Monday, February 28, 2011

Sometimes Right is Happy

Where did February go? In wrapping up our focus on Step 2 this month, deciding if you want to be right or happy, I posed some questions at the end of the last post about whether it is ever right to be right. Thank you for your excellent comments on that post and on many posts throughout the month.

Here are some final thoughts. It seems that when we explore this issue from different angles, there are two kinds of “right.”

There is the sense of right that is ego driven. This might manifest as self-righteousness, when we believe that our opinion is superior. Our egos might react to actual or perceived criticism with a defensive assertion of rightness. We might want to show off by correcting someone or displaying our knowledge about something. In many, if not all, of these situations, there is an underlying fear – fear of attack, fear of unworthiness, fear of embarrassment, fear of failure. The result is that we separate ourselves from others at the most basic level of our shared humanity. By insisting our our rightness, we cause the very isolation that we fear.

There is another sense of right that is driven by lack of ego. This manifests as integrity, honor, and courage. This is the rightness of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, the rightness of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela. This is the rightness of the child who stands up to the bully on the playground, the homeless person who finds and returns a wallet full of money, a parent who admits a mistake to a child, a friend who honors a promise. In many, if not all, of these situations, there is an underlying peace, even joy. The result is that we connect ourselves to others at the most basic level of our shared humanity. By adhering to rightness, we cause the very union that we long for.

Perhaps George Washington was right (!) when he said, “Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”


PS–And really, y’all know that the toilet paper should roll over the top!

Friday, February 25, 2011

When It's Right to be Right

This month is coming to a close. We have been focusing on making conscious decisions about when to assert our “rightness,” and when to choose instead to be “happy.”

We have looked at situations in which being right is not worth the cost creating unhappiness. For example, there was the waiter who corrected my pronunciation in the restaurant. Instead of letting it pass, I got huffy and corrected him right back (I’m Right – So What!). These situations often involve our ego, which feels embarrassed or threatened.

We have looked at situations in which there is not really a right or wrong answer, just opinions. For example, the topic that seemed to generate the most comments this month was whether the toilet paper should roll over the top or from underneath (One Hand Clapping)! Our insistence on the rightness of our opinions often hinders respectful debate and prevents connection with those who think differently than we do.

We have explored our underlying assumptions about our own knowledge (What I Know for Sure). A better title for that post would have been What I Don’t Know for Sure! Sometimes when I look beneath some unquestioned belief, I find that my foundation for that belief is not as concrete as I thought. I have, on rare occasions (!), even decided that I was mistaken. Or I have at least entertained the possibility, however unlikely (!), that I could be mistaken.

And we have considered the role of fear in our discomfort with multiple right answers (Beyond Right and Wrong).

General Patton said, “Don’t fight a battle if you won’t gain anything by winning.” In many of these scenarios, a quick cost/benefit analysis would suggest that the benefit of asserting our rightness does not outweigh the expense of our happiness or the happiness of others.

Does that mean that it is never right to be right? We considered this topic in The Mask of Happiness. Comments have raised thought-provoking questions about standing up against injustice. The Noble Eightfold Path is full of rightness – right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Was Buddha wrong?

So what do we really mean by deciding to be right or happy? Are these choices always mutually exclusive? Can they be reconciled?

Perhaps we can ponder these questions as a way of bringing our focus on Step 2 this month to a close. I would be very interested in hearing what you think. If you would like to share your thoughts, please leave a comment or email me. I will be away from my computer this weekend (at my cabin that has no phone or internet!), which means that there might be some delay in publishing your comments. Please know that every comment is important and I will publish them as soon as I get back.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Breathing Bob

One of the participants at the meditation workshop I went to last weekend was a man named Bob. At the afternoon discussion session, Bob was making a point about our interconnectedness. He observed that he was breathing in the air that someone else was breathing out.

During meditation, we had been focusing our awareness on our breath, so someone else suggested that we were breathing in each other’s awareness. And that led a joker in the bunch to blurt out, “We’re breathing Bob!”

I know, it’s a stretch. Meditation humor – you sort of had to be there. But the phrase stuck with me. The air does connect all of us in a very physical way. And since the oxygen we breathe comes from the “exhalation” of plants, we are connected through air to all living things everywhere.

I’ve been using the phrase as a little reminder of that connection. Last night I was thinking of someone far away. I just thought to myself “breathing Bob,” and smiled at the funny way of reminding myself that I am always connected to the people I care about.

