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The Myth of Multitasking (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

The Myth of Multitasking

We have the illusion that multitasking makes us more efficient, but it only makes us unhappy. SHARON SALZBERG shares some tips for getting work done well without getting worked up.  

We would like to believe that attention is infinite, but it isn’t. That is why multitasking is a misnomer. The brain can focus only on one thing at a time. We take in information sequentially. When we attempt to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously, what actually happens is that we switch back and forth between tasks, paying less attention to both. This does not mean that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, of course. What we cannot do is concentrate in the same moment on two distinct, input-rich activities that require our attention. While we may be able to talk on the phone and stir coffee simultaneously, we can’t carry on a conversation and text at the same time without losing information and time. Studies show that when people are interrupted and have to switch their attention back and forth, they take—on average—
50 percent longer to accomplish the task and make up to 50 percent more errors. That’s because each time you switch tasks, your brain has to run through a complex process to disengage the neurons involved in one task and activate the neurons needed for the other. The more you switch back and forth, the more time you waste and the lower your quality of work.

Strung out by information overload, however, many of us are becoming habituated and addicted to distraction. “Successful” multitasking has been shown to activate the reward circuit in the brain by increasing dopamine levels—the brain chemical responsible for feelings of happiness. The danger of this is that the dopamine rush feels so good that we don’t notice we’re making more mistakes. This is comparable to the rush you might feel while playing the slot machines in a casino. Stimulated and entertained by the flashing lights, the ringing bells, and the distracting, carnival-like atmosphere, gamblers go into a pleasure trance, addicted to the illusion of winning money when, in fact, they’re going broke. It’s important to be aware of how multitasking can stimulate us into mindlessness, giving the illusion of productivity while stealing our focus and harming performance. “When you are walking, walk. When you are sitting, sit,” is ancient wisdom. Hopping rapidly from one thing to the next, answering the phone while we’re shuffling papers while we’re sipping a latte, we fritter away our attention and forget more easily. In addition to dopamine, multitasking prompts the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones, which contribute to short-term memory loss as well as long-term health problems. This also means that the information we take in while multitasking is harder to retrieve later than information we take in while concentrating. That is why learning to be a unitasker in a multitasking world is so vital.

Rather than divide our attention, it is far more effective to take frequent breaks between intervals of sustained, one-pointed attention. A Web designer named Brian figured this out for himself with no knowledge of neuroscience. “I work for a community news site and have to be online from nine to five,” Brian says. “It can really fry the brain and get tedious. I’ve found that if I take ten minutes or so for every hour of work to do something for myself, like read somebody’s blog or take a walk, it helps me concentrate when I turn back to my duties.” Although this may sound difficult, Brian’s increased focus enables him to return to the task at hand with surprising ease. “Instead of hopping from thing to thing—which is so tempting with the Internet—I focus on what’s in front of me. Then I let myself dillydally to give my brain a rest. When it comes to work, less is definitely more in terms of feeling satisfied. And efficient.” While this may sound counterintuitive, relaxing our focus for regular intervals and pacing our sustained concentration sharpens attention and renders the mind more flexible.

Debunking the myth of multitasking, we become much better at what we do and increase the chance of being able to remember the details of work we have done in the past.

 

The Pauses That Refresh Us

Being more in touch with our motivations or intentions will reveal a lot about the ethical dimension of our actions. Before a conversation, pause for a few moments to determine what you would most like to come out of it. Do you want most to be seen as right or as helpful? Do you want to foster progress or hinder it? Also pause before sending an email, with the same reflection: What do I most want to see come from this communication? The other party to feel diminished or encouraged? Them to go away or increase their involvement in my project? And do the same thing before a specific choice or decision—What do I most want to see as the outcome? Peace or excitement? Ease or stimulation? You don’t need to condemn what you see or decide you’ll always see the same thing inside yourself, like a fixed characteristic, but try to become more sensitive to what is motivating you in this moment before you speak or act.

