconnected from him. The loss of trust is proportional to the size of the issue, and it does come back when his willingness to acknowledge uncertainty returns. However in essence, it increases my uncertainty about him, which is unhelpful in an intimate relationship.

Peril #4 - inferior problem solving
In addition to creating relationship problems, speaking with certainty is also a cause of poor problem solving in teams. Over the past decade I've been teaching leadership and as part of this we do team problem solving simulations. Without fail, the groups that have one or more individuals who express their thinking with certain, authoritative tones and body language, make relatively poor decisions.

If someone expresses a view with authority one of three things tends to happen:
  1. people can assume that the 'certain person' is an authority, so they defer to them and don't question their thinking 
  2. it can feel like confrontation is needed in order to question the 'certain person'. Most people avoid confrontation so once again, people are less likely to question their thinking. These two tendencies mean that the diversity of ideas in the group goes untapped. 
  3. someone who doesn't mind a scrap 'takes on' the certain-sounding person and a competitive war of egos ensues where being seen as right is more important than finding the best solution. 
A tragic instance of faux-certainty comes from the crash of Air Florida Flight 90. Here is an excerpt from the dialogue between pilot and copilot that lead to them crashing into a bridge and then falling into the icy Potomac River near Washington DC in 1982 killing 74 people including the pilots:

CAM 2: God, look at that thing. that don't seem right does it? Uh, that's not right.
CAM 1: Yes it is, there's eighty.
CAM 2: Naw, I don't think that's right. Ah, maybe it is.
CAM 1: Hundred and twenty
CAM 2: I dont' know
...a minute or so later....
CAM 2: This is it! We're going down Larry....
CAM 1: I know!

CAM-2 was the co-pilot. He was right to express uncertainty but the pilot spoke with confidence that things were right, quite literally to their peril. We know that in almost 90% of cases well facilitated group decisions are better than the best individual's decision in the group. So ultimately, groups that are seduced by individuals' certainty make worse decisions.

Peril #5 - inferior leadership
Interestingly, one of the two competencies that is most strongly linked with performance, promotion and potential as a leader, is called 'learning agility' which is the willingness and ability to learn new competencies in order to perform in tough, novel or new conditions. One of the key behaviours that shows this competency is the willingness to experiment. Another is the willingness to be wrong - to look and feel silly because you didn't get it right. 

When we start to see ourselves as an 'expert' we lose the humility and curiosity that comes with 'beginner's mind'. This often happens when we feel we've got enough experience to know what we're talking about. Despite the importance of learning agility, it's one of the competencies that's in short supply. Unsurprisingly, leadership research shows that as we become more senior in our careers, we learn less and this impacts negatively on the quality of leadership.

Peril #6 - more judgment, less compassion
One of the more damaging effects of faux-certainty is that it increases judgment and decreases compassion. This makes for an angry and harsh world. I've come to see judgment as the arch enemy of compassion. Judgment says: you're different to me, you're wrong, that wrongness is bad and I'm justified in bringing you down. It's a way of simplifying the world into the good guys and the bad guys; the right and the wrong; the black and the white; the in and the out. It sees the world in terms of stereotypes and finds it hard to just let people be without labelling them or summing them up. It's often used as an excuse for harsh behaviour.

These are delusions but the payoff is that it helps us feel in control. People who see the world this way can't bear the idea of non-judment. It's tantamount to sitting on the fence which to their mind is uncertainty on steroids. They often describe this tendency as weak - as if non-judgment is a lack of strength or courage to take a stand. The reality is they are so afraid of the discomfort of uncertainty that non-judgment makes them feel vulnerable. Ironically, fleeing into the comfort of certitude might appear decisive, like we've 'got the guts' to take sides in a fight.

However what's going on beneath the surface is a form of cowardice - an unwillingness to hold our seats in discomfort. Taking sides or judging actually brings relief from this discomfort. It gives us a sense of belonging (to a side), certainty (who and what is 'right'), and clarity of solution (it's much easier to find one that satisfies only our needs). It gives us a direction and outlet for the anxious energy, a sense of self righteousness and an opportunity to be a hero which appeals to the ego.

