Attention, gratitude, compassion

Many years ago I read a pretty good book: How to Want What You Have by Timothy Miller. It teaches what is basically a stripped down, secularized Buddhism as a way to make yourself happier. I was reminded of it because I’ve just read 10% Happier by Dan Harris, which covers similar material. I’d recommend either book for anyone who wants to be happier.

Reading a book about meditation made me realize that I’ve been meditating (in my own somewhat haphazard way) for a full ten years now. I don’t meditate every day, but for most of the year (while I’m teaching my taiji classes) I meditate at least five times a week.

Some people seem to find their meditation practice immediately reinforcing: the practice helps them deal with real world problems, which makes them more keen to meditate, which helps them even more, in a self-reinforcing cycle.

That hasn’t really been my experience.

I’ve long been inclined to blame that on initially not taking the meditation more seriously, and figure that if I’d just try a little harder to really meditate, rather than just go through the motions, I’d discover that it’s extremely useful to me just like other people find it useful for them.

That’s been true in a small way, but only a small way. And I think reading the Harris book has helped me spot one reason why not. His alternate title was The Voice in Your Head is an Asshole, and a good bit of his (and other people’s) experience of meditation is like that—their internal voices are belittling and denigrating, full of imposter syndrome and criticism. Meditation helps them by helping them understand that their internal voice is not them, and that they can easily go astray by paying too much attention to it.

My internal voice isn’t like that at all. My internal voice thinks I’m great. (I credit my mom for this. She thinks both of her sons are perfect in every way, and will countenance no disagreement.)

My internal voice isn’t without its flaws. It’s way too prone to remind me of things I did that were wrong or mean or unhelpful, as if it’s purpose were to make me embarrassed or unhappy. It’s also way too likely to get me started worrying about possible bad things that might happen in the future, sending me into a spiral of anxiety or depression. But it doesn’t think I’m bad. Just that bad things have happened in the past (that I should feel bad about) or that bad things might happen in the future (that I should worry about).

So I too can benefit from learning not to pay too much attention to my internal voice. But I don’t get the immediate payoff that comes to those whose internal voice is an asshole, rather than merely occasionally unhelpful.

Having been reminded of the Miller book, I was reminded of the other two legs of its recommended practice: gratitude and compassion.

I’ve made an occasional effort to practice gratitude. Click on the gratitude tag in the sidebar to see any number of instances where I documented a feeling of gratitude. I should do more of that, but I think I’ve gotten pretty good at gratitude, at least compared to when I was a child and had a lot of trouble feeling gratitude for the things I did have when there was so much that I wanted and didn’t have.

Which brings me to compassion. It turns out I have a tag for it too, although there was only one post under that tag before this one, where I wrote about how excited I was that Christopher McDougall’s book Natural Born Heroes was coming out. One of McDougall’s main points is that compassion is a key attribute in a hero, every bit as important as bravery or strength.

The Miller book suggests a specific technique for practicing compassion, which is that whenever someone acts like an asshole, you imagine some reason why their behavior might be excusable, or at least understandable. The guy who cut you off in traffic? Maybe they’re rushing to the emergency room because a loved one was just in an accident. The dude who practically knocked you over because he was staring at his phone? Maybe his boss just fired him by text. The woman who overheard a casual comment in a private conversation and rudely took you to task for it somehow being offensive? Maybe your words reminded her of some past traumatic experience.

I have a friend who used to do this when we were officemates. Whenever I’d complain about somebody—typically for endangering my life with their careless or aggressive driving, but sometimes just for being rude or dismissive or inconveniencing me in some way—he would always have an excuse. Maybe the person was old or sick or injured or in pain or hadn’t slept well. He could always imagine some reason why that person should be excused for their behavior.

It was really annoying.

But I can now feel some compassion for his need to do that. Partially he was trying to help me—help me be less annoyed, help me learn how to feel compassion. But at least as much, I now understand, he was trying to remind himself to practice compassion for the people who made his life more difficult.

Dan Harris describes a specific Buddhist meditation technique for practicing compassion. Called metta meditation, it involves choosing a few compassionate phrases such as “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I be filled with ease.” In your meditation direct them first at yourself, then at a series of others: a benefactor, a close friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and then “all beings.”

Time for me, I think, to step up my own gratitude and compassion practices. I think I’ll give metta meditation a try, and I’ll get back to gratitude journaling here on my blog.

Photo by Rosalie Lang

I find gratitude easy. I am, for example, grateful for the public art in our local parks. (If you’re an arachnophobe, you should be grateful that I didn’t go with my first impulse, which was to post a photo of the spider friend I saw in the house this morning, to which I’m grateful for its help with insect pests. Relatedly, I’m grateful to my mantis friend! And to a growing number of human friends, such as this human friend with Jackie!)

Compassion will take more practice, I fear. But I think it’s practice I’m ready for.

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One thought on “Attention, gratitude, compassion”

  1. Philip, You could take practicing your compassion several levels over by driving in Indian traffic. Trust me, I’ve tried doing what your friend suggested several times and finally chose a better solution – let my wife drive. She’s either transcended to zen mode or got way too numbed down with the incessant honking and haphazard, needless lane shifting. And when I really have to drive or am able to get an eye-contact, I’ve started throwing flying kisses at strangers. It works a charm for that nano-second. Helps me keep calm and drive-on!
    Replied to Attention, gratitude, compassion by Philip Brewer

    Many years ago I read a pretty good book: How to Want What You Have by Timothy Miller. It teaches what is basically a stripped down, secularized Buddhism as a way to make yourself happier. I was reminded of it because I’ve just read 10% Happier by Dan Harris, which covers similar material. I’d r…

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