 

One Thing at a Time

In this meditation, we try to be more fully present with every component of a single activity. At a time when you’re not likely to be distracted or disturbed by obligations, make yourself some tea. Fill the teakettle slowly, listening to the changing tone of the water as the level rises, the bubbling as it boils, the hissing of steam, the whistle of the pot. Slowly measure loose tea into a strainer, place it in the pot, and inhale the fragrant vapor as it steeps. Feel the heft of the pot and the smooth receptivity of the cup. Continue the meditation as you reach for a cup: Observe its color and shape and the way it changes with the color of the tea. Put your hands around it and feel its warmth. As you lift it, feel the gentle exertion in your hand and forearm. Hear the tea faintly slosh as you lift the cup. Inhale the scented steam and experience the smoothness of the cup on your lips, the light mist on your face, the warmth or slight scald of the first sip on your tongue. Taste the tea; what flavor do you detect? Notice any leaf bits on your tongue, the sensation of swallowing, the warmth traveling the length of your throat. Feel your breath against the cup creating a tiny cloud of steam. Feel yourself put the cup down. Focus on each separate step in the drinking of tea.

 

9 Tips for Stealth Meditation at Work

1. As you sit down to work, scan the sensations in your body, from your head to your feet. Notice areas of tension and breathe into them.

2. Nourish yourself! Eat a meal mindfully, noticing the colors, the flavors, the textures of what you are eating. 

3. Try to perform a simple, conscious act of kindness every day. It can be as simple as holding an elevator door or saying thank you in a sincere manner.

4. Mentally acknowledge those who have helped you learn the skills you have, who have taught you to be better at your job. We are all part of a larger web. 

5. Notice how you are holding something in your hand—a pencil or a cup, for instance. Sometimes we exert so much force holding things it exacerbates tension without our realizing it.

6. Every time you feel bored, pay more attention to the moment. Are you listening carefully or are you multitasking?

7. Read an entire email twice before composing a response. 

8. Travel to work some days without your iPod, book, or phone. Experience the transition to work as a journey.

9. For an upcoming one-on-one conversation, resolve to listen more and speak less.

Reprinted from Real Happiness at Work by Sharon Salzberg, with permission of Workman Publishing

Illustration by Andre Slob.




From the May 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

May All Beings Be at Ease! (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

May All Beings Be at Ease!

Metta—kindness or goodwill—is one of Buddhism’s most valued virtues. With compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity, it is one of the four “divine abodes” (brahmaviharas) of the enlightened ones. In the Metta Sutta, the Buddha teaches his monks how to live a moral and upright life, with metta at its center. In these stanzas, he tells us how to live with complete kindness.

 

Whatever living beings there may be;

Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,

The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,

 

The seen and the unseen,

Those living near and far away,

Those born and to-be-born,

May all beings be at ease! 

Let none deceive another,

Or despise any being in any state.

Let none through anger or ill-will

Wish harm upon another.

 

Even as a mother protects with her life

Her child, her only child,

So with a boundless heart

Should one cherish all living beings:

 

Radiating kindness over the entire world

Spreading upwards to the skies,

And downwards to the depths;

Outwards and unbounded,

Freed from hatred and ill-will. 

 

Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,

Free from drowsiness,

One should sustain this mindfulness.

This is said to be the sublime abiding.

 

Translation: Amaravati Sangha




As published in the May 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Tree of Wisdom (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

EXCERPT

Tree of Wisdom

Oak and maple, palm and pine—trees are our closest neighbors and most patient teachers. HENRY SHUKMAN on the common roots of people and trees.

There is a cabin in the remote mountains of northern New Mexico that stands on the side of a steep, wooded ravine. It is hidden deep among the huge ponderosa pines that thrive in the high air. Near the cabin, one lone dead pine soars a hundred feet into the sky. It has been dead a few years now and is known as the “Corkins Tree,” after the cabin’s last owners, and there’s a story attached to it.

The Corkins lived in the cabin for many years and stayed on even after they had sold the property to a friend of mine. They became good friends with him, and my friend was intrigued by the way the husband always referred to the then healthy giant pine as “his tree.”

“We’re close,” he used to say. “I swear, the day that tree goes, I go too. And vice versa.”


Henry Shukman’s latest collection of poetry is Archangel, published by Vintage. He is a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage.




Excerpted from the May 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

The World Catches Us Every Time (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

The World Catches Us Every Time

A mysterious beast captures your attention. Is it distracting you or calling you? It can be hard to tell, says Zen teacher JOHN TARRANT, what’s distraction and what could have real meaning for your life. Either way, there’s no going back.

