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noncomplementarity-121016

One of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had was on the streets of Boston’s North End. I wasn’t mugged and no mafia bosses wanted me to sleep with the fishes, but it scared the life out of me just the same.

On a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I were double-parked in front of our apartment so we could unload our car. As much as Bostonians love hockey, football, and baseball, their two favorite sports are double parking and yelling at each other for double parking. So it was no surprise that a man in a Jeep pulled into our street and yelled about how stupid we were for parking like that. What was surprising was when my boyfriend, John, said something back to him, the guy jumped out of his car, flew across the sidewalk and smacked John in the face.

As scary and upsetting as this was, it was only then that the truly terrifying thing happened: I. Lost. My. Mind.

In a flash of white hot rage, I ran up to the man, got inches from his face, and screamed at him about his cowardice and lack of intellectual acuity (not my actual words). I bumped his chest with mine. I told him what a craven loser I thought he was. I dared him to hit me. He didn’t. Instead, he spit some hot words and drove away.

What terrified me wasn’t the angry Boston driver. It was me. I had no idea I had a lunatic living just under my skin. No idea about the fire in me that could be released so fast. It wasn’t the fight with a stranger but my own explosive fury that scared the bejeezus out of me.

Compare my story with one of my favorites from “Flip the Script,” an episode in the latest season of the Invisibilia podcast*: two families gather on a summer night on a backyard terrace for dinner and celebration. In the midst of their happy evening, a man walks into their midst with a gun. He points it at one of the women and tells them that if they don’t give him all their money, he will shoot her. But the group was outside, having a meal. No one had any money. None. The gunman didn’t believe them and ramped up his threats.

Then a woman at the table spoke up. “Will you have a glass of wine with us?”

Her question disarmed him in every sense. He put down his gun, had a glass of wine, ate a little cheese and asked for a hug. He thanked them and quietly left, gently setting his empty glass on the steps as he walked away.

Psychologists call the woman’s offer of wine noncomplementarity or doing the opposite of what the other is doing. The most natural response in any interaction is complementary behavior: to treat the other person as they treat you. If they are kind, it’s most natural to be kind back. If they are aggressive to you, well, remember me and the Boston guy?

But sometimes, the most powerful thing to do is noncomplementary: to get out of sync with the other.

Noncomplemenarity isn’t easy. It requires us to override our natural instinct and intuition. And as the Invisibilia story (ans any nonviolent protest from Gandhi to civil rights) points out, making that unnatural choice can completely turn situations around.

Buddhists call it tonglen: a practice which Pema Chödrön describes as “…a method for connecting with suffering—ours and that which is all around us…. a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart.”
(read a helpful article about tonglen by Ani Pema here.)

Simply stated, tonglen is the practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out ease for that suffering. (Do a short tonglen practice with her here.)

My favorite description of tonglen and the one I return to over and over comes from the book How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach**. In it, we imagine suffering as inky black tar around the heart of another. As we breathe in, we draw the sticky black suffering out of their heart and pull it into the flame of our own heart which explodes the blackness into white light.

We can practice tonglen or noncomplementarity whenever we encounter suffering: in our own bodies or minds, in relationships with our nearest or with strangers, in our communities and organizations, and in animals and the environment, in countries and the world. Instead of meeting suffering with suffering, instead of turning away, meet suffering with the heat and light of the heart.

The fire that exploded in me on that Boston street was instinct and reflex. I regret it as it felt terrible and did nothing to put more love into the world. Although I haven’t witnessed that kind of attack since then, I see and am aware suffering every single day. I do my best to practice and breathe and use my flame as best I can.

It doesn’t always work. I can still get lit up with all kinds of complementarity especially when I see someone inflicting suffering on someone else. But I practice now with the intention of using my fire more skillfully to burn away suffering’s black toxic tar wherever it is happening.


* Did you click on the link to the Invisibilia show? The whole episode is great but at the very least, listen to the actual participants tell the story. Click here.

** I’ve included the complete passage from How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach here as it is visceral and powerful. May it be of benefit.

