When the baby cries

I was in a hotel room, sleeping deeply, when I heard a baby screaming in the room next to ours. Its crying was so loud and urgent that it yanked me awake.

I was immediately irritated, even angry. Goddamit, why can’t that baby be quiet? Then I heard the father yelling, sounding desperate, “What IS it?! What is your PROBLEM?!” I started to judge him for the way he was reacting. 

It was the that I remembered a practice I had read about recently called tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “sending and taking.” 

When the baby cries.jpg

It’s a simple practice. If someone is suffering, you breathe in, as if you’re taking in that suffering, and you send out thoughts of happiness or comfort or whatever might provide relief. It’s an exercise in compassion. 

I tried it. I thought of the baby, breathed in its confusion and pain, and breathed out soothing thoughts. I thought of the father, breathed in his frustration, and sent him calm and patience. I reflected on how I had been in similar situations many times, and how upsetting it could be.

My judgment and irritation melted away, and the baby stopped crying. I was incredulous at first. Did tonglen really work? Before drifting back to sleep, I remember thinking that I had just tapped into some kind of superpower. That feeling didn’t last long, however, as a few hours later the baby woke me up again, and this time I was in no mood for tonglen. Nevertheless, that night of broken sleep made it clear I had a choice of how to respond to upsetting events, and that the compassionate choice made me happier.

You can practice tonglen on yourself too, when you’re hurting in some way. Maybe it's when a driver honks loudly behind you, or you read an upsetting story in the news, or see someone begging on the street. Whatever the emotion is - irritation, anger, disgust - you don’t have to suppress it or berate yourself. Just take a moment to feel it, examine it with a sense of curiosity, and reflect on all the other people on the planet who are going through something similar. Then you breathe in for all those countless people, including yourself, and you breathe out relief.

The next time the baby cries -  when something or someone upsets your - see if you can practice “sending and taking.” Catch the initial feeling; breathe in suffering; breathe out compassion. As you practice, you become kinder to yourself and others, and you see just how related and interconnected we all are.

Pema’s dishes

When I first read this story, it made me optimistic. “If this can happen to her,” I thought, “then there’s still hope for me.” It’s from Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, the renowned Buddhist nun.

“I had just finished my evening practice. I had been practicing all day, after which you might think I would be in a calm, saintly state of mind. But as I came out of my room and started to walk down the hall, I saw that in our serving area someone had left dirty dishes. I started to get really angry.
Now, in the retreat we put our name on our dishes…So I was walking down and I was trying to see whose name was on those dishes. I was already pretty sure whose name was on them, because there was only one woman of our group of eight who would leave such a mess. She was always just leaving things around for other people to clean up. Who did she think was going to wash these dishes, her mother? Did she think we were all her slaves? I was really getting into this. I was thinking, “I’ve known her for a long time, and everyone thinks she’s a senior practitioner, but actually she might as well have never mediated for the way she’s so inconsiderate of everybody else on this planet.”
When I got to the sink, I looked at the plate, and the name on it was “Pema,” and the name on the cup was “Pema,” and the name on the fork and on the knife was “Pema.” Needless to say, that cut my trip considerably. It also stopped my mind.”

My first reaction was “So it’s not just me.” Even the most spiritual, compassionate, highly trained person gets angry sometimes, and makes up stories in her head. It’s part of the human condition. 

Then I noticed how she handled it. No additional drama. No self-recrimination. I imagined her smiling and shaking her head, thankful for the lesson manifested by some dishes. People make mistakes, and part of the practice is learning how to pause before you get carried away with the storyline, to be open to other possibilities before you react and to offer loving kindness for yourself and others when you do.

“Everything we meet has the potential to help us cultivate compassion and reconnect with the spacious, open quality of our minds.”

"Just scary enough"

I saw the phrase in Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, in a chapter on happiness and resilience. He described it as “a delicious mix of being a bit frightened yet knowing it would end up all right.”

Making things “just scary enough” can be the key to changing your behavior and to learning in general. 

