Sunday, September 23, 2012

Too Bad for You, Buddy!



Or words to similar effect, form in my head from time to time, and occasionally, I'm not happy to report, escape my lips. Each time, it's a variation on a theme: my less than compassionate response to someone else's misfortune.


Unless we're arhats or saints with permanent halos, as night follows day, when we learn about (or imagine) unpleasant things befalling someone who 'had it coming', uncharitable thoughts follow. Such persons include, but are not limited to - I seem to be lapsing into legalese here - individuals whom we deem arrogant, unkind, unfair, critical, proud, pompous, selfish, cruel, and generally anyone who has, or is imagined to have, slighted us, or has stupidly disregarded our advice. And of course, those who have the effrontery to think it's OK to judge us.


An extreme example is the outbreak of jubilation and festivities that erupted after the killing of Osama Bin Laden.


When the misfortunes that befall these folks are only embarrassing, it's just funny. A lot of slapstick comedy relies on this - the haughty character's flamboyant exit, followed by his sheepish reappearance when he realizes that he has just stormed into a closet.


When something they value, besides their pride, gets damaged, as when we hear of a bullfighter getting gored in an important place, we get a jolt of guilty pleasure - jolt because it comes out of the blue and is usually short-lived, and guilty because deep down, it really doesn't feel good.


Lately, I've noticed this happening quite a bit. Since I'm pretty sure I'm not becoming a nastier person, I think I'm probably just catching myself in the act more often. I let the little ones come and go without much mental comment, but when I catch myself in a doozy, I get a good chuckle out of it.


Perhaps the little squirt of endorphin our brain gives us when someone else stumbles used to have some value in the distant past when our survival depended on besting others. Perhaps it's similar to the pleasure we get from eating sweet fatty foods or the adrenalin 'fight or flight' rush - the one useful if we are going to spend a cold winter without much food, and the other useful if our house catches fire, but in general, both doing more harm than good.


Regardless of whether it's an instinct or just a deeply ingrained mental habit that we learned as little children, it continues to be strongly and widely reinforced by society - for example, in business, when the wealthy are ruined, in sports, when the bullies are beaten, and in theatre, when the villains suffer painful retribution.


But there is a world of difference between having unkind thoughts and harbouring them.


In zazen and mindfulness practice, we can treat our thoughts as part of our ever-changing mental scenery - whether they be mean thoughts or thoughts of elephants eating popcorn - and we neither try to push them out of our minds nor pursue them. When we realize we have taken off on a train of thought, we just get off and return to being present. If we deliberately pursue a thought, then we are no longer doing zazen or mindfulness. We’re just thinking.


If one moment in practice can be said to have more value than another, then I would say it's that moment when we become aware that we are no longer present, let go of the thought that was distracting us, and return to the present. Kosho Uchiyama Roshi has referred to this process as 'vow and repentence'. And a quote from Samuel Beckett comes to mind: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." It is coming home.


So we need have no remorse or shame about uninvited unkind thoughts, no matter how out of character they may seem. They simply remind us that we're human. If we find we are not letting these thoughts go, but brooding on them and nurturing them, or even trying to cultivate them in others, then we may need to take a long, honest but compassionate look at ourselves and try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Image: detail from Christ Carrying the Cross (Heironymus Bosch) - Wikimedia Commons

17 comments:

  1. nice post! helpful. lately I feel like I've been a ball of irritation and like you I'm pretty sure I'm not any more irritable than I've ever been. It's just up on my radar for intense examination. I can easily get tangled up in self condemnation so it's good to remember, it's just the mind, doing what minds do .... and also my understanding is to work with the particular proclivity of this particular body/mind and the karma waiting to be cleansed, meaning sometimes there is action I need to take.

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    1. Thanks, Carole. Good point about working with the process and taking action. If a particular thought is powerful or comes up repeatedly, it may be an indicator that I need to do something, like make amends or clear the air, or be assertive about an injustice, or revise my attitude or biases. Not all stray thoughts are there just for the ignoring!

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  2. Very nice post David, neat strange picture too: A perfect reminder for today. I always say to myself that everyone, even the bin laden-types, would be kind if education was a global priority. Big flaws with that premise I know, sort of like blame 'once removed'. We seem desparate for coping mechanisms for the saddness we see. A nice reminder to step back, steady on and fail better. Thank you :)

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    1. Thank you, Susan. I don't think it ever hurts to think kindly of even the worst 'villains' no matter how much sadness they have caused. Something I had meant to cover in the post but forgot, is once we realize we have had an involuntary unkind thought about someone, following it up with a little thought of loving kindness - sort of a 'course correction'.