“’Inside your heart is a tiny red flame, like the flame at the top of a candle. This flame is the power of our selfishness – the habit we have of taking care of ourselves first, and neglecting what others need or want….Look into the Sergeant’s heart. Right there in the middle is a dark, rotten little pool of blackness. It is his sadness, it is his pain; it is the reason why he drinks, and it is his drinking….You want to take this pain away from him, forever. It’s the compassion we spoke about before; it is the real reason why you are doing yoga. And you decide that you want to take his black pain away so badly that you would even take it into yourself, if it meant you could save him from it….And so you begin to take say seven long, slow breaths. The first time you breathe in, that little evil pool of darkness in the center of the Sergeant’s heart stirs and moves; it starts to rise up out of his body, like an ugly cloud of blackness. And as you take more breaths it is sucked up out of his chest, up his throat, and then out of his nostrils. And knowing you would take it on yourself to save him from it, you take all his drunken misery in that little cloud of darkness and you keep breathing it in, and in again, drawing it towards your own face. And then hold it there, just outside your own nostrils….And now something will happen; it will happen a little quickly and so you have to concentrate well upon this part. In one breath you will suck the blackness in through your own nose; you will take it upon yourself. The blackness will come down your throat, into your chest and then slowly – very slowly – it will approach the little red flame of your selfishness: the part of you that would never even imagine taking away someone else’s pain, if it meant having it yourself instead. And the blackness floats slowly towards the edge of the flame, and then suddenly the black makes contact with the red, and there is a burst of beautiful golden light, like a bolt of lightning shining in the purest gold. And in that moment, because you are willing, in that moment, to swallow all the Sergeant’s pain into yourself, the crimson fire of your own selfishness is extinguished, forever. It is gone. And in this explosion too the blackness of the Sergeant’s pain is destroyed: destroyed for him, destroyed for you, destroyed forever. For this is the power, the power of the grace of selfless compassion for others.” (How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach pp 93-95)

struggle-is-not-the-same-as-suffering-090516

Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

Since I can remember, I’ve seen struggle and suffering as one single thing: seared together like the iron-on patches my mom put on my ToughSkins jeans, melted into one block like a Velveeta grilled cheese on white bread.

The first time I heard the Buddhist saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional,” it was as if it was spoken to me in Swahili. What does that even MEAN? Of COURSE, pain is suffering. Crazy Buddhists. Sheesh.

Mindful practice pries open some space between struggle and suffering and gives me a chance to make a choice. Doing something that is uncomfortable but with low stake – like spending time in a yoga posture or dancing all-out to Life During Wartime or sitting in stillness on the cushion — gives me ample opportunity to feel the struggle and then choose.

1. Feel the difference between struggle and suffering.

There is aliveness in struggle. Struggle is a place of learning, growth, of moving into potential. Struggle is where we build things and create things and make things happen. Especially when you are stepping into something difficult – Upward Facing Bow, perhaps, or building a Web site or having a conversation with your teenager — set an intention to notice the difference between struggle and suffering.

In the midst of what you’re doing, feel it fully and notice if there is a secondary layer of pain or discomfort in the form of thoughts telling you that it should be different than it is. Things like “You should be able to do this by now,” or “What is wrong with you (or the Web program) that this is going so crappily?” or simply “This shouldn’t be this difficult” are sure signs you are suffering. Notice the physical sensation of those voices in your head.

2. Feel the difference between making it easier and making it more easeful.

The Buddha called it The Second Arrow (there is a great, short explanation here and a more detailed one here). The pain of life will happen to everyone, that’s the first arrow. The mental entanglements (This isn’t fair! I hate this! Someone did this to me!) around the pain is the second arrow.

Making a situation easier might mean running from or postponing the difficult pose or task or conversation. Making it more easeful can mean staying in the midst of it but letting go of the mental entanglements.

While biking up a hill this morning and a big loud truck came up fast and close by me. It scared me a little (the first arrow) and my mind first went to the second arrow of anger, blame, irritation. When I noticed that, I took a breath, felt my legs working, and kept pedaling. That choice made the situation more easeful  – and pulled out the Second Arrow.

3. Listen to the story

We all have a different Second Arrow Chorus of voices in our heads so it can be useful to get curious about what they are saying. Your mind may paint you as the victim (“People always take advantage of me” or “Nothing good ever happens to me.”), or the unloved one (“I’m excluded or left out again” or “There is something wrong with me.”), or the martyr (“I have to do everything” or “No one helps me.”). Whatever your Chorus sings into your ear, know that your particular ear worm got lodged there a long time ago in a misguided attempt to protect you. Recognizing the (often untrue) stories as suffering can help release their hold and allow us just enough space to choose something different.

