It’s A Wonderful Life

 

“Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.”

Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class

 

I promise I’m not skipping Thanksgiving to get right to Christmas. Though It’s a Wonderful Life became a classic Christmas film thanks to the closing scenes celebrating Christmas, for me, the movie is all about Thanksgiving.

Every year, I try to watch It’s a Wonderful Life on Thanksgiving night (and maybe again at Christmas because I love it).

Most of you probably know the movie, but I want to summarize it. The protagonist, played by Jimmy Stewart, was born in a small town in New York, Bedford Falls. George yearns for adventure from the time of his childhood and to escape Bedford Falls where there’s not much adventure to be had. However, his father dies as George finally saves enough money to go to college. He gives his college fund to his younger brother Harry and stays behind to run the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, his father and uncle’s business. When he graduates, rather than returning home to give George an escape from Bedford Falls, the newly-married Harry accepts an out-town-job at George’s urging once he hears it’s a great opportunity. George marries and misses his honeymoon thanks to spending all of his money to save the Building and Loan during a run on the bank. He moves with his wife Mary into a rundown home that they must fix up, drives a beat up old car, and has four children that make the budget even tighter. Thanks to being deaf in one ear as a result of saving Harry, who had fallen through the ice when they were children, George doesn’t even leave Bedford Falls to serve in WWII. Eventually George ends up on Christmas Eve considering suicide because his uncle has lost deposit money (well, had it stolen by the awful Mr. Potter), and the only solution George can think of is killing himself for the insurance money.

You can see why I love such an uplifting movie, right?

It was never a conscious decision to link It’s a Wonderful Life with Thanksgiving, but when I reflect on it, I realize that it’s because this is a movie about gratitude.

George is stopped from killing himself by Clarence, the somewhat bumbling apprentice angel who’s been in heaven a while but has yet to earn his wings. From his childlike perspective, Clarence has the wisdom to recognize that George has not lived a heroic life like his brother who is being awarded a Medal of Honor for his bravery in WWII. George has done better, for, instead, every day George has made the decision to live his life in a way that is of benefit to all those around him.

Clarence gives George the opportunity to see what life would be like in Bedford Falls if he had never been born. It turns out, as Clarence says, that “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

When the town finds out about George’s financial troubles, everyone pours into his home, offering him whatever money they have on hand, no questions asked, because they feel gratitude for the quiet and solid difference that George has made in their lives. And George, who never had the adventure he wanted, smiles broadly, tears in his eyes, feeling gratitude, thanking everyone there and the now-in-heaven Clarence.

It’s a Wonderful Life was not a success when it was first released in theaters. Audiences thought it was too dark, and the summary in its bare bones makes it sound that way, but taken from a heaven’s eye view like Clarence’s, this is a story of light.

Ultimately, we are all George Bailey. Each of us lives a life that touches so many others. Like George, let us hope that we do that with authenticity, demonstrating everyday heroism that brings light and love to those around us.

As Clarence reminds George, a wonderful life is one filled with friendship. This Thanksgiving, I am particularly thankful for the friends who feel like family and for those dear family members who have offered kindness and support, whether they are here with me on earth or hanging out with Clarence Odbody in heaven.

 

Photo Courtesy of Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

 

 

Suffering and Magical Thinking

 

“Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow, attend to history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.”

Samuel Johnson

 

 

I’m writing this awaiting the arrival of hurricane Eta, which was maybe going to hit the Tampa area, and then almost certainly wasn’t, and now is. In fact, from the time I began writing to finishing this piece, Eta changed from tropical storm to hurricane. That’s what life is like living on the Gulf coast.

 Contemplating that unfortunate reality, I thought of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. Johnson was such a pivotal figure in eighteenth-century England that those of us who study literature from that period have sometimes referred to it as the age of Johnson. He’s not so well known today, but, to give an example of his influence, he wrote the first authoritative English dictionary, pretty much single handedly.

We probably don’t read Johnson so much now because of the style of his writing. He was very concerned with sending the right moral message. In one of his pieces called “On Fiction,” he argued, for example, that fictional characters should be straightforwardly moral and worthy of emulation or obviously unremittingly evil. Prioritizing moral message over realism and relatability means he hasn’t withstood the test of time quite so well as Jane Austen.

But his lessons were insightful, which brings me back to Rasselas, published in 1759. Written to cover the cost of his mother’s funeral, Rasselas is about the search for happiness, one of Johnson’s lifelong subjects.

Like the Buddha who set out in search of enlightenment, Rasselas goes on a quest to find the true source of human happiness, meeting others from all walks of life along the way.

I haven’t read Rasselas in decades and only read it the one time, but I’ve never forgotten the astronomer. He is convinced that he controls all aspects of the weather but the winds and laments that storms like hurricane Eta have wreaked so much destruction in spite of his best efforts.

I confess that I engage in this kind of magical thinking, at least some of the time and all of the time when it comes to Gator football. My lucky shirt is responsible for the Gators winning their first national championship in 1996. I wore the shirt every game from kick off to end of the the fourth quarter—all victories—except twice that season. When the Gators were inexplicably losing to Vanderbilt, I pulled my still-damp shirt from the dryer, and the team won. The one game I didn’t wear it, the Gators lost to FSU, but since I was there in person wearing the shirt at the Sugar Bowl for the national championship, of course they beat FSU big in a rematch. Those are indisputable facts.

But with great power comes a strong sense of responsibility. (I still to feel a little guilty about not wearing the lucky shirt when we played FSU the first time).

Therefore, rather than reveling in his power, the astronomer explains that he is “far less happy than before, and nothing but the consciousness of good intention could have enabled me to support the weariness of unremitted vigilance.”

In other words, it might temporarily give us a a good feeling to think we can control the uncontrollable, but if we genuinely live our lives that way, we will suffer mightily as we attempt to change the seasons or divvy up fairly the sunshine and rain among all the nations like the astronomer.

Unlike the Buddha, the astronomer fails to learn the Four Noble Truths or the Middle Way and stays stuck in his delusion of power, causing himself a lot of unnecessary suffering.

Tropical storm Eta will do as it will. I have my supplies, so I’ll hang out at home and live in the moment knowing I can’t control the weather.

However, I’m still going to wear my lucky Gator apparel for the next game.

          

Photo Courtesy of Michael M on Unsplash

 

 

True Love

 

“All You Need is Love.”

The Beatles

 

 

I am not going to offer political commentary because there’s plenty of that already floating around. However, the current political atmosphere makes me want to write about love and suggest that everyone listen to The Beatles because there’s an awful lot of hate.

I’m defining love specifically from a Buddhist perspective, certainly not the chemical cocktail of romance that tends to make us feel crazy. There’s also enough crazy right now.

Buddhism defines true love explicitly. Through practice, we can develop the four aspects of true love: metta (loving-kindness),  karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upekkha (equanimity). While our brains are wired to do the romantic bad-decision making obsessive romantic love of poetry and song, true love requires a little effort.

Loving-kindness starts with the self. The traditional metta meditation includes phrases along the lines of: May I be (or feel) safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease. These same phrases are then extended out to a mentor, a neutral person, someone who is sometimes called a troublemaker, and finally to the world at large. The idea is to generate an energy of love and kindness that produces a sense of connection with others. Clearly, our culture is failing at this currently.

The other parts of true love spring from loving-kindness.

Compassion builds on metta and on the First Noble Truth, for to feel compassion, we must acknowledge—without fear—the omnipresence of suffering for all beings, including ourselves. We must, in fact, be open to suffering, something that modern culture certainly doesn’t encourage and that we are not inherently prone toward doing. Like metta, compassion must begin with the self since to blame ourselves and carry guilt and shame shuts us down rather than leaving us open.

Joy refers to the ability to rejoice in the happiness and success of others rather than to feel envy. Often when someone we know—or even love—succeeds, we feel threatened rather than truly happy as if happiness were in limited supply and there’s now less of it for us. The joy belonging to true love genuinely celebrates the happiness of others.

True love requires the equanimity that comes from letting go and not attempting to control. Equanimity grows with the acceptance of impermanence and simply being with things as they are in the moment.

I am by no means claiming to have mastered any of this. Like pretty much every other American, I’m struggling with anxiety and communicating with those who clearly don’t share my fundamental beliefs. But I’m practicing, both personally and when teaching.