Abiding nowhere, the heart comes forth
Zen koan

Distracted from distraction by distraction
T.S. Eliot
 

When people ask about distraction, I suppose they mean something like my life: I am leaving the house but I can’t find my truck keys. By the time I find them, mysteriously, my phone has gone missing. While I’m looking for the phone, it rings—it’s my friend, also my board president. Then the sheep make a hullabaloo about something so I walk down to the paddock, but it is just a kind of sheep party with baaing, while the border collie cheers from the sidelines. I feed the sheep alfalfa, come in, and sit down to write.

Then emails—a friend has cancer, someone wants a bio, a friend who’s a physicist has cool things to say about koans, my daughter opens a Google hangout from Tokyo and wants to talk about Jane Austen and also new uses of Ngram Viewer. I open Ngram Viewer, which gives the frequency of a word’s use over time, and it turns out that the words “distraction” and “distracted” were most used in Jane Austen’s time but are on the rise again.

And wait, here’s a link to a piece that claims that the thylacine, the Tasmanian marsupial tiger, which is a sort of totem of mine, isn’t actually extinct. With so much going on, it seems that I don’t need to leave the house after all.

Nothing is wrong with any of those chunks of experience. The question is whether I can have enough space and silence inside them to take them in and claim them as my life. Distraction can have a long arc, and until the end of the story, you can’t say what’s a distraction and what’s a calling.

  

Sometimes We’re Not Doing It Wrong

By distraction people usually mean that they were doing something and then switched to doing something else. Everyone’s mind does this a lot; fetching around is a consequence of evolution. We like to discover things and change our minds about the evidence; it’s why detective shows are popular. If my mind switches thoughts on me and I find the new state painful, or if I get fired for being on Facebook instead of the teleconference I had agreed to be on, I might think I’ve been distracted. If my thoughts jump about like puppies that want a walk, I might call my new state “madness,” which is a venerable meaning for “distraction.” Shakespeare uses it that way with regard to Hamlet. Telling myself I’m distracted is a way of yanking on the leash and struggling to get back to equilibrium.

The idea of distraction implies that there is a baseline way of experiencing the world, which we find familiar if often uncomfortable. We think we ought to avoid distraction since it takes us away from our baseline. But the opposite is equally likely—distraction might be an opening, it might be helpful information.

If my new state of mind is exciting, I might call it a discovery. I could be on the trail of what I love, in which case I would be destroying my equilibrium in a positive sense. Sometimes we are not doing it wrong.

 

Getting Lost

Since all moments have their virtue, there’s not a wrong moment to have. Let’s say I’m sitting in the night, meditating, and suddenly I notice the voices of frogs: ribbit, ribbit in American, croar, croar in Spanish. The sounds open in me such a sense of delight and spaciousness that I am lost. I could listen forever.

So in meditation I don’t think, “Wait, what was I supposed to be doing with my mind before these creatures hopped in? There’s something I need to get back to.” I forget who I am and trust that somehow I am being carried and all the time it’s fine and whatever I need to do next will appear when its time arrives.

That’s one sense of “Abiding nowhere, the heart comes forth.” Things step forward to meet me and I think, “Yes, this is what I came here for.” It might be something simple—a sound or a child running to the door. I’m not wondering whether this moment is good or bad; it’s beyond all that. Inside each shard of time is a glow everlasting. Getting lost and distracted in this way is what life is for.

 

Nostalgia for Imaginary States of Mind

I notice I make stuff up about what my mind was like before I was distracted, when actually it was about as distracted as it is now. I can’t find a baseline to return to. I don’t really need somewhere to stand outside of where I am. Which is lucky because there isn’t such a place. Not knowing where I am is intrinsic to creativity and innovation.

Distraction started early in my life, when I would wander up the road to get kindling and come back two hours later with arms full of sticks and memories of strange trees. When I first went on meditation retreat we were told, “Don’t look at the mountains. Don’t look at each other.” It was a kind of fasting of the eyes, but it seemed in other ways to be building a prison rather than breaking out of one. I had learned to sit looking out over wild valleys and mountains, watching the world be itself, and learning to bear being myself. This spring I like watching the narcissus push up out of the frost, the golden winter lemons that seem to lodge in my heart, the finches like jeweled, excitable tears. Watching things can also be meditation.

Someone in a recent retreat had a kind of dream vision. She was a very experienced meditator but as a person seemed inaccessible, as if wherever she went, she was balancing something that might spill. In her vision, she was meditating inside a large paper bag and had cut out a round hole, making a window. She had a view out of the hole. But then she reached out, picked up the round piece of paper, and began to sew it back in place. It’s an endearing dream, since it gives her an image for what she’s doing in her life and shows that the barrier around her is paper thin. Noticing seems like a move toward freedom.