Likewise, I passed someone on the street this morning from whom I inwardly drew away. I whispered to myself “breathing Bob,” and experienced my basic living connection to this other person.

It reminds me of the greeting used in certain cultures. Namaste means “I honor the place in you where, if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”


Sunday, February 20, 2011

In the Zone

I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday at a mindfulness meditation workshop. The workshop was the first step on the path of Shambhala warrior training. I knew I was going to like it as soon I heard that I could be a “warrior”!

And I did like it. Shambhala is rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, although the focus on mindfulness meditation is compatible with any faith or no faith. I can belong to my Christian church and still be a Shambhala warrior. How cool is that?! (It also says a lot about my church.)

Shambhala is the path of my favorite spiritual writer and teacher, Pema Chodron. If you have read my blog for awhile, then you have run across many quotes and stories that come from her.

I was nervous about going to the workshop. An evening and a full day – that is a lot of meditating. I have been stressed lately, dealing with some family challenges. On a good day, my mediation is more like watching kittens high on catnip than gazing serenely at a peaceful pond. With all the things on my mind, I wondered how I would settle down and be mindfully aware of anything other than my agitation and fatigue.

But it was like a thirsty camel in the desert coming upon a cool, green oasis. The center’s website states, “The vision of Shambhala begins with the understanding that all humans at the very ground of their being have basic goodness and wisdom.” What a gentle, encouraging, loving concept. I sank into the peace and good will of the group, and came home refreshed and inspired, looking forward to continuing the training at the next workshop.

He invites me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. Psalm 23:2-3

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Mask of Happiness

We’re focusing this month on the second step – deciding if you want to be right or happy. We have talked about situations in which asserting our rightness is really about ego, or anger, or fear. In those situations, choosing to step back awakens compassion, and brings inner peace and a sense of well-being. It keeps us connected to the other person in a genuine, loving way.

For example, suppose that your spouse is telling a story and gets some of the peripheral details wrong. Is it better for to correct these mistakes so that the story is accurate, or is it better to let the story continue, to let your spouse enjoy telling it, to let the listeners enjoy hearing it?

That’s an easy one. Choosing to be right in that situation might cause embarrassment or irritation for your spouse, and perhaps discomfort for the listeners. Choosing to be happy allows everyone to enjoy the moment, including you.

But what if you are reluctant to disagree with your spouse because if you do, your spouse is likely to criticize you or to get angry? What if you tell yourself you are choosing to be happy, but you are really making the choice out of resentment or fear or even your own anger? That is not choosing happiness. That is a mask of happiness. It separates us from others and hurts our spirit because it is not true.

When I was a girl, I remember playing a game with a boy at my house. I was winning because I was more skilled at the game. My mother called me aside and told me to let him win because he was a boy. She said he would feel bad if he lost to a girl. I remember thinking that that was a bunch of you know what, and yet I hesitated, unsure how to proceed.

So what does it really mean when we say we want to choose happiness instead of rightness? Maybe it means that we want to be present and mindful of our circumstances, we want to examine our own motives, and we want to choose to act in a way that honors our highest self.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Beyond Right and Wrong

We are so conditioned to think about issues in terms of right and wrong. This can lead to unnecessary anxiety. My daughter is always the last one to order in a restaurant. She is simply paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong choice. Instead of thinking that there might be several right choices, that is, choices that she would enjoy, she is convinced that there is one and only one choice that will make her meal a pleasant experience.

For some reason, we are uncomfortable with the possibility of multiple right answers. In an article in O Magazine, Martha Beck calls this being “on the horns of a dual-emma.” It makes our little synapses sizzle and short out. Our world becomes more fluid. We lose our sense of security. It can be terrifying.

I’ve seen this same mind set in the context of law. Because law is often thought of in adversarial terms due to the pervasiveness of litigation in our American society, we think in terms of winners and losers. At the end of litigation, there is technically a winner and a loser. However, when you think of the time and expense (and yes, those lawyer fees), it often seems that both parties have lost.

What is it about being right that is so compelling? Is it fear? Is it ego? Is it greed? How can we stop ourselves before we get locked into a way of thinking that permits only one right answer? That permits only one person to be right?

When I think back to some times when it seemed most imperative for me to be right, I can, with the benefit of hindsight, see fear. The fear was usually hidden behind anger and self-righteousness. My aggressive assertion of my rightness in those situations was a need to control what felt out of control. I mistakenly believed that what was out of control was “out there,” usually in the form of another person. But now I can see with compassion that what was out of control was me.

