25 November 2008

Happiness & Its Causes

Today through the generosity of its hosts, I attended part of the super swank, professional and impressive conference, Happiness & Its Causes. The sessions I attended were made up of several short talks and then a panel discussion with a moderator. These notes are a bit more sketchy than I thought they were, but hopefully they will be of some use.

In the first session, The Psychology of Happiness, Professor David Feldman talked about hope. Years of research have apparently identified the conditions for feeling hope:
  • goals
  • pathways (and alternate pathways when first choice or idea is blocked)
  • agency, meaning energy and motivation

Dr. Feldman also said something like, Whenever people have a sense of what is important in life and feel that they are working toward this, hope thrives.

Neurosurgeon James Doty, who started the Center for the Study of Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford. talked about compassion. He was interesting but there was too much to write down. He said that happiness without compassion is not happiness - it is just pleasure. He referred to "gamma synchrony," whatever that might be (but I really liked the phrase for some reason), and in general to the dramatic and permanent changes that can occur in the brain, called neural plasticity.

Scientists and researchers have lots of lists, especially perhaps when they've got PowerPoint and only about 15 minutes to present findings from decades of research. These lists, at least the ones at this conference, can serve us as reminders of what's important. There is a lot of crossover with what Buddhism says. For example, the conditions for hope listed above could correspond to nirvana, the Dharma, and viriya (energy or enthusiasm, of the 6 Perfections or paramitas.)

I was thinking of what my list would be, of things I would like to remember every day, things I am grateful to be reminded of. My precepts...in no particular order...

  • not resisting
  • being of service
  • awareness of thoughts and the trajectory of thoughts
  • orienting toward meaning/the goal
  • slowing down/meditation
  • kindly, engaged communication
  • self/bodily care
  • "When the environment and its inhabitants are enslaved by evil, turn unfavorable circumstances into the path of awakening."

This is a preliminary list but at some point I would like to concretize as it were a list of personal precepts.

Beginning the second morning session, How to Make Relationships Work, Wiveka Ramel spoke about relationships and depression. She named four factors strongly predictive of major depression:
  1. Negative feedback seeking - seeking external views that match his or her own negative self view. Preferentially solicit, recall, and believe negative feedback.
  2. Excessive reassurance seeking - about self worth, lovability.
  3. Conflict avoidance - less assertiveness and many other behaviors in order to avoid conflict.
  4. Blame maintenance - partner or friend has fixed, negative view of depressed person.
Some antidotes to depression (I didn't get them all down but here are a few.)
  • Distancing self (though whatever methods) from rigidly held conceptions.
  • Inducing spaciousness
  • Not believing thoughts and interpretations as truth.
She also mentioned a new kind of therapy called Acceptance and Committment Therapy (ACT) whose goal is to induce psychological flexibility.

Eponymous Margaret Cullen talked about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. She used the phrase 'gentle or even affectionate mindfulness,' which I appreciated very much.

Dan Bryant talked about expectations and said, 'our rules for other people are universally unenforceable." He recommended these books and authors:
  • Forgive for Good by Frederic Luskin
  • If the Buddha Dated by Charlotte Kasl (I do find the title of this book a bit silly!)
  • Ellen Langer
  • Carol Dweck
  • Grateful Thinking by Robert Emmons
  • James Pennebaker
  • Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. Also see AuthenticHappiness.org
  • Forgiveness by Robin Casarjian

  • Here is an article about the conference in the New York Times, which sniffed out and amplified all that qualified as California cheese-ball, referring to San Francisco as "dopamine-laden" (you need to have/create an NYT account to read it.)
  • Another NYT article about happiness (and t.v. watching.)

23 November 2008


Here's a link to a talk I gave about Patience.
Here are my notes:

Clarification of a few terms and names: Sangharakshita, Mahayana Buddhism and the Bodhisattva.

Sangharakshita – founder of Western Buddhist Order, into which I was ordained in 2001. Our Order is neither monastic nor lay, ordination based on commitment rather than lifestyle. The Order was started in 1968 in London and emphasizes creativity/imagination, friendship, study, meditation and right livelihood.

Mahayana Buddhism developed after the historical Buddha. It is more colorful and explicitly other-regarding, emphasizing compassion especially in the form of something called the Bodhisattva Ideal.