 

A Distraction Is a Gate 

Long ago and far from here, a pilgrim was travelling in the hills. His thoughts were like clouds and dreams. He forgot to think, since there wasn’t anyone to think. He became lost in his walking.

He rounded a bend, and on the opposite wall of the canyon there was a peach tree in blossom. The blossoms were white with crimson in the center. No veil separated him from them, and suddenly the peach blossoms were him. The tree, the river, the birds, the sunlight, the morning cold—everything was peach blossoms. He laughed out loud. His name was Lingyun, and he wrote: 

For thirty years I searched for a master swordsman.

How many times did the leaves fall,

and the branches burst into bud?

But from the moment I saw the peach blossoms,

I’ve had no doubts.

It can be a shock—the heart coming forth. Anything, anything that we meet, is a peach blossom. An email about cancer, a phone call, the winter moonrise. When we truly meet any part of the universe, we recognize it. It feels like I’m seeing my own face. The things I thought I needed to be happy, I don’t need. I don’t need the perfectly respectable life that everyone wants. Mainly I don’t need to know what happens next. My own life is an unknown path through peach blossoms.

Centuries later, another poet across the sea, in Japan, wrote touchingly:

The village peach trees

were not aware of their own crimson

but still they freed Lingyun

from all his doubts. 

Meditation, particularly koan meditation, distracts you until, barely noticing how, you start to accept the strange magic of your life. It’s beyond effort or concentration. There’s no separation between you and what you’re paying attention to. You do what you love, and the simplicity of what’s here and now is called enlightenment.

  

A Few Things to Enjoy About Distractions

1. Distractions sort themselves out if we have the courage to turn toward what we love. Meditation practice helps us notice what we love.

2. What’s here has its own life. What’s here is it. We don’t have to hurry through the now. Now is not on the way to something else. 

3. If you feel distracted, trying to get back to a previous state of mind won’t help. There isn’t a there to get back to. The only place available is in the distraction you are trying to get away from.

4. Not only is there not a place to get back to, there’s not a me to get back to either. You can’t take hold of the past mind. That idea of myself was just made up anyway.

5. It helps to allow room for the universe to come to meet us. The reason I stop texting or checking my notifications is so I can experience more life. It’s the same reason I don’t reach for a credential or an identity when I meet a stranger. A credential is a form of barrier.

6. Even if you don’t stop texting at your uncle’s funeral, where you are is still it.

7. We rush through the moment by working out of a story about who the other person is, or who we are. But we don’t have to put a story world in front of everyone we meet.

8. Meditation is not about manufacturing a state of mind that’s clear, calm, or full of insight. It’s about interfering less and less with what is actually here.

9. The nature of mind is to move. Your mind doesn’t always consult you before it moves. That’s okay, kindness applies to our own minds as well as to others. 

10. There is not anything that’s not meditation. You are the universe that you are in, so the thing you think you are not, you’re that too.

 

 

Abiding Nowhere, the Heart Comes Forth

Oh and as I was saying before I was distracted…about thylacines. In Mole Creek, in Tasmania, there was an ordinary old-fashioned pub with a dark-wood interior, like something out of Tolkien. (It’s still there but I hear it’s fancier now.) It served farmers and wildlife people with weathered hands and creaky knees, smoking in the corners. Inside the pub were posters, letters, and clippings about the thylacine, and it was clear that the place was devoted to the notion that the thylacine still exists in some dimension of the universe—as a mythical beast like, say, a griffin. On the walls I read of a theory that our holding the thylacine in reverie is itself a kind of existence for it. I found the notion encouraging.

This marvelous perhaps-not-quite-extinct creature touches on the nature of things—that we don’t have to know where our mind is, or where it belongs. It belongs in the universe; it is universe. Every time we are distracted, we are falling into the Earth and the stars. The world catches us each time.

No matter how many losses we have, the world doesn’t forget to be itself. There’s not a world to go back to before it became the way it is, before the climate changed or the catastrophe happened. We can’t go back to a time before, but we can accompany each other; we can show up for what is here. Abiding nowhere sides with the involuntary, the gift of the world, the heart that appears in every moment. As I write this, the hills are brown with drought, the gray whales are migrating around the Point Reyes Light, and a few apricot blossoms are struggling out into frosty air. Just to breathe, to walk about, to see fog over the coastal range is a joy that cannot be numbered or managed or lost. Abiding nowhere, the heart comes forth.