When I feel that urge now to engage in battle, I try to pause and look more deeply within. It makes me squirm. I feel so powerful when I am thundering with righteous indignation. I feel so vulnerable when I shine light on the scared places within.

I’ve learned from Thich Nhat Hanh to cradle my feelings, especially the feelings that make me uncomfortable. If I can sit with my discomfort, breathe into it (breathe at all for that matter!), I feel the discomfort soften. My body relaxes. My mind clears. I can see the gray areas. I can see the middle way, beyond right and wrong.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What I Know for Sure

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied. "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

My mind feels like that cup sometimes. So full. Overflowing full. I have a hard time remembering things. My daughter says I have the memory of a gnat. She’s right. I think it’s because I have so much useless stuff stuck in my memory and I can’t find the delete button. I can remember my childhood phone number, but I can’t remember to pick up juice on the way home. When I try to remember something new, my mind plays a familiar recording. “The message inbox for the number you are calling is full.”

There is just too much information out there that I’m trying to store in here. Not only grocery lists, but also information about truth. I just finished a book by someone who thinks he has God all figured out. The title isn’t important because there are a million books like that. There are a million books like that because there are a million people who believe they know the truth.

Oprah Winfrey writes a column for her magazine every month called “What I Know For Sure.” Whenever I pick up her magazine in the checkout line, I marvel at the notion that at least once a month, she knows something for sure. No wonder she “makes bank,” as my daughter says.

So if these people really know the truth, then why don’t they all agree? Not only do they not agree, but some will argue vehemently about the rightness of their positions. Some will even kill each other.

The Tao Te Ching teaches, “Wise men don’t need to prove their point. Men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.” I must be very wise, because not only do I not need to prove my point, but I’m not sure I even have a point to prove.

You can’t organize truth. That’s like trying to put a pound of water into wrapping paper and shaping it. –Bruce Lee

reposted from archives

Thursday, February 10, 2011

One Hand Clapping

Being right is not all it’s cracked up to be. Think about all the things people argue about. Make a quick list of five things. Let’s see – here are the first five things I thought of.

1. Whether we should have a single-payer healthcare system
2. Whether a certain misbehaving NFL quarterback should be suspended
3. Whether any particular religion is the only way to God
4. Who really discovered America
5. Whether the toilet paper should roll over the top or from underneath

Ann Landers devoted a number of columns to this last one. No kidding.

Many questions that people spend a lot of time arguing about don’t have an objectively discernible right answer. Take the God question, for example. How can people be so sure that their way is the only way? My mom said once with great conviction that something was against the moral laws of the universe. Wow, I thought, how does my mom know what the moral laws of the entire universe are?

Sometimes even when there is a right answer, it doesn’t stop the argument. For example, the Nazis really did kill millions of people. And Obama really was born in Hawaii. But the arguments continue.

How can we stop ourselves before we get hooked in an argument that creates a chasm between us rather than a bridge?

For me, I realized that winning an argument doesn’t always make me happy. Being right must be its own reward, because often there isn’t much else to gain from it. At some point I decided that in many instances, being happy was more important to me than being right. Tough on my ego, but nourishing to my spirit.

When poised to do battle, I try to ask myself first if the issue even has a “right” answer. If it doesn’t, then it might be a matter of opinion. Can I listen to other opinions with an open mind? Can I engage in respectful debate without getting my ego knickers in a knot?

If there is a “right” answer, does it matter? If my friend is telling a story and says the event happened in 2004, and I know for a fact that it happened in 2005 (at least I think I know), is the correct year relevant to the story? If not, then let it go.

Not being so quick to argue has helped me live more contentedly in my happy place. Do I put this into practice at every opportunity? I wish. But when I do, there is a shift in my world, a reminder that letting go of being right is often a small sacrifice for living in joy.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Joy in the Morning

[This is my first guest post on someone else's blog. The post begins here. To read the rest, click on the link.]

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:5

I wept a lot when my son was growing up. From the moment I heard the word autism, I set out to fix him, to use my love, my intelligence, my resources, my will, my faith to make him well.

I tried every therapy that came along. And I prayed every kind of prayer. I bargained, I visualized, I begged, I focused, I believed, trusting that if I could just summon a mustard seed of faith, he would be healed. His continued autism signified failure. I was a failure as a mother and as a person of faith.

Then one morning when James was a teenager,... [read the rest of this post at Fireflies and Hummingbirds]

Monday, February 7, 2011

I Brake for Rainbows

It's a gray, drizzly day, nothing new in Oregon this time of year. A few minutes ago the late afternoon sun broke through the clouds. I immediately looked out my office window for a rainbow and there it was, a gorgeous complete arch, each color distinct and blazing bright.

