Blog Introduction

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

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.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Mothers' Day motives

A couple of Sundays ago it was Mothers' Day in Australia. There were families everywhere down at the beachfront and in the cafes, some with flowers, presents, some just sitting together eating. As I watched people I noticed the variety of emotional tones. Some engaged and present, others seemed there in body only, dispatching their obligation to take mum somewhere on her day lest they be seen as a 'bad son' or 'bad daughter'.

Like all occupations, people vary in how well they perform the job of parenting. It strikes me as a great gloss-over in our society that family relationships are spoken of as wonderful close bonds. There are some lucky people for whom that's true, but many people have some shade of strained or pained relationship with their parents. To expect that everyone feels gratitude to their parents is like expecting that every gambler is rich. I personally know people whose mothers all but abandoned them as children yet now expect veneration for being their mother. In reality our relationships with our parents depend on our experience of being parented, who our parents are now, and in what ways we've grown in our adult life.

This got me thinking about motives and intentions. What are the intentions driving attendance at the obligatory Mothers' Day outing and are they different to the intentions of those actively participating in and valuing it? For some time now I've been testing the theory that all motivations come down to one of two sources: fear or joy. In some ways we could call the latter love but because love has so many different definitions I'm going to stick with joy. The fact that I haven't thrown out this theory yet shows that it has stood up pretty well so far.

One of the key elements of the Buddha's teaching is the focus on intention. Intention and motivation are closely intertwined. Motivation comes from the same latin root as emotion, 'motere' meaning 'to move'. So what I'm really exploring here is 'what moves us?', 'are we honest with ourselves about this?' and assuming we are then 'what do we do with the honest answers?'.

I suspect the vast majority of movement or action comes from a mixture of motives and intents. So perhaps some of these obligatory Mothers' Day attendees are motivated both by fear (being seen as a bad son/daughter; giving Mum something to guilt trip us with for the next year; getting in trouble with Dad; feeling sad at the thought of Mum spending the day alone) and at the same time by joy (wanting Mum to feel loved, wanting harmony in the family).

In my experience, the words 'should', 'have to' and 'supposed to' are often a red flag for some kind of obligation. "I have to go to lunch with Mum". It's an interesting exercise to list the things you feel you 'should' do or 'have to' do and then re-write them starting with 'because I want.......' and fill in the blanks. Then have a look at what you've written and examine the extent to which it's based on fear and the extent to which it's based on joy.

I've found that many 'shoulds' come straight from the imaginary mouth of some authority figure from the past, often parents, sometimes teachers, spiritual leaders or other people with some kind of power over us. We 'should' eat with our mouths closed, we 'shouldn't' take the Lord's name in vain, we 'should' offer a seat on the bus to an adult etc. I'm not suggesting that these are all bad ideas but I do think it's useful to look at what 'moves us' to abide by these obligations. What I've observed is that most obligations come from the fear flavoured motivations. Fear of shame for not being a 'good' daughter/ son/ friend/ sister etc. and the possible judgment and possibly rejection that can flow from this.

In a sense obligation is a form of manipulation. Behave in this way otherwise you'll suffer judgment or worse. From a young age I never liked it and sensed that it was rarely in my own interests and almost always in other people's. It's a way of getting what you want from someone without taking into account their needs or wishes. Take the example of a school kid being obliged to offer a seat to an adult on a crowded bus. What if we explained to the kid that the adults on the bus are the ones who are working hard to pay for the running of the bus and that as a school kid, they are essentially being supported by the adults on the bus. There's a chance the kid might be motivated to offer the spare seat willingly out of gratitude rather than fear of shame.

A friend of mine recently asked how often I speak to my mother on the phone. I told her it was once every 3-4 weeks. She speaks to her mother every week but doesn't enjoy it. On hearing the frequency of my maternal contact she is revising the necessity of calling her mum that often. I suspect if she calls her as often as she wants to rather than as often as she feels she needs to in order to be a 'good daughter', the quality of conversation might improve.

Another good friend of mine admitted to me that the only reason he stays in contact with his mother was because he felt obliged to. She is a source of much stress for him and very little joy. The good son/ bad son manipulation is alive and well in this relationship and the quality of the relationship, even when he does call or visit like a 'good son', is not great. If the truth is that his genuine motivations would have him lose contact with his mother, then perhaps that prospect might precipitate a conversation about their relationship. This may improve it. If not, perhaps compassion for himself might suggest he let it go.

