Blog Introduction

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dealing with the involuntary stuff – lessons from a broody chook

The Buddha’s teachings are about understanding how stress/angst/unhappiness works in this human experience and using that knowledge to let go of the bits that are optional – the bits we create for ourselves. I’ve been pondering lately on the bits that are not optional – the bits that are an inevitable, unavoidable part of being a human. He listed the key unavoidable painful experiences as:
·         birth
·         sickness
·         old age
·         death
·         not getting what we want
·         getting what we don’t want and
·         being parted from things we love
As I write this I’m watching one of my chickens Goldilocks, who is broody at the moment (this means she just wants to sit on the nest for weeks on end in order to hatch some eggs....which isn’t going to happen because we don’t have a rooster). I’ve closed the coop so she can’t get in, so she’s not getting want she wants. She walks around and around it trying in vain. She does this several times a day and is clearly unhappy about it. When she’s broody she also gets irritable, makes distinct cranky noises, flaps her wings and is generally unsettled. 

I feel sorry for my chooks when they go through this. It’s a very natural chook experience and there’s no easy way out – if I let her sit on the nest she is likely to not eat or drink much for weeks. If I toss her off the nest as I’m doing, she walks around feeling anxious and cranky and gets picked on by my other chook. So I just try to soothe her with pats, make sure she’s eating, drinking and not being picked on too much and generally try to ease her angst until this biological phase is over.
It occurred to me recently that the way I deal with my chooks’ unavoidable angst is more helpful than the way I deal with my own.  I’ve been getting a bit of what I don’t want lately – let me share another sprinting-as-practice story (see ‘The Need to Win’ from July 2011 for my first instalment).
Since February this year I’ve been training with a masters sprinting squad. At first my goals were to simply enjoy sprinting (without the angst of having self esteem tied to winning which I did as a child) and to get fit. Those two goals are well and truly under way – I’m loving training and I’m getting fitter and faster with each month that goes by. A couple of months ago I decided to face my old demon and have a go at competing. This is what has given me the experience of ‘getting what I don’t want’.
In the lead up to a competition, there arises in this body/mind a bunch of anxiety. I’m not consciously thinking this anxiety into existence, it just comes up of its own accord when I think about racing or when I’m preparing to race. It’s an old thought-feeling pattern that was worn in during my childhood and has not yet been re-wired.  As I’ve inspected this experience more closely I’ve become aware that there are some very subtle and fleeting thoughts that arise along the lines of ‘you’re not as good as you think you are’ and as a result, ‘I don’t know if I can do it’. It registers in the body as tightness and restlessness, in the mind as constriction of thought and in the emotions as nervousness, stuckness, frustration and fear of disappointment. None of this is helpful to my 100m time!

The Buddha talked about five different causes of things (in Pali, 'niyamas') of which karma (intentional action) is only one  (Nagapriya, Exploring Karma and Rebirth 2004; canonical source - the MoliyasÄ«vaka sutta).  They are:
1.       physical/inorganic (e.g. a boulder falls on top of you)
2.       biological (the characteristics of the body/mind we are born with)
3.       non-volitional mental (e.g. the effects of trauma, mental illness, or the good luck of a Buddha moving in next door to you)
4.       ethical (karma)
5.       spiritual (e.g. you meditate and increase your awareness, your life changes)
What I’m experiencing is a dose of cause #3. While this example is not as extreme as trauma or mental illness, we all have automatic thought--> feeling patterns that have been worn in over our lives, especially during our formative years.  Psychologists often call this our character structure. It’s different to our personality (e.g. how extraverted we are) because it’s not hard wired, the patterns can be changed. It’s the patterns of:
         stimulus       -->                  thought         -->             feeling  -->          response
(through our senses)      (conscious and otherwise)          


On closer inspection I found that the stimuli in this situation are:
1.       being on a track with other women, lined up next to each other
2.       having the ‘take your marks, set...bang’ in the air.
Even the thought of these sights and sounds is enough to trigger the pattern - the self doubting thoughts which would lead to the feelings which would cause me to tense up (physically as well as mentally).
So I started to observe my own response to this pattern arising:  I’d resist the experience with thoughts about how much I disliked the feelings coming up, I’d feel frustration because I couldn’t get rid of them, and sometimes a feeling of hopelessness – springing from thoughts that I’m stuck with it and that it will hamper my running efforts forever. Very different to my response to Goldilocks’ involuntary mental state.
This kind of pattern and the response to it led to my first race being quite abysmal. My time for the 100m was way slower than what I do at training. Of course I felt really disappointed, and the old ‘you’re not as good as you think you are’ demon left for the day feeling smug.
So now I ask myself: what if I could be as gentle and accepting with the involuntary habits of my own body/mind as I am with Goldilocks’ broodiness? What if I could accept that this old pattern of stimulus--> response does still exist, let go of the ‘I wish I could get rid of this’ reactions, and replace them with acceptance and care?
 One of the most helpful  phrases I’ve invented for bringing the dharma into my life is:
Accept and respond, don’t resist and react.
Essentially, I’ve been resisting this unavoidable (for the moment anyway) angst and in doing so creating more angst around it. What if I could accept that this ‘stuff’ comes up and see it like Goldie’s broodiness – something that is part of being a chook or human and be kind to myself in the way I am to Goldie? Do what I can to make the experience less unpleasant – to soothe myself and exercise kindness and compassion to myself.
My coach’s reaction was great – he pointed out the positives – I started well out of the blocks and did well over the first 30m but then tightened up and lost my form. Good for my first run in 25 years he said. He wasn’t disappointed he said.  So I’ve identified that listening to and taking in the encouragement from my coach is one thing that can help soothe the angst in the same way that I soothe Goldie with a pat.  For me, this is part of the kindness to self thing. It can help ease the pain while I work on changing the old pattern.
Once I’ve accepted the existence of this pattern and been kind to myself with it, I could then respond in a way that helps it change rather than react with struggle out of the tension and unpleasant feelings. I know how to change these ‘non-volitional mental’ happenings but that has to happen over time. In the present, it would seem that acceptance, kindness and other forms of self soothing are the keys.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Expectations - have you set your dial for angst or equanimity?

One of the most wonderful experiences of my life was a weekend away with half a dozen of my dearest friends for my 40th birthday. As part of this I had asked them to bring along their 'wisdoms' - I figured with a good few decades under our belts we should have gathered a few - and we shared them. One of mine was: 'disappointment is always preceded by expectation'. Have a look at your own experience of disappointment - is it true? The implication of this 'wisdom' is to check your expectations to make sure the dial is set on 'reality'.

This is easier said than done.

An expectation I've been discussing recently with some friends is that of 'life should be fair'. A member of my meditation group observed this week how the systems we are a part of in developed countries tend to set us up for that expectation: school, university, some families. In Australia we have a great deal of social mobility and almost no social class system, so it's easy to grow up thinking that if you work hard you will be offered the relevant rewards. Indeed we have legal systems that attempt to bring fairness to our society. Then you enter the big wide world and realise that our own behaviour is but one small factor in the soup of forces at play in any given situation.

I had my dial firmly planted on this one in my early years and it caused me all sorts of angst. As I entered the work force I found out pretty quickly that there is not a direct correlation between contribution and reward. There are all sorts of forces at play in determining who receives promotions, pay rises and opportunities in an organisation. My own effort and skill was just one factor. I persisted with many 'shoulds' in my world view for a good decade or so until I realised just how academic they were - how little impact they had on reality other than making me appear rigid and probably a bit negative at times.