We’re reading Mansfield Park in my Austen class now. The novel is filled with selfish characters who cause a lot of suffering. One is Mrs. Norris, a character so hateful that J.K. Rowling named Mr. Filch’s spying, disliked cat Mrs. Norris. Austen has no expectations that we like Mrs. Norris, and we should not be okay with her abusive behavior. However, we’ve been talking about how to extend her some true love even as we actively dislike her. If we look closely, we can see that Mrs. Norris is a victim of a culture that valued women as commodities on a marriage market, how this leads her to a life of dependence and insecurity. Sure, she should make different choices and not be so incredibly unkind, but we can extend some love her way even as we don’t excuse her behavior.

Yeah, it’s a lot easier with a fictional character. But research shows that our brains light up when reading in the same way they do when we’re performing real-life tasks. If a character enters a new setting in a novel, the parts of our brains that would process moving into a new room also light up.

So maybe start there. Extend some loving kindness your own way. Then read a good book (I have suggestions!) and practice extending a little love to a fictional character who is a troublemaker. We’ll work our way up to doing it in our daily lives.

 

 

Photo Courtesy of Steve HalamaonUnsplash

 

 

The Disappeared Door

 

“Don’t think that happiness will be possible only when conditions around you become perfect. Happiness lies in your own heart.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

 

 

You may have noticed there was no new blog entry last week. Life became quite difficult, and I couldn’t manage to write one.

This week, things are slightly calmer—slightly. However, the stress has taken its toll.

Yesterday, I arrived at work for my first class feeling harried. I had too much to do and had received an upsetting phone call on my commute. Because of this, I also was running a few minutes late. I was still early, arriving to my classroom way before the students (as it turned out, the student since only one came in person), and there was no need to panic. I still had time to wipe down surfaces, set up Zoom, and complete all of the new pandemic protocols that have become part of my teaching routine.

But when I went to open the classroom door, it was locked. Slight panic. Just a little. There was still time for pre-class pandemic prep. However, I also needed to make an important phone call before class and required information on my computer and time to do that.

I was logical. Call security. Security unlocks doors. Of course, I couldn’t remember the number for security. Fortunately, our phones are miniature computers, so I googled the number Unfortunately, the reception was terrible, and the page wasn’t loading. “Breathe,” I told myself while I stood in front of that locked door.

As the page loaded and I called security, I looked behind me and remembered that the classroom has two doors. And, yes, as security answered the phone, I was walking into my classroom through the unlocked second door.

I’ve been teaching two classes in that same room all semester. Yet for those couple of minutes, that door had disappeared.

Note that the class I was about to teach is on Jane Austen, and my focus in there is the subject of the book I’ve written, which is the connection I see between Austen and Buddhism. Note also that my students do a mindfulness activity and reflection every week.

The disappeared door made me feel a little like an impostor for a minute or two. Who was I to be teaching these ideas when I can’t even see a door?

Then I realized it’s precisely because of disappearing doors that I needed to teach the class, that I needed the material as much as my students, that it’s a practice, not a destination.

A favorite novel of mine is Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. One of the main characters is named Door, and she has the ability to open locked doors through the power of her mind. Doing so drains her, though, so she reaches moments where she no longer can open doors and needs help as she undergoes a perilous journey.

I think I was a bit like a depleted Door yesterday. I can’t magically open doors, but in order to walk through them, I have to see them. If I’m too worn out from life, the door disappears.

As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, we can’t wait for life to settle down to find peace, calm, and happiness. If so, given the difficulties of daily life currently, we’d be in trouble. Instead, we can see the door and walk through it to find that all of the conditions necessary for our happiness are already and always present.

 

Photo Courtesy of Philipp Berndt onUnsplash

 

 

The Poison of Ignorance and Death Eaters

 

“After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

 

According to Buddhism, ignorance is not bliss. It’s one of the three poisons, alongside craving and anger, that leads to suffering. Ignorance refers to not understanding the dharma, meaning the Buddha’s teachings.

The most basic teaching is that initial one of the Buddha: the Four Noble Truths, covered in previous posts. Considering the source of suffering—the second Noble Truth—takes us to the teachings of interbeing (as Thich Nhat Hanh translates it) or interconnectedness and impermanence.

Thich Nhat Hanh uses an analogy from nature to explain. When we look at a tree, we see there is nothing inherently tree about it, not a part that we can separate out and say, that is the essential bit that marks it as a tree. Instead, there are the obvious parts of the tree: roots, trunk, branches, bark, and leaves. They all are parts that come together forming that tree. Yet, beyond those obvious parts of the tree are the other elements of nature necessary for that tree’s existence. The tree has been nurtured by sunshine and water. The water has come from clouds. The rain and the clouds inter-are. The tree relies upon the soil, with all of its nutrients. So the tree consists of roots, trunk, branches, bark, leaves, water, soil, and sunshine. It is all interconnected, and there is no tree without all of those elements.

Another example from nature is a rainbow, which exemplifies the idea of interconnectedness and impermanence. A rainbow exists because of the reflection, refraction, and dispersal of light in water droplets that result in visible colors in an arc in a section of the sky opposite the sun. The rainbow depends on specific weather conditions to manifest, and since those weather conditions will shift, rainbows are temporary sights of beauty.

Buddhists argue that people share these same qualities—that we are manifestations just like a rainbow.

David Barash in his work connecting science and Buddhism, notes that our bodies have ten times as many foreign cells as we do those with our genetic signature; 100 trillion cells, most of which are in our intestines, are microbes from different genomes not produced by our own bodies. That’s some interbeing.

In addition, bits of us die daily as normal and healthy change. On average, the mass of cells that we lose each year to be replaced by new cells equals our body weight. That’s some impermanence!

We aren’t very good at acknowledging that. We stubbornly live our lives as separate beings, refusing to change not wanting to admit that we will die.

I’ll return to Harry Potter for an example from literature showing the damage of such thinking. 

The main antagonist of the series, Lord Voldemort, suffers greatly from the poison of ignorance. Leading a group of wizards called Death Eaters, Lord Voldemort attempts to defy death not caring whom he harms. He refuses, as Buddhists advise, to acknowledge that he is of the nature to grow old, get sick, and die. Rather, he lives a miserable life, much of it barely alive after his first encounter with Harry, trying desperately and ignorantly to defy nature. Along the way, he causes great suffering for everyone since, in order to defy death, he willfully and even gleefully kills along the way.

While our own clinging to wrong ideas of an essential permanent self likely isn’t leading to murderous actions, we can cause great harm to ourselves and others through our ignorance. As parents, we may cling so tightly to that role and our desire to protect our children that we fail to celebrate those changes that inevitably will move them farther away from us. We may refuse to embrace the changing dynamics of a friendship so that we create distance in our attempts to keep things the same. We may identify so strongly with our belief systems that we lose all flexibility when new information arises.

As Lord Voldemort proves, all the magic in the world won’t change the truth of interbeing and impermanence. Our best bet is to mirror Dumbledore, living lives of flexibility, humor, love, acceptance, and knowledge.

Photo Courtesy of Matt Briney on Unsplash

 

Othello and the Poison of Anger

 

“Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot / That it do singe yourself.”

William Shakespeare, Henry VII

 

 

As described in the last post, the Buddha taught that three poisons lead to suffering: craving, ignorance, and anger.

Anger is an emotion, and there is no such thing as a bad emotion. Emotions range from pleasant to unpleasant but are not good or bad; this is not an issue of moral or immoral. We are human, and we are going to feel the more unpleasant emotions such as sadness, anxiety, envy, and anger. The problem is not the emotion but being unable to recognize that we are experiencing that emotion and in nurturing that emotion so that it comes to be our habitual state.

Anger feels unpleasant in quite literal ways. It can raise our blood pressure, cause us digestive distress, give us headaches, prevent restful sleep, lead to skin problems such as eczema, and, if we are chronically angry, make us vulnerable to heart attacks. In this obvious way, anger really is poisonous. Our body doesn’t like it.

William Shakespeare didn’t need modern medicine to tell him that. His play Othello demonstrates perfectly the poisonous nature of anger.

Written in the early seventeenth century, Othello explores racism, jealousy, and anger. The titular character is a Moor, which we’re reminded of repeatedly as characters often call him the Moor rather than by his name. Othello is a General who has proven his worth in battle to the Venetians, and while serving their cause, meets and secretly marries Desdemona, the daughter of a senator. All of this happens before the play begins.