Is there a 'shouldn't' coming up there for you at that suggestion? If so, where did that come from? Does it serve you? If you're a parent yourself, then maybe you'd like to preserve that 'should' to keep your own children in line? Does thinking of that as a manipulative attitude change how you feel about it? What is the fear of letting go of this 'should'? What comes up for you if you imagine that parents get no special treatment; that they reap the relationship they sow with their children just like everyone else and are honoured or not accordingly? Are there any parental-sounding voices coming up at this suggestion? Shoulds can be wonderful doors into some of the unquestioned corners of our psychological landscapes.

I had an interesting experience of this on a meditation retreat a few years ago. The wife of the meditation teacher would sit at the dinner table with her elbows on the table and lower her head down to the fork to get her food. I was surprised to find that disdain and condescension arose for me - quickly and strongly. Then I heard the parental voice instructing her in an admonishing tone to lift her fork to her mouth, not the other way around. I found it so curious that I could have such an instant and strong reaction to such a trivial thing. This tends to be what happens when we see one of the 'shoulds' we adopted early in life contravened. The reaction is strong, fast, negative, often contains fear (often of shame) and is mostly unexamined.

It is possible to have joy based 'shoulds' but from what people tell me they are few and far between (I personally don't have many 'shoulds' these days). I sometimes think I should do some work on my blog but that's driven from the knowledge that it's often difficult to get a big enough block of clear time to write. So I need to make myself do something I don't naturally do (structure my time) so that I can do something I want to do. The truth is, I love to write! And the instruction is coming from me, no-one else real or imaginary.

So the suggestion for action from this post is to identify the 'shoulds' in your life and how you feel about them. Is there aversion, fear or angst in there, and/or is there positive energy in the 'should'? If you're complying with 'shoulds' get clear on why you are doing so and whether that motivation is springing from fear or from joy. If it's fear, there's an opportunity for insight there, an opportunity to look closely at your beliefs and motivations and to question them.

I remember a participant on my leadership program realising that he did lots of things for his mother in law out of fear of her judgment. She had all sorts of 'shoulds' regarding what sons-in-law were 'supposed' to do (whom do you think they served?). When this fellow realised how he was being manipulated with fear, and how his mother-in-law's behaviour was at odds with his values of acceptance and love of family, he decided to respond differently. When we look closely at these things, that possibility arises.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Too much happiness

First of all my apologies for a long break between posts. I've recently launched a new venture - the Australian arm of a new movement called Secular Buddhism (see the link at the bottom of this post). It's taken some of my 'dharma time' and has its own blog that I'm writing too. Still, I have a number of ideas that have been brewing for this broader ranging blog, so I hope to be posting more often.

I was sitting on the toilet in one of my favourite cafes recently. Someone had left a pretty decorated piece of paper on the toilet roll holder, presumably as a message for subsequent sitters. Here's what it said:

Like a mother
cares for her children,
so does the Lord
care for His.
He keeps them warm
when night turns cold
and gives them
everlasting love.

I felt incredulity arise - how could anyone but a child swallow such a story? Empathy was there too - I could feel the seduction of safety - someone all-powerful who will care for me and keep me safe and warm. Who wouldn't like that? But I have to admit there was also condescension - not a feeling I like because there's an arrogance in it and I've never been able to find anything good about arrogance. On reflection the thoughts that led to this feeling were that for an adult to choose to believe this, they must be unwilling or unable to deal with reality. Instead of learning how to live with life as it is, there is an adoption of a belief to make them feel happier and less scared by it.

Stephen Batchelor speaks of the Buddha's teachings as an opportunity for confrontation (with reality) as opposed to what religions offer which is consolation (from reality). (Religious Buddhism is no different to other religions in this way, offering the consolations of an ancient Indian religious world view.) Instead of warmth, everlasting love and the promise of something better once this life is over, the dhamma is about looking honestly and unflinchingly at reality - the here and now experience of this fathom-long body - the good, the bad and the ugly bits - the whole catastrophe. It's about dealing better with the inevitable difficulties of being a human being, removing the optional difficulties - the dramas we create for ourselves, and experiencing the incredible joy that comes quite naturally when we do these things.