“Stress inoculation”

“Some of the most convincing neuroscience data for the benefits of getting just scared enough,” Goleman wrote, “comes from studies of squirrel monkeys.”

In 2004, experimenters at Stanford University took young monkeys from their mother for an hour, once a week for ten weeks, and put them in a different cage with adult monkeys they didn’t know. They were terrified, as evidenced by a range of observations, and when the hour was up they were returned to their mothers. A control group was left with their mothers the entire time.

After the ten weeks, both groups young monkeys were placed alone with their mothers in a new cage filled with treats and places to explore.

“Young monkeys who had earlier been exposed to the stressful cages proved far braver and more curious than others their age…and showed no biological signs of fear arousal…those who had never left the safe haven of their mothers just clung timidly to her.” 

The regular visits to a challenging environment, they concluded, “acted as an inoculation against stress.”

Developing self-efficacy

Forty years earlier, other Stanford researchers made similar observations about humans and found related benefits. Albert Bandura and Nancy Adams treated people with snake phobias by taking them through progressively more challenging steps. The researchers would model the behavior first - e.g., looking at a picture of a snake, peering into a snake’s cage, and ultimately holding one. Gradually, at their own pace, the patient would take these small steps too.

Most patients were cured with this “guided mastery” in an hour or two, and it changed their lives. Overcoming their fear improved their “self-efficacy,” their sense of personal effectiveness and confidence to take on other challenges.

“Those who persist in subjectively threatening activities will eventually eliminate their inhibitions through corrective experience, whereas those who avoid what they fear, or who cease their coping efforts prematurely, will retain their self-debilitating expectations and defensive behavior.”

Goleman described it this way: “If we are exposed to too little stress, nothing will be learned; too much and the wrong lesson might become embedded the neural circuitry for fear.”

When you’re overwhelmed

But what if what you’re trying to do is too daunting or challenging? Pema Chödrön described three strategies in The Places That Scare You. “One way is to train with a less challenging subject, to find a situation we feel that we can handle.” In Working Out Loud Circles, we refer to that as “touching the treadmill.” You break down the change you’re trying to make till it no longer triggers your resistance or flight mechanism. 

The second way is to realize that you’re not alone, that millions of other people are going through something similar, feeling what you’re feeling. Shifting your attention to others in this way can make the experience seem less personally threatening. 

Finally, “if none of these is yet possible, we engender some compassion for our current limitations and go forward.”

Are you trying to make some change in your life? Make your next step “just scary enough.” Each small step you take will develop your confidence, each small failure will build up your resilience, and you'll increase your chances for success.

“Don’t expect applause”

I had been waiting for several months for the small box to arrive. Inside was a tiny cardboard stand and a set of 59 cards, a short slogan written on each one. The slogans are from the Lojong teachings, a mind training practice developed over a thousand years ago. They're designed as “a set of antidotes to undesired mental habits that cause suffering.”

I selected the first card and put it on the display. It read: “Don’t expect applause.”

I learned about the slogans from Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are, which is about developing compassion, including self-compassion. 

“If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them. True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”

Later in the day, I thought about the card when I did something around the house and was irritated that my wife didn’t say anything. I thought about the card again when I went to the gym and wanted to be noticed, and when I got good news and was eager to share it in anticipation of receiving praise. It all seemed so childish, and I was embarrassed at having such a deeply-ingrained habit. (Thankfully, I remembered that developing self-compassion is also part of the practice.)

The problem isn’t with positive feedback or encouragement, it’s with expectations, and the card helped me pay attention to my intentions. I should do something because it’s right or nice, not because I hope for something in return.

“It’s good to express our gratitude to others. It’s good to express our appreciation of others. But if we do that with the motivation of wanting them to like us, we can remember this slogan. We can thank others, but we should give up all hope of getting thanked back. Simply keep the door open without expectations.”

"Simply keep the door open." With my first card, I clearly understood that expecting something in return is one of the “mental habits that cause suffering.” I also experienced that it takes practice to train your mind and change the habit, to gradually learn how to be happy.

I wonder what the next card will bring. 

Put your cape on

“I think all of us are like eagles who have forgotten that we know how to fly.”