The first scene introduces us to Iago, Othello’s ensign or flag bearer, who is jealous that another soldier has been promoted ahead of him. Because of his anger, Iago seeks revenge against Othello, using his poisonous words to do the trick.

The word poison is used nine times in the play, though the violence that results from Iago’s revenge plot never comes from poison but from stabbing and strangulation. Rather, the poison is largely metaphorical, resulting from Iago’s attempts to create anger.

In that first scene, Iago manipulates a previous suitor of Desdemona’s to alert her father to the marriage in such a manner as to “poison” Othello’s delight in his newly married state. When called before the senators to defend his marriage, Othello must answer charges of whether he did “subdue and poison” Desdemona to gain her love. Iago admits to his anger “like a poisonous mineral” gnawing at him as well as noting that Othello “already changes with my poison” as he convinces Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him.

Iago succeeds in his revenge by stoking Othello’s insecurity due to the racism surrounding him and by feeding his anger over Desdemona’s supposed adultery. Othello, blinded by his anger, strangles Desdemona in their bed. Afterwards, learning of Iago’s lies, Othello kills himself. Needless to say, as with any Shakespeare tragedy, the body count is high at the end.

I’ve taught this play many times, and I always ask students how they feel about Othello at the conclusion of the play. The bare facts are damning: he believed Iago that his wife cheated on him and killed her without asking for her side of the story.

Perhaps surprisingly, almost all of the students feel compassion for Othello (while thoroughly condemning his actions). Everyone recognizes Iago’s poisonous villainy. I think we also see in Othello how easy it is for any of us to be led astray by anger, how powerful and even seductive anger can be, leading us to spread its poison further.

Again, there is nothing wrong with anger. But if anger takes over, we poison our bodies and spread that to all of those around us. The stakes may not be life and death (though they can be), but when anger pops up, say, “Hi, anger, I see you. I’m going to come over here and give you a big hug of mindfulness so you can go back to where you came from and not cause any harm.”

Or quote some Shakespeare if you prefer.

 

Photo Courtesy of Jessica Pamp on Unsplash

 

 

 

The Three Poisons Craving and The Great British Baking Show

 

Mel: This week it’s all about stressed.

Sue: Stressed?

Mel: “Desserts” backwards

 

 

According to Buddhism, there are three poisons that produce suffering: ignorance, anger, and craving, and craving makes me think of The Great British Baking Show.

If you’re not familiar with it, GBBS (or The Great British Bake Off as it’s called in England) is a baking contest featuring 12 contestants who each week face three challenges with one voted off and one voted Star Baker at the end of every episode. The finale features three bakers vying for the title of best amateur baker in Britain.

I’m not a fan of reality TV in general or in these kinds of competitions that involve a lot of personal judging. I can’t stand watching humiliation and get anxious on behalf of the participants.

However, GBBS is different, particularly so in those earlier seasons featuring original judge Mary Berry. While Mary didn’t hold back with fair criticism, she was kinder than co-judge Paul Hollywood, who clearly is coached to be the tough one. Even when, on occasion, Paul crossed the line with being harsh, it was never too uncomfortable with hosts Mel and Sue (and later Noel and Sandi), teasing him and he with good nature taking their ribbing.

The true stars are the contestants who dazzle with their creativity and make me wish I could hang out in a pub with them based on how supportive they are of each other.

And that is why I love the show. There is a sweetness (punny) to it.

But there is craving too—and not only for those amazing baked goods, though certainly I often do crave those gorgeous masterpieces.

Alas, because it is a competition, our contestants sometimes allow themselves to be poisoned by craving.

Craving means wanting and needing things to be different. Rather than being okay with the present moment as it is, no matter what that moment may be, craving means we’re longing for something else, not appreciating what we have. Usually what we crave are the very things that won’t make us happy.

The obvious analogy is that we as a species evolved to prefer sweets because they were less likely to be poisonous, but that craving now means we would prefer all of the cookies, cakes, and pies of GBBS over the healthy apple sitting on our counter that is both sweet and healthy. There’s nothing wrong with eating pie. In fact, go ahead. But if we expend all of our energy on craving that pie, we end up focusing on what we don’t have so that we focus on what we lack.

Thich Nhat Hanh assures us that no matter what we can find something in the present moment for which we can be grateful and, thereby, find happiness. If nothing else, I can appreciate that my heart is beating. I am alive. Happiness rests in that gratitude not craving the expensive watch that will monitor my heart rate.

Some GBBS contestants suffer from craving. Rather than enjoying the moment of being on the show, they put laser focus on craving the win. The anxiety can become palpable due to craving as contestants hang their heads, cry, or even, as one contestant did (with a look toward the poison of anger) throw his entire dessert into the waste bin because his ice cream melted.

These twelve people have been picked from thousands upon thousands to do the thing they love best on a show that they also clearly love. Certainly, one can see how that would make one stressed (desserts spelled backwards) due to craving victory.

Ultimately, as Mel once reminded a particularly anxious contestant, it’s just cake.   The winners of the prize seem to be the contestants who know that.

We probably are all craving a lot from our pre-pandemic lives now. Me too. So I’m focusing on the gifts as best I can. I drive a lot less. I’m able to exercise more. And recently I baked banana bread and enjoyed every sweet bite.

          

          

Photo Courtesy of  Theme Photos on Unsplash

 

 

Right Mindfulness and Petite Women Who Kick Butt

 

“Four ounces can move a thousand pounds.”

Mulan

 

 

I once had a student come up to me outside of class and say, “Are you always this tall?” I guess with the change in perspective of standing right next to me rather than sitting in a desk looking up at me, he suddenly became aware that I can shop in the petite section.

Perhaps this is why I’ve always had an affinity for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the series that features Sarah Michelle Gellar (who’s an inch taller than me actually) as a petite young woman able to conquer any and every monster, even if she dies some along the way.

One of my favorite episodes is “Once More with Feeling,” a musical that features a training scene where Buffy blocks everything thrown her way with ease. Here is Right Mindfulness. Buffy is completely in the moment of the training challenge, not worrying about the reason for the training: an enemy she will have to face in order to save everyone yet again.

I was reminded of that scene recently when watching the new Disney adaptation of Mulan featuring another young, small woman who saves the entire empire of China.

Like the original cartoon, Mulan is told she must fulfill her duty, which, as a Chinese woman, means marrying a man selected for her and obeying her husband.

What the adaptation emphasizes, however, is Mulan’s connection to her chi, the life-force that is within everyone and connects everyone and everything. Within her culture, she is meant for domestic duty, but her chi is telling her otherwise. She is a warrior.

This is a burden.

Buffy and Mulan both carry burdens. Buffy’s burden consists of keeping her vampire-slaying skills a secret and, of course, slaying monsters. Mulan carries the weight of keeping secret her identity as a woman, fearing being discovered, and knowing that she is bringing disgrace to her family.

Yet they both stay focused on the moment. They both exercise Right Mindfulness.

Mindfulness does not equate with euphoria. It means tuning in even if battling the enemy.

Sometimes the enemy can be everyday burdens.

As I ran mindfully this morning, no music and tuning into nature as well as my body, feelings, and thoughts, I realized I was tired, angry, and anxious. That’s not comfortable, of course, but that was my reality in that moment. It’s week five of the semester, and I’m feeling some burnout managing this new world of teaching during a pandemic.

Right Mindfulness means that I don’t run from those feelings but rather run with them. I’m saying hi to them, exploring with curiosity what’s going on. By doing so, I can engage the other seven parts of the Eightfold Path and not stay stuck with that chi-blocking negative energy. Right Mindfulness means I can recognize what I’m feeling and be a spiritual warrior.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, explained that each season’s villain was an external projection of the interior struggles Buffy herself was facing. That meant Buffy got to face her fears, quite literally, directly.

Like Buffy, we can conquer our fears by facing them directly through Right Mindfulness. And don’t worry: every time Buffy died, she came back to life. That’s what facing fears will do, change us so much that we are no longer the same. That’s why it’s scary and important work.

With Right Mindfulness, we can be warriors too.

Photo Courtesy of Violette Filippini on  Unsplash

 

 

Harry Potter and the Practice of Right Action

 

“It is our actions, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

 

SPOILER ALERT! Go read all of Harry Potter and then come back. I’ll wait.

 

Headmaster Albus Dumbledore shares this bit of wisdom about choices with Harry after Harry’s encounter with Tom Riddle, who would go on to become the dark wizard Lord Voldemort. Harry is disturbed to realize how much he has in common with Tom: both orphans, both Hogwarts students who think of the school as their true home, and both able to speak Parseltongue, which allows them to communicate with snakes. 

