An experiment in mindfulness, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

In my last post, I discussed what I learned from a Naikan workshop where we focused on just three questions. The first question was: What have I received in the last twenty-four hours? I learned that for me, as well as most of us, blessings are abundant. Life is not the bed of nails that many of us perceive it to be, but more like a comfortable mattress. If my life were a mattress, it might have a few lumps in it but they should be easy to ignore. It takes work for many of us to perceive that we receive much more than we give. Periodically contemplating your blessings, as I did last week, helps put your life in perspective.

Having realized that I was blessed in so many ways, the teacher gave us a second question: What have I given in the last twenty-four hours? Here are some of my gifts that I scribbled down on paper:

  • I gave my seasoned guidance to my employees. I hope that it was actually good guidance but there is no way to tell for sure.
  • The notes I recorded during a conference call
  • The thought and creativity I applied to my job
  • My labor in general, which hopefully made the world a bit better place and for which I was well compensated
  • My cat, as usual, received a belly rub on our bed before I retired. From his purring, he was obviously grateful.
  • I shut the blinds to our bedroom windows so we could have some privacy
  • I turned up the heat because we were getting a bit chill
  • My wife got my companionship watching TV
  • I dished out more than a few I love yous to immediate members of my family, including the feline
  • I spent about an hour in the morning doing the family bookkeeping
  • I put my daughter’s dishes in the dishwasher
  • I took out the trash
  • I listened well (I hope) to my wife as she expressed her thoughts and feelings
  • Not to be too crass, but I contributed my salary. I am by far the family’s major breadwinner. Without my income, my family would have fewer modern amenities to enjoy.

We had the same amount of time to write down what we gave others but when we were done, we quickly noticed that that our list of gifts was far smaller than our list of items that we had received. Few things on my list amounted to much. Yet, in spite of my limited contributions I received far more than I got.

The last question was the hardest: What trouble or difficulty have I caused in the last twenty-four hours? I found it hard because I do not like to dwell on my failings and imperfections. The instructor asked us to record any small inconveniences we caused on our list. If we cut into line ahead of someone, that inconvenienced someone. If we dodged our way through traffic in order to make it home a minute sooner, we likely caused other drivers to check their driving. When I contemplated my own failings, I found some I was uncomfortable even putting down on paper.

I know I can be perceived as domineering or arrogant even though, of course, I rarely perceive myself to be this way. To the extent that I am, I certainly regret any hurt feelings I might have caused. Fortunately, since the period was limited to twenty-four hours, there were few egregious things on my list. My minor transgressions included:

  • I spurned letting the cat on my lap because I was deeply into the middle of doing something on the computer. At the time, I thought that was more important than my poor feline’s impulsive desire for my companionship.
  • My daughter had rearranged her bedroom and was anxious to show it to me. Rather than rush up the stairs to see it when I got home, I made her wait several minutes while I unpacked myself and sorted the mail. I could have been more sensitive to her feelings.

What do exercises like this mean? It means whatever we want to glean from it. However, I did find it useful to spend a couple hours doing nothing but engaging in focused introspection. I am definitely more mindful now of how life has showered me with so many blessings. Some I can say are the fruits of my own labors. While I am grateful for my job, it would not be possible without education, and my education did not just happen. While I had to work at it, I was also blessed with parents who provided stability and encouraged me to learn, teachers who poured out their knowledge and passions, and society that demonstrated its values by spending tax money so that I could attend school free. In 1987, I spent a week in the Philippines. There I saw children running around in the streets. Back then (and it is likely still this way today) schooling was available only to those whose parents could afford it for their children. The children I saw were impoverished and spent most of their days trying to eke out a slightly higher standard of living for their families. The boys watched cars of wealthy foreigners like me, or tried to sell cigarettes. (They also smoked them.) Too many of the girls, once they were in adolescence, worked in bars and sold their bodies for money, even though they were still minors. Fleets of horny U.S. sailors took advantage of the opportunity. What a blessing that I was spared that sort of childhood!

I also learned that while I had my transgressions, overall I am a decent human being. If I do not cause much trouble, perhaps it was because life has largely treated me kindly, so I saw little reason to cause trouble. For me, for the most part life is truly good and rewarding. I am blessed because I received much of it without asking. I learned that my problems were not so much mountains as they were molehills, that life can be a great gift, and that I am fortunate and lucky to be alive at this time and in this place.

An experiment in mindfulness, Part One

The Thinker by Rodin

I am not a Buddhist, but lately my wife has been wading hip deep into Buddhism. For as long as I have known her (and that’s a quarter of a century) she has been proudly unchurched. She praised the Lord by sleeping in on Sundays. This summer though she did something totally unexpected. This was especially startling given that she is the most predictable and habit bound creature I have ever met. She started attending a Buddhist temple. Moreover, she liked it so much that she has become a member.

