Friday, April 15, 2011

How Wind Chimes Can Make You a Better Person and a Better Neighbor

I live in the city, in a townhome surrounded by houses, condos and apartments. A few of my neighbors have wind chimes, which sound lovely during the day. Their tinkling evokes harmony with Nature. However, they are not harmonious with the actual nature of living in a high-density neighborhood where many, many others who would prefer to be about the business of sleeping are instead forced to contemplate those wind chimes by night. This is no different than my feeling about music. By day, I too appreciate Eminem but I dislike hearing “3 A.M.” emanating loudly from your balcony at 3 A.M. At best it shows a lack of awareness for others. At worst it shows a lack of concern or respect for anyone but yourself.

A friend of mine reminded me to consider what Osho said about resistance. Osho is an enlightened mystic and prolific author from India and in one of his teachings he said if you are irritated by something (say a noisy machine), then become one with that object because resistance creates unrest. I admire this way of thinking and, when I remember to employ it I find it to be very helpful, especially with people who own viewpoints that differ radically from my own, or situations where I have no control. If I can’t do anything to change the external circumstances, then learning to accept it and changing how I react to it is important. I will even try it on my refrigerator some time if it ever bothers me. However, sometimes employing a contemplative response to a situation, when action would more easily and quickly solve the problem is not wise.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a spiritual, introspective person, so I typically appreciate this kind of thinking, but sometimes common sense dictates a solution that is more practical. A contemplative, introspective approach to this problem is not going to get you a good night’s sleep, and that is what is at stake here, not so much your deep-seated, unexamined feelings to this particular sound and how you might change those feelings. That is a wonderful solution if there is no other choice. There are other options in this scenario that could be in perfect alignment with your spiritual ideal. Directly communicating with your neighbor in a non-violent, kind, and honest way might get the noise to stop quickly. It may also bring awareness to your neighbor and even strengthen your relationship.

I’ve gone to my neighbor’s house in the middle of the night and plucked the offending wind chime off the hook and gently set it down on the ground to silence it for the night, leaving a note on the door that said something like “I have been having trouble sleeping because the wind chimes keep waking me. I am sorry for the imposition, but would you be willing to take them down? My family and co-workers like me better when I am well-rested.” The neighbor acquiesced. I have also waited until the next day and directly talked to a chime-loving neighbor about it in a gentle, humorous way with the same outcome that seemed to make us both happy. I realize it doesn’t always work and the neighbor could refuse your request, but I would prefer to assume the best of my neighbors and try to solve the problem in the most expeditious and direct way. In the rare case where it doesn’t go the way you had hoped it would, then you have to explore other options that are within your control, the legal limits, and your spiritual ideal. This can become challenging when you are sleep deprived. Osho’s teachings might come in handy then, along with a white noise generating fan in your bedroom.

Fond as I am of introspection, I don’t believe suffering in silence unnecessarily is spiritual if there is a way to solve a problem. Avoiding conflict is not spiritual. Handling conflict mindfully and making your needs known in a skillful way is a perfectly valid choice and an ability that is necessary to cultivate, assuming you do not live alone, isolated from others. Our neighbors provide the perfect scenario for the practical application of the spiritual lessons we learn and idealize.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Compassionate Non-Engagement

There is a guy in our neighborhood (I'll call him Joe) who has clinically-diagnosed schizophrenia and is well known for being verbally abusive to people around here. I became aware of this man about two years ago when I passed his house while pushing a kid-filled stroller on a walk. I smiled at him and said hello as he was sitting on his front porch looking at me. His response was, “What the fuck are you looking at?”. Confused, I thought surely I had not heard correctly and said with no sarcasm “excuse me?” and he said the same thing again. I got it that time, though luckily my child did not. I was really rattled by the experience, but walked on. Later when I became aware of his mental illness, I felt better knowing that it was not a personal thing.