In contrast, compassion says: I understand, it's difficult and I feel for you. Sometimes it acknowledges that there's no right answer, only a choice among imperfect options. Compassion can still say 'that behaviour is unacceptable' when it creates harm and it can even use force to restrain unacceptable behaviour. But it does so from a place of understanding all parties in the situation rather than casting them as the good guys or the bad guys. It's motivated by minimising harm to everyone. It sees clearly the truth that experience is a dynamic thing and that we all have the capacity for all types of behaviour depending on the circumstances. It's willing to stand alone, withstand criticism from those in judging mode, and accept that things might be and remain, imperfect. It takes a good helping of courage to be with the unpleasantness of this uncertainty.

This peril is extremely profound. Imagine for a moment that everyone on the planet was willing to sit with the discomfort of this uncertainty. Rather than seeing my in-group as right and virtuous, and all outgroups as wrong and in need of correction or punishment, what if everyone could see the common struggle that lies at the heart of all behaviour? What if we allowed ourselves to feel connected with all beings because of this shared challenge? How much harmful behaviour would evaporate from our world? This expanded sense of commonality with other beings; an expanded circle of compassion, is one of the key changes that defines more advanced levels of human consciousness.

Pitfall #7 - a contracted experience of life
Recently another pervasive pitfall of speaking with certainty was crystallised for me. One of my favourite TED Talks is Brene Brown on the power of allowing ourselves to feel our vulnerability. She began her research looking at shame and that led her to find the differences between what she calls the 'whole-hearted' people who experience life fully and those who numb themselves to their experience of life.

As Brene says, you can't selectively numb your feelings. If you numb yourself to your vulnerable feelings, you numb yourself to the lot. She mentions drugs, shopping and alcohol as obvious ways we numb ourselves but interestingly, she also listed blame (a way of discharging difficult feelings) and.... certainty. She highlights religious self righteousness as one common example in the U.S. I see other ways too such as constant stimulation and busy-ness (see my blog post on busy-ness).

The pay-offs
Avoiding the unpleasant feeling of uncertainty is the obvious pay-off gained from faux-certainty. However there are other pay-offs too. 

People will follow: Because most people want to escape the discomfort of uncertainty, if someone offers an escape route, they'll have no problem finding followers. We see this in religions, cults, charismatic leaders of organisations and self help gurus who promise the one right way. Some people even subscribe un-critically to scienctific claims without appreciating or even understanding the limitations that scientists themselves acknowledge. Offering certainty is offering pain relief from part of the natural human experience. Therefore the market for certainty is massive - anyone who wishes to avoid that discomfort. The hunger for this opiate is pervasive and the human ego is all too willing to feed on the adoration of dedicated followers.
Membership of the brotherhood: It's also the case that the stereotypes of masculinity in many modern cultures, still promote the idea that to be a man you have to powerful, you have to be a hero, you have to be decisive and in control. For men who feel strongly the need to prove their masculinity, the idea of acknowledging shades of grey rather than flying into heroic action against the bad guys, is anathema. Faux certainty can be used as proof of strength and masculinity and a way of gaining acceptance into the brotherhood. That's an important need being fulfilled and therefore a strong reinforcement for continuing the faux certainty habit. 

Interestingly, women can also have a strong need to be accepted as 'one of the boys'. In organisations this can be seen in women who live according to the stereotypes of masculinity above. They too act as if they are certain, decisive and in control. I remember being this way when I first hit the corporate world in a fear-driven culture. Over the years as my confidence has grown and my fear diminished, I've become more willing to be honest about uncertainty.

The need to be right: Another group of people who feel a strong pay-off from faux certainty is those of us who have linked being right with being worthy. Like my dinner-table experience, this instills a connection between certainty and safety. From my later experience however, letting go of attachment to a position brings with it more safety than any amount of rightness ever did. The path to de-coupling rightness from worth takes commitment and energy. However it can be done and it leads to a much more peaceful place.

The need to be perfect: Similarly, the perfectionists among us have a pay-off for insisting that perfection is the only acceptable way. Again, worth has often been coupled with the achievement of perfection. While this view often leads to immense amounts of stress it also takes the uncertainty out of things. There's a right way and if I achieve it I'll be considered worthy. To acknowledge that there are many ways of doing things or that perfection, where it exists, is not often necessary, removes their north star - their map to worthiness. To know what perfection is provides an assurance that worthiness is possible.