She came to the belated realization that Christianity has never temperamentally agreed with her. Even my Unitarian Universalism, which has its roots in Christianity but really cannot be considered Christian, felt too church-like for her. Yet, like all of us, she felt some spiritual tuggings. One day this summer, they reached the point where she could no longer ignore them anymore. She decided that if she was going to have a spiritual home, it would have to be something really different. At least for us Westerners, Buddhism is really different. We Westerners are conditioned to follow religions where you slavishly follow some holy book (generally The Bible) and holy man (generally Jesus) who claims to be the only path to God. While Buddhism is silent on God, it speaks many volumes about human suffering and how to alleviate it. It is an inward focused religion that concentrates on the here and now, rather than an outward focused religion such as those that predominates the Western world. I plan to write more on Buddhism when I feel a bit more informed.

Saturday though found me at the exceptionally pleasant Ekoji Buddhist Temple (the temple my wife decided to join) that sits among the trees in gloriously suburban Burke, Virginia. Just as Christianity is broken up into numerous denominations, so is Buddhism. This temple practices Jodo Sinshu Buddhism, a denomination that was born in Japan and which seems more laidback and less dogmatic than other forms of Buddhism.

I was there with my wife to attend a Naikan workshop. In the workshop, you have an opportunity to engage in some focused self-reflection. As you can imagine, Buddhists have many ways to engage in mindfulness, which to my non-Buddhist mind amounts to self-reflection. A Naikan workshop is another form of mindfulness. Fortunately, for this exercise no chanting, bell ringing, incense or contemplating of your navel was needed. All you needed was some paper and a pen, which were thoughtfully provided, along with a free lunch.

We were asked to contemplate three questions. The first was, What have I received in the last twenty four hours? For most Americans, unless they won the lottery they would probably say nothing. As I put my own list together, I realized what most Buddhists realize: that I am surrounded by a universe that provides me with bountiful blessings and gifts. The problem is that we learn to take them for granted.

In thinking of my blessings, I started with the basics. I live in a house instead of on a street corner. It is heated and cooled to within a narrow range of temperatures so that I feel continuously comfortable. Inside my house is pretty much all I need, plus the people that are most important to me. There is my wife, who loves me in spite of my eccentricities and well as my loving and affectionate daughter. We also have a five-year-old cat, which we adopted two years ago. He gives me the gift of his presence by sitting on my lap several times a day and purring contentedly.

My house though is part of an interconnected society that also provides me with many blessings. There is the newspaper that lands on my driveway and which for thirty-five cents or so provides timely and relevant information on my world. There are our toilets and the sewage system, which magically removes the disagreeable aspects of being a human being. There are our faucets, which magically provide limitless clean and potable water. There is also this iMac computer that I am using to write this post, and the high speed Internet service we enjoy.

It is true that I pay for these privileges but that they happen at all and are so routine is practically miraculous. In my fifty plus years on this planet, I remember going to sleep cold perhaps twice in my life, and that was because I was silly enough to go on a winter campout with the Boy Scouts. I have been spared so much discomfort and misery. Yet had I been born a thousand years earlier, this kind of misery would be commonplace. In fact, had I been born a thousand years ago, the mortality statistics would suggest I would already be in my grave.

Nor have I ever known hunger. Certainly, I have been hungry, but I have never suffered for a want of food because it has always been there. Moreover, the food that I consume is plentiful, abundant, cheap and easy to acquire. Buying food sometimes feels miraculous. How is it that I am able to purchase blackberries in November? As I wrote down the blessings I had received in those last twenty-four hours, the list spanned many pages. Here are some:

  • Unsolicited hugs
  • Sex
  • At work, someone just showed up and emptied my trash can
  • Someone also cleaned the restroom I used so it didn’t smell
  • In fact, unlike my house, the building that I work in is virtually always clean. The windows are generally clear of grime, the floors are polished, the furniture is dusted, the elevators work flawlessly, and in the basement there is a cafeteria full of convenient, tasty and nutritious food.
  • There is a lovely and bucolic view out my office window, which looks southwest over a canopy of trees. On a clear day, I can see the Shenandoah Mountains. I can also watch airplanes arrive and depart from Washington Dulles airport.
  • My office, with an actual door I can close and real walls. Most of my career was spent in a cubicle. Four years later, I still appreciate and marvel at this gift.
  • Watching an episode of Battlestar Gallatica on DVD with my wife (although it has to be one of the most depressing shows ever filmed!)
  • I slept soundly on a comfortable mattress
  • I had a nice, nutritious breakfast full of foods that I love
  • I got to surf the Internet
  • The temple provided a free lunch just for attending the seminar. (The black bean soup was to die for!)
  • My blue jeans were so comfy
  • My health, which I take for granted, but without which many of the blessings I experience would lose meaning

Why is it that despite having so many blessings showered on us on a daily basis so many of us feel so disgruntled? Why are we whining so much? Why are we so unhappy? As our instructor pointed out, for most of us the universe provides us far many more blessings than we actually give out in return. The blessings begin at birth and follow us magically through childhood. Someone gave us birth, nurtured us, changed our diapers and made sure we did not foolishly jump off a cliff. Should we not feel these constant blessings? Should we not wake up every day happy and grateful at how pleasant and ordered our lives are?

Perhaps we should but most of the time, we do not. We have been hoodwinked into a philosophy that says good is never good enough, so we must always aspire for better. The desire for better makes us inured to the numerous blessings we receive every day.

We were asked to put our thoughts down on two other questions. I will tell you about them in future posts.