A friend of mine often says, “I understand that bad things happen to good people.  I just can’t understand how good things happen to bad people.  What happened to karma!?”    We’d go round that one for most of an evening until finally we’d have to admit that it’s our perception of “good” and “bad” that is the problem.  Once we’ve built the categories, everything else becomes a logic locomotive.  We start generating if-then sequences and ideas of justice and entitlements, forgetting that karma has nothing to do with a Last (or Lasting) Judgement.

To paraphrase Sylvia Boorstein, we get what we get.  My nemeses get what they get.  My friends get what they get.  The fact that I choose to label them as Adversaries or Dear Ones is what gives their successes such power over me.  More to the point, when I’m caught in concepts of deservingness, I miss the generosity of people around me.

A few years ago a colleague was diagnosed with cancer.  He worked two doors down from me and I had heard about it but hadn’t seen him.  Coming out of my office one day, I was greeted by this familiar person in my waiting room – a cartoonish sketch of someone I knew.  It was my friend, physically dramatically changed from the cancer treatments.  But I would have recognized those sparkling eyes anywhere!  We went into my office and his first words were, “How is Frank?  I heard about his surgery!”  I was amazed and confused.  Why was he concerned about Frank who was fine and recovering?   How could he be so thrilled about Frank’s positive prognosis when he was on his way to a last-ditch effort at a treatment?

He seemed content.  His life was a series of unending gifts – the medical students he had taught and mentored, the family who grew with grace and fortitude, friends who had walked with him in laughter and tears.  He joined us in celebrating Frank’s “all clear,” embraced us, and said his final treatment has failed; he died three weeks later.  It seemed he was so full of joy that he was giving it all away before he left us.  This was a profound lesson for me in Resonant Joy.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have attained my friend’s level of unconditioned love.  But it might start in a little way with kindness.  Self-kindness and gentleness.  With saying “thank you” and “wonderful!”  Saying “It’s OK” and “I understand.”  With refusing to turn away from the momentary hurt.  Refusing to allow that internal gossip mill to grind down the heart.

It’s a start.

It’s a choice to start.

self, continued

I forgot for a moment who I was.  Am.  Well, in the moment that the ink spilled on the paper, I was the ball of frustration and annoyance.  And definitely not who I wanted to be.  I’d like to be this ethereal spirit that floats above such earthly nonsense as one would find in spilled ink.  Alas, that is not who I am.  Nor am I that ball of frustration and annoyance either.

We say that a lot in Zen.  You are not this, you are not that.  This arises because that arises.  I get it.  However, in that moment of spilled ink, there’s no point expounding on quantum physics and the “form is emptiness” argument.  The ink is spilled and Newtonian physics says, Wash your tabletop!  But from an Applied Buddhism perspective, this is a powerful moment: there’s a nanosecond in which to decide if I am going to practice my art or my drama.

A week ago, Maia Duerr asked a group of us what life changing question had we asked ourselves.  You can read the fantastic questions and answers here.  My life-changing question was this: “Is this who I want to continue to be?”  You can read the circumstances of the question’s birth and its life on Maia’s blog.

In the context of yesterday’s post on resentment and resonant joy, that’s a critical question.  For me anyway.  Practice tells me there really is this split second in which we get to shift from the automatic knee-jerk reaction to an event to something that is closer to self-kindness.

I’ve been watching that evolve in my days.  A note arrived that someone I knew had written “advance praise” for a book on relationships.  “Advance Praise” is publishing code for “we need to find experts in the field who can say something about this book to give it credibility.”  I know that.  My small self, however, had a “moment.”  “X?!  You got to &%*+@’ng be kidding me!  With all those divorces …???”