That’s a quote from Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun, author, and teacher. She was referring to the superpowers we all have, the ones most of us aren’t aware of, or aren't comfortable using.

“The teachings are reminding us of who we are and what we can do. They help us notice that we’re in a nest with a lot of old food and old diaries, excrement and stale air. From when we were very young we’ve had this longing to see those mountains in the distance and experience that big sky and the vast ocean, but somehow we got trapped in that nest, just because we forgot that we knew how to fly.”

This isn't about doctrines, but about opening up, becoming more aware of what you have to offer and what others have to offer you. But how do you begin?

Start where you are

What I most appreciate about Pema Chödrön’s work is how accessible and useful it is. We can take that same thinking, that same mindset, and apply it at work and throughout our life.

“Start where you are. This is very important. [The] practice is not about later, when you’ve got it all together and you’re this person you really respect…Just where you are - that’s the place to start.”

She encourages every bit of progress, viewing all the challenges and struggles as opportunities for learning. In Start Where You Are, she describes us as being trapped in a room of our own making.

“To get out of that room, you don’t drive up in a big machine and smash the whole thing to pieces. Rather, at your own speed, starting where you are, you begin to open the door and the windows. It’s a very gentle approach, one that acknowledges that you can gradually begin to open that door. You can also shut it as often as you need to - not with the desire to stay comfortable, but with the intention ultimately to gather more courage, more sense of humor, more basic curiosity about how to open that door, until you just leave it open …”

Put your cape on

For many of us, "starting where you are" means applying this thinking in an office surrounded by people and processes. You might think that's odd place to begin, but there’s some important research by Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management, that shows how we have more control at work than we might think.

As part of her research, she interviewed people in a wide variety of jobs. She found that the individuals who were viewed by colleagues as both more effective and happier were those who "crafted" their jobs.  They took small steps to alter the tasks they did each day, to form and deepen relationships, to find a greater purpose in what they did. Even in mundane jobs like hospital maintenance, mopping floors and cleaning trash bins, some people found ways to do meaningful, even beautiful, things within their context of their work. They chose to do small acts of kindness, to relate to patients and their families, and to view their jobs as making it easier for people to recover.

The researchers asked one woman why she did these things that weren’t a part of her job description. “It’s not part of my job,” she said, “but it’s part of me.” That's tapping into your superpower. As Pema Chödrön described it, “You allow something in you to be nurtured.”

For the decades I worked in in big companies, I had a “longing to see those mountains in the distance and experience that big sky and the vast ocean.” But I stayed “trapped in that nest,” too afraid to venture far from what others did.

Now I know you have choices when it comes to how you do what you do. It may feel strange at first, to think about generosity and empathy at work, about deepening relationships, about fulfillment and meaning. Start where you are. Acknowledge that you have a superpower within you, and put your cape on. When you do, when you permit yourself to make choices that open your world, it can change how you relate to yourself, to people around you, and to the work that you do. It can change everything.

“The homeless problem”

I live in New York City, and “the homeless problem” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot in my life. When I was growing up, you could pass the homeless practically anywhere throughout your day. As the city experienced a kind of renaissance, it seemed they almost disappeared. Now it’s a problem again. When you think about “the homeless problem,” what comes to mind?

A short experiment

Here’s a thought exercise to make it a bit more real. Imagine you’re walking in a beautiful park in your neighborhood early one morning. The sun is out. The grass is bright green and freshly cut. There are neatly landscaped areas full of flowers. You’re happy just to be walking in such a nice place.

Then you notice someone sleeping on the lawn. You’ve seen that person before, in the same brown sweatshirt and pants. You notice another person you’ve seen before too, laying their head on overstuffed bags. You realize they’re homeless, and they’ve slept overnight in the park.

What are you feeling? What are your next thoughts?

IMG_8233

My walk in the park

This is more than a mental exercise for me. It’s something I do almost every morning as I take a walk around Battery Park City.

My own, almost instinctive reaction is irritation, as if their presence and unfortunate circumstances are ruining my view. (“They shouldn’t be here. They should be in a shelter or something.”) Though the park is public, these particular people are somehow infringing on my space.