This piece of toilet-time reading got me thinking about why people choose to practice the dhamma. From my experience, like religious seekers, most people come to it out of the desire to relieve some acute or chronic pain (including existential angst) and/or the desire to be happier. What I've found both confronting and liberating is that while these are definitely results that flow from practising the dhamma, they are only part of the story. Unfortunately for those who like quick fixes, the means of achieving these outcomes involves living life more honestly and fully which means experiencing the pain more directly (rather than trying to avoid it) and more deeply (sitting with it long enough to really get to know it).

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald described research showing that happier people tend to be promoted less and earn less. While I know a lot of people in the corporate world who could do with less cash and more happiness, there were some other more worrying correlates. One was that 'very high levels of positive feelings predict risk-taking behaviours, excess alcohol and drug consumption, binge eating, and may lead us to neglect threats'. Not only this but people were more likely to use racist or sexist stereotypes when evaluating people and more likely to drop out of school early. It also described research showing that people who strive for happiness more, constantly measuring to see if they are getting it, tend to be less happy.

While we'd probably need to look more closely at how these studies measured 'happiness' before putting too much stock into the findings, it did coagulate some thoughts I've been having for a while now. They last arose when I received a brochure in the mail for the annual conference in Sydney called "Happiness and its Causes". While I'm a big advocate of Positive Psychology and of the need to overcome the negativity bias that our species has inherited, it has occurred to me that pursuing happiness too single mindedly can easily slip into self delusion territory.

One of the core teachings of the Buddha was that there is suffering/angst/ stress/unpleasantness in life (the Pali word that covers all of these strains of pain and more is 'dukkha'). The practical imperatives that flow from this are to accept that this is true (any human being can look at their life and know it for themselves), expect this from our own future (we're not so good at this bit), and when it comes, change our reaction to it. Rather than running away from it (e.g. distracting ourselves with work, drugs, alcohol, television, shopping, wishful thinking a la The Secret) or trying to forcibly destroy it (blame or attack the world in some way), we look at it closely, understand it and see how it works.

The next core teaching is that on top of the inevitable pain that comes along with being human, we create more drama for ourselves by then proceeding to desperately try and make the good bits of life continue unabated forever, and try and avoid the unpleasant bits at all costs. It is this very desperate 'clinging' to the good (and absence of bad) that creates the optional dukkha in life. While the dhamma doesn't suggest inaction to improve our circumstances, it suggests we first accept what's happened, then respond out of calm clarity rather than resist what's happened and react out of this desperation. It's when we let go of this desperation, says the Buddha, that a very natural joy and peacefulness arises of its own accord.

So while the dhamma is definitely about the good stuff, it's about a realistic path to it. There's no short cut or easy route; no all-powerful God who's going to take care of it all for you, but rather, the hard work of looking closely at your own reality, understanding it deeply, accepting it, and then living in a way that allows the good stuff to happen.

Endnote:  If you find this topic interesting I recommend an excellent book: Ending the Pursuit of Happiness by Barry Magid - a Zen teacher and psychoanalyst.

Link: The Secular Buddhism web site:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Everyday theft

I think it's fair to say that most people in modern affluent societies don't often steal posessions from others. However there is a theft that I observe frequently in this kind of society - one that's less obvious and yet a theft no less - headspace theft.

A few years ago my husband and I went on a holiday to Spain. We spent a couple of weeks on an organised back packing tour initially, to get our bearings, before going it alone for the rest of the month. On this tour was an incredibly irritating woman - let's call her Gillian. Gillian seemed to subscribe to the belief that 'I speak, therefore I am'. She seemed to think that unless she was talking she didn't exist. At first I thought it might have been nerves at meeting the new group of people with whom she was about to spend a couple of weeks travelling. She was in her 50s and travelling alone - she might have been trying to fit in. It continued relentlessly for the whole two weeks.

Over the time we travelled with this group I felt very conflicted. On one hand I could see that she was desperately lonely and hungry to belong. On the other she was exhausting, dull as dog poo and entirely self absorbed. On one 5 hour bus trip we were unlucky enough to be seated in front of her. She was sitting next to a young woman who was a vet and we could hear their conversation. Before a half hour was up we knew the name and breed of every dog she and every one of her family members had ever had, what they were like, what they would and wouldn't eat, every ailment that had ever befallen them, what they died of and where they were buried. Finally the young vet managed to get in one (interesting) story and not two minutes into it we could hear Gillian's camera clicking - she'd finished talking so was taking photos out the bus window.