I suspect the 'life should be fair' expectation is less pervasive in developing countries. I think about India and the caste system. I remember a story my husband told me from his travels there about a man who ran a business burning bodies in the Ganges. He was a very wealthy man from this trade but he was of the lowest caste in India so most businesses would not accept him as a customer. The good schools would not accept his children despite the fact that he could afford their fees. (He ended up sending his kids to school in America.) I would imagine if he had an expectation that life is fair, he'd be one bitter and twisted individual. The same could be said for many people in developing countries (and possibly even the 1 in 7 people in the U.S. currently living on food stamps).

The Buddha's teachings highlight three key beliefs that lead to particularly problematic expectations that cause us lots of unhappiness. I've also heard them called the 'three tragic mis-understandings'. They are:
  1. The belief that things are permanent, reliable and stable (causing us to expect that things will last and can be relied upon)
  2. The belief that material stuff and relationships can bring us complete and constant happiness causing us to expect that this, and only this, is what we'll get (e.g. if only I had this car or job or boyfriend or holiday or award or wealth or notoriety etc. etc., THEN I'd be SO happy).
  3. The belief that there is a singular, stable, enduring, independent 'me' that exists somewhere. This one causes us to expect that we will only feel and behave in certain ways no matter what and that people will always see us the way we want them to and respond to us accordingly. For more detail on this one, see the post 'Bloody Not-Self'.
Believing things are Permanent/Reliable/Stable (in Pali, 'annicha')
Intellectually most of us would probably say that we don't believe things are permanent, reliable and stable. We know living things die, relationships and people change and the best singer doesn't always win Australian Idol. However all we need to do is observe the shock experienced when someone we know dies, or the sense of grief and loss at a relationship or circle of friends changing over time, or the righteous indignation of someone else getting a promotion that we felt we had earned and we feel directly the gap between what we were expecting (this person to live - at least to a ripe old age, relationships to always be a certain way, rewards to be allocated reliably according to contribution) and what actually happened. This can even be felt on a small scale with small things, for example when loved toys break or when someone who we look to for support is not there for us when we want them to be.

I read a quote from some Buddhist monk which said 'anything can happen any time' which is probably an expectation much closer to the 'reality' end of the dial. Sure, it's often reasonable to expect a bit of a pattern based on the past (e.g. a reliable employee continuing to be so) but do we expect 'a bit of a pattern that shows up a fair bit of the time given certain conditions' or do we expect reliability? When we feel really disappointed I suspect we've been expecting reliability. We say we feel 'let down'....from what? From our expectations. I think most of us expect that the way we've arranged our lives will be the same tomorrow as it was today. We don't turn the knowledge of impermanence/ unreliability/instability into expectations of what might happen...in our life....today.....or at any time. This causes us great shock and angst when the truth of impermanence/unreliability/instability shows up in our lives.

Accepting that things aren't reliable or stable doesn't mean we don't try and build better legal systems that protect justice or better organisations that more transparently reward valuable contributions. It means that our starting point is an acceptance that what is, is.....at the moment.... and working from there. As opposed to resisting the truth of the situation you're in and wasting a whole bunch of energy reacting and being outraged that things aren't fair, stable, reliable or lasting. If we integrate these truths into our expectations of life, it's a whole lot easier to 'accept and respond' rather than 'resist and react'.

Believing happiness is intrinsic to stuff and relationships
We don't have to look too hard to see the truth of this one. Think about your life right now: is there anything you are really wanting? If so, what is the vision of how happy life will be when you get it? Try an experiment: write down a vivid description of how happy you think you'll be when you get this thing you want so much. Then when you get it (which of course you may or may not do apropos the previous point) once you've experienced it for a while, go back and assess the truth of that claim. You'll probably find it's somewhere between partly true and false.

Sometimes it's the case that things we want do make us a bit happier in some way. For example, earning enough money to not be worried about paying the bills will probably remove certain stresses in life and probably lead to a bit more happiness. However in thinking about what it will be like when we get that better paying job, do we think: 'I'll not have the stress of scarcity which will be nice but it will also mean there'll be more room for my other stressors to get a look-in', or 'my brother will start asking me for money'? No, we tend to think 'it'll be SO good when I'm earning more' and build up a picture of happiness and joy that will envelop our life when this thing happens. Accordingly, we can get very stressey and intense about getting this 'thing'.

So it's not that the things we want don't bring us joy or happiness. It's that they bring us joy and happiness........ sometimes........and they also bring us lots of other things, other challenges, frustrations and difficulties. The problem is that our mental movie (that sets our expectations), only includes the good bits. So we spend the whole time thinking about the good bits of the promotion we are desperate for: the nicer office, the ability to do things the way we think they should be done, the pay packet, the respect that will come when you hand out your business card or meet people at a social outing and they ask what you do for a living and how you'll feel at the school reunion. What sits on the editing suite floor is the bit where you have little time for your family and friends, you are having to spend much more time playing politics and dealing with 'people-issues', and the bits of the weekend where you don't have to work you spend sleeping and recuperating in time for Monday. Seeing this more accurately would lead to less disappointment when we do or don't get that promotion, and less desperation and angst in the lead up to it.

I remember a chap I used to work with. He was a pretty senior guy in the company and had earned a lot of money through being a great salesman. One day he bought himself a 5 series BMW (these cost a little short of $100,000). Knowing him I think his mental movie had the BMW bringing him respect and admiration from the people around him. In reality, he was so desperate for these things that not a day went by where he neglected to drop in to conversation something about his new 5 series BMW. It didn't take too long before it became a running joke among his staff who were scoffing at him behind his back. That wasn't part of the movie, nor was his own desperation to be seen as a success - that too was left on the editing suite floor. Clearly happiness is not intrinsic to 5 series BMWs.

This is also very true with relationships. We might think that if we get ourselves some good friends that we'll be happy. The movie might have us always doing things together, laughing, supporting each other when we are going through difficulties and generally feeling warm and connected. The reality of relationships of any depth is that there are usually these things.....and usually some tensions too. Wherever there is intimacy there is also usually at least some tension. Close friends aren't always there for you when you want their support - they have their own lives and their own stuff to deal with. Really good friends will often challenge you and give you feedback that isn't always flattering - that's not often part of the movie. They might occasionally react badly to things you say and do, even when you didn't intend anything bad - that's doesn't often make it to the 'good friends will make me happy' movie. We know from research in social psychology that social connectedness does improve happiness overall. But it also brings us all sorts of challenges - they just don't ask that question in happiness surveys.

Setting the dial to reality
So what if we were to start seeing things more accurately and setting our expectations dial accordingly? What if we were to see friends as a source of enjoyment, intimacy, learning and difficulty? What if were to see marriage as a great classroom for learning about ourselves and developing as a person rather than as the 'happily ever after' that we often start with? How about we see expensive cars as sources of pleasure as well as sources of division from others (as all status symbols are) and burdens that require protecting and expensive maintenance? How about we see next week, next month, next year as probably including my family in tact but maybe not? How about we think of our future with our employer as maybe including that promotion and maybe not. And can we see that promotion as making us happier in some ways and also bringing us difficulty? Can we stop leaving the unpleasant bits on the editing suite floor and make our movies, which set our expectations, a closer match to reality?