John Tarrant is the director of Pacific Zen Institute and the author of  
Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life.

Illustraton(s) by Mark T Morse.




From the May 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

George Saunders on Kindness (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

George Saunders on Kindness

The famed writer talks about a little girl named Ellen, a failure of kindness, and a convocation speech that went viral.

True story: A longtime Western Buddhist was meeting with a famous old lama for the last time. The master beckoned the student to approach. The student came close, figuring he was going to receive the master’s pithiest and most secret instruction. The master whispered his final teaching: “Be kind.”

Kindness is, with wisdom, the essence of the Buddhist path, and of life itself. Perhaps there is only one thing we long for more than to be treated kindly. It is to be kind people ourselves.

Our deep longing for kindness is reflected in the surprising response to a simple eight-minute convocation speech. It was delivered by the great American writer George Saunders (Tenth of December, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia) to last year’s graduates of Syracuse University, where he teaches. Three months after he gave the speech, a transcript was published on the New York Times website, and it went viral.

 Saunders told the graduates a simple story: of Ellen, a shy girl in his seventh-grade class, and his failure to be kind to her. His meditation on such “failures of kindness,” and why they’re our greatest regret, is now a small, inspiring book entitled Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness.

When I spoke to Saunders, he was shy about his unexpected role as a spokesman for kindness and humble—unnecessarily so—about his Buddhist practice. But in an era when values like kindness and compassion are often put down, he’s talking thoughtfully and bravely about what needs to be at the very core of our lives and our society.

Melvin McLeod

 

How did you decide on the theme of kindness for your convocation speech?

I first gave a version of this speech to my daughter’s middle-school graduating class. Because I knew and loved those kids, and also didn’t want to look like an old fogey, my intention was to be really truthful with them, even at the cost of my own dignity.

First I considered the banalities you would normally use on an occasion like this. But, I thought, these kids are better looking than I am, they’re in a better school, and they probably won’t make the same mistakes I did. So anything I could tell them they’ll figure out on their own, and they need to make their own mistakes anyway. The only advantage I had over them was about forty years of living.

When I looked through those forty years, I found I didn’t really regret that much. But there was one thing that seemed urgent to say. I wanted to tell them that if I could go back in time, there was one thing I really would change—the times in my life when, because of anxiety or fear, I missed a chance to say a kind word or help somebody out. Scanning the horizon of my life, those were the deeply regretted bumps in the road I wish I could go back and change.

 

The personal “failure of kindness” you talk about involved Ellen, a girl in your seventh-grade class who was being bullied. You weren’t mean to her yourself, but you failed to be kind to her.

Originally, the conceit of the speech was, “What do I remember of being in the seventh grade?” But there really was nothing except this one thing, which stung. When I was a kid, I was a very enthusiastic Catholic, and this was the first time I felt myself fall away from myself. I kind of knew what Jesus would have done in that situation, but in the heat of the moment I thought, “I can’t do that. That’s too hard.” It’s like I was watching myself and was a little disappointed that I had failed in that way.

When the speech went out there, I heard from many people who said, “I knew a girl like that too” or “I had a similar failing in my life.” Maybe we all remember when we first fell away from that pure vision of ourselves, and it sticks in our memory.

 

If failures of kindness are our greatest regret, is that because being kind is our greatest aspiration, our deepest heart’s wish?

And it’s our greatest ecstasy. Those times when the differentiation between yourself and another person vanishes in a kind of spontaneous moment of outreach are deeply, deeply rich.

If you cast your mind toward the people in your life who’ve been kindest to you, you feel an incredible rush of warmth and gratitude that never goes away. I dedicated this book on kindness to my grandparents, who believed in me no matter what I did. Not for any objective reason, but just because I was me. They knew me inside and out and nevertheless approved of me. I think that creates a kind of gratitude you never forget.

When you’re young and have the feeling you’re loved, you sort of feel it’s the world loving you. The quality of that love gets turned around, and that’s how you regard others. So if someone has been kind and generous and selfless to you once, you know the possibility exists. You internalize that, and in your future dealings with the world, you assume that’s possible.

 

A couple of months after you gave this speech, it went viral on the Internet. What was your reaction?