I got this off a book cover actually but it explains the spirit of the bodhisattva well:
“In Mahayana Buddhism the bodhisattva’s life exemplifies the resolution of the conflict between our own desires and the needs of others…The development of inner calm and positivity that leads to true wisdom is balanced by a genuine and active concern for others which flowers into great compassion.”

Wisdom is willingness to acknowledge how things are, how things work, how we work. Part of this is interacting with forms of life who don’t want to acknowledge how things are and also being one of those forms of life to some degree.

This is how things are: there is suffering. Most of us cannot accept life on its own terms. We prefer our terms. We stubbornly cling to our terms, even if on some level we know they are unrealistic. The Bodhisattva is willing to acknowledge things and beings and ourselves as we are.

This requires an enormous patience, or in Sanskrit, kshanti, which is usually translated as patience. Can also be translated as forbearance, endurance, tolerance.

Sangharakshita says:
"It is difficult to translate kshanti by any one English word because it means a number of things. It means patience: patience with people, patience when things don't go your way. It means tolerance: allowing other people to have their own thoughts, their own ideas, their own beliefs, even their own prejudices. It means love and kindliness. And it also means openness, willingness to take things in, and, especially, receptivity to higher spiritual truths."

So kshanti means not only patience, but a constellation of other positive, life-affirming mental states that we can cultivate: tolerance, love, kindliness, openness and receptivity. It DOES NOT mean gritting your teeth, harming yourself, silence, bottled up rage, or being a passive victim. When we are patient but we are taking care of ourselves. Sometimes we take care of ourselves by being patient. I think we can all agree that if not all the time, most of the time impatience causes suffering, or at best, it does not help.

Kshanti is one of what are known as the 6 or the 10 perfections in Buddhism depending on which list you’ve got. The 6 perfections of Mahayana Buddhism are 3 sets of paired qualities: generosity and morality, patience and energy, meditation and wisdom. The various pairs balance each other. So patience is balanced with energy or vigor, and energy is balanced with patience. In the end they merge. We might notice that we have a tendency toward one more often than the other. I’m more of an energy type, enthusiastic, which for many of us probably means easily frustrated and prone to anger. It’s important for us to be aware of our tendencies and work with our habits. This is probably one of the main things we’re doing in Buddhist practice, bringing our habits into consciousness.

It’s easy to think of patience as being something very passive but this shows that that is not what is meant by kshanti. Kshanti is an expression of wisdom infused with energy, with loving energy.

Sangharakshita: “Kshanti is a form of awareness, an awareness of suffering in which one does not react with anger. “

Awareness of suffering is like a prerequisite for patience. If we can see someone who annoys us as a suffering being, and acknowledge our responsibility in that dynamic – well in a way that’s all we need to do. So tuning into suffering is important. Not to say that a suffering person is not responsible for their actions, but it’s not about that really. If you can look without self reference at someone who is shouting at you, you will see their pain. It’s not about excusing them. It’s about awareness of suffering.

Patience features prominently in pre-Mahayana texts as well. The Dhammapada says: “Patience is the highest austerity.” At the time of the Buddha and today people practice all kinds of austerities, basically self-mutilation, starvation etc. in order to be purified and achieve wisdom.
But the Buddha said, don’t need to physically harm yourself. In other words you do not need to go out looking for trouble, trouble will find you. The world is full of opps for patience. “Patience is the highest austerity.” The Buddha was a genius.

Before we go more into what we mean by patience, how about we get some agreement on what is not patience? What are some examples?

I was thinking of diff between patience and impatience and thought of the Taoist saying, soft overcomes hard. This is used in martial arts. Or we could say that Soft wisdom overcomes hard wisdom. By hardness, resistance, being brittle, rigid, these are not wholesome states. I find that my response to stress is to create a sort of psychological wall around myself. Toughness. This is what I often notice and work with.

Need to keep the energy flowing between us and the world, even if we momentarily hate the world. We cannot completely separate ourselves from the world. We have to learn to live in it in a way that’s healthy for us and for the world.

Mahayana literature takes a rather uncompromising stance about anger. For example, I believe this is from Shantideva: “One moment of anger destroys all merit one has accumulated through practice.”