So is long lasting, deep happiness possible?
While it's only a small portion of the population who seem to achieve this, they show that the answer is yes. The Buddha essentially said that this happiness arises naturally when we get acquainted with the way experience really works, we become very present to it, and we stop desperately trying to craft our life to bring us happiness through craving for things to be a certain way (due to the three tragic misunderstandings).  I'm certainly no Buddha but one thing I've noticed is that when I'm not striving, needing, wanting, and when I'm really present in my current experience, there is an inexplicable joy that arises for no good reason. It's not dependent on stuff out there in the world - only on my inner world - and this is what the Buddha's teachings are all about.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tough love, warm love and their imposters

One of the positive trends I've noticed in modern society is the increasing focus on doing a good job of parenting. The old 'children are to be seen, not heard' days seem to be well behind us which is a good thing. My husband and I have chosen not to have children but almost all of our friends chose differently. So I get to observe the many different attitudes and approaches that people take and I've paid attention to the same in people I meet through business, sport and other endeavours.

An issue that has arisen for me as I've done this, is whether there is any place for 'tough love'. I want to be very clear what I mean by that because I think it can be understood in different ways. What I mean is letting people we care about deal with difficulty as a source of learning. I don't mean the following non-loving routines - let's call these tough love imposters:
  • being tough with people as the norm, or because we are too uncomfortable with being softer or kinder
  • being tough with people because 'that's the way we were treated and so why should anyone else (e.g. the next generation) have it easy?'
  • the 'sink or swim' strategy where we give the learner no assistance with the learning process, they are just left to either make it or not, and if they don't, well, they're left to deal with the consequences because 'that's life!'
My own upbringing contained a mixture of things including tough love as I've defined it and I think it has had some very positive effects. It taught me reponsibility, the valuing of and an appreciation for money and the freedom it offers, and a strong belief in cause and effect which is a foundational belief that underpins an achievement orientation (not achievement to please others but enjoyment of achievement) and the dharma itself.

However my upbringing also included the tough love imposters. These taught me to believe that when the chips are down no-one will want to help me (so I felt unsupported and un-cared for), to have a scarcity mindset that included the belief that I didn't deserve and would never have enough, and it caused me to be a very slow learner on some of life's important lessons because I often felt under threat and so was in ego-protection mode.

One of the things about tough love is that it doesn't have to be done coldly or impersonally. Indeed if we communicate about why we are doing it, we stay connected with them during the challenge, we offer ourselves as a sounding board, coach or advisor, and let the person know we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be a confidence building experience and a true form of love. If we think of love as the genuine care for one's wellbeing, this helps prepare the person for the challenges of life ahead, so it is indeed love. The net result is an increase in confidence and competence - what a gift!

I started this post talking about parents I've observed. One of the concerns I've had as I've done this observing is that many parents seem to be pushing the pendulum down the other end of the chamber where they do everything for their kids, pay for everything, let them live at home until they are in their 30s and get in and 'help' by solving their kids' problems. I imagine that seeing your kids suffer must be difficult; painful. Yet I can't help but think that this kind of behaviour is not love - it's not caring for their wellbeing because it is fostering an inability to deal with life themselves and a set of beliefs and expectations that are destined for a collision with the world outside the home.

At a business conference a few months ago I was talking to a fellow who would have been in his 50s. He has three 'children' all in their 20s. All of them live at home. None of them have driver's licences or cars of their own because their parents drive them where they want to go, none of them have jobs (one was studying a second degree, another was an 'artist', another was unemployed), and two of them had been on overseas holidays - paid for by Mum and Dad. If Mum and Dad were hit by a bus, these adults would be lost. They would need to learn how to take care of themselves in an awful hurry, under great stress, with little confidence in their own competence and having probably learnt some unhelpful expectations from life which would make that learning more difficult.

While this example might be an extreme, I see smaller examples of it everywhere. From letting children interrupt adult conversations at whim to allowing them to have everything their hearts desire, to giving a teenager money without ever having to earn it, to always letting kids win games, to removing or chasing away a child's conflicts to prevent them from being upset. I'm not suggesting for a minute that we don't try and help; I'm suggesting that the way of helping that is truly loving is to let them feel the heat and help them learn to deal with it, rather than shielding them from the heat so that when they do eventually venture into the big wide world, they are not shocked and overwhelmed.

At some point, almost all of us have to learn that we need to take responsibility for our lives if we also want freedom. We have to learn that self esteem is largely earned, we have to learn to be competent, that acting aggressively and avoiding conflicts have negative effects that usually come back to bight us, and that we are not the centre of the universe. There are many other things too, but parents who are unwilling to let their children suffer are shielding them from these important lessons - which means they will learn them later in life, when they are surrounded by a world that is much less likely to take care with how it teaches them. Or they won't learn them and they will suffer even more.

And why? Because the parent doesn't want to suffer the pain of seeing the child suffer. While that's understandable and worthy of compassion, it's not love, it's aversion to pain. In a way it's saying 'let's avoid both of us suffering now, so that you can do it alone when I'm gone'. Another motivation I've seen is from parents who seem to need the approval of their children. So they try to make them feel good (never saying no, never insisting that they do things they don't want to do) in order to be liked and to avoid dealing with the pain of their own insecurity. Either way, it doesn't seem to me that it's all that loving as it's not directed at the wellbeing of the child - their momentary happiness perhaps, but not their wellbeing past this moment. It's passing up an opportunity to support them through a lesson and leaving them to learn it themselves in what will likely be a much more difficult and less loving circumstance. Perhaps we could call these 'warm love imposters' (I've often heard of such things referred to as the 'near enemy' - e.g. it looks/sounds a bit like the real thing but is in fact something inimical to it).

So I guess I'm making the case for the importance of tough love amidst plenty of warm love, and to be wary of tough love imposters and warm love imposters which are two different means of avoiding some fear by dressing it up as love. The Buddha's first noble truth is that there is dukkah (suffering, angst, stress, unease etc.) and the imperative is to get to know it. Tough love can actually help us prepare our kids for this truth and its implications. The imposters are forms of clinging and aversion that cause more dukkah (second noble truth). Some possible questions to help ascertain if it's an imposter:

For warm love imposters:
  • is this course of action preventing them from learning something important about cause and effect?
  • if I said no to what they are asking of me, how would I feel? Why? Have I got some fear around saying no or refusing to rescue them?
  • if I let them take the painful option, could I be with them during the experience to help them learn? If not, why not?
  • if this person/child was angry at me for a period of time, could I handle that? If not, why not?
  • is it important for me to be seen to be helping/rescuing my child? If so, who is it that I think is watching/ noticing? And why do I want them to see?
For tough love imposters:
  • is there any room for this person to possibly doubt that I am supporting them through this difficulty, or that I support and care about them generally? If so, what can I do to reassure them?
  • do I give this person plenty of genuine warm love too? If not, how do I feel when I imagine doing that?
  • do they really need this lesson (e.g. do I already give it in many other ways) and could I let them off the hook sometimes (to teach them that life isn't ALWAYS hard)?
  • how can I deliver the message in a way that communicates my care for them?
  • What can I do along the way to show that I care for them?
  • How can I help them learn from this? (Remember, if they feel too unsafe, they are unlikely to learn well.)
I'd love to hear people's thoughts.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The need to win - a disguise for the hunger to be seen

You don't have to look too far in our society to see people competing with each other. Whether we are trying to out-do someone at work, playing team sport, or even cooking and house renovating these days, there is a pervasive milieu of competition. (Currently in Australia our television networks all seem to have some version of a cooking show that pits people against each other in some kind of 'cook-off' or teams of renovators, back-packers, dancers, singers, business entrepreneurs - you name it there's a competition revolving around it.) You even hear of parents being banned from children's sporting matches due to their unruly behaviour when their kid's team starts to lose.

So what's wrong with that? Where do I start? Perhaps with the underlying principle that is the culprit. I call it the 'see-saw principle' and it is essentially that, for me to be up, you need to be down...and vice versa. Where there can be only one winner, I have a vested interested in you failing, so if there's anything I can do to bring that about I will do it. From a dharmic point of view that sounds like harmful intention and harmful action.