Other feelings include disgust (“She wears those same clothes every day!") and powerlessness (“I wish there was a better system.”) and even shame (“I’ve never done anything to help.”)

Every day that I walk by the park and feel those feelings, I am disappointed in myself.

When the homeless problem comes up in conversation with friends, the most common reaction is to blame our mayor. Certainly, we see more homeless people on the streets than we did under the previous mayor. One of us may say something about how “the shelters should be better.” But the truth is I have no idea about the state of the shelters. Nor do I know about this mayor’s policies or how they might affect those who are homeless.

In fact, it usually doesn’t feel like we’re talking about people at all. It’s more like the sanitation department’s budget has been cut and we’re upset the streets aren’t as clean as they used to be. We’re looking for someone to blame.

A starting point

Recently, I read something that might help me change my habits and give me a way out of my daily discomfort and disappointment.

In Taking the Leap, Pema Chödrön writes about how our desire to avoid certain feelings can lead us to shut down, and how in shielding ourselves we lose the chance to be open to new possibilities, to grow. One of the examples she used was particularly familiar.

“There are panhandlers that we rush by because their predicament makes us uncomfortable…

Our usual process is…an internal conversation about how another person is the source of our discomfort…all because we don’t want to go near the unpleasantness of what we’re feeling. This is a very ancient habit. It’s allows our natural warmth to be so obscured that people like you and me who have the capacity for empathy and understanding that we can harm each other. When we hate those who activate our fears or insecurities, those who bring up unwanted feelings, and see them as the sole cause of our discomfort, then we dehumanize them, belittle them, and abuse them.”

That’s how a person I’m walking by isn’t a person, but a problem.

In Comfortable with Uncertainty, she writes that a place to start is to practice developing compassion. Not to feel sorry for someone, but simply at first to pause. To recognize their suffering. To let yourself feel what you're feeling and be open to what they might be feeling. To acknowledge just how easily your positions might have been reversed. Compassion is “a relationship between equals...Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."

You start by being mindful of your almost instinctive urge to shut down.

“Right at this point we can recognize that we are closing, allow a gap, and leave room for change to happen…It can become daily practice to humanize the people that we pass on the street.”

I don’t know what I can do to solve “the problem” or to make a difference. But I know I can change my thinking, that I can relate to these people as people. Maybe that’s what makes the next step possible. Maybe that changes everything.

Freedom’s just another word for …

How would you finish that sentence? Perhaps, like the late Janis Joplin, you’d say it's “just another word for nothin' left to lose.” Or if you were me, about a year ago, you’d quote Nina Simone and say freedom is “No fear!” But now I think freedom is something else entirely.

© Robert Gober

What freedom isn’t

The source of much of my personal development lately is Pema Chödrön. This time, it’s from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.

“The cause of our suffering is…our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom.”

In short, freedom isn’t denying that we have fears and desires and hopes. That would be denying our very humanity. Freedom is allowing yourself to feel all those things and then let them go.

The only way out is through

I spent a long time trying to shut out fear or distracting myself from it. After 51 years of that not working, I’m ready for a new strategy.

Pema Chödrön provides one. She cites the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor when she says that the emotion itself isn’t the problem. It’s our reaction to it; the story line in our heads.

“An emotion like anger [or fear] that’s an automatic response lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.”

Instead of fighting it, work with it. “The only way out is through,” she said, and she suggests this simple exercise:

“Acknowledge the feeling, give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention, and even if it’s only for a few seconds, drop the story line about the feeling. This allows you to have direct experience  of it, free of interpretation. Don’t fuel it with concepts or opinions about whether it’s good or bad. Just be present with the situation. Where is it located in your body? Does it remain the same for very long? Does it shift and change?”

By the time you’ve worked with the emotion in this way, the ninety seconds have passed and you feel and think differently. No drama or rekindling. You acknowledge what is and move on. No big deal.

A personal example

She advises starting with something not too terrifying, so I started with an email.