Dumbledore initially tries to reassure Harry of his difference from Tom by pointing to the fact that Harry is a Gryffindor. Harry then confesses that the sorting hat had debated mightily about putting him in Slytherin, Tom’s House and the one from which most of the dark wizards came. 

Deflated, Harry tells Dumbledore that the sorting hat “only put me in Gryffindor because I asked not to go in Slytherin.”

In other words, having learned upon arrival at Hogwarts of the Slytherin reputation for ambitious wizards using any means—including dark magic—to reach their goals, Harry chooses Gryffindor, this in spite of the sorting hat assuring him that he could accomplish great things if put into Slytherin.

(An aside: I am a proud Slytherin. One can be ambitious and know how to work the system fairly, justly, and with kindness to reach goals that benefit not just the self and never use a whiff of dark magic.)

Later in the series, when there’s an attempt to disguise Harry through creating Harry lookalikes via polyjuice potion, the real Harry gives away his identity by using the spell Expelliarmus to disarm rather than trying to kill another wizard who’s attempting to kill him.

Even at the end, Harry vanquishes Lord Voldemort with the Expelliarmus spell. He never uses the killing curse.

Harry consistently chooses Right Action when it matters. (He’s a kid, so he doesn’t always make the right choice, of course. I’m still mad at those kids for accidentally destroying the time turners.) 

Right Action means choosing non-violence to ourselves and others. We have a reverence for life, which Harry exhibits by disarming, not killing. We live in a way that promotes social justice. In the Harry Potter series, we see this in the discrimination against muggles, werewolves, and house elves (among others) with Harry consistently acting on behalf of the oppressed. Right Action also means engaging in Right Speech and Right Mindfulness as well as mindful consumption.

Harry takes the deprivation that he experienced as a child and, rather than become angry or a bully himself, learns empathy. 

We don’t need magic to practice Right Action. 

Start with the self. We have to be nonviolent—kind—to ourselves first. It’s the oxygen mask theory, if you can remember back to when we used to get on airplanes. Give yourself oxygen so that you can offer the oxygen of loving kindness to others. 

 

Photos Courtesy of Artem Maltsev and B Kon Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Right Diligence and The Office

 

“Work smart, not hard.”

Every Teacher Ever

 


 

Spoiler Alert Warning: The Office

 


 

 

 

No show exemplifies Right Diligence quite so much as The Office. I should warn you that spoilers are below. If you haven’t watched The Office, get on that. There are only nine seasons, so I’ll see you back here in a month. Really, you’ll start and not be able to stop.

In season five of The Office, Jim has a new supervisor, Charles, who is a terrible boss. Charles misreads everyone and communicates terribly. It doesn’t help that prankster Jim made a bad first impression on Charles thanks to wearing a tuxedo to work on the day of Charles’s arrival. While Jim loves his jokes, his work is good, but thrown by Charles’s negative judgment (can you say Wrong View?), Jim struggles.

This is the subplot of the “Michael Scott Paper Company” episode where Charles asks Jim for a rundown of his clients. Jim readily agrees—having no idea what Charles is requesting. Jim spends the entire rest of the episode trying to figure out an assignment he doesn’t understand without revealing his ignorance to Charles.

He approaches coworkers Oscar and Kevin and inquires if they know what a rundown is; neither does. Oscar replies with the obvious: why don’t you ask Charles what it is? Jim replies that he can’t because it’s been hours since Charles asked him for the rundown.

Eventually, Jim comes up with something that he hopes resembles a rundown and attempts to give it to Charles. Without looking at it, Charles tells him to fax the rundown to everyone on the distribution list. Once again, Jim has no idea what Charles means, so he faxes it to his dad.

Jim spent the day on a pointless project feeling anxious the entire time because he didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing. He failed at Right Diligence, which is putting our effort and energy into the Right goals. From a Buddhist perspective, Right means seeking enlightenment.

Bear with me, but, to a certain extent, Michael Scott gets that. Michael is clueless and offensive. He runs an office more based on parties (hence the tuxedo) than work. Yet Michael’s branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company is the most successful.

I would argue that Michael works smart, not hard. Almost in spite of his attempts to do so rather than because of them, Michael creates an atmosphere where people care about each other, and his apparent incompetence leaves everyone space to do their work, so they do their work.

Michael thinks of his staff as his family. With that as his goal, in spite of all the comedic missteps, he succeeds at weaving a disparate group into a family of sorts.

In many ways, Michael is a model of how not to act, but he serves as an example of Right Diligence.

Studies show, for example, that beyond a certain income level where our needs are met, more money will not make us happier. We simply will want more and perhaps work so much that we miss out on the things in life that are proven to make us happy. Striving for more of the wrong thing leads to unhappiness.

Right Diligence means putting effort into the things that will bring us peace, calm, and happiness. And by feeling peaceful, calm, and happy, we can contribute to the good of all of those around us.

So don’t mimic Michael exactly, but definitely don’t be Charles.

 

Photos Courtesy of Screenshots from The Office on NBC Photo Gallery

 

 

Right Concentration and Dug the Dog

 

“Squirrel!”

Dug, Up

 

 

Dug, for non-Disney fans, is a dog from the movie Up. He’s able to speak thanks to a special collar and can be engaged in conversation, when, yep, he sees a squirrel, yells “Squirrel!” and there he goes.

Dug’s problem is likely that he’s too much like a human, with a brain that allows for thought and communication (as long as he has his special collar).

We pay a price for that brain, which is sometimes called the monkey mind—as in you have a monkey in that head chattering away. I have an entire troop in my head.

Our concentration is always focused somewhere, and often it’s focused on those monkeys. I know that I too often live in my head, narrating my life rather than living it.

Meditation trains us to achieve concentration. Generally, meditation involves focusing on the breath. By putting gentle attention on the breath, we’re learning how to concentrate rather than getting carried away by the chattering. When thoughts arise, which they will, we can actually recognize them as thoughts and keep coming back to the breath.

When people say they can’t meditate, they usually mean that they are still having thoughts. They are not unsuccessful meditators. They are human.

Right Concentration means choosing an object of concentration that will lead to the benefits concentration can bring of equanimity and clarity. For meditation, that can mean the breath, a candle flame, an object such as a crystal or shell, or a mantra.

Concentrating on the guy who cut you off in traffic or the rude email that you got from a colleague is not Right Concentration.

I once had a yoga teacher tell me that energy follows attention. If I concentrate on hurts, slights, or anger, then my attention is now directed toward an object that will undercut all the benefits of Right Concentration.

Note that though the Buddha talked about the Eightfold Path as leading to enlightenment, all of these steps on the path are intertwined. So, for example, Right Concentration leads to deep listening, an important part of Right Speech. When I can give my full attention to the person speaking to me, I can make that person feel heard, and immediately her suffering already is somewhat alleviated.

Poor Dug couldn’t quite get there when a squirrel was nearby. But Dug has mastered loyalty and love, and we love him.

The same is true for our own monkey minds. As you get to know your chattering mind better through Right Concentration, don’t get frustrated. Instead, quote Dug to yourself: “I have just met you, and I love you!”

 

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Right Speech — An Essential Skill

 

“Say only what is well-intended, true, beneficial, timely, expressed without harshness or malice, and — ideally — what is wanted.”

Rick Hanson, Budhha’s Brain

 

 

Speak the truth kindly and consistently. That seems straightforward.

My love of advice columns proves that it’s by no means straightforward. Most letter writers are asking how do I tell . . . or do I tell . . . How do I tell my guests not to use the lovely starched cloth napkins I provided at dinner as handkerchiefs (from the Miss Manners column August 27)? Should I tell my friend that her husband flirted with me (every advice column ever)?

What we say matters. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us in Living Buddha, Living Christ that “unmindful speech can kill.”

And though we may have been told when kids that sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me, words can and do hurt.  Our brains process physical and emotional pain in the same area, so hurtful words indeed hurt.

We also evolved as social animals to fear at a primitive level being ostracized from groups since being a part of a group during the Pleistocene era kept us alive.  Anyone who’s ever been the victim of mean girls knows that words isolating us from friendships hurt at a deep level.

Even the nicest words—I love you—can be said with the wrong intention and cause harm. How many abusers tell their victims “I love you” in order to get them to stay in abusive relationships?