A few weeks ago I was feeling especially buoyant. Grateful for the warm spring weather, I walked to school to pick up my kids at an unusually leisurely pace. I was not moving at cardio-busting speed like I normally do, but just enjoying the slow pace and the sunshine and the daffodils. My cell phone rang and it was my friend whose daughter had just given birth. As I was walking and talking to her, I noticed Joe was walking toward me on the sidewalk. He had an open beer in his hand and a truly menacing look aimed at me. I looked up and purposefully and kindly made eye contact then slowly looked away, all the while talking to my friend on the phone. “Oh congratulations!” I was saying to Judy. “What is her name?” Joe sneered at me and as we passed he said, “You make me SICK!” I ignored this comment and continued my conversation, but I noticed that what was absent was the usual physical feeling of fear of conflict that I feel in the pit of my stomach. Joe didn’t get what he wanted so he kept at me. He was behind me now and he and began imitating me and what I was saying in a loud, sneering voice. I did not react but just kept walking and talking happily. The interaction ended without incident.

The appropriate response was none at all. Non-engagement. Joe is a mentally ill, angry, and unstable man and when I understood his condition, I was able to treat both of us with compassionate non-engagement. I was not fearful, or hurt, or angry. I did not take it personally. I did not feed his anger with my words or actions. It occurred to me that this was a way to treat others who are challenging in similar yet less pathological ways. Non-engagement might be the best response to someone who is caught up in their own anger and trying hard to share it with others. Instead of getting hooked into that drama, trying to change their behavior, or matching their mood, I can choose to keep out of it and remain peacefully myself, even calmly and respectfully removing myself physically from the situation if need be. While I don't plan on viewing every challenging person as pathological, it occurred to me that if I could see that others have their own mindset and challenges that most of the time have nothing to do with me, I would be far more likely to practice compassionate non-engagement.

This would be a tremendous paradigm shift and its skillful practice would likely benefit many. Imagine if you were on the receiving end of this. If you were having a difficult day and not handling yourself skillfully in my presence, wouldn't you prefer that I allowed you to be and feel whatever you were feeling without my interference? I wouldn't be demanding that you change, attempting to manage you, nor would I escalate your already raw feelings by arguing with you, creating even more conflict. You would get nothing from me to fuel your anger and plenty of space to be yourself, without feeling punished.

I am not saying this is the appropriate response for every interaction, as conflict is inevitable and facing it directly with skillful communication to resolve it is a necessary life skill. The key may be to choose your battles, and this way of seeing the world will be a great tool for me in avoiding many that are not mine to fight.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Problems in the Bedroom

Our master bedroom was looking a little tired and I wanted to give it a new look without spending a lot of money. I love the way paint can transform a room so quickly and inexpensively. That and a change of art and bedding and I’d have a whole new room! It didn’t go that easily though.

I started with the bedding, but I couldn’t find anything I really liked and quickly became frustrated. I just wanted this done! I eventually looked on Craig’s List and found an Ikea duvet cover that looked bold and interesting. I arranged to go see it. When I saw it in person I was struck by how different it looked than the professional Ikea photo showed it. In person it seemed somewhat garish. Instead of listening to my inner voice though, I promptly bought it because it was a bargain and because I was there to buy it – that was my plan! I brought it home and tried to like it. I went to the paint store and bought bone colored paint that would match it and tone it down. I painted the whole room. But once done, I just couldn’t live with it or the ugly bone color, so I got rid of the garish duvet cover. So much for a bargain!

I thought I could warm up that bone color with chocolate brown, so I bought chocolate brown curtains and a bed skirt and I hand-dyed two sets of sheets the same rich brown and they turned out to look like a beautiful suede. I found an attractive dark eggplant duvet cover and after much online shopping found some throw pillows that matched that purple. Great – I was done! The trouble was that the bone color, the brown, and the eggplant color did not at all go well together. There were three different looks that had no sense of cohesion and every time I walked into the room I would wince.

So I started over. Again. This time I decided that my goal was not to “just get it done” but to love it when it was done, acknowledging that it might take some time. I also decided to be more intentional with the room. If I could choose a color scheme and look, what would that be? This is very different from sifting through options and seeing what I could live with and hoping they would all go together. I really loved the brown, so I would keep that. A friend of mine who stages houses pointed out that duvet covers look messy, so she advised looking for a new bedspread/comforter and getting rid of the duvet. When I looked around with this option I had far more choices that I really liked. In fact, I found two that I loved and settled in on one of them. It is cream colored with a tasteful dark orange and dark brown design on it. It was exactly what I had had in mind when I took the time to think about what I really wanted. Not only did it match the new brown pieces that were already in the room, but the bone color that I previously disliked took on more of a khaki color when paired with the rest of the colors and matched it perfectly. I happened to have some dark color primer that was the exact orange color on the bedding and I painted an accent wall with that left over paint. Suddenly my room came together. Sure, I don’t have a headboard and bigger lamps as my friend advised but I don’t “need” them and can work on that eventually. For now I am just thrilled with the look of the room, though chagrined that I wasted about $160 in my less mindful purchases on the way.