I’ve been working on something important to me and was waiting on feedback. When I woke up, I was already anticipating a message related to the project and could feel a low-level anxiety. When I saw the email, I quickly scanned it, fixated on some less-than-glowing comments, and experienced a mild panic.

Instead of denial or distraction - telling myself  “it doesn’t matter” or distracting myself with another task - I remembered the exercise.

I acknowledged the fear I was feeling. I noticed my heart pounding and the knot in my stomach. I let myself feel it without thinking. I took a few deep, slow breaths. After a minute or two, I calmed down, reread the note, and got to work.

No big deal.

What’s on the other side

That may seem like a trivial example, but I found it striking that my body and brain couldn’t tell the difference between an email and being attacked by a bear. The  immediate reaction is the same heart-pounding desire to flee.

In the book, she quotes a poem that describes what you’ll discover when you can stop struggling against uncertainty.

This world - absolutely pure.

As is. Behind the fear,

Vulnerability. Behind that,

Sadness, then compassion

And behind that the vast sky.

What does freedom mean to you? If you don’t feel free already, try the 90-second exercise. Freedom might be closer than you think.

The pause button that could save your life

For most of my life, I wasn’t aware I even had one of these buttons. Then I read about it and tried it, but it didn’t seem to work.

Now, after a few years of practice, it works sometimes. It’s given me a glimpse into a calmer, happier life, and I want more.

The Pause Button That Could Save Your Life

When I knew I needed it

It’s over 10 years ago. I’m driving my young son to an appointment. I’m late. I don’t want to go, but we have to go. It’s expensive and we’ve already paid. I’m upset.

I double-park and lead him toward the door. “I’ll be right there!” I need to park the car. There’s traffic - and no place to park. I look at the clock. I’m angry. I see a space but someone else takes it. I can feel myself starting to boil inside. I make a wrong turn.

I punch the steering wheel in frustration. The horn blows. It keeps blowing, loudly. I frantically try to pull on it to make it stop. I’m driving around the upper east side of Manhattan with a blaring horn, furious, frustrated, and ashamed all at the same time.

Something had to change.

The pause button

What happened wasn’t new, and such outbursts weren’t limited to driving. It was a pattern. Something would trigger an emotional response, followed by negative thoughts that would feed the response and make it stronger, quickly spiraling out of control.

The pause button allows you to catch yourself right after that initial response.

“If we catch it when it first arises, when it’s just a tightening, a slight pulling back, a feeling of beginning to get hot under the collar, it’s very workable.”

That’s a quote from Pema Chödrön’s excellent book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. She describes what to do in three seemingly simple steps.

  1. Acknowledge that you’re hooked.
  2. Pause, take three conscious breaths, and examine what you’re feeling.
  3. Relax and move on.

When we’re hooked (Pema uses the Tibetan word shenpa), the older parts of our brain unleash a series of primitive biochemical reactions. The pause helps us engage our more recently evolved pre-frontal cortex so we interrupt that chain of reactions, so we slow down enough to think and plan.

“When we pause and breathe…, we can foresee quite clearly where biting the hook will lead.”

Eleven years later

I’m driving with my daughter. It’s snowing heavily and we’re in the middle of a five-hour drive. Though we’re using a navigation system, we miss a turn. I figure we’ll just take the next exit and make a U-turn, but Google Maps tells us the next exit is 28 miles away. It must be a mistake.

I’m tired, and irritated that I missed the exit. Surely there’s one coming up sooner, but it becomes clear that's not the case. I can’t believe I’ve just made an error that will cost us an additional hour in this terrible weather! I want to speed up and make up for lost time. I consider making an illegal turn on the highway. I grip the wheel as tightly as I can, feeling anger and frustration welling up. I’m hooked.

And I pause.

It’s difficult to interrupt my roiling emotions, but I take a few deep, conscious breaths. I try to think. Is it really that bad? Will being angry at the distances between exits make it better? It’s difficult driving and your daughter’s in the car. Better to be careful and not make it worse.