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  3. Indeed ~ a vital difference: "...a world of difference between having unkind thoughts and harbouring them."

    Thank you for the reminder.

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    1. Hi, Karen - thanks for dropping by and saying hello! I suppose there is a grey area in some cases, so I have a kind of 'two second rule' - if I'm still thinking it (as opposed to analyzing it) after 2 seconds, I'm harbouring it.

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  4. As a global culture we seem to be caught in the collective mind set of "too bad for you, buddy", which is being played out here in the US in our current political fray with a certain candidate's slippage of the tongue revealing his true feelings about those less fortunate, while he amasses millions. The I've got mine, too bad for you mentality has crept in in subtle ways - even blaming other's misfortune/life tragedies on their karma, as Sharon Stone (a movie celebrity here) did after a Chinese village had experienced total devastation after an earthquake. And the subtle snobbery that says people are in their situation because of their choices (which I am guilty of with a family member). On the other hand, I have witnessed how the mentality of victimization works - with this "victim" in particular unwilling to take action on their own behalf, to improve their situation. And I have to admit that it is not always easy to conjure up compassion when you see someone choosing to wallow in their circumstances, impacting the rest of the family, rather than do anything about it. Being compassionate does not necessarily mean one doesn't use discernment about a situation - giving money to people who will only use it for booze, or otherwise squander it... Which begs the question, what *is* a compassionate response in these kinds of circumstances... I'm still trying to figure that out! Thanks for the food for thought! :) Oh dear I do go on....

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    1. Christine - interesting you mentioned that candidate's slippage of the tongue - my gloating over his gaffe was one of the reasons I wrote this post.

      It's difficult dealing with people who doggedly persist in causing harm to family. Either (1) they can't see and understand the hurt they are causing, or (2) they can see it but they don't care, or (3) they can see it and they do care but for some reason, like an addiction or a compulsion, they can't stop themselves. Since it can be hard for us to tell which it is, maybe the kindest response is to go with number 3 and relate to it as a mental illness. Best wishes with that one.

      On the last point, that's another tough question. Although I believe it's pretty easy to get fed at soup kitchens, I still tend to give coins to beggars. Here is a post by a guy who apparently posed as a homeless person (he tends not to give coins to beggars) Should I Give Money to Homeless People? Thanks for your thoughtful comment - I'm glad you went on. :)

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    2. Thanks David! Yes, #1 and #3 resonate here. And I do feel compassion for the emotional pain they are experiencing, knowing how difficult it is when life goes in unexpected directions that one has no control over. There are so many social and psychological and family dynamic factors involved.

      The guy who wrote the article seems a little harsh... They do not allow panhandling in downtown Denver anymore. If you want to give you are supposed to put your money in a box at a kiosk. I wonder if the homeless ever actually get the money. I have a Christian minister friend who says: All we can do is cast our "bread" upon the waters - we can't control where it goes... The idea being to offer what you can and not worry about how it is being used - compassion in action. :) I gave a homeless person money one time and cried all the way home. It just seemed like the right thing to do... I think it moved me more to give...

      As for those pesky thoughts, cast them upon the waters too :) It's hard not to have them in an election year :) I do much sputtering... lol

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    3. Offer what you can and not worry about how it is being used. I think that goes right to the heart of it.

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  5. Thanks David,

    I suspect you are not judging more just getting quicker at the identification of thoughts you no longer wish to feed. As a collective consciousness we do seem to delight when those we find offensive "get theirs."

    I am happy that you are not choosing to feel guilt about these thoughts, which of course are just habitual. I think it is a significant sign of maturity that when these odd little suggestions appear you are able to laugh at the instead of investing in them. If only we could all learn such detachment.

    Thanks for an informative and enjoyable writing.

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    1. Thanks very much, Elliott. There's lots of informative and enjoyable writing over at your place Secrets To Peace!

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  6. I try hard too not to hold ill thoughts to others... Selfishly, not for their sake but for mine. It only festers and makes a lesser me.

    This post reminds me of this story: One evening a Cherokee Elder told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
    He Said: "My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Good: It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and truth.

    The other is Evil: it is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

    The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?"

    The Elder simply replied: "The one you feed."

    Thanks for this reminder to not hold grudges - Even against ourselves.

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    1. Hi Bea - I love that story - so true! Good point about not holding grudges even against ourselves.

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