Relevance to the dharma
So what has this to do with the dharma? The Buddha taught that a flourishing life is one where we embrace the whole catastrophe of the human experience - the good, the bad and the ugly. That's not to say we enjoy it all, but we are willing to have it all, know it all, be with it all. 

One of the key challenges the dharma puts before us then is to be willing to be with unpleasant emotions. Rather than automatically running from them as if they're a threat to us, the challenge is to get to know them fully. In order to do that we have to be willing to feel them. Uncertainty has an unpleasant feeling tone to it. So instead of holding our seat with reality we act with certainty, clinging instead to the pleasures of the payoffs listed above.

The problem is, uncertainty is reality a lot of the time. So more often than not, when we engage in thinking or speaking with certainty we are mis-representing reality to ourselves and others. This unwillingness to be with the vulnerable feeling of not knowing deprives us of learning, good decision making, creates tension and mistrust in our relationships, encourages judgment rather than compassion and leaves us out of touch with much of our human experience. The more we numb it, the less fully we experience our own life - the pleasure, the pain, and everything in between.

^^^

Here are some questions for reflection and some practical suggestions to help.

Questions for reflection:
  1. In what situations do you find yourself speaking with certainty: with black/white, right/wrong, good/bad language or with authoritative tones?
  2. What is the pay-off for you in doing this? What's the benefit?
  3. Imagine not doing this in those situations? What feelings arise? Why?
  4. Is there any mental activity that goes along with these feelings? Mental movies? Narratives or scripts running? 
  5. What does uncertainty feel like in the body? Can you sit with it for a few minutes and describe to yourself where in the body it shows up and what the sensations are like?

10 practical suggestions:
  1. Preface your opinions with phrases like: 
    - my current thinking on that is......
    - I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about that but my off-the-cuff thoughts are........
    - one perspective/ approach/ idea/ way of looking at it is.......
    - I'm just thinking out aloud here but...........
    - I haven't come to a conclusion about it but the angles I can see on the issue are........
    - I don't think I know enough about this to speak with authority but my initial thoughts are......
    - it's a complex issue and I don't think for a second that I've understood it fully but....
    - (rather than regurgitating someone else's opinion as your own) something my friend X said made some sense to me which was........
  2. Take notice of the impact on conversations when you use the prefacing phrases above.
  3. Ask a trusted friend to point it out to you when you are sounding very certain about things.
  4. Notice when you use extreme words e.g. always, never, completely, absolutely, all, none etc. Reflect on whether they are accurate descriptors. Where they aren't try replacing them with less extreme words e.g. often, sometimes, rarely, mostly, many, few.
  5. Ask a trusted friend to help pick you up on your extreme words.
  6. Admit it openly when you realise you were wrong about something or have changed your view on something. Notice what happens (including whether the world falls apart).
  7. Start noticing the presence of 'judging mind'. Enquire into this - what conditions lead to it arising? What impact does it have on you and others?
  8. Practice cutting judgments off before they come out of your mouth (both positive and negative)
  9. Practice 'thought stopping' with judgments about people
  10. Try replacing judgments with observations about and descriptions of what happens in you when you observe certain things - the patters of cause and effect.


For information about Bob Dick and his consulting services click here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Grief - up close and personal

Some people won't get this. Four days ago we had our 14 year old dog euthanased and we've been grieving ever since. Some people get love of animals and some don't. I used to think the inability to love a dog was a character flaw but I've since known a few lovely humans who've been a bit shy about dogs so that theory's fallen by the wayside. Even if you don't get dog-love this post is about the grief process so it's relevant. All meetings end in separation so it's an experience we all share. Many times.

Buddy Brown (front), me and Tassie Tiger in 2004

The past 4 days have been extremely painful. I don't think it's possible to love dogs more than I love/d mine. We could have let him live a few more days or a week but he had stomach cancer and he was on his way out. We decided to keep him alive with drugs until he stopped having fun or was in significant pain. Last Friday he stopped eating. He'd already lost a third of his body weight. It was time to let him go. Letting him go is one of the hardest things I've ever done.