So our words matter—a lot. Our intentions behind our words matter—a lot.

My students probably get tired of me telling them all communication is governed by audience and purpose.  I didn’t know much about Buddhism when I started teaching, but that pretty much sums up Right Speech.

Mr. Darcy certainly gets this wrong in Pride and Prejudice in his first proposal. His intent seems pure. He wants Elizabeth to marry him. He starts out okay, proclaiming,  “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” But things quickly degenerate when he proves “not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride” and catalogs the many reasons why this is not a good match for him due to Elizabeth’s “inferiority.” Needless to say, she says no—as she should. 

Darcy’s intentions were muddied by his pride. His overt purpose of offering himself in marriage is marred by his underlying purpose of making sure Elizabeth knows he’s doing her a favor. And, to build upon Hanson’s description above, his words are not (yet) wanted.  At this moment in the story, Elizabeth believes Darcy dislikes her. She’s certainly not ready for a marriage proposal.

Darcy is telling the truth as he sees it, but he’s not engaging in Right Speech.

Right Speech depends on deep listening, something most of us aren’t very good at it, but it’s a skill, and we can learn. Too often in conversation, we are waiting for a break so that we can jump in with our own point, which means we’re listening for that pause, not to what is being said. We can be guilty of treating conversation as competition.

In a democracy, Right Speech and deep listening are crucial—and we currently are terrible at it. But, since it’s a skill, we can get better. I strongly recommend my friend Michael Austin’s book We Must Not Be Enemies. Mike is one of the most insightful thinkers I know and an excellent writer. He’s not talking about Buddhist Right Speech, but he explains why we must engage in civil discourse if democracy is to thrive.

We owe it to each other as family members, friends, and citizens to engage in Right Speech.

           

           

Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde

 

 

Right Livelihood and Compassion

 

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Right Livelihood is a part of the Eightfold Path that gets less attention than Mindfulness, but it’s been on my mind. Right Livelihood refers to making a living in a way that benefits all—or at the very least does no harm.

An acknowledgement: I write from a place of privilege. I have a job with a comfortable salary and health benefits. I am working in the field for which I trained. I am doing what I’ve wanted to do since I was in my early twenties. I am very fortunate.

I’ve been blessed with being able to engage in Right Livelihood clearly and overtly. I get to teach literature and writing.

Reading literature has proven health benefits. Brain research demonstrates that reading good fiction with attention improves brain health. Plus, it’s fun!

Writing is a powerful tool. What could be more important than being able to express yourself? Writing is necessary in many jobs and can lead to better opportunities at Right Livelihood. Writing also is necessary in a democracy. We need to be able to write to our representatives, to craft petitions, and to express ourselves in public forums to address social issues and enact change. Most importantly, writing is meaning creating and gives us access to our own selves. I’ve been keeping a daily journal for almost a decade.

My values, my ideals, and my goals all align with my work.

However, I teach. I and a lot of my higher education colleagues and my dear friends teaching K-12 are looking at going back into classrooms during a global pandemic. How will we attend to our values, ideals, goals, and safety—not only our safety but that of our students?

Many parents learned to value teachers like never before during school shut downs in the spring when we found ourselves essentially homeschooling.

That appreciation extended to essential workers but maybe less so now.

I read an article recently in The Washington Post where grocery store employees around the country discussed how they felt valued as never before during the spring. Customers thanked them for their work. Now, however, workers are experiencing terrible burnout from facing crowds of customers who refuse to wear masks (or wear them properly). Employees in minimum-wage jobs suddenly find themselves having to confront angry shoppers, some of whom have threatened or even committed acts of violence when asked to wear masks.

Key to Buddhism are empathy and compassion. Empathy means being able to enter into the feelings of others, and, from there, we can feel compassion, genuinely wishing people happiness.

No matter what our jobs, we have the opportunity to practice empathy and compassion. Recently, an elderly friend of mine went to the grocery store after running another errand. She has several health problems, and it proved too much activity. When she was checking out, the cashier came around to her, took her by the arm, and led her to a chair, telling her that her color was off and she needed to sit while the cashier took care of things. She and a bagger made sure to get my friend to the car and loaded her groceries for her. Not only did they help my friend in the moment, but she felt cared for and looked after in ways that benefited her emotionally for a long period after.

The pandemic seems to be bringing out our worst and our best selves. We can approach Right Livelihood with empathy and compassion. We can value workers who are struggling with a hostile public, with anxiety about the safety of working conditions, and with the stress of working at home while trying to raise a family.

The path to ending suffering is not a solo one. Enlightenment doesn’t come from from getting the perfect job that makes the individual happy. Right Livelihood is of benefit to all.

 

Photo Courtesy of Anshu A from Unsplash

 

 

Gator Girls

 

This week’s offering is off topic a bit. August 15 marks one year since my mother’s death, and she’s been very much on my mind. I wrote this piece for my university’s literary journal, The Sandhill Review.  The theme was belonging.

 

It was 2006 when I realized something was wrong with my mom. She kept asking me the same question over and over. It was clear that she hadn’t forgotten the answer. It was that she didn’t realize she’d asked the question, though it was the same one she’d asked 10 minutes earlier and 10 minutes before that.

The diagnosis was mild cognitive impairment. That would become dementia. Eventually, she would end her days in 2019 at an Alzheimer’s care facility.

But she never forgot me, and she never forgot the Gators. We were the Gator girls.

We got our season tickets in 1988. It was before the Gators ever experienced any real success, before a Southeastern Conference Championship, long before any Gator fan dreamed of a national championship. We wore our orange and blue, we yelled when the defense was on the field, we sang “We Are the Boys” at the end of the third quarter, and we felt like we helped the team—win or lose.

Eventually, my daughter would join us at games. That was 2011 when Bella was eight and Mom was slowly moving deeper into dementia. We still sang, cheered, and yelled.

Outside the Gator stadium is an area paved with bricks where fans can donate money and personalize their own brick. We have one. It says “Gator Girls: Amy, Kathryn, and Bella.” Mom never saw it. By the time I gave it to her as a Christmas gift, it was too late, though I did not yet know that. By the next season, it was too confusing, too much for her.

But Mom never forgot we were the Gator girls. It didn’t matter if it was spring or summer; for Mom, it was football season. She wanted to know how the team was doing. She had on her Gator shirt. She was ready to watch the game.

We belonged to the Gators, and they belonged to us.

We got our own commemorative brick in addition to the one at the stadium. I gave that to mom.

I brought the brick to my house after I packed up Mom’s home to move her into a care facility, but as I sorted through her other belongings and clothes, I forgot to save something formal for her funeral. It never occurred to me.

Instead, I buried my Gator girl in her Gator shirt.

I watch the games. I cry. I’ve been a fan all my life. It isn’t the first time the Gators, who’ve had a knack for losing in heartbreaking fashion, have made me cry, but it’s different. I cry for a real loss.

Mom is with me always. My Gator girl belongs to me forever. But I miss the cheering, the yelling, the singing, and the swaying. I miss her saying before every game that she thinks the band is bigger this year. I miss my best friend, my Gator girl.

 

 

 

 

 

Right Thinking and the Problem of Cow Paths

 

“That is why I don’t believe much in what Mr. Descartes said: ‘I think, therefore I am.’

I think, therefore I’m lost in my thinking. I’m not there.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

 

 

I am an over thinker. I once had a friend say to me that it must be really tiring to be you after I explained my process for making a simple decision. He was right.

I also found myself saying, “Shut up!” when all alone for days at Cayo Costa, a coastal camping site. I was tired of my brain’s constant chatter.

With all that thinking, I tend to get lost in thought. I once missed a flip turn when swimming because I was thinking about David Hume. Yes, an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher was on my mind instead of that wall I was about to swim into.

If Descartes is right, and I think, therefore I am, then I really AM!

Fortunately, these incidents were a few years back, and thanks to cultivating mindfulness, I’m a little more present these days.

Present is the key term. Often enough, like me in the pool, our minds and bodies are not really in the same space. It’s why we can’t find our keys. We didn’t pay attention to where we put them in the first place.

So Right Thinking starts with being present and not only thinking. When you swim, be there in the pool, not thinking about the honors class you’re going to teach later that day.

Right Thinking also means not responding from habit energy. We all have habits, good and bad, and habits are useful, like brushing our teeth. We need to do that at least twice a day, and since we have been our whole lives, we do it automatically. However, we don’t want to do it too automatically. We actually want to pay attention when we brush our teeth. We can practice being present.