A slightly less extreme version of this principle is the 'keeping up with the Joneses' tendency. Here I might not be trying to beat you but at least I need to show you aren't beating me. Psychologists call this 'social comparison' and there is abundant evidence that it generally makes us unhappy.

Apart from the see-saw principle it also undermines my own achievement because instead of focusing on the possibilities of what I might be able to do, I let you set the bar - as long as I beat you then I'm happy. I may have achieved nowhere near a personal best, but if I beat you, my work here is done. Rather than striving for a goal, or even better, striving to enjoy what I'm doing or the experience of doing it well, I strive to come out superior to you.

Let me showcase this in a few different settings starting with leadership and the corporate world. For decades now, there's been research to show that competitive behaviour among employees diminishes performance. One of the ways I earn a living is to run leadership programs and as part of this I put groups of leaders through a simulated problem solving challenge. Those groups that engage in competitive behaviours (among others) routinely do worse than those who focus all of their attention on finding the best solution, regardless of who contributes the 'best' ideas. More broadly, competitive behaviour encourages employees to withhold information from each other, encourages the diversion of energy into keeping up appearances and diminishes cooperation. When people lose, they are motivated to make excuses rather than to learn from their failure.

Another example comes from my soccer team. We are currently half way through our third season as a reasonably stable team with the same coach. For the first two years our coach was terrific. He focused us on a small number of key things to do, gave us loads of encouragement and very rarely criticised us. He excited us towards being better and the enjoyment of being on and contributing to the team also grew. In the first year we were nowhere on the ladder. Last year we were one point away from the finals. This year he has decided that not only are we going to win the season but we are going to do it from the top of the ladder.

You may think, well, yes, it's a competitive sport, isn't that a legitimate place to be competitive? Well, let me share with you my observations of the behaviour that is now emerging as a result of our coach's need to win. From the very first training session this year he has been grumpy and very easily frustrated. Whenever we do anything wrong, he criticises us and expresses his frustration emotionally. He gives almost no encouragement any more. On the sideline at games he moans and growls and sighs and criticises. Last weekend we faced a team that was short a couple of players. By half time we were up 3-1 and he yelled and screamed at us. Instead of scoring another 3 or 4 goals in the second half, we scored only one. I believe we could indeed win the season this year but the biggest obstacle to that is our coach's desperation to win which has diminished his focus on how to get the best from us.

If we look closely at the desperate need to win, we can see that it has lots to do with the dharma. An easy way to access this is to ask the question: if I lose, what is the problem? For our coach, I think his ego has become interwoven with the triumph of our team. For us to go from nowhere on the ladder to champions in three seasons would show just how good he is - probably in the eyes of the other club members (he is the Secretary of the club and very enmeshed in it as his social world). I think for many people (putting aside professional athletes whose income can rely on it), the main pay-off for winning is that we get to be a 'somebody' in other people's eyes. The pay-off is the perception that we will be elevated in others' esteem - that we will matter and be admired. This is smack-bang in the middle of ego/selfing territory (spun-identity - see the post Bloody Not-Self for more on this).

I am currently engaging in dharma practice on the athletics track. This year I have joined a masters sprinting team and have set myself the initial goals of 1) enjoying sprinting; and 2) getting fit. If I can achieve goal #1 soundly then I might think about competing.

When I was a child I was very good at athletics. In my first season of Little Athletics I won everything and was either Age Champion or runner up in every year of high school. However I never really enjoyed it. I had, and still feel the echoes of, a great deal of anxiety around competing on the track. Because I was so successful so early in my life, I spent my whole (short) athletics career in fear that I wouldn't win. As the second of six children (sandwiched in between two brothers) with a father who was pretty disinterested in kids unless they were good at something, to win meant to 'be seen'; to be a somebody. As I entered my teen years, of course being a 'somebody' in the eyes of my peers was also pretty important to my sense of self esteem.

According to the dharma, the hunger or thirst to 'exist' is one of the three core 'cravings' that leads to the clinging that causes our (optional) suffering. In an interpersonal sense, to 'exist', is to be seen, recognised, admired, appreciated, desired etc. So for me, sprinting on the track was associated with the ever-present possibility of a slide into the unpleasantness of being a nobody. I craved to be seen (was often criticised by my brothers for being an attention seeker) and I clung to winning athletics as a means of feeding this hunger. Having now walked a good way on my own personal journey, and having proved myself to myself over the past couple of decades, I can honestly say that feeling competitive with others is now a rare experience for me. However to resume sprinting will bring me face to face with the shadows of that old demon.

So with my intentions planted firmly in mindfulness and getting to know (and therefore disempower) that old demon, I've returned to sprinting now - 25 years after I last sprinted on a track. I'm learning to know my mind's habits in this setting and I'm quite enjoying being able to observe and get to know this terrain from a place of emotional safety. I'm observing what kinds of things cause me to switch into 'competitive mode' and how that feels in the body. I'm also observing what it's like when I'm present to the body's motion and I'm focusing on building my joy habit. In fact I've found myself a little motto - 'the joy of flight' - to help keep me focused on being present to and enjoying the act of sprinting. When I'm up on my toes and balanced, it really does feel like flying, and there is definitely a joy in that.

An interesting feature of this adventure for me is that the masters squad I've joined is coached by the current world #1 male masters athlete, Peter Crombie. The reason I tell you this is that Peter has spent most of the current athletics season recovering from injury. As I write this he is probably checking in to his hotel in Sacramento for the World Masters Games as the top masters athlete in the world, knowing that he probably won't win and may not even get a medal. Over the past 5 months I've had the privilege of not just training under his guidance but discussing with him my dharmic goal of looking this demon in the eye and knowing it well so that it no longer scares me. Peter is not a Buddhist nor has he explored the dharma as far as I know - yet his own trajectory to World No. 1 has led him to the same place - a focus on the process - on the journey - and a realisation that an attachment to the outcome/destination is a recipe for suffering.

I remember going to a seminar on outstanding achievers a few years ago. One of the common features of these people, whether they were piano virtuosos or Olympic athletes was that they didn't focus on the prize. They focused on the process. Indeed I remember an interview with Cathy Freeman (Australia's female Olympic gold medallist in sprints at the 2000 Olympics) after she had run her 100m heat. The journalist asked her whether she thought it was a good enough time to make the final. Her response was, something like 'oh, I don't know, but I'm really happy with how I ran, it felt really good'. She later won the Olympic gold medal. Apparently on her mirror in the change room, she had written the letters 'PB' (Personal Best) and her target time. So not only is focusing on the process the best way to avoid the creation of uneccesary doses of suffering, it's also the best way to achieve excellence.

While I do think this need to win has gotten a bit out of control in our modern society, it's not like it's a new thing. Indeed Chuang Tzu, the influential and respected Taoist sage wrote of its drain on us in around 250BCE:

Not working for personal gain
When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets --
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting--
And the need to win drains him of power.
(19:4, p. 158)




So a few (hopefully helpful) questions to help apply this thinking to daily life:

1) in what circumstances or compared to whom do I feel the need to win (or whom do I need to feel better than)?
2) if I lost or looked like I wasn't better than them, how would I feel? If the answer is some form of anger (e.g. frustration, annoyance), what softer emotion lies beneath that? What am I afraid of if I don't win?
3) whose opinion of me does winning/losing affect?
4) why does their opinion have such an impact on me?
5) what aspect of my self concept (identity) does this threaten? (For more on this see the post Bloody Not-Self).
6) what evidence is there from my life that I am loveable, worthy, credible and respectable even if I'm not consistent with this bit of my self concept all the time?