Very slowly, I start to calm down. I stop berating myself and just focus on driving. Once we find the exit and are headed in the right direction, my daughter and I make a game of it, counting down the minutes. She resumes playing deejay and picks some music for us. We even laugh at our mistake.

The practice

In the decade since that first car story, I’ve read dozens of books about the pause button, and they all same pretty much the same thing.

I quote Pema Chödrön’s book in particular because she relates her own embarrassing stories and offers gentle encouragement. Her writing made me understand that the pause button isn’t a button as much as a practice. It takes effort over time. You make gradual progress and experience setbacks. You keep working at it.

Missing parking spaces and exits are trivial examples, I know. But for me, the progress I made in dealing with them gives me confidence I can do more.

“By ‘putting up with little cares,’ with minor annoyances, when the shenpa is lightweight, ‘we train ourselves to work with great adversity.’”

You don’t have to wait till you're hooked. You can practice hitting the pause button throughout the day - walking to work, washing the dishes, eating. I’ve come to think of it as a way to train myself.

“Punctuate your life with these moments,” Pema writes. “If we keep a sense of humor and stay with it for the long haul, the ability to be present just naturally evolves. Gradually, we lose our appetite for biting the hook.”

“You don’t do yoga with your face.”

Sometimes, you can get so carried away with striving to attain something that you forget the very reason you’re doing it in the first place. Yoga class provides me with one obvious example, and this week I experienced a very different example, one that’s even more embarrassing and held an important lesson for me.

Yoga wisdom

When I’m in yoga class each Friday, some of us will invariably struggle to maintain a pose or to stretch in some way that our bodies aren’t familiar with. It’s at those times that my teacher, looking down at us on our mats, will say “You don’t do yoga with your face.” Then she’ll gently remind us to breathe.

Every single time this happens I’ll realize just how much I was furrowing my brows and clenching my jaw and, yes, holding my breath.

My teacher isn’t mocking us. She’s helping us to come back to the present moment. To focus less on the the striving and the struggle and the desire to achieve a good pose - and to just be in touch with our body our breath and discover our own personal practice.

A very different example

This week I was working with a group of 24 people in 6 countries as we all try to spread the practice of Working Out Loud, something I’ve been working on for several years. It’s a simple practice that helps you access more possibilities while feeling better about your everyday.

Part of that practice is making your work visible as that can amplify who you are and what you do. One short exercise is updating your LinkedIn profile. It’s a small step that helps you voice - to the world as well as to yourself - what you’re doing or aspiring to do.

I included that exercise in the book and in peer support guides. I’ve used those guides many times as I’ve participated in Working Out Loud circles. And yet…7 months after I published the book, I hadn’t add “Author” as a job on my profile.

It was only this past Wednesday that I did it, resulting in a flurry of congratulations for something I had done quite some time ago. Why had I waited so long? And what made me finally do it?

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 8.38.22 AM

The power of practice

My friend, Moyra Mackie, is a coach and consultant, and she commented that “public declarations can be scary.” That identified the main resistance I think I felt. Adding “Author” took only a minute, but I felt I was publicly changing my identity, and that was enough to stop me from doing something I knew I should do.

What finally made me do it? There was no one thing. It was the practice over time that wore down my resistance. All the peer support meetings, the blog posts, the presentations, the feedback from people. The cumulative effective effect of the practice empowered me to act.

The lesson

This small example made me realize how important the practice is. As much as the ideas and techniques are helpful, it’s practicing them that helps you empathize with the people you’re trying to help. It’s practicing them that makes possible your own personal discovery.

Pema Chödrön wrote about this in Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears:

“Working on ourselves and becoming more conscious about our own minds and emotions may be the only way for us to find solutions that address the welfare of all beings.”

So this past week, as a group of us talked about techniques and activities and measures to spread the simple practice of working out loud, I was reminded of the importance of our own individual practice. As much as we want to help people and change organizations and even make the world a better place, we can only do that if we start changing ourselves first.

Before we teach, we must practice being in touch with our own sense of empathy and generosity, deepening our own relationships; discovering our own possibilities while feeling better about our own everyday. Then and only then are we are capable of helping others experience all that we’ve come to know.