4. Know that you will choose suffering (consciously or not).

You are human. No matter how much you practice, it’s likely that you will suffer sometimes. (Even the Dalai Lama must have moments of cranky, right?) The key isn’t releasing suffering permanently and perfectly, but to recognize it when it’s happening (in yourself and others), offer some gentleness and kindness, and see if it’s possible to peel that grilled cheese open and separate the struggle from the suffering.

Go W The Flow 112214Saturday, I took a yoga class (with live music!  So cool!) in a room packed tight with more than 50 other people.  Tori, our teacher had us move our mats just inches from each other.  Sometimes, in the flow of postures, she’d say “Reach out and hold on to each other.”  With my hands on the shoulders of the people on either side of me, I could do poses and balances that I never could alone.

Indra's Net Go W the Flow

This is Indra’s Net:  complete interconnectedness.  It’s happening all the time, but we don’t always notice.  You are a jewel in Indra’s Net:  reflect love.

Indra's net water drops 1
“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.”
~ The Avatamsaka Sutra (Translated by Francis H. Cook)

When I was in second grade, I stunk at arithmetic. I saw numbers and my brain went all scrambly and confused. When someone said math was easy and that I should know it, I felt anxious and panicky which did not help with the scrambly confusion. Not even a little bit.

I cried a lot during Mrs. Schneider’s second grade math lessons. I pushed my chair back from my desk in frustration, wept and threw pencils. Mrs. Schneider was patient. She never said it was easy or something I should know. Mrs. Schneider, with her long 1970s hair piled into a pumpkin-sized bun on her head, was far more patient with me than I was.

Sometimes we played “games” to see who could answer math problems fastest. You cannot imagine the scrambly panic these unspeakable events caused in my 7-year-old self. It was bad enough to be faced with all those stupid numbers. But to have to solve problems quickly and with a whole team of classmates counting on me? Tears and thrown writing instruments were almost guaranteed.

In the midst of the second grade math mess, I found a little trick that helped me: I broke down and reorganized the numbers so they made sense to me. Crazy and multi-stepped as it was, it got me over the scramble brain and let me breathe.

Soon after finding my reorganizing trick, Mrs. Schneider set up one of her speed “games” and said, “Raise your hand as soon as you know the answer.” It was a situation that would have caused me a sincere case of confused scramblies but with my new trick, my hand was up in a flash. Over and over. Zoom! Up went my hand.

And Mrs. Schneider saw it. She looked at me with bright eyes and pressed her wide, warm palm against my raised hand. “Yes!” she said. “You figured it out!”

To this day, I can feel her smooth strong hand against mine. I can still feel her love and her faith in me.

Buddhist teachings use the metaphor of Indra’s Net: a huge web with a jewel at the intersection of each strand. Each jewel represents everything that exists or has ever existed and every jewel is reflected in every other jewel. As Timothy Brook writes, “Everything that exists in Indra’s web implies all else that exists.”

It’s true in our bodies, in Nature, in society, our lives, the 13 Principles, everything. Everything reflects and is affected by everything else. Any belief to the contrary is an illusion.

I still stink at math. And I’m still touched by Mrs. Scheider’s kindness and encouragement. We all have her power to send ripples into the future and to see everything reflected in everything else.

So, sweet Jewels, what do you want to reflect from your corner of the Net?