Surprise, because on the day of the speech it was no big deal. I think about a third of the kids were asleep. It wasn’t a sensation. So I was gratified but mystified. I didn’t quite understand why it had that effect.

Actually, I was happy the talk was only eight minutes long, because I could tell a story about a failure of kindness and give a little idea of why it happened. If it had been a twenty-minute speech, I’d have been in trouble. At eight minutes, I could sort of say, Hey everybody, be kind! But the next step is real tricky. Let’s say we all resolve to be kind—what do we do? That’s where the real heavy spiritual lifting starts. How do we know in a given situation what would benefit somebody? How do we know that we’re not just being big egotists and intruding when we aren’t needed? The more I think about it, the more complicated it is. It’s like a trap door opens and you get led to the really deep spiritual questions.

 

Since the Reagan era, there’s been a concerted campaign to denigrate emotions such as kindness and compassion—things Margaret Thatcher called “wet”—and promote more “realistic” values such as strength, competition, and tough-mindedness. Perhaps the response to your speech means people are hungry now for more kindness in their lives and in our society.

I think the American psyche right now is a bit like someone who has left their house and left something valuable behind. And even when we do talk about kindness, we do it with a bit of an apologetic wince. Certainly politicians do. But a human being without some kind of striving for kindness is really hobbled. It is hard to know how to live if kindness and sympathy and generosity are considered second-rate virtues. We’re kind of not human beings in that case.

It’s really invigorating to just say it, you know. I’m a guy from the South Side of Chicago. I’ve been in a lot of fights in my life and I’ve done a lot of rough jobs, and I’m not afraid of being considered untough. It’s kind of nice to say that these are indispensible virtues and we can’t go ahead without them. There’s no point.

Maybe it’s some kind of blowback from the Reagan era, but when someone talks about kindness, we think of a bearded guy in a turtleneck sweater playing an acoustic guitar and kind of whining. But Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela and all these great people weren’t afraid to be quote-unquote weak. Lincoln was willing to be mocked, to take the lower place, to be patient with his enemies. But really he was the strongest person in the room. He could endure a lot of abuse if he knew that in the long run, his acceptance of that abuse would bring about a positive result. His gentleness and compassion and patience were all symptoms of his great strength.

 

Many people feel that we live in a dangerous world, and we can’t afford to let our guard down.

Sometimes people say to me, in general I agree with you about kindness, but what about Hitler, what about terrorists? I think we’ve been misled—and I see this all the time on the news—by this idea that we always have to be girding our loins for the next big showdown with somebody or other. We act as if the wolf is always at the door, so we’ve got a gun pointing out the window. But actually the wolf is not that often at the door, so we can afford to go a little easy.

Ninety-nine percent of the time if you just do your best to be kind, you’re better off. It’s the basic things, like trying to have good manners, keeping your assumptions about the other person a little open, being willing to revise your opinion. And even these are pretty tricky. The times when you’re asked to do something about Hitler are pretty few and far between.

I’m fifty-five years old and I’ve lived in a lot of circumstances, high and low, and I’ve never gotten into a really extreme situation. When I’ve come close and had the presence of mind to err on the side of negotiation and humanizing the situation, it’s always gone better than when I’ve tried to steer toward confrontation.

I keep in mind that quote from The Philadelphia Story: “The time to make up your mind about other people is never.” So I try to almost mechanically remind myself of that—to see when my resistance or temper flares up or when I find myself pigeonholing somebody. That would take up most of our life, just to try to do that much.

 

Perhaps it’s all a self-fulfilled prophecy. We live in an unkind world because we believe it’s an unkind world.

The thing I’ve noticed is that if you go out into the world ready for confrontation, then confrontations find you. But if you go out with a sort of diffusing energy, the world reads that and feels more friendly toward you. So I think there’s a circular effect.

In the media and in our political rhetoric, we’re told don’t be a sucker, be firm, be strong, push back, they’re trying to get you. If you buy into that—even on a molecular level—the world smells it on you. Whereas—and here’s where it sounds corny—the world responds to you differently if you go out thinking, alright, I’m going to pretend that everybody out there is my brother or my sister, and if they are temporarily behaving like they’re not, I’m going to pretend that they’re just confused. I’m going to insist, through my mannerisms and my tone of voice, that I see them at their highest.

I don’t mean to be naive—there are obviously times when a person has to stand their ground—but I would argue that the best form of standing your ground is to be gentle. It often takes a lot more guts to be gentle than it does to be confrontational.