It didn't take long before even our most patient, 'nice', accommodating fellow travellers perfected the art of avoiding her as we left our accommodations on our 'free' days. There was strategic positioning on buses, trains and dinner tables to get away from her. I found myself starting to be rude to her to try and get the message through as it was almost a physical pain to me to be unable to let my brain rest. (The photo below is me and my fellow travellers being talked at...'Gillian' is out of view.)

It was like Gillian had an invisible one way mirror all around her - everything was a means of seeing her own reflection and no information or feedback from outside got in. I don't know if it was that she didn't know how to have real dialogue or she was just so desperate for attention, to feel seen. Either way the net result was she had few relationships and those that were patient enough to be with her did so out of charity, not out of a desire to be with her. She talked herself into a lonely bubble.

While this is an extreme example of a headspace thief, they are not a rare breed. I can think of several of them on the periphery of my life. They are generally partners of friends as, like most people, left to my own devices I give headspace thieves a wide berth. But what has this to do with the dharma?

One of the principles for living that the Buddha suggested (in the noble eightfold path) was to take from others only what is freely given. That probably sounds a bit like 'thou shalt not steal' but the Buddha wasn't into shoulds and shouldn'ts, much less trying to control people with shalls and shan'ts. He was into observing closely and seeing what leads to happiness and peace and what leads to less good stuff, then choosing your actions accordingly. So this principle is an insight he shared about what helps a person towards peace and happiness and what doesn't.

If we take my Spain story as a case in point and observe closely the cause and effect at play, we can see that Gillian was definitely taking from all of the people around her, a resource (headspace) that was not being freely given after the first 10 minutes of her acquaintance. This might have relieved Gillian of the confronting possibility of facing her own demons should silence fall. Having listened to many hours of her stories my perception was that her primary demon was loneliness and she was very scared of it. So she gorged herself constantly on others' time and attention, regardless of whether they were offering it, and the net result was a state of disconnection from others which ironically fed her demon.

Teenagers steal headspace from each other all the time as they try to build a sense of belonging by bouncing their self-images off of each other and having them accepted. I remember doing it myself - listening to my friend talk about herself and communicating a sufficient amount of interest to earn the right for her to listen to me... talk about me. If she listens and sounds interested or approving then that's a sign that I'm

However we expect that maturity brings less neediness on this front and an interest in and ability to truly attend to the humanity experience of others. Where this progression has stalled, as in the case of Gillian, it speaks of a demon that is ripe for facing. I have loads of patience and compassion for people who are practicing the courageous act of demon-facing, but much less for headspace thieves who are robbing from me to feed their demons.

If you're interested, here are a few questions to do a self-check on the extent to which you might be a headspace thief. As an interesting exercise, you could answer these for yourself, then ask a good friend who is likely to be honest with you (your partner if you have one?), what their answers are regarding your behaviour. If you find you are frequently thieving, try deliberately not doing this (the questions below also serve as some ideas on how) and then see what comes up for you - what feelings, fears, experiences - this will help point you in the vicinity of your hungry demon:
  • When you ring someone do you first ask if it's a good time to speak, or do you just start talking?
  • When in conversation, what's your ratio of speaking to listening? Is it less than or more than 50:50? Experiment with 40:60 or 30:70 next time you're with a friend. How difficult is this for you?
  • When you're listening to someone, how much of your own headspace is taken up with preparing what you're going to say next?
  • Do you respond to the signs that your conversation partner isn't interested or has had enough, or do you ignore them and keep talking? Signs include: they break eye contact, increase the speed of their speech, use a matter of fact tone that suggests 'let's wrap it up', try to change the topic.
  • How many questions do you ask when in conversation?
  • Do you listen fully to the answers to your questions or are they only a means of introducing your next topic?
  • For how long can you happily participate in a conversation about someone or something unrelated to yourself?
  • Do you talk over the top of others or cut them off mid sentence? 
  • Do you race people out of the talking blocks...i.e. if you both start talking at once do you steam ahead and hope the other person stops? Do you quickly start your sentence as soon as the last person's finished to make sure you get in first?
  • If you have something difficult to talk about with someone, do you ask first if they are willing to talk about it? When they answer, do you abide by that? (If not talking about it has negative effects on you, you can communicate this.)
  • When in company, are you okay with silence between topics or do you feel compelled to fill it in?
Of course what I haven't spoken about here is the flip side - generosity with headspace....for another day.