Another suggestion for anyone who finds this topic interesting: Peter Crombie recommended a fabulous movie to me - The Peaceful Warrior.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Busy-ness: the intoxicant of the information age

I've had this post sitting in draft form for a while. Actually, all I had was the title and a strong sense that I wanted to say something about it but my thoughts hadn't organised themselves yet.

Yesterday was a cold, windy, rainy Sunday in Sydney and I had the privilege of not having anything I had to do. Usually I play soccer on Sundays but the fields are closed so I found myself with a whole Sunday to myself. I spent a couple of hours of the morning in one of my favourite cafes having lunch and reading the paper. In it was an article about boredom which is the catalyst for me to start organising those thoughts.

The author made the point that boredom has been all but eradicated in the modern world with laptops, mobile phones (cell phones), iPhones, iPads and all manner of gigaws constantly on tap. She observed that neither kids nor adults get bored these days and she even recounted hearing people on their mobiles in public toilets. When I catch the bus into the city here in Sydney I see people texting, tweeting,  facebooking etc. and you even observe this behaviour in people who are sitting in cafes or restaurants with other people - presumably people they wanted to spend time with! (For the record, I think we should establish a new norm in modern society that says that it's rude to take non-urgent phone calls or texts when you are on an outing with someone.)

For youth, for whom the meaning of life at their stage is connection with and acceptance by others, this is almost par for the course. However in adults I see it too. One of the businesses I run is a leadership development business – I run leadership programs for corporates. You see this behaviour in the breaks with people dashing out to check their mobiles as if their staff/family/the outside world couldn’t possibly survive a whole day without them. There’s almost a sense that if I am so busy that I need to take calls in the break then I’m very needed or important. (It’s funny how this often tapers off a little after I reveal that good leaders who develop and trust their staff tend not to do this much.)

The author of the article I was reading suggested that many of us would prefer to feel overwhelmed with too much activity or stimulation than to feel bored. She also wondered, as I have, whether the constant external stimulation might diminish the creativity and imagination of brewing generations. She observed that many of her best ideas come in the moments where her mind has been quiet and at least hinted that maybe this eradication of boredom wasn't an entirely good thing. Indeed it’s funny that it took a quiet Sunday morning for the thoughts for this post to come together isn’t it?

I have experienced both extremes of this busy-ness boredom continuum. I am from Generation X, so my childhood was pre-information age and added to that, my first decade was spent in country South Australia. I have many memories of being bored as a child. Where I had a choice about what to do, this often did drive imaginative activity - the scrub behind our house was the background for all sorts of heroic adventures from the jungle to the wild west, and I do tend to be a very creative person as an adult. Where I didn't have a choice about what to do, like the time my parents went to their friends' place for dinner and left me and my two brothers in the car in the driveway for the entire evening, I had extended rendezvous with boredom. (Did you know the plural of rendezvous is rendezvous?)

My career has taken me to the other extreme. Having worked in human resources in consulting firms and a large law firm, achieved an executive level role in a publicly listed company by age 32, and then started my own businesses, I have more experience than I'd like of the activity overwhelm of which the article's author spoke. I've spent almost 20 years in or engaged with the corporate world and there is no end of activity and busy-ness that will happily devour your time if you let it.

Busy-ness builds its own momentum. I often feel this acutely if I have been really busy at work and then I go on holidays. When I was in the corporate world (as opposed to running my own business where I can at least sometimes set the pace) it used to take about 3 days of holiday to relax to the point where I began to slow down. Then it took another few days to completely step off the treadmill and be where I was.

For this reason I have always encouraged my staff to take off at least one three week block of annual leave each year to really give themselves a chance to be in their own space before beginning to warm the engine up again in anticipation of returning to work. As I understand it there are many countries in the world that only give workers two weeks of annual leave a year (or less) of which the United States is one (in Australia we get four which barely seems enough to me). Busy-ness makes mindfulness difficult. Given the pace and productivity expected in the corporate world these days it must be very challenging for the average non-awakened or minimally awakened person in these countries to ever truly stop and be where they are. 

The Buddha spoke of boredom as one of the hindrances - the things that get in the way of us being mindful and present to our current experience. It's a form of aversion to our current experience. Think about it - when we feel bored, why is it that we seek stimulation? I'd like to suggest two main drives for this seeking that represent two sides of a coin that lies right at the heart of the dharma.

The first drive is a hunger or thirst for pleasure: I'm not feeling much at the moment (or it's the only two weeks off I have this year!) so I'll do something to see if I can get myself a pleasure hit - food, social stimulation, novel surroundings, books, movies, chores (those who do them do receive some pay-off or they wouldn't do them) hobbies, the list goes on. My husband and I sometimes experience this as an inexplicable interest in moving our lives somewhere else. It’s like things have been a bit ‘the same’ for too long and we need a change. We recently resisted this when we realised how embedded we are in our local community – something we value very much. Sure enough, the desire to move for stimulation passed, although I’m sure it’s not the last we’ll see of it.

I want to be clear here that I'm not suggesting activity or indeed variety is a bad thing. Activity is a necessary part of life's wheels turning around. The Buddha recommended 'the middle way' - a balanced approach rather than extremes. What I'm actually suggesting is that in our modern world we've possibly reached an extreme where instead of a balance between stimulation and rest for our body/mind we have constant stimulation.  We deprive our body/minds of the time to digest the stimuli, find its patterns and highlight the bits that are important to us. It’s like the Protestant work ethic has taken us over and we wear it as a badge of honour that we are so busy that we haven’t been able to make time for the indulgences of spending time with family and friends, let alone other regenerative activities. Seen this way, spending time doing nothing seems like a waste of a precious resource. I’m going to suggest however, that doing nothing is highly undervalued.

I can think of some times when the seeking of a pleasure hit through activity might be a skilful thing. Part of emotional intelligence is the ability to manage our own emotions. If I need to engage in bouts of activity that I don't enjoy much and I'm not yet at a stage of being where I can engage in those with equanimity, then rewarding myself with a positive activity at the end of the unenjoyable activity could be a skilful and fast way to manage my own mood.

For example, I really don’t enjoy planning training programs – I love facilitating them but I hate planning them. I have a strong preference for the big picture. Designing training, while requiring an eye on the big picture, is a very detailed activity. It drives me nuts. So when I’ve finished a bout of design and generally feel rather drained, I might stimulate my body/mind with an activity I do enjoy (such as writing these blogs, taking my dogs for a run, going to soccer or sprint training, or listening to some music) to usher out the unpleasant feelings.

So as a tactic on the way to being able to accept doing things I don't enjoy with equanimity, it can be useful. However why stop there when the more liberating option is to not create such an unpleasant internal stir when faced with doing something I don't enjoy? I’d much prefer to be able to do what I have to do (design the training session) with calmness and grace rather than make that activity more unpleasant than it already is and then have to induce pleasure hits to help me recover from it.

On the other side of the 'seeking a pleasure hit' coin is 'aversion to pain'. When things get quiet, I might start to hear and feel things that are stressful, anxiety-provoking or unpleasant in some way. So I drown them out with stimulation [insert same  list of possible stimulants as above]. A friend of mind told me that she'd tried meditation once and was hopeless at it. (This kind of statement always disappoints me a bit because it's an indication that the popular understanding of meditation is inaccurate – like I’m not meditating unless my mind is empty and calm. We need both serenity AN D insight for growth.) The reason this particular friend thought she was 'bad at it' was because she had all of these upsetting things come into her mind during her sit. I assured her this probably meant she was doing a fine job!