Are we meant to take this literally? Always important to see the spirit of a teaching rather than getting caught up in ideas we’ll probably just use to make ourselves feel bad about ourselves. The spirit is that as aspiring bodhisattvas we want to acknowledge our connectedness with other beings. Anger can cut us off from other beings.

Heard a talk once where the distinction was made between patience with animate vs inanimate objects. Some people are patient with people but get super pissed off at inanimate objects, like the toothpaste tube, things breaking down, or the lost keys. Some people have a lot of patience for animals or children, but none for adults. But here I think we’re pretty much talking about other people and about ourselves. We may want to start with the easy stuff – that way we can get some practice for when the more challenging things come around…

So I wanted to get into something a bit more practical here. I thought of 4 areas we can be mindful of that may help us cultivate patience.

I ended up with an acronym, which is RED with 2 D's. R.E.D.D.

RATIONALIZATION...of anger or other unskillful mental states. For example, righteous indignation. This is us telling ourselves that our anger is good. Justifying our feelings.
Why do we always need to tell ourselves we’re right, or that we’re wrong, that we’re good, or bad? Doing this just puts another veil between us and what’s happening. This is suffering.

So, we have anger, nothing wrong with anger. Anger is energy bursting forth.
It’s more to do with expression that I think we need to be really careful or at least mindful.
In working with anger, we need to not harm ourselves or other people. Very tricky. We don’t want to repress, and we don’t want to cause harm.

This is why awareness of thoughts and emotions is so important. Awareness especially when they’re strong. That’s the test. What do we do with strong emotions? Do we pin it on someone as blame?

This doesn’t mean we’re wrong if we’re angry. It doesn’t mean we’re right either. If means that as aspiring bodhisattvas, we are more interested in connecting and in understanding than in being right. Understanding ourselves, someone else, the situation we find ourselves in.

I read a fascinating book a few months ago called Deep Survival which studied why in certain extreme situations, some people die and some people live. Mostly psychological reasons.
One of the points it made was that there aren’t any accidents. Systems aren’t perfect – they are guaranteed to break down. The people who can cope with changes in plans and actively work with them are the ones who survive. I think this principle applies just as well to our daily lives.
For example, we can be killed by stress, much of which is self-induced.

One thing that isn’t an accident is sickness. Sickness is an intrinsic part of the human form. No one on earth has ever escaped it. Yet, our expectations are such that we expect not to get sick. We expect not to age. Expectations are mostly unconscious.

Pema Chodron had a story where she told her teacher that one of his students had relapsed and that she was really disappointed in him. He told her that her disappointment was a form of aggression, and that what he needed was kindness, not her judgments about him. So relapse is part of the system, should be pretty obvious, people go back on things we say we’re going to do all the time. Why be surprised?

Not being attached to results. Engaging. Doing what you can do, and letting it go.

Soft spots around elaborate cloaking mechanisms. Vulnerability, fragility. Every once in a while we’ll get defensive about something. One lovely one for me are retreat and class evaluations. I really question myself reading people’s comments, some of which aren’t perfectly clear. It's very useful though. Whenever the subject of money comes up at our Board meetings, reactivity runs high…

When we encounter defensiveness in ourselves or in others, having patience. Some things we just can’t deal with at the moment. Sometimes we’re crazy. Being real, naked, undefended, happy, takes a long time. We are all at different stages in the process.

This should be called passivity but it didn’t fit with me acronym. You might think, If I am just patient and don’t ask for anything, people will walk all over me. Yes, they will. Does this mean we let people walk all over us?

Think of the dharma as the pinnacle of sanity and health. Does that sound like being abused?
I hope I have made it clear that co-dependence and patience are what are called near enemies in Buddhism. In other words, you might mistake one for the other, but they are not the same at least because of the motivation behind them. Co-dependence is motivated by fear, insecurity, confusion, or craving. Patience is motivated by an understanding of how things are, and understanding of interconnectedness that is infused with love.

So these are areas we can be aware of. Rationalization, Expectations, Defensiveness, and Doormat/passivity. But these are all somewhat after the fact. More pro-actively we can resolve to bring patience into a situation or to a person before we even see them. Engagement with challenges. When we get into our car we can resolve to bring patience.