One of the beautiful things about practicing the dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) is that every single experience you have is grist to the mill - an opportunity to practice. For some time I've been curious about grief because my Dad died a couple of years ago and I wasn't all that affected by it. I felt empathy for him because his death was a slow one in which he became increasingly unable to deal with anxiety or excitement - a difficult state to be in when facing death. I really felt for him. But I wasn't very sad because he wasn't very involved in my life. Plus I'd already done my grieving when I accepted him as he was rather than as I wanted him to be. So the only time I cried was when the hearse drove him away from the church. My loneliness demon rode in on the coat-tails of that experience - he was leaving the party to go and be on his own forever. But that wasn't about Dad. That was my loneliness demon.

So here I am two and a half years later sobbing for days about my beautiful Buddy Brown. At least I know I haven't had what Barry Magid calls a 'spiritual lobotomy'. I want to share some of my observations of this experience and relate it to a key question in the dharma - one which I think needs to be up front and centre when people are exploring it. That question is whether the dharma, and awakening in particular, are about detaching from life or whether they are about engaging with it. The answer is that they are very much about engaging with it. Not indulging the ups and downs or being engulfed by them, but definitely the dharma is about embracing the life experience and getting to know it intimately.


My top 10 observations of the grief process:

1. There is a certain amount of grief that comes un-invited. When we got home from the vet and many times since, I've been hit by great sadness. I cried and cried because that's just what my body/mind wanted to do. It had to do it. To hold it in was more painful. This wasn't brought on by any particular experience or conscious thought, it just happened to me. A part of this is simply the tectonic plates of my life shifting. I've had a family of four for nine years. I now have a family of three. Losing a loved one is a force majeur in our own psychological world. The movement of our psychological tectonic plates is an upheaval. A certain amount of sadness flows with the upheaval without any conscious act.
2. When my mind is in the present I feel at ease. If I pay attention to where I am, whom I'm with, what's going on now, even if part of what's going on is seeing my environment without Buddy in it, I feel at peace. However if I let it play mental movies of the past or the imagined future without Buddy, sadness hits me. If I flick between these two modes (present/mental movies) the experience is like a roller-coaster: peaceful/sad/ peaceful/sad.
3. When I accept that Buddy is in my past I feel at ease. This is related to no.2. When I play mental movies of the past I'm also doing something else....I'm comparing it to now and feeling the difference which is the presence or absence of my beautiful boy. When I play mental movies of the future I am also shining the spotlight on the absence of something I love. When I think of him as a feature of my past rather than my present or future, I feel happy remembering him.
4. I can't predict the process. The morning after he died I was dreading walking out the front door. His favourite spot was on the front deck and I figured that seeing the deck empty would set off sadness. I walked out, looked at the empty deck and..... I was fine. However later that night I had set up the lounge room ready for a movie night. Typically this involves Matt, me and our other dog Taz lying on the mattress on the floor and Buddy reclining on the ottoman next to us. After setting it up I walked off and then turned around to see if anything was missing....and burst into tears. ("He's supposed to be here!" I sobbed as a defiance to letting him be in my past.)
5. Letting the process roll its own way has shown it to be dynamic and multi-dimensional. Because I am curious about grief I really wanted to observe the process, and to let it happen the way it was going to happen without interfering too much. In addition to it being unpredictable there have been surprising periods of calm and even-ness. If I had started identifying with 'grieving' or thinking I knew how it would go, or feeling like it 'should' go a certain way I wouldn't have seen how dynamic a process it is. There can be calmness, happiness, humour and many other experiences mixed in amongst it. It's been really helpful to just let it be however it is - a great lesson in the unpredictability/ unreliability/ instability of all things.
6. Allowing myself to feel fully has helped the feelings pass. I've known this for a long time but it's still amazing to experience it. When you really turn and face your pain, let yourself feel it in whatever strength, colour, shape, texture, temperature and vibrancy it has, give it its full time in the sun, it leaves of its own accord. What you resist persists.
7. Sharing the feelings with a friend who doesn't try and fix them, helps the grief process stay un-stuck. Matt and I have both commented on how helpful it's been to simply tell each other of anything that we feel compelled to share. Sometimes we've enquired as to how the other is doing. Mostly we've just spontaneously shared our observations and experiences as we've wanted to. This has helpfully included things like identifying mental movies of the future and past - generally it's been what we're feeling (physically and emotionally) and what the trigger for that was. In addition to no. 6, this has helped keep the process moving without getting bogged down.
8. It helps remembering that his life with us was good. There's nothing to be sad about for Buddy. Apart from some discomfort towards the end, his time with us was fabulous from beginning to end. While his first 5 years weren't great (prior to us he'd been confiscated from his previous owners for neglect) from the moment I took him home 9 years ago it was all good. He was very loved, went on camping trips, was well fed and looked after, had runs in leash-free parks most days and a safe, attentive home. He died by falling gently to sleep in his favourite place (the back of the van) being cuddled and kissed by the people he loved. Most humans on the planet don't get it that good!
9. It helps to articulate the needs he filled and remind myself they can still be filled. One of the things that most reliably sets off the tears for me is pictures or memories of cuddling him. Cuddling was his strong suit and during the first few years of working in our business with my husband I didn't get too many cuddles from him as he was feeling stressed and unhappy most of the time. Buddles really got me through that time. And I've come to believe that cuddles are just plain good for you (no Rhesus monkeys needed). There are times, especially when you're feeling a bit confronted by the world, where you just need a good hug. Buddles was the best of cuddlers and the cuddles were on tap. Being honest about the fact that he filled my need for affection, and that I can still fill that in other ways (including with Matt and Taz) lessens some of the pain.