Being present and not completely caught by our thoughts is important because our brains get wired for habitual thinking.

I learned the term cow paths when attending the University of Florida. It’s a big campus with a lot of green space and sidewalks, but there would be areas in the grass that were worn down, not official paths but places that had been traversed so frequently they had become path-like. Apparently, cows trace their steps over and over forming cow paths just like Gator students, hence cow paths.

Our brains work like that too. We develop neural connections from having the same reactions and thoughts over and over. This is clearly bad when the thoughts themselves are damaging such as those we experience due to trauma. But even innocuous habitual thoughts can be a problem. The cow-paths in our brains often mean that we respond automatically rather than to what is actually happening in the here and now right in front of us.

When we’re not present and responding to the present, we get things wrong, and we also are not responsive within our relationships.

Social psychologist Ellen Langer suggests that when we are with a loved one that we consciously notice something different about that person and then share what we’ve noticed. This makes a person feel truly seen and improves our relationships.

Right Thinking means we can recognize habit energy, not respond to it automatically, be fully present in the moment, and connect better with others.

When we recognize the way our minds are constantly narrating our lives, we can pause and decide to live our lives. Do it with compassion, though. Say, “hey habit energy, let’s get back to it,” unlike my frustrated “shut up” to myself.

In this way, we awaken bodhichitta, or the mind of love, and we can produce happiness for ourselves and others.

 

Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde

 

 

Getting Right View Wrong

 

“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” 

Jane Austen, Persuasion

 

 

When it comes to the Eightfold Path, we don’t master the first step and then move on to the next. They are interconnected. For the sake of understanding, though, let’s revisit just one: Right View.

To review, Right View refers to what we perceive and how we perceive it. We all take in the world through our senses, but we process information differently. Right means wholesome, as in I’m not causing suffering for myself or others.

Remember the dress incident in 2015? Some people saw a dress that was white and gold, others blue and black when they looked at the same photo. The linked 2017 article explains these differing views. It turns out that some of us are larks (early morning risers) and experience more natural light, whereas owls, (late to bed and late to rise) are exposed to more incandescent light. Being a lark or an owl made the brain fill in all sorts of blanks when seeing the picture, and those of us who are larks saw the dress wrong. Yep, it’s gold and white for me because sleeping late for me is 7:30 am at the latest. But that original dress is black and blue. I can’t see it.

Another great example is a study of radiologistswho were told to review x-rays of lungs for cancerous nodules. The x-rays included a superimposed picture of a gorilla, and 83 percent of radiologists missed it because they were primed to look for those much-harder-to-see cancerous nodules. We see what we are looking for.

This is why Thich Nhat Hanh suggests asking ourselves frequently, “Are you sure?”

In the case of the radiologists, the suffering that might result is obvious. The attention bias could lead to missing a different medical problem than the one they were so intent on looking for.

At a more mundane level, the kind of suffering that results from the dress differences can mean a kind of chronic suffering that adds up over time. When we forget that we are operating from a perspective and could be wrong, we are more likely to be unnecessarily self righteous and more divisive. Such thinking creates ill will, defensiveness, and boundaries.

Jane Austen certainly understood this. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s initial opinion of Darcy comes from his slighting her at a dance. He was rude. She’s not wrong. But she’s unable to see him any differently afterwards for much of the novel, leading to her then getting things wrong—like being totally shocked when he proposes because she thought he disliked her!

The Eightfold Path is a practice. To practice Right View, pause, remember that you are operating from a perspective, ask are you sure, and consider how your own bias may be operating.

 

Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde

 

 

 

The Fourth Noble Truth

 

“If we live according to the Noble Eightfold Path, we cultivate well-being and our life will be filled with joy, ease, and wonder.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Budhha’s Teaching

 

 

The Buddha devoted his teachings to the causes and cure for suffering.

The First Noble Truth is that life contains suffering. This is important because it means we don’t live our lives waiting for everything to be perfect; we understand it never will be perfect (whatever perfect means for you).

The Second Noble Truth is that we can understand the causes of our suffering. This implies that we can understand what causes happiness.

And since we can understand the causes of suffering and happiness, the Third Noble Truth assures us that we can end our suffering and encourage happiness.

The Fourth Noble Truth tells us how: the Eightfold Path, which consists of Right View, Right Thinking, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Diligence, Right Concentration, and Right Livelihood. 

Before defining each, note that “right” doesn’t mean right versus wrong in a fixed, doctrinal manner. Buddhism rests in practice and experience. There is not a set of rules that you can follow consistently that will end your suffering but rather a practice that you can bring into your everyday experience to prevent you from creating suffering.

Right View does this through teaching us to recognize that everything we believe or know is a matter of perception and that we often misperceive. For example, going back to wanting that perfect life, we often get trapped by ideas of what will make us happy, striving for whatever that may be—only to find upon getting that condition for happiness that it wasn’t so great after all. As a Ph.D. student who had to take doctoral exams, for nine months, I studied knowing that happiness lay on the other side of passing those exams. Truthfully, it was anticlimactic to pass, and what lay on the other side was writing a dissertation.

Right Thinking connects to Right View because if we are failing to perceive things correctly, we certainly aren’t going to think about them correctly. The real problem we mostly have is overthinking. (Guilty!) Via multitasking especially, we are rarely present in the moment. Much of our thinking comes from habit energy. We respond to the past rather than the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh advises always asking, “Are you sure?” I wrote that down on a piece of paper and taped it to my bedroom door as a reminder.

That brings us to Right Mindfulness, in which we are open and present to whatever comes up in the moment. Since we tend to want to feel good and avoid uncomfortable sensations, we aren’t naturally good at this. But with mindfulness, we learn to be with our unpleasant emotions. If you feel anger, embrace it mindfully acknowledging its presence. Doing so means that the anger isn’t unconsciously controlling you but that you are aware of the anger, which allows it to subside.

Right Speech means being consistently honest, but, perhaps more importantly, Right Speech includes deep listening. So often when we have a conversation, our attention is on the next thing we want to say rather than giving our full attention to the person speaking. If it’s an intense conversation, we may feel defensive or consider how to justify ourselves. Allowing someone to truly feel heard, though, immediately reduces that person’s suffering. Nothing else needs to occur, no change in circumstances. When someone feels truly heard, she feels understood and suffers less. And it would be cool if we could do that for each other out of the wish to alleviate suffering so that fewer people had to pay $130 per hour to get a professional to listen.

Right Action means being nonviolent to others as well as to ourselves. We show a reverence for life and live in ways that promote social justice. An example is consuming mindfully. We can purchase from thrift stores or buy new clothing made from recycled goods.

Right Diligence refers to effort brought to the practice. Again, you can’t memorize a bunch of precepts or rules and find happiness. If you want to perform great in your piano recital, you practice. If you want to cultivate a life of less suffering, you bring energy and effort to the practice. But, like playing the piano, the effort feels good, not aversive. The effort itself is rewarding.

With Right Concentration, we fully focus on an object of attention. In meditation, for example, we bring our concentration to a specific object, often our breath. Mindfulness allows us to see when our attention goes elsewhere so that we can return our concentration to the breath (or whatever the object of concentration may be).

Lastly, Right Livelihood consists of choosing work that doesn’t compromise the ideals of love and compassion. That does not mean we all must quit our jobs and become monastics, but we want to engage in work that is in accordance with our values.

Obviously, the path to happiness deserves more than a short blog post, so please consider this an introduction. I’ll be coming back to these ideas later. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you’d like to see developed.

Wishing you happiness!

 

Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde

 

 

The Story of the Buddha and the Third Noble Truth

 

“It is good to tame the mind, which is difficult to hold in and flighty, rushing wherever it listeth; a tamed mind brings happiness.”

Gautama Buddha, The Dhammapada

 

 

Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. The Buddha is not a god to be worshiped. He was a man who reached enlightenment and shared this knowledge with disciples.

He began life as Siddhartha Gautama 2,600 years ago, an Indian prince whose father protected him from all suffering. Eventually, though, Siddhartha witnessed human suffering firsthand. He consequently renounced wealth and went in search of enlightenment, leaving the palace to join ascetics on his quest. After many years of difficult practice, the Buddha failed to achieve enlightenment. He left his fellow ascetics, eventually meditating under the Bodhi Tree where he understood the origin and cure for suffering: the Four Noble Truths.

