Complaint Free


I know how she felt. I’ve been in plenty of classes when I was hating on something. The room is too hot or someone throws open the window to winter winds. The music is too loud or I can’t hear it or it’s that annoying screechy electronic or repetitive Native American stuff. The teacher isn’t cueing enough or he’s talking too much.

And those are just my grumbles in Nia classes.

The list of things I’ve hated in life is laughably wide-ranging. It includes (but is certainly not limited to) pants without pockets, any nuts or fruit in stuffing, missed free throws, television in the morning, smoking, climate change protesters who drive Suburbans, and okra in anything.

Oh yes. I hate all kinds of things. So I know exactly where she is coming from when she approaches me after class and says, “What do I do if I hate it?”

She is quick to point out that she usually enjoys my classes but the freedance song I played that day, she really, really hated. So what should she do?

We all have preferences. Everybody likes some things and dislikes others. That’s just the way people roll. The problem isn’t preferences. The problem is what we do with them.

My freedance-hating friend wondered if she should leave the room when I play a song she doesn’t like. Or if she should ask me not to use that song/artist/genre in my classes. Or she could hum another song to herself to block out the song she hates.

The options are endless and I’ve heard them all.

“Don’t do freedance.”
“Do all freedance.”
“That music is objectively awful.”
“Those movements are too difficult.”
“Don’t make us get on the floor.”
“Do a whole class on the floor.”

And those are just things I’ve said (usually to myself but not always).

In Buddhism, avoiding that which we don’t like and clinging to that which we do is called shenpa. Traditionally, shenpa is translated as “attachment” but I prefer (ha!) Pema Chodron’s definition “being hooked.” She says,

It’s an everyday experience. … At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us. … Someone looks at us in a certain way, or we hear a certain song, we smell a certain smell, we walk into a certain room and boom. The feeling has nothing to do with the present, and nevertheless, there it is.  (see Pema’s post on shenpa here.)

When I began teaching, I knew not everyone would love my classes and I pretended that was fine. Bull hockey. I wanted everybody to love my classes all the time. If they didn’t like something, I would change it so they would. You can imagine how well that went.

Instead, the most skillful choice when we are hating something is to lean into it, to feel the direct experience of it without pushing it away, without running, without ignoring it. As Pema says,

The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fieriness and its heaviness. When we feel resentment because the room is too cold, we could meet the cold and feel its iciness and its bite. When we want to complain about the rain, we could feel its wetness instead. When we worry because the wind is shaking our windows, we could meet the wind and hear its sound. Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we can give ourselves. There is no cure for hot and cold. They will go on forever. (from When Things Fall Apart)

So when she asks, “What do I do if I hate it?” I answer, “Feel that feeling. Where is it in your body? Is it tight or hot or jangling? Work with that. Dance that feeling. Are you angry or annoyed or irritated? Use what is actually happening in the moment and go with that.” The ability to meet whatever it is – whether we love it or hate it – is skillful action — and it’s a skill I wish I’d learned a long time ago.

Perhaps paradoxically, by neither clinging nor pushing away, we can taste the uniqueness of the moment and actually be in our lives without wanting to be somewhere else. When you hate it, love on the hate.

gratitudinal roadblocks grumpy girlZippety Doo, it’s Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday that combines some of my favorite things: spending time with people I love over a super-long weekend — without presents or wrapping paper and with piles and piles of roasted Brussels sprouts. Sigh. I do love it so.

Most importantly, though, Thanksgiving reminds me to be grateful. Really grateful. I’ve learned a bunch of things in my life, but none more essential than the power of gratitude. Thankfulness, in my experience, leads to happiness. Gratitude reminds me how very lucky I am.

In fact, we all are. By the very fact that you are reading these words, you are among the fortunate of the fortunate on this planet. You are using a device (even if it is borrowed or shared) on which you have connected to the World Wide Internet Web! That alone indicates that you have access to far more resources than an enormous percentage of the world population. And I mean, enormous (get a wealth reality check here).

So there’s that. Which is huge. Plus all the other reasons like food and friends and nature’s bounteous giving. But even given the overwhelming reasons I have to be thankful, I’m amazed at how often I forget and get grumbly. Which is both ridiculous and a bummer since the more gratitude I feel, the happier, kinder, more peaceful I am.

Do you notice this, too? Do you find yourself feeling cranky and put-upon smack dab in the middle of a highly gratitude-worthy life? Why is that?

Me? Mostly, I forget. I get distracted, or busy, or entangled in minutiae, and I am just too cluttered up to be thankful. What gets in the way of your gratitude? What stops you from saying “Holy Moly, thank the goodnesses for everything that is happening!”? Is it anxiety or physical pain or emotional hurt? Is it habit?