Cuddly right to the end - on our camping trip
the week before he died.

10. Connecting with others helps. Matt observed with curiosity that one of my natural responses was to text a number of friends and family about Buddy's death a few hours after it happened. He asked why I did that. It was interesting to reflect on it. I said I thought it was probably a way of letting people who care about me know that I needed their love and support. It was also because several of the people I texted knew Buddy, had cared for him at different times, and loved him. Since then I've sent out a tribute email to our wider group of friends and family with a link to some photos. This email showed how much he meant to us. Replies, calls, empathy and warm wishes have flowed in ever since. It's felt quite nurturing. Matt commented just tonight what a positive difference it's made.


The question: is dharma practice about detachment?
This is an idea that can turn people off the dharma - people who relish the beauty and joys of life. It's also an idea that can attract people to it - people who are looking for the spiritual lobotomy I spoke of...a way to avoid feeling life's pain. In Barry Magid's fabulous book Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, he relays his experience of many Zen students dropping their practice when they realise that it's a practice of engaging with your own patterns, your own demons, rather than running from them. As Stephen Batchelor says, unlike religions, the essence of dharma practice is confrontation rather than consolation - quite the opposite of detachment. What I've described above is dharma practice - being fully present to your experience.

The Pali canon is the earliest and most accurate version of the Buddha's teachings we have. Nowhere in the canon does it mention becoming detached from life. It speaks of non-attachment, but that's very different. Non-attachment is about accepting that good things come and go rather than desperately trying to make them a permanent and singular feature of your life's landscape. The times when I accept that Buddy is in my past, when I am present to my current experience rather than wishing it were different, I feel at ease. The times when I focus on the absence and wish that my dead dog were still with me, I suffer.

However being non-attached doesn't mean not feeling the love I felt for him or the joy at his being. These are beautiful things and the dharma doesn't suggest we should not engage with the beauty and joy in life. Dharma practice is about 'the whole catastrophe' and engaging with it fully requires great doses of courage, gentleness and love not least to ourselves. These qualities are needed both to face the pain but also to hold the beauty and joy lightly because the nature of everything is temporary.

The Buddha was once asked whether indeed the whole of life is suffering as one interpretation of his first noble truth (or his first important thing as I like to call it) would have us believe. He replied that if this were the case we wouldn't run about desperately clinging to our experiences as we do. In these past few weeks I've wondered whether we should re-write the first important thing to be 'there is joy and there is suffering'. That's our reality, experienced no more vividly than when we are face to face with temporariness.