If you’re already patient, what areas should you be more assertive in?
What are the challenges in your life? How could you benefit the world, yourself, the situation with more patience?

Mahayana Buddhism says, think of people, think of enemies, people who bug you, as your teachers. I try to do this. I try to accept situations I don’t like, and see these situations as helpful. This is counter-intuitive in the extreme. Still I often do not want to accept or acknowledge reality.

I feel I must be at least somewhat nonpartisan in this kind of a position but just to say I noticed a lot of impatience in myself around the election. I was disturbed to notice intolerance in myself around the election. For example finding myself thinking with frustration that most American voters are such selfish idiots. But even people who were mostly on the same page as me…it was just very frustrating. My own inability to openly communicate and be receptive or at least curious about someone else’s experience.

One of the verses from Tibetan Buddhism,the 7-point mind training: "When the environment and its inhabitants are enslaved by evil, turn unfavorable circumstances into the path of awakening."

"When the environment and its inhabitants are enslaved by evil, turn unfavorable circumstances into the path of awakening."

Thinking of other people as our teachers. Finding out what they are teaching us. Pointing out our hard spots, and since they are rigid, it hurts to have someone push against them, but of course that’s exactly what we really want.

The way we heal ourselves and the world, by stopping the fight. One of my favorite lines by Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

There is a crack in everything – this is part of our system. This is what we can bring our love and understanding into more and more, every moment of every day.

Ending with a few beautiful sentences about patience by Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet (trans. Stephen Mitchell). He’s talking about being an artist. Of course we’re all artists in the sense that we create our lives:
Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn't force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring…comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!

Here are 6 essays on Patience by Ratnagosha

Some other talks by me


06 November 2008

The Tyranny of Mood

I think in the past I haven't quite been aware of the degree to which biology is in charge of my life. These days it sometimes seems almost as if I am a puppet being moved by the strings of biology. A recent example: I drank two beers on the evening of November 4. Even though I hardly ever drink, I did not feel especially tipsy. The morning of November 5, I was depressed. There wasn't a reason on earth to be depressed on November 5, 2008, in fact it qualified as one of the least depressing days in history. But there it was. Things seemed sad.

Further, lately I experience an enormous amount of stress unless I exercise every day. When I say "stress" you may think you know what I mean, but allow me to clarify further. I'm talking about something almost along the lines of panic, and if I really tune into it I realize it isn't really about anything. It's just in my body. I think it is at least in part due to fluctuating levels of estrogen. On the positive side, all this means I have much more energy, and that I am really motivated to get exercise. I meditate almost every day and sometimes much more than that, and of course this helps a great deal as well. Lately I find that more than that is required. For balance, stillness needs movement.

It's amazing how my mood, caused by something drunk or eaten, by activity my body did or did not do, makes the world change tone, and yet it's pretty much the same world. This is so important to be aware of. To paraphrase Anais Nin - I have read nothing of hers by the way, but think she said something like that we see the world how we are - I am trying to see the world as I am. Rather, to know in each moment that I am seeing the world as I am.

If I don't move my body much, which happens during my daily bonding sessions with my laptop, and eat a lot, the prospect of moving around much appears to be a big chore. A good thing to do, the right thing to do, but not something I actually want to do. Rather, it becomes something that Hercules should be doing. But once the movement barrier is broken, once my body's energy is available, exercising is very natural and feels good. Now, I can't imagine doing without it.

On a less personal note, here are some of the main factors that studies have identified as reducing stress:

* Meditation/mindfulness practice
* Exercise
* Social support
* Positive but realistic mental perspective
* Enjoying outlets for frustration (hobbies, expression of feelings)
* Rejuvenating/relaxing regularly.

Wonderful Stanford primate/stress scientist Robert Sapolsky is a proponent of exercise as a stress reducer. Interestingly, he has cited studies indicating that exercise only reduces stress if you enjoy it. This is probably true of the other stress reducers as well. So get some spaciousness in your life, relax, and enjoy! Take care of your body! Unfortunately it sounds like a commercial, but for some of us, this is an important thing to remember.

Stress Reduction at Work Mindfulness Courses. This is a business I co-own with my friend Bill Scheinman.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky (on googlebooks)

The evocative image at the top of this posting is from periphery.co.uk.

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