Noticing my “gratitudinal roadblocks,” that which stops me from feeling thankful, helps me take a breath and make another choice. To help in this, I’ve used a handful of gratitude practices to remind myself to pay attention: to be on the lookout for wondrousness (more on that here) and for things getting in my way like complaining, criticizing and gossiping (more on that here. And yes, I am still wearing my Complaint-Free bracelet and last spring I did go 21 days without complaining!).

Practices or no, whatever you can do to connect to gratitude is worth doing. Gratitude is the quickest path to happiness I know. Allow yourself to feel grateful: for the big things like health and family, for the things we take for granted like water that comes out of the faucet and then goes down the drain, and even for the things that we struggle with or that give us pain.

I think it’s impossible to be truly happy and ungrateful. But I think there’s even more to it than the feeling of thankfulness. Tomorrow, I’ll write about some insights on gratitude based on the graces at my summer camp and from studying Spanish.

In celebration of Thanksgiving (what I consider to be the greatest holiday evah), I’m offering a two-part post this week with two gratitude practices that have amped up my happiness and peacefulness recently.  If you missed it, Part I:  Gratitude Feast is here.  And without further ado, here’s Part II!

Part II:  Gratitude Fast

My Gratitude Fast is the practice of going complaint free:  a complaining fast.  A movement begun by Will Bowen, A Complaint Free World, is an idea that has reached millions of people worldwide.   The practice is to wear a bracelet on either wrist and when you catch yourself complaining, criticizing or gossiping, you move the bracelet to the other wrist.  The complaint free challenge is to go 21 consecutive days without moving your bracelet.  I started on October 26 and so far, the longest I’ve gone is 4 days.

When I tell people what I’m doing, I usually am met with a mix of interest and some defensiveness.  People often say that they think complaining is a good thing, to let off steam.  My experience is that I’ve never once felt happier, more peaceful or more connected after complaining.  I did it so often, though, that I often didn’t know that it felt yucky.  Complaining can also be addictive as a way to get sympathy, feel included in a group, or get attention.  What can happen is that the habit of complaining can lead to a lot of time spent looking for a grievance.  The other question people ask is, “If I think it, does it count as a complaint?”  The short answer is NO, you only move your bracelet if it comes out of your mouth.  The longer answer is that the fewer complaints I speak, the fewer I think.  Complaining is a habit of both word and mind.  For more details about the practice, go to the Complaint Free World site and/or see the page under Helpful Info at the left for the Complaint Free Basics.

The other big question is, “What is a complaint?  Maybe I’m just stating the facts.  And what does criticizing and gossiping have to do with complaining?”  Complaining is any expression of pain, grief or discontent — with you, or anyone else or anything (Frank caught me the other day complaining about the cat).  If I’m just stating the facts, there isn’t the edge of discontent or desire for something to be different than it is.

Criticizing is actually complaining in disguise.  It is a way that we put ourselves above others – basically saying that they are doing “it” (whatever “it” happens to be) wrong and we’re doing it right.  We’re complaining that they should be doing “it” differently.

Gossiping is another way that we criticize and show off.  Any time we say something about someone who isn’t present, that you would not say in front of them, or that they would not take as a compliment, is a complaint about them (and also a way that we sing our own praises).

Complaining, criticizing, and gossiping are variations on the same theme.  When it comes right down to it, I know that I’m doing one of them by how it feels.  If it feels kind of sticky and sludgy after I say something, I know I’ve got to move my bracelet.

In the short time that I’ve been doing the complaint free practice, I’ve noticed some things.  I realize that I often complain when I want attention or sympathy, or I want to be included (I notice this aspect in particular around politics, sports and the weather).  I notice that common places for criticizing are places where we know no one will call us on it or talk back — in traffic, while watching TV, or in the stands of sports games.  I notice that I criticize when I want to brag or get attention for doing something well.  And I gossip, when I want to look superior to someone else.  And I’ve noticed an added bonus to going complaint free.  By not complaining, I have a chance to look at what I really need or want and ask for that, rather than attempting to manipulate in a sideways effort to get it.

Many of us complain (or “kvetch”) often and habitually.  Some of us are even proud of it!  (Thanks for the great video, Suzanne!)  I didn’t think of myself as a complainer (other than Jewish mothers, who does?), and I was shocked at how often I do it.  One benefit of a complaint fast for me is noticing how much there is to be grateful for when I’m not searching for a grievance.  And I notice the blessings even in annoying or inconvenient situations.  The greatest benefit, though, is that I feel noticeably lighter and happier since I’ve become more mindful about my complaining.  It is as if I was regularly eating poison and someone said, “You know, you’ll feel a lot better if you don’t eat that.”  So I stopped eating it (mostly) and, lo and behold!, I feel great.

I would love it if you would join me in the Complaint Free Challenge!  Say the word, and I will add you to the Complaint Free Community of Friends on Facebook, or just keep in touch and let me know how it is going for you and what you are discovering!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyBody.  I am deeply grateful for all of you.

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