As previously mentioned, the First Noble Truth is that life contains suffering. The Second is that we can trace the causes of suffering. The Third Noble Truth is that we can end our suffering.

Like Jesus, the Buddha told stories and used analogies to explain enlightenment. One of the best known involves being shot by an arrow.

Imagine being shot by an arrow. It would hurt, right? That’s pain.

Now imagine being shot in the same place by a second arrow. That would really hurt, right? That’s suffering.

We do this to ourselves all the time.

Here’s a ridiculous example from my own life.

A few days ago, as I was putting away groceries, a full bottle of kombucha fell off of the top shelf of the refrigerator onto the tile floor. It shattered. I was barefoot. I tiptoed out of the kitchen and put on my pink Croc sandals before heading back into the kitchen to deal with the mess. Later, the ball of my right foot hurt. This is all first arrow stuff. There was a bottle that fell, shattered, and made a mess. I cleaned up, and I noticed some pain later.

Here’s the second arrow. My foot would hurt, and I would think, what if there’s glass in there? Could there be a tiny piece of embedded glass? If there is, how will I get it out? If I can’t, I guess I could go to urgent care. But I live in Florida where COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing, and I don’t want to go to urgent care. What if I got COVID-19 from going to urgent care? Okay, I won’t go, but what if my foot gets infected? Does this mean I won’t be able to run? I mean even if there’s no glass in there, what if my foot still hurts tomorrow? I don’t want to miss a day of running. That would be awful!

I’m happy to say that I didn’t (but in the past, I’m pretty sure I would have) add in various blaming insults to myself about being stupid to have allowed the bottle to drop in the first place.

That’s all second arrow suffering—minor suffering for sure—but if I’d already been anxious, maybe about something like a global pandemic, it may have been enough to make me truly suffer. And it came from my story, not from the shattered bottle.

Because the Buddha was a man, not a god, I have the same potential within me to end suffering that he had.

Therefore, thanks to mindfulness, I was able to pull back and see how I was making myself suffer unnecessarily and to stop telling that story.

And that’s the way out of suffering: stop telling the story. We do that through the Fourth Noble Truth, which I’ll explain more in depth in the next post.

          

Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde

 

 

The Story of Anxiety

 

“What makes us suffer is the way we think about what’s happening.”

Pema Chodron, No Time to Lose

 

 

As noted in the previous post, anxiety causes suffering and is also an important psychological adaptation. We all experience anxiety.

But we don’t all experience it the same way or for the same reasons.

The pandemic serves as a perfect example.

Some of us tune into the news, see the number of new cases, and feel anxiety ranging from extreme to enough anxiety that we stay home as much as possible and consistently wear masks wherever we go. The thought of schools reopening might cause stomach distress, sweaty palms, and extreme physical discomfort.

Some of us look at the exact same data and live our lives as normal, not wearing a mask unless required by law, getting those haircuts, going to bars, and eating at restaurants.

We can all be looking at the same information but react differently because we create different stories.

We’re no different from our early ancestors who heard the rustling in the bushes and created a story that determined the next step. That’s a lion! Or that’s a bunny. Sometimes, it was a lion, and our ancestor was smart to go with that story. Sometimes, it was only a bunny, and our ancestor caused himself unnecessary panic. Anxiety is an adaptation because lion stories meant survival of the species. Better to be wrong about bunnies and never wrong about lions.

It doesn’t have be anything as drastic as a pandemic or a lion though. Each of us has something that makes us anxious that might not make sense to anyone else. I was once in a small yoga class where a student asked before we started that everyone line up their yoga mats because the random placement of the mats was making her anxious. I hadn’t even noticed. As for me, I’m grateful for the invention of GPS because the idea of getting lost makes me anxious. (Yes, I know; I get lost using GPS too. Anxiety doesn’t always make sense. See yoga mat example.)

There’s all the stuff that happens on a given day, and there’s the story about it that becomes our reality and has the possibility of making us happy or anxious or something in between.

Alison Wood Brooks is a Harvard business professor whose experiments on performance anxiety demonstrate this. The physiological symptoms of anxiety are very similar to those of excitement; if we choose to label the physical symptoms as excitement, we shift the narrative, and our working memory is no longer encumbered by anxiety. Rather, we are excited and ready to perform. Nothing has changed except for the explanation we offer ourselves.

Again, the First Noble Truth is that life contains suffering. The Five Remembrances Meditation deals with this: I am of the nature to get sick, grow old, and die. So is everyone whom I love. The only thing that truly belongs to me are my actions. We can’t escape these truths.

However, the Second Noble Truth reminds us that we can discover the cause of suffering. We can look behind the suffering and find its cause, the story we’re creating.

The Five Remembrances entered forcefully into my own life through my mother’s slowly progressive dementia. It was a dozen years from the time of seeing first signs of it to the time of her death. Because I thought of her as my lifelong best friend, my initial story around her dementia was incredible fear, loss, anger, and lack of acceptance. It hurt my relationship with her. I struggled being around her. I couldn’t accept who she was.

As she got worse, I was able to change my story. She was still high functioning at the time of her death, and every visit to her was the highlight of my day because I could enjoy her beautiful smile, her enthusiasm to see me, and her genuine expression of pure love.

When she asked me the same question 10 times in an hour on first diagnosis, I wanted to pull my hair out. When she asked me the same question 20 times in an hour after she got worse, it didn’t bother me at all. She was worse, but I’d changed my story.

It was painful to lose my mom, but I’m glad I stopped creating suffering for both of us and could appreciate her for who she was in the moment. I’d never felt closer to her than when she died last August.

Stories are powerful, including the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others, and the ones we read.

Jane Austen knew that.

So does Buddhism, which will be the subject of the next post

 

Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde

 

“We were built by natural selection, and natural selection works to maximize genetic proliferation, period. In addition to not caring about the truth per se, it doesn’t care about our long-term happiness.”

Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True

         

 

Remember that the First Noble Truth is that life includes suffering.

Anxiety is the most prevalent form of suffering in the Western world, according to the Dalai Lama and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that 40 million adults in the United States suffer from some form of an anxiety disorder, which is the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 18 percent of the population. And a quarter of American children between 13 and 18 are affected by anxiety disorders.

And that was before a global pandemic.

The Census Bureau reported at the end of May 2020 that a third of Americans were showing signs of clinical anxiety and/or depression.

A study commissioned by the ADAA found that anxiety disorders cost the United States more than $42 billion a year, nearly a third of the $148 billion the U.S. spends on mental health.

The cost to the individual is high also. Too much anxiety results in poor physical health due to a weakened immune system, and it decreases quality of life. Since anxiety is linked to fear of the unknown, it can lead to living a small life that lacks healthy risk in an attempt to avoid the unpleasant rapid heartbeat, perspiring, trembling, and dizziness that can accompany anxiety. 

Anxiety also impairs our working memory. With our brains so busy dealing with anxiety, we lose our ability to learn and focus.

In addition, anxiety increases our egocentrism, making us think everything is about us. This undercuts our empathy—tuning into the feelings of people—and our ability to connect with others. 

That’s a lot of suffering. 

But anxiety is also a completely normal, inherent part of being human. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that has kept our species alive. 

Back in the Pleistocene era, if our ancestors were anxiety free, they would have ignored that rustling sound in the bush and potentially become a lion’s next meal. Or if they kept walking down a path with a squiggly looking stick a few steps away, they might be bitten by a poisonous snake. 

Anxiety also formed because we are social animals who live in groups. Even the earliest humans formed hierarchical social groups to best ensure survival. Without a social group, the individual was almost certainly doomed. Negotiating the pecking order and understanding how high the stakes were encouraged anxiety as an adaptation.  

These adaptations formed 800,000 to two million years ago and exist at an unconscious level. There’s a primitive part of our brain that still fears social rejection will lead to literal death, hence the most prevalent form of anxiety being social anxiety.

Evolution does not care if we’re happy. Our brains are hardwired to continue the species, not to make each person happy.

Anxiety serves a purpose. We need anxiety—but not anxiety disorders. 

The next post will discuss the connection between anxiety and narrative. Recognizing that relationship is a first step toward the Second Noble Truth: we can discover the source of our suffering. 

 

Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde

 

“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is truly optional.”

Sister Dang Nghiem, Mindfulness as Medicine: A Story of Healing Body and Spirit

 

 

Why Jane Austen and the Buddha instead of Austen and mindfulness?