 

Is there any connection for you between kindness and writing?

I do a lot of revising—hundreds of iterations—and I will work for years and years on a story. A really wonderful thing happens in that process. In the early drafts, you may create a caricature or a character that you’re looking down on, getting some jokes out of. But the story’s form doesn’t like that. The story’s form doesn’t like condescension or puppeteering, so it responds by being boring. The reader feels it’s a static story, that the writer is holding all the cards and dominating his characters.

As you try to address that in revision, the characters mysteriously become fuller, because as you reconsider them you’re actually loving them more. You’re paying closer attention to them. You’re listening a little more closely, and so the sum total of the story gets funnier, smarter, faster, and the characters come to be more equal to the author.

When you go through this process, you’re making the prose tighter and smarter, but also kinder. You’re looking with a little more genuine curiosity at the character, and you do it through the prose.

For example, you might start off a story with “Jack was a jerk.” But the story says, “That’s a kind of a boring sentence. Can you give me a detail?” Okay, let me revise: “Jack snapped at the waitress.” That’s a little better. But it’s still a bit foggy, so your subconscious might say, “Jack snapped at the waitress because she reminded him of his dead wife.” And suddenly you’ve come a long way in terms of sympathy, from “Jack was a jerk” to “Jack was out of sorts because he was thinking about his dead wife.”

I think that process can sort of train the writer to enact the same procedure with real people. Maybe somebody bumps into you at the airport. Your first impulse is to say, “Asshole.” But because you’ve trained yourself in revision, you say, hmm, let me think about this a second. I wonder why he did that. Then your mind gives you all kinds of reasons because you’ve done it yourself so many times. It’s a good way of training oneself in the flexibility of judgment that we talked about earlier.

 

To what extent was your speech inspired by your Buddhist practice, or was it simply a reflection of who you are as a human being?

Hard to distinguish between the two, I guess. I’m really a beginner, but I do try to keep my ears open, and that was a place where my actual experience and the tenets of Buddhism suddenly came together.

In my writing work, I’ve noticed that if you do anything with real intensity, and with a real interest in the truth of the matter, then it ends up being dharmic somehow. Whether it’s basketball or photography or whatever, if you’re really, really interested in the truth, then you’ll end up with something that looks and feels very much like dharma, it seems to me.

 

Yet you do offer some specific Buddhist analysis. You told the students that we fail to be kind because of three fundamental misunderstandings about who we are: we believe that we’re the center of the universe, that we’re separate from the universe, and that we’re permanent. These are classic Buddhist definitions of ego.

When I thought about me and this little girl in the seventh grade, I turned my mind to what was wrong with me, to what was my problem. I think the answer is that, at that age, I believed so strongly in my own separateness from her, my own primacy, and in protecting my own status that I wasn’t able to make the right move. And those are dharma principles.

Originally I had laden this section with some Buddhist terms, but my wife said I should take them out. She said I shouldn’t make it seem overthought or dogmatic. And of course, the dharmic ideas are so beautiful and pure that anyone who had lived and experienced these things would see the basic truth of them. Because for me, that’s what dharma is—really, really trying to get to the bottom of this with no deflection and no confusion and no agenda.

 

This points to one of Buddhism’s great strengths. It doesn’t simply tell us to be kind. It shows us in concrete terms why we’re not, which gives us a path forward.

That to me is the most wonderful thing about any vital spiritual practice. It doesn’t necessarily say, stop doing that. Or if it does, it says, here’s how to stop doing that. Because you can only get so good with sheer willpower. You have to look into the way things actually work to empower yourself to do better.

Here is a wonderful metaphor I sometimes use with my students. Imagine you’re on a cruise ship in heavy seas. You’re the only person who’s stable, and everybody else is moving around in a crazy way. You decide to have mercy on them, and that’s pretty good, right?

But I think a better model is to imagine you’re on a cruise ship, and the surface is made of ice, and you’re carrying six trays, and you’re wearing roller skates, and you’re drunk. And so is everybody else.

So nobody’s the boss and the situation is unstable. There’s no fixed point. When I think of life that way, it sums up the proper level of mercy and tolerance. We really don’t know what’s going on, so our feeling of sympathy or empathy is related to our mutual lostness. Everybody’s lost at once.

 


 

Advice to Graduates (and all of us)

From Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness, by George Saunders, published by Random House

Here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

 



From the May 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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