Resonant joy is tough in this case, and in other relationships, where there hasn’t been a sustaining connection.  In other words, without a consistent practice of sharing in the ups and downs of our path, the delusional process of who were are to each other can be very strong.  As a baby step, it’s more useful to see that none of this is about me – neither X’s accomplishment nor the apparent lack of mine (in the context of writing a review about this book).    Truth surfacing, it isn’t my field and I sure as heck don’t know squat about the capital-P psychology of capital-R relationships.  And… here’s the point of practice… X does.  While acknowledging X’s expertise is not Yippee-Yahoo Resonant Joy, it’s appropriate to our un-relationship.

My life-changing question is critical here.  Is this who I want to continue to be?  In the moment between holding up the glossy announcement of the book and the arising of the resentment, there is space to ask and answer it.  Resentment and soul-dissolving stinginess?  Steadiness and realistic appraisal?  It’s in that space that I honour what others have as rightfully theirs even if my prejudice says otherwise.  It is where I let go of wanting what isn’t mine and valuing what is.

What is your life changing question that can move you away from witholding?


Addendum:  Read an amazing guest post by Lisa Wilson on a deeper exploration of being kind on Liberated Life Project.

tent of thorns

We can’t work for long in a competitive environment and not begin to feel the twinges of jealousy or find ourselves measuring our worth by external factors.  I should probably say, “I” though I suspect few of us escape the poisons of greed, resentment, and delusion/confusion on this count.

One of my patients calls it an “emotional brownout.”  We feel all those tight icky sensations in the pit of our stomach, vision is murky, and balance is wobbly.  It’s as if there isn’t enough juice in the veins to get ourselves out of a very familiar spiral into disappointment, self-criticism and even despair.  And as the years go by, I find it harder and harder not to feel that spiral tighten into a steeper slope when I’m confronted with “things not done” or “things not unfolding.”

All this came became more of a foreground discussion between Frank and myself after a class we taught on the bhrama viharas: equanimity and compassion, lovingkindness and resonant joy.  We divvy it up in pairs as a balance between healing practices and nourishing practices, respectively.  Lovingkindness and Resonant Joy are the nourishment in a relationship.  The keep us healthy and build strength, like vitamins.  Equanimity and Compassion play a role as relationships struggle with the typical strifes and sufferings of just being humans in full contact.  The four together form a health regimen that attends to building resilience and care giving.

In the class, we talked about the challenge of feeling joy in the achievements of life situations of others.  You have probably read this bhrama vihara as Sympathetic Joy or Altruistic Joy.  Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that may be too limited in its vision.  Feeling joy for another is not possible if we cannot feel joy ourselves.  He teaches that joy must include joy in ourselves as well and is only possible when we feel peace and contentment.  In other words, the joy we feel has to have some resonance with the other and that resonance is only possible when we feel a level of contentment in ourselves.

One of the obstacles to feeling a resonance in the joy of others arises out of our tendency to measure our worth and the worthiness of others by external means.  And in that mismeasure of our true nature, feelings of resentment rather than contentment arise.

I’ve been noticing what that lack of contentment feels like each time I’m faced with something I think I deserve but didn’t get or when someone has access to something that I feel they don’t deserve.  Judgments all, I know.  That’s my particular take on it; your storyline may vary a bit.  Nevertheless, when it is one of those autopilot stances to events, it’s like building a tent of thorny branches and taking refuge under them.  For a while that may work to keep the hurt out.  Build it thick enough (and I’d have to, given the huge number of events that happen in my day!) and it’s hard to find a way out from under the pile without getting even more scratched up.

This stack are the dead branches from the climbing roses.  It didn’t take long to accumulate.  In order to cut those branches, I had to reach deep into the bushes and lop them at the root.  My forearms look like they’ve been in a cat fight – and doesn’t that just sum it all up.  Resentments arise because, when the event happens, we reach deep into parts of ourselves that deliver irritation and hurt.  The parts that feel “less than,” personally affronted, or judgmental about our own capacities and accomplishments.  In other words, the only person we end up in a cat fight with is ourselves.

(Thanks to Adam Johnson, Mickie B., and Steven Hickman of UCSD’s Center of Mindfulness for offering great insights to this topic!)