I like the analogy of the puddle of water on the ground. When we let it sit still for a period of time, we see what is at the bottom. When we are busy stirring it up we have no idea what the landscape at the bottom looks like because of all the dirt flowing around. This friend of mine was doing a fine job because it only took her one go at meditation for her to start seeing the bottom of her pool (although it may also have just been the stirred up sediment of over-stimulation – we didn’t talk about it enough for me to know). When we keep ourselves busy, we keep stirring the pool and we never get to see the landscape of the ground's surface underneath. Our view is obscured and disturbed by all the noise in between. Because what's often at the bottom of our body/mind's pool is some form of fear (often adopted as a means of self protection when we were young), we often elect to keep the view obscured because it scares us to look at it.

Going on a meditation retreat is a classic example of this. When you tell someone you're doing this, you can always tell whether they've ever been on a meditation retreat by their reaction. If they say something like 'oh, how lovely, have a relaxing time' it's a pretty safe bet they're thinking of a spa retreat and have no idea of what a meditation retreat entails. On the latter, the facilities are usually pretty basic and there are no massages and facials, only time to let your body/mind quieten down and the opportunity to see what's at the bottom of your pool. (There are also often dharma talks that help you process what you see.) While this can be confronting and difficult I almost always come home with an important new insight or resolution as a result of these retreats that improves my life in a significant way. This is only possible because I've quietened down enough to see what bumps are at the bottom of my pool.

Inherent in what I'm saying is an assumption that we want to know our reality better and achieve some of those qualities of an awakened body/mind - a peace and joy that is not dependent upon the outside world being 'just so'. If this is not something you're moving towards in life then you're unlikely to be willing to withstand the discomfort of knowing the mudscape of your own puddle. It takes courage and a willingness to be uncomfortable in order to reap these kinds of rewards.

However not doing this has its own downside. The frequent pang of the aversion to boredom is only one and is possibly the most easily avoided. Like other intoxicants that blur our vision of our reality (e.g.alcohol and drugs) being busy can give us a short term hit of pleasure, and it can distract us temporarily from our anxieties. So while we have access to our distractions, we can keep them at bay. However this distraction takes energy and just because we don't look at the bumpy bits of our puddle doesn't mean they don’t affect us.

For example if one of the bumps in my pool is a nagging sense of not being competent enough to deserve love, that fear will manifest in many places throughout life. I might get upset when something I do isn't perfect, when I lose a contest of some kind, if I don't get the praise I thought I deserved, or if I don't get the attention and reassurance I want from my partner. I can 'ride over the top' of those pains by distracting myself (or giving others a hard time for not behaving as I want them to) but riding over the top of the bumps never makes them go away. 

As the sandscape of the ocean affects the pattern of its waves and currents, the mudscape of our emotional mud puddles affects the pattern of our daily experience. If we want to smooth them out we need first to look at them directly and be willing to engage with them (if the Buddha’s first and second noble truths are ringing in your ears that is appropriate).

Now there’s a chance that the parents out there reading this might have something like the following script flowing through their mind at the moment: what a luxury to be able to sit and read the paper in a cafe – there is no such luxury for parents! While it may be that this particular activity is rather difficult with kids, that doesn’t mean that non-busy time is inaccessible for parents, it’s just that it might need to be traded for some busy time.

So perhaps your children could play one sport each rather than three, maybe they don’t need to learn an instrument if they don’t want, maybe their entire weekend doesn’t have to be filled with scheduled activities that require Mum and Dad to supervise or chauffer. It might mean that you have to choose some ‘being time’ together rather than it all being ‘doing time’, or possibly seize the moments in between activities to spend as quiet time rather than automatically move to the next thing on the to-do list. Parenting definitely presents its challenges to finding quiet time but that doesn’t mean it’s not do-able. Some parents I know get a babysitter once a month for ‘date night’ with their spouse – why not ‘quiet night’ with yourself while your spouse takes the kids out?

At the heart of it, there essentially needs to be a valuing of slow time – time to allow our body/mind a rest from constantly receiving stimulatory data and give it a chance to digest it, to process it. In truth your sub-conscious will do some of this for you during sleep among other times, but you still need time that is quiet enough to hear what it has found. If you genuinely value it, you will find a way to it. It may take some time and effort to disentangle yourself from your current environment’s expectations of access to you, but it’s possible. For those like me who run their own business, it can be as simple as a willingness to trade income for time – to buy your time back.  I am in the process of doing this right now.

Of course this can bring up other issues such as a clinging to material things. Luckily my husband and I have very similar values with regard to money and material things. We have fairly modest needs, we both know from experience that buying stuff doesn’t bring any kind of lasting happiness, and we’ve both managed to free ourselves from the hypnotic treadmill of the ascending corporate career. If one of us still needed those things it would be a more difficult road to trading money for my time but nevertheless still an achievable one depending on how much value I put on it. Regardless of how accessible the ‘working less’ arrangement is for you, you can, in your current arrangement, at least learn how to say no to more work if it will push you into activity overload. That is a skill that can be learned and often an interesting developmental challenge in itself for some people.

Whether fleeing boredom is a hindrance to our development really depends on the intention behind our launch into activity. Are we launching because life just doesn’t seem okay unless we get a pleasure hit? Are we launching because of a desire to avoid the growing awareness of internal disquiet? Or is the activity really necessary to keep the wheels turning or to honour another noble value besides personal growth?

If we want progress along a path to this kind of peace and joy that is not dependent on the world around us conforming to our own script, perhaps we need to do less, slow down, and let the sediment of our own body/mind's puddle settle. That might allow us to see clearly how our experience works which is what happened for the Buddha during his awakening.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Friendliness v loving-kindness

The Buddha identified four characteristics or signs of an awakened mind and these are experiences that are helpful to recognise and cultivate. The idea here is that these experiences are the natural result of an increasingly awakened mind, but also that we can train our body/mind to more easily notice and access these experiences when we have them.

The four characteristics (brahma viharas in Pali) are usually stated as loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity. There are two of these translations that don't sit quite right for me. The first, and the one I want to focus on here, is 'loving-kindness' (metta in Pali). I've even heard this translated, or should I say mis-heard as love and kindness :-).  Jason Siff and others translate it slightly differently as 'friendliness'. For me, this is a much more helpful translation for the secular world. (For completeness' sake, the other one I'd like to adjust for the modern world is 'sympathetic joy' - I think 'empathic joy' communicates the meaning slighly better.)

There are two main reasons I prefer 'friendliness' to 'loving-kindness'. First, loving-kindness sounds pious to me and therefore inaccessible. It sounds like something only saints feel. It is a very strong term - not only are you feeling kindly but you're feeling loving towards the person you're being kind to. It actually conjures images for me of someone in flowing robes with a halo sitting softly above their head, gazing gently at a child. It doesn't feel realistic or accessible for a normal human being. It also feels like something that is only appropriate to show to certain people - children and other lesser beings. The idea of showing 'loving kindness' to a burly biker for example doesn't seem to fit. However being friendly with him, I can do.

That brings me to the second reason. If I don't know that feeling, if it's not accessible to me, then it's pretty hard to cultivate it. My guess is most people could point to some interaction in the past day, or at least the past week, that was motivated by and characterised by friendliness. As I've observed my own experience over the past few years I've found that whenever I'm not caught up in my own hungers for things, my natural state is actually quite friendly. This is an important point because it means I can observe the causes and conditions of friendliness in my own life, I can focus on and really take in the feeling when it's present (see some practical tips for this in Rick Hanson's 'Buddha's Brain'), and in doing so naturally incline my body/mind to that attitude. That feels very do-able because I know the feeling of friendliness. When I think of 'loving-kindness' I have nothing to work with as I just don't feel saintly enough.