The lesson I learned from this was to slow down and be intentional before making decisions. Being done with something turned out to be less important than loving it. Thinking carefully about what I wanted and how all of the elements would flow together was critical. While I did like the eggplant color on its own, I failed to consider how it would coordinate with the other elements. I wasn’t thinking holistically. This lesson could be applied to all sorts of categories in my life, but the job search certainly came to mind. If I fail to think holistically and rush through this decision, I might make a bigger mistake than color clashing.

A job has to be appealing to me in many ways. Does the role make the best use of my skills and interests? Will it pay well enough that it makes sense to take it and then have to pay for childcare? Is the location and distance the right fit? Is it flexible so that a sick kid won’t be a big problem? Do I get the sense that I like the people I will work with? Is it doing something (or being part of something) that truly makes the world a better place? Beyond money, what is in it for me – will I gain a skill or experience that I want to have? And even more importantly, have I worked out my vision of exactly what I want ideally in a job and then either find it or create it, rather than choosing something I might be able to live with.

I am fortunate that I not only can afford to absorb a couple of mistaken purchases and lessons learned, but I have the luxury of taking my time and choosing carefully how I will go about making a living in a way that is carefully integrated and aligned with the my life and values. I recognize that I am very lucky. Given what I learned from the interior design fiasco and considering how I can apply that lesson learned to life choices with much higher stakes, the bedroom mistake was a bargain after all.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Gesture

In public and in private we make gestures that signal our feelings. Bowing our head or bodies is done to show our respect, submission, reverence, or assent. We hold our hands pressed together when we pray as a physical gesture that signals reverence, petition, and penance, among other things. For the last few weeks I have been thinking about the meaning of this gesture: hands open in front, palms up. For me it is a metaphor for the way I want to conduct myself in life.

To me this hands open, palms up posture has several meanings. In this position, it appears that we expect to “get”. And I do. I expect to receive abundance throughout life and I am putting out my hands in expectation of receiving plenty again and again. Not just material things, but epiphanies, ideas, something to laugh about, opportunities, inspiration, sunrises, connection with others, and many of the experiences that make life truly rich. The posture does not emphasize effort or controlling. As my wise friend Allison puts it, this kind of open expectancy is a “state of relaxed receivership instead of forced doer-ship”.

I also plan to give and this is the same posture made to offer something to another freely and generously. I plan to give generously – not only things, money, and service as needed, but also my compassion, love, kindness, forgiveness, understanding, gratitude and respect. My intention is to use my words to cause happiness and healing. My hope is that my actions make the lives of others richer.

Another meaning of this gesture for me is equanimity. Life has given me so many blessings and so much to be grateful for. I have a solid marriage with a good man; two healthy, funny children; health, wealth, and abundance; meaningful and satisfying relationships…the list is endless really. But this gesture of equanimity reminds me not to grasp or attempt to hold onto these blessings in my grip forever. It doesn’t work that way anyway. Everything changes, nothing is permanent. So I strive to fully appreciate the blessings I have while they are here. In the same way, I recognize that life is not always happy and fun. There are moments of great difficulty and sadness. I try not to label these difficult times as “bad” though, because often what I learn from them can be tremendously meaningful and beneficial in the long term and it causes the happier, easier times to be all that much sweeter. This gesture during the challenging times means that I understand that this, too, shall pass and not only will I successfully endure it, I will find a lesson in it, or some positive outcome. I have learned that I have a choice in how I react, and since I do, it makes sense to look for the positive, to be fully present, and to be grateful. This equanimity helps me to accept and appreciate all of life with intentionality and composure.

Doing or visualizing this gesture every day reminds me to be positive, generous, and equanimous. It is a physical metaphor of my spiritual ideal. If I can give and get plenty out of this life of mine and be grateful for all of it, it will be the life of my intention.