I stopped working and ran up and down the hall, calling to my colleagues, especially those on the inner side of the hall (no windows), and we all went outside, by which time a second, fainter, rainbow arched above the first. We all stood in the drizzle oohing and ahhing until they both began to fade.

They only lasted a minute, but what a glorious minute that was!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I'm Right -- So What!

My daughter stormed into the house after school. She had had an argument with a friend. As she described the argument, she became more and more puffed up with her own sense of rightness. She grew angrier and angrier with her friend’s stubborn, bull-headed refusal to see what was to her the incontrovertible, inescapable, clear-as-the-nose-on-your-face-you-must-be-a-moron-not-to-see-it rightness of her position.

I listened without comment. When she finally began to wind down and looked to me for validation of her outrage, I simply said with a smile, “Who cares?” Well, that was not what she was expecting. While she was standing there with her mouth agape, momentarily speechless, I jumped in before she could protest. “Do you want to be right or happy?” I asked. I asked her to think about the topic of their argument and to consider whether being right about that topic was worth the emotional upset she was experiencing. As she did a quick cost/benefit analysis, I could see her body relax and her spirit calm down.

On a different occasion, I was having lunch in a restaurant with some colleagues. I ordered something that had a french name. As soon as I said it, the server corrected my pronunciation. I speak french passably well and lived in french speaking countries for several years, so I was confident that I had pronounced the dish correctly. So in turn I corrected the server, with a not so subtle I-know-better-than-you tone. And after he left the table, I commented on how rude he was. Even if he had been right, what bad form to correct a customer in front of other people. Only later did I see that I had done exactly the same thing to him! Wouldn’t we both have felt better if I had just let his mistake pass without comment?

As I’m writing this, I am thinking back to several times when I committed a faux pas in front of someone who was in a position to cause me great embarrassment by pointing it out. In each instance, the person said nothing. In one instance, the person even went further by quietly correcting the mistake I made so that no one else would see what I had done. Much later, when I realized my mistakes, I was so humbled by the graciousness of these people. My mistakes, in the big scheme of life, were minor, but the kindness of their actions was immense.

The world is divided into people who think they are right. –Tara Brach

I would prefer a world undivided by people who choose to be happy.

reposted from archives

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Flu Blues

I have not abandoned my blog. Nor have I abandoned your blogs. I am still laid low by the flu. While lying in bed coughing my head off, I’ve been thinking about an earlier post about the gratitude challenge (I’m Grateful for That).

So here’s how it works. When you are feeling negative about something, you say you are grateful for it, even if you’re not. Then you just keep going until some small rays of real gratitude break through the dark clouds.

I’m going to try it. I’m grateful for the flu. (No, I’m not. I’m feeling whiny.)

I’m grateful that in the midst of recent stress, my body took charge and ordered me to take a break. (Hawaii would have been nicer.)

I’m grateful for the hot tea my daughter made for me. (I haven’t coughed in 10 seconds.)

I’m grateful for the daughter that made it. (My two daughters still at home have been very attentive this week.)

I’m grateful for my warm blankets and soft pillows piled high on my bed. (They are comforting.)

I’m grateful that I have terrific colleagues who have filled in for me this week while I’ve been sick. (They are truly the best.)

I’m grateful for blog friends and other friends who have sent me get well thoughts and made me feel cared about. (Y’all are truly the best, too.)

I’m grateful that I am generally a very healthy person and this is a temporary condition. (I am so lucky to have good health.)

I’m grateful to have more blessings that I can even begin to count. (Wow, this really works. I am feeling grateful. How silly to be whiny when I am blessed beyond belief.)

From flu blues to sunshiny gratitude. I'm grateful for that!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Next Step

Greetings. I was away from the computer for the weekend, and then came home with the flu so I have not been posting or keeping up with my favorite blogs.

January ended while I wan't paying attention! I'm pleased we ended with some great quotes of joy and inspiration. Thanks to all who shared. Do you have any other reflections on a month of giving yourself permission to be happy?

And now it is February, and time to focus on Step 2--Decide if you want to be right or happy.

I'll start posting in a day or so as soon as I'm feeling a little better. Till then, think about some arguments you have been a party to. Petty things, big things, one big blow out, or a continuing conflict. No need to evaluate them or analyze them. Just see if you can identify some.

Stay tuned....