There is a well known Buddhist guided meditation that focuses on metta. It too, has never felt quite right to me. It says things like 'may all beings be well and happy'. As I hear these words I always feel incredulous because I know darned well that all beings are not well and happy - indeed the very wellness and happiness of many creatures relies upon other creatures being captured and eaten. My understanding is that the idea of this meditation is to strengthen the well-wishing muscle (neural connections in our brain really). This idea isn't without its merit but I think I need to find other words that feel more realistic.

Has anyone written their own 'metta meditation' that works for them? If so, I'd love to hear it.

For more on cultivating friendliness naturally (as opposed to trying to manufacture it), see Jason Siff's recent post: http://blog.unlearningmeditation.com/.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

To chant or not to chant?

I feel very fortunate that I happened upon modern secular insight meditation at the time of life that I did. The four words that typified my experience of the dharma were wisdom, practicality earthiness and humour. It meant that I could access this amazing body of insights that the Buddha had without having to wade through, and possibly be turned off by, a body of religious ritual. I was also lucky to be exposed to some excellent dharma teachers early on in my exploration, who were incredibly knowledgeable, wise, intelligent, down to earth and generous[1]

This happen-stance also led me to participate in a sangha [2] for the first time – the Blue Gum Sangha on the lower north shore of Sydney. There I encountered more of these interesting people on a similar path, embodying variations of similar qualities. Between the teachers, the teachings and the sangha, I had a sense that anything could be questioned and that was attractive to me too.

That was until one Tuesday evening someone decided it was a good idea to do some chanting at the beginning of the meeting. I can’t quite remember how it all happened but the upshot was a fairly emotional diversity of opinion about whether it was appropriate to chant at such a meeting. There was a good portion of the group who felt very strongly that it was appropriate and who seemed to have an emotional, dare I say it, attachment, to doing so and a belief that it was a good thing. It felt like I’d just found the limit of topics that were up for questioning.

There was also a good portion of the group who felt uncomfortable with it – who had aversions of varying intensity. I was one of those and the aversion came from two things. First, it reminded me of the Catholic church that I had left behind – not a negative memory but my habitual pattern was to tune out. Secondly, it seemed to me that any exotic ritual was a slippery slope that could easily tempt people into identifying themselves with an exotic image. While I wouldn’t say the group was overjoyed about having this practice questioned, I’m glad to say it tolerated it and weathered it.

A number of these knowledgeable teachers I’ve referred to have stated in one way or another, that the concept of ‘dependent arising’ is the core of the dharma; that if we see dependent arising, we see the dharma. Dependent arising is simply the observation the Buddha had that nothing happens on its own; everything is brought about by conditions being a certain way. His core teaching is that with awareness, we can see the conditions of our own experience and how they play out and this ‘in-sight’ allows us to let go of the faulty beliefs we have about things and the pain and discomfort that go along with them.

If the principle of dependent arising is correct, and certainly all the knowledge and experience I have to date concurs with it, then there are very few stimuli that can be labeled universally as good or bad, helpful or unhelpful. Whether they are helpful or unhelpful depends on the patterns of association we have with them.

Let me give an example. A couple of years ago I had lunch with an old client of mine Andrew, whom I’d worked for as a consultant and whose company I’d enjoyed. He had retired and we live not too far from each other so we caught up, had lunch and went for a walk on the beach while we chatted. On the way back to the car park I was chatting away when he said sharply “look!”. I looked and what had caught his eye was a small snake that was hurrying across our path from one bit of bush to the other. I love nature, including most critters, and I responded with delight: ‘oh wow, isn’t it beautiful!’. I remember Andrew’s surprise at my reaction. He too thought snakes were amazing creatures and he was expecting me to scream or scramble away in fright. He was surprised and pleased that I had responded differently.

This is an example of the fact that between a stimulus and a response, there is a gap, and that gap is where our six senses (sight, sound, touch[3], taste, smell and thought – the Buddha considered the mind for some purposes as a sense organ) form patterns of association that drive our reactions [4]. It’s important to point out that emotions are part of this equation – they are physical sensations. So the stimulus itself is not good or bad (in this case the snake), it’s our body/mind’s relationship to the stimulus that determines our reactions. As Rick Hanson [5] says, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’, so whether something is pleasant or unpleasant depends on what we’ve associated it with. For me and Andrew, to see a snake in the wild was a privilege and we felt lucky and uplifted. For many, it’s a fearful experience.

So back to chanting. Whether or not chanting is helpful depends on two things. First, what we are trying to achieve and secondly, what associations we have with it. With regard to the first point, most who come to the dharma do so out of a wish for more happiness of some kind whether that’s peace, kindness, calm, love etc. Ultimately, the dharma is concerned with the real deal on happiness – the type that’s not dependent on certain worldly factors being ‘just so’ (e.g. living in the suburb I want in the house I want, driving the car I want, having others behave the way I want etc.). It tells us that we need to understand how experience works and let go of the craving for things to be ‘just so’ and the faulty belief that ‘just so’ would make us happy.

With regard to the second point (the associations we have with chanting), it depends on what similar experiences we’ve had before – on what neurons have previously fired together with chanting-like stimuli and how strongly they’ve wired together. In other words, whether chanting is helpful depends on what emotional memories we hold in our body/mind involving similar stimuli.

So let’s put chanting to the ‘how does it help’ test. How does chanting help us let go of clinging to things, people and experiences in the mistaken belief that they will make us happy; that they will satisfy our ‘hungers’. Let me first answer for myself, and then share with you the answer I received from one of these excellent teachers whom I respect.

For me, chanting specifically does not help at all. In a general sense, it helps in the same way any other experience does – it’s grist to the mill; a stimulus that produces a response that offers some learning about my own patterns of association if I’m interested in looking at them. I have found it very interesting to look at these patterns and I did so recently at a meditation retreat with Jason Siff[6].

Jason is an excellent dharma teacher and a real frontier pusher as far as meditation goes. He’s an ex-monk and scarily knowledgeable person who has questioned many of the commonly taught ‘shoulds’ about meditation. (Interestingly, the Buddha himself gave very little meditation instruction – all of the ‘one right way’ techniques around today have been developed by others.)

Jason teaches an approach called ‘recollective awareness’ that uses diarised recollections of meditation sits to help develop insight. It’s a very allowing approach that, unlike most other meditation ‘techniques’, doesn’t try to banish thought but rather, encourages curiosity about it as a source of insight. Curiosity and gentleness are two key attitudes as well as a trust in one’s own process to bring up what needs to be brought up and a respect and valuing of that. It has the concept of dependent arising very much at its heart and encourages you to look at your own individual version of it.

So I was on a retreat just last month and was somewhat surprised when Jason announced that one of his co-teachers John, would be chanting at the start of the evening meditation. John began to play a harmonium (a small Indian hand pumped organ) and to chant, mostly in Pali. My experience of this went as follows:

  • Pleasure at the lovely warm sounds of the harmonium and of John’s voice
  • Feelings of gratitude for John’s generosity in sharing this with us (these two experiences were both in the first minute or so)
  • Awareness that the sound stimulus was dominating my experience and overriding/ suppressing my own process
  • Frustration at hearing some Pali terms that I knew but couldn’t remember
  • Annoyance at the tones of the chanting – they sounded pious to me and reminded me of hymns from my days of forced attendance at Catholic masses
  • Mild panic[7] as I realized that Jason, the frontier pusher, someone I trusted to always question things, had possibly not questioned the helpfulness of this
  • Mild anger as I thought of the attitudes I’ve encountered before that one ‘should’ value chanting
  • A whole big blank spot where I tuned out
  • Realisation that I’d tuned out for an unknown period of time and a feeling of familiarity about that – it’s what I used to do in church.