After all, mindfulness is the buzzword today. Think of all of the magazine covers touting mindfulness staring at you in the checkout line of the grocery store (back when we all went to the store like it was nothing).

Mindfulness can be hard to do but is actually simple: be present in the here and now. That here and now could be (as it is for me currently) sitting on the couch, writing on my laptop, and drinking coffee, a neutral feeling verging on pleasant. Or it could be mile 22 of a marathon (which I’ve managed a few times): grueling, painful, and enough to make me question my sanity.

Mindfulness, therefore, does not necessarily mean bliss. However, science tells us that mindfulness can help us to regulate our emotions, leading to more peace and happiness, something the Buddha discovered thousands of years earlier.

While mindfulness is completely secular, it is a key component to Buddhism, but there’s more to Buddhism than mindfulness, hence Austen and the Buddha.

Mindfulness has become trendy and in danger of being marketed to us by companies as a cure all in the same way that all of those face creams are supposed to keep me from looking like I’m getting old. Yet mindfulness isn’t an escape from reality in Buddhism nor for Austen.

Rather, mindfulness trains us to be in that moment of joy, love, fear, or pain. And pain is inevitable in life.

Buddhist psychology makes clear that we are powerless to escape pain just as an Austen heroine is powerless to propose or to choose a career. We are of the nature to get sick (as the headlines remind us of daily), age, and die.

What we can do is understand the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s first and most central teaching. Suffering is inevitable. We must discover the cause of our suffering. We can end our suffering. We end it via the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

In other words, we inevitably will face pain as human beings, but we need not add to it through all of the stories that we create around that pain. That is suffering.

Austen understood this. Elizabeth Bennet creates her own suffering through holding onto a grudge. Emma Woodhouse’s misreading and desire to be a matchmaker make for much suffering.

Like the Buddha, Austen saw that suffering was part of everyday experience. Her own lived experience of being a single woman without a lot of money in a patriarchal culture proved that. She didn’t need to write a War and Peace to explore suffering but could depict life in a village to show how we humans contribute to our own misery, making her stories ones we can still relate to centuries later.

She also, as the Buddha did, could see that the suffering of one creates suffering for others and, importantly, that suffering can be transcended as we see in her last complete novel, Persuasion.

Up next, we’ll explore the most prevalent form of suffering in our time—anxiety—and how it connects to narrative, that is, the stories we tell ourselves.

 

“And then I knew: I read and reread Persuasion alongside Buddhism because it is a novel about suffering. In fact, all of Austen’s novels, even the most comedic, are about suffering, and the successful heroines are those who cope with their suffering in Buddhist fashion.”

 

Austen, the Buddha, Reading, and Me

          

 

Ever since I learned to read, I’ve read constantly. I mean constantly, as in while brushing my teeth or doing my hair constantly. My parents had to tell me to put the book down at the dinner table. I used to climb the pine trees to reach the roof of what we called the clubhouse in our backyard and read there to avoid disturbance.

I read my first adult novel in fifth grade as a result of positive peer pressure. All the girls were reading Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. I’m pretty sure that none of us fully understood it, but we all read it.

I moved on to romances, liking historical ones best, and seventh grade introduced me to Charles Dickens. I was hooked by A Tale of Two Cities, becoming unabashedly an Anglophile devouring British novels, preferably centuries old, ever since. (I later would name my pets Pip, Oliver, Charlie, Rose, and Fezziwig in Dickens’ honor.)

Inevitably, I became an English professor specializing in British literature. I tried to avoid that fate (who wants to go to school another six years?) by majoring in journalism, but I washed out as a business reporter after five months, quitting because no 22 year old should awaken every day filed with dread. As miserable as I was, probably because I was miserable, I still read–a lot–even increasing my misery with reading Sophie’s Choice, for example, and sobbing. I was like the young Ebenezer Scrooge at boarding school in A Christmas Carol where Robinson Crusoe and Aladdin became his friends during a sad and lonely time. Books were my friends and comforters.

I don’t remember when I first read Jane Austen. I know it was Pride and Prejudice (of course), and it was for fun. I was in love. It was romance, historical, and British filled with humor that I somehow got as a twentieth-century American girl reading on her own. This was before the Austen resurgence where seemingly every year produced another Austen film adaptation. I knew her through words on the page only, and I read all of her novels.

I’m also an avid re-reader. I’ve decided this is because I’m an anxious reader. Characters become so alive for me that I can’t wait to find out what will happen next, so I zoom hurriedly through books, reading for plot, always dreading the end of a good book because it feels like parting with a friend yet rushing to finish, needing to know what happens next. Then I reread if the book is good because I want to see how the author did it. So I read for who and what, reread for how and why. I’ve read most of Dickens’ work more than once and all of Austen’s major novels more times than I can count. Really. I hesitate even to hazard a guess.

I think this anxious reading style of mine also explains my attraction to Austen. Her work is soothing. Pick up Pride and Prejudice for the first time knowing nothing of it, and a reader still feels reassured all will be well. The proper characters will pair off correctly. That amazing, reassuring Austen narrative voice makes clear that even if in reality there’s no way Elizabeth Bennet gets Darcy, Austen has created a world where she will–and his £10,000.

Yet I reached a point in my life as an English professor where I could not read any fiction for pleasure. I’d settled strictly into re-reading, finishing the Harry Potter series and immediately going back to the first book more than once. Eventually, I couldn’t even manage that. I’d start a book, never get very far, and quit. This was completely unlike me. In the past, even if I didn’t like a book, I finished it because it bothered me not knowing what happened. There were very few books I’d not finished in my life. This was entirely new territory for me.

The reason for this is that I was facing more than one major personal crisis. My mother was suffering from slowly progressive dementia. As she got worse, I found myself at a loss on how to help her from four hours away, especially since she would not accept my help. My marriage was failing in similarly slowly progressive fashion. It’s not so much that it was slowly getting worse because it had been painful for a long while but that slowly I was moving toward the unavoidable conclusion that I would have to leave, a prospect made much worse because it meant giving up half custody of my young daughter. I think I was so overloaded on personal anxiety that there was no room in my psyche for the problems of fictional friends, even those I knew well such as Emma, Elinor, and Elizabeth who all got their happy endings. It was too much.

Eventually, I could read one book: Austen’s Persuasion. I would finish it and start over again. It was the only novel I read through completely (other than books required for work) for more than a year. Austen makes sense given what I noted above about anxiety. Her reassuring, carefully constructed worlds produce enough dramatic tension for pleasure, not too much for anxiety. Yet, of all of her books, Persuasion seems the least likely candidate as the one book I could read during this difficult point in my life. It is the least comedic and contains the most hazard.

 As part of the process of working through my personal pain, I started reading about Buddhism, drawn to these ideas because the heart of the Buddha’s teachings is suffering, its sources, and the ability to transcend it. Fiction, in the past, allowed me to escape my own suffering by entering into the world (and heads) of others. Buddhism, with its emphasis on practice, gave me not an escape but a tool to cope with suffering.

Buddhism, Persuasion, and heartbreak all came together after my divorce when I took (bear with me) a buzzfeed quiz asking which Jane Austen heroine are you. The answer was Anne Elliot from Persuasion. What? I should be Elizabeth Bennet! I’m hilarious, known for my wit. I retook it: Anne. I took it four times, and every time it was Anne. It all came together. Of course I’m Anne, for Anne is, of all Austen’s characters, the most long suffering and most loyal, holding onto her love for Wentworth just as I had in staying in a marriage no longer working. And then I knew: I read and reread Persuasion alongside Buddhism because it is a novel about suffering. In fact, all of Austen’s novels, even the most comedic, are about suffering, and the successful heroines are those who cope with their suffering in Buddhist fashion.

I’m not saying Austen was a Buddhist, and I’m not Buddhist either. Truthfully, I’m a spiritual mutt. The great religions share at their core a central message of love. I’m uninterested in doctrine and fascinated with religious teachings on love from Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity as well as Buddhism. The path to peace for me has been Buddhism in all likelihood because the brand of Buddhism I’ve read comes from those more interested in the practice of mindfulness and transcending suffering than on doctrine. For me, that has been Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Charlotte Joko Beck, and Pema Chodron.

Finding myself at the intersection of Austen, Buddhism, and our anxious times, I wish to offer insight into suffering in the very humble hope that I may contribute to alleviating suffering for at least one person.