At the end of that evening there was an opportunity to ask questions, so I asked Jason why he’d included chanting. My perception was he wasn’t expecting that question and wasn’t all that prepared for it. He gave a bit of a vague answer (which is not like him) – something about these traditional practices being good things to do – and then hand-balled the question to John to tell us what he gets out of chanting. John’s answer too was pretty vague.

Over the next 36 hours or so I found my meditations were dominated with this experience and the annoyance I felt about it grew. At one of the group reporting sessions I shared this and having done that, decided I needed to talk to Jason about it privately, so I arranged a private interview with him. (Interestingly, after I’d shared my experience, it no longer dominated my meditations.)

So I asked Jason why he’d included chanting in the retreat. It turns out having been a monk chanting was, for him, associated with some positive memories and emotions. He also said when it’s done fully, it can lead to some quite refined mind states. I asked whether he was aware of the fact that it could also conjure up some negative experiences for people given how many ‘recovering Christians'[8] there are in Australia and the fact that this is one of the most agnostic countries in the world and I shared with him my experience of it.

I was pleased to find that Jason considered my input and on the two remaining evenings, he scheduled the chant to be after the last meditation so that those who didn’t want to be there could leave. Interestingly, the first time he offered this, about a quarter of the group left. On the second night around half left. I clearly wasn’t alone in finding chanting of dubious value.

I can imagine that ‘full’ chanting could indeed bring about certain calm or joyful mind states. This is partly because it’s such a focused activity that prevents the mind from wandering too far, and partly because music is an emotional stimulant. Anyone who’s studied music knows this – even to the extent that certain keys produce certain types of mood and feeling.

Most of us have experienced this first hand. There were times in church where the songs produced positive feelings, I’ve sung in choirs that produce terrific positive emotions, and I’ve heard some Zen practitioners chant quite beautifully which gave me goose bumps. I also read some research recently that showed that people who’d just sung were happier than those who hadn’t – I suspect due to the emotional stimulation but also maybe the fact that you have long out-breaths when singing – an action associated with relaxation as it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.

I’ve encountered three common objections to this kind of analytic thinking being applied to experiences like chanting. The first goes something like this: ‘you can’t reduce spiritual experiences down to scientific processes’. I disagree with this and would argue that not only CAN you do so but the Buddha would have done so himself if that research was available to him.

I think it was Stephen Batchelor who called the Buddha ‘a scientist of the real’. In his talks with people the Buddha de-frocked the ambient religion of his time (Brahmanism)[9] and the importance of metaphysical phenomena to awakening [10] in favour of knowing our experience directly and honestly without frills or hype. For people who have this objection I think the challenge that is available for them is to look closely and honestly at why they don’t want to look closely and honestly at this process. I suspect the answer is related to some kind of clinging to pleasure.

The second objection centres around the positive body/mind states that can come from such a practice. This raises an important point to clarify which is this: by questioning the use of chanting I’m not asserting that it is bad. I’m suggesting that it is simply a stimulus and that we need to be mindful of the responses that can arise from it. For some of us it will have positive associations and may lead to positive and maybe even helpful experiences. But for others, especially those in the west and especially those who have had similar experiences in religions we’ve discarded, the associations and experiences may not be positive or helpful.

The third objection relates to one very important and very positive function that chanting has served in the past. The Buddha lived in a pre-literate society where information was transmitted orally. Indeed for several hundred years, the Buddha’s teachings were remembered and shared using chanting as the mnemonic (memorising) strategy (this is also why the Buddha’s teachings contain so many lists). I am genuinely in awe of these people, mostly nuns and monks, and feel an incredible sense of gratitude to them.

However, Asian nuns and monks using chants to memorise and transmit the teachings before the year had four numerals in it, has no logical link to us doing it now. Some people feel that they are part of a long history of Buddhists by joining in the practice. This is an idea that leads to certain pleasant feelings (or a ‘mental formation’ as the Buddha talked about it). There’s nothing wrong with it as long as we’re not clinging to it or identifying ourselves with it in some fixed way, but it’s certainly not necessary for practice.  I’d even like to question whether chanting as a way of imagining a connection with dead people’s experiences IS practice.

At this point, I’d like to distinguish between the usefulness of chanting in particular and ritual more generally. I suspect that ritual can be a helpful thing in creating a sense of belonging and commitment to a group (e.g. a sangha). Indeed the secular sanghas I’ve participated in do tend to have fairly non-committal cultures and I wonder whether creating more of a sense of belonging and ritual might generate a greater energy to participate more regularly and generously (with time, volunteering to help etc.). However I’d like to find some rituals that are both meaningful and culturally relevant - a topic for a separate post perhaps.

I suspect that people who practice more devotional or religious forms of Buddhism may find chanting very helpful. However this blog is concerned with the adaptation of the dharma to modern western secular society, and in general, I think that the deifying and worshipping of another doesn’t go down so well in this context. (I use the word Buddhism here rather than dharma as the former is, in my mind, associated with religious Buddhist practices.)

For those who do have positive associations with chanting I think there are a few cautions – some questions to ask and honestly answer. They are:

1)      Does the positive benefit of this practice extend beyond the practice itself? Be clear on what the benefit is and how enduring and far-reaching it is.
2)      Is there any element of joy gained from identifying with this exotic practice – a feeling of having a group identity or differentiation from others that comes from participating in it? A way of testing this might be to ask whether listening to some uplifting secular western music would produce the same feelings.
3)      When engaging in it, have we given people the opportunity to opt out if it’s not going to be a helpful stimulus for their body/mind? Or have we considered other more culturally aligned alternatives so that we can practice together?

At the end of the day, we can’t guarantee that any practice that involves a stimulus, ancient or modern, Asian or western, religious or secular, will have a helpful effect for everyone. I personally gain a great deal from good dharma talks but who’s to say someone in the group hasn’t got some painful memory of sitting in a circle listening to a person with a particular look or timbre of voice talk.

What this means is that no practice that involves a stimulus of some kind[11], including chanting, can be considered universally helpful. In my view the implication of this for chanting is that it’s not helpful to impose it upon groups of people as something that ‘should’ be done, is ‘good’ to do, or that is ‘supposed’ to deliver some benefit. In addition, where it is used as part of group ‘practice’, people need to be given the option to be present or not. We need to respect the many and varied experiences that can arise dependently from such a stimulus.



[1] Notably, Gregory Kramer, Winton Higgins, Jason Siff, Stephen Batchelor and Patrick Kearney.
[2] Sangha is the Pali word for ‘community’ – another post is brewing about the use of Pali words.
[3] ‘Touch’ is actually too narrow a definition of this sense as we tend to think of contact with the skin. This sense includes all bodily felt stimulation, so it includes body sensations such as stomach rumblings and emotions.
[4] It’s also in this gap that awareness and values-based choices can come into play.
[5] Hanson refers to this saying which is based on the work of psychologist Donald Hebb. See The Practical Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain: Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius.
[7] This panic will form the basis of another post about the ‘stuff’ we create around ‘teachers’.
[8] This is said somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I personally did not find Christianity harmful and I believe it can lead to many positive benefits for people. However many also leave it disaffected, sometimes even damaged.
[9] See Trevijja Sutta: Dighanikaya 13
[10] See Culamalukya Sutta: Majjhimanikaya 63.
[11] As opposed to a practice like silent meditation which does not use external stimuli.