By request, here are Mary Linn’s playlists from the Monday 1045am (and one Tuesday) classes that she so generously taught while I was traveling!
MON, FEB 3:
1. Bem Devager by Bungalove
2. Balao by Bungalove
3. Samba Natural by Bungalove
4. El Ritmo by J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science
5. So Eu E Voce by Bungalove
6. Keep on Searching by Kraak & Smaak
7. Bailando by Chuck Love
8. U R the Answer by Stephen Bray & Michael Beckwith
9. Solo Flying Mystery Man by Faithless
10. Essarai by Samantha James
11. Forgiving by Parijat
MON, FEB 10:
 1. Bem Devager by Bungalove
2. Balao by Bungalove
3. Samba Natural by Bungalove
4. El Ritmo by J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science
5. So Eu E Voce by Bungalove
6. Bailando by Chuck Love
7. Saturday Song by Bungalove
8. Guitaria by Deep Dive Corp
9. I Found You by Samantha Jones
0. Essarai by Samantha James
11. Forgiving by Parijat
MON, FEB 17:
1. Song For Olabi by Bliss
2. Kissing by Bliss
3. Sweeter Love by Blue Six
4. Catu by Ikarus
5. Work That Body by Rodney Hunter
6. Domination by Peace Orchestra
7. Inner Membrane by Govinda
8. In Focus by Popcorn
9. Beguiled by Tim Story
TUES, FEB 18:
same as Mon, Feb 10
MON, FEB 24:
1. Sacred Light by Bob Holroyd
2. Raifiki by Robin Boult & Bob Holroyd
3. Journeyman by Bob Holroyd
4. Ciew Mawele by Issa Bagayogo
5. Drumming Up a Storm by Bob Holroyd
6. I Love Baby Cheesy by Banco de Gaia
7. Strobe’s Satori Beats by Kodo
8. Piece of My Heart by Melissa Etheridge
9. The Different by Melissa Etheridge
10. Ascension by Lex Van Someren

It’s my birthday today.  I love a birthday.  I love birthday cards and birthday candles.  I love getting a bunch of messages on Facebook wishing me a happy day.  I love doing something – alone or with others – to mark the milestone.  I love feeling special on “my” day (which, if I’m doing my math right, I share with about 16.5 million others on Earth).

And I hate to admit it, I wish it wasn’t true, but I also struggle with having a birthday.  I’m 48 today.  I graduated from high school 30 years ago and from college 26 years ago.  A whole boatload of adults were born AFTER those graduations.  Time is moving forward and my life and my body are going with it.  Most days I’m okay with it.  I usually feel pretty Zen and chill but then I find myself wishing that I could run like I did when I was 28 or that my face and body looked like I did when I was 25 (or even 35!).

I’m embarrassed to admit it.  It feels small-minded and superficial.  But the truth is that sometimes I feel sad and even scared about getting older.  I KNOW that aging happens to everybody and (as I often say to someone who is bemoaning their own birthday), it’s better than the alternative.  I love being alive.  I love life.  I’m reluctant to give it up.  Which I’m not planning to do any time soon.  But still.

A few weeks ago, I listened to a brilliant dharma talk by Anne Cushman called “Long Live Impermanence.” (I don’t know what happened y’all but since I downloaded it, I’m not able to find it on DharmaSeed so I can’t share a link.)  She is funny and smart, draws on a variety of fascinating sources and she offered me new thoughts on the constant change that is human life.

In her talk she makes reference to Buddha’s Five Remembrances and recalls chanting them every morning when she was practicing at Thich Nhat Hanh‘s  Plum Village in France.  They go like this:

Buddha’s Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are the nature to change.

There is no way to escape
being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

On the surface of it, this is a real bummer.  At first blush, it would seem that chanting that every morning would seriously be a drag.  I mean, seriously.  But right there at the end, that last part turns it around. “My actions are my only true belongings.”  The last section reminds me that my time and my life are precious and what I choose to do with them is important.  Yes, it’s true that in 100 years we’ll all be dead, but the world that will be happening then will be affected by the actions I take now.

So, I got curious about the Remembrances.  After listening to Anne Cushman’s talk, I looked them up online and I wondered about the possibility of looking straight at the reality of impermanence.  I realized that in some part of my brain, I think that MAYbe, if I eat right, and exercise, if I take care of my skin and drink 8 cups of water a day that I won’t age and, ultimately (this little part of my brain thinks), I won’t die.  It’s not my whole brain.  I don’t BELIEVE that I’m immortal.  It’s just a little part of my brain that says, “Yep, everybody gets old and dies.  But if I do things JUUUST right, maybe I won’t.”

Since I know that this line of thinking is a little off, I figured I’d give the Remembrances a whirl, so I’ve taken to reading them before I meditate in the mornings.  And it’s funny, but it’s not a bummer at all.  There is something freeing about it.  I can actually feel myself relax as if I’ve been holding time and change at bay and I can let it go.  There is no way of escaping change or old age or death, so I can just chill and get on with my day.

In the introduction to the Remembrances that I found, it says “When you deny the reality of life, you appreciate it less. Meditate on the Buddha’s Five Remembrances and rediscover the magic of life just as it is.”  In my short experience, this feels true.  I am struck by the preciousness of every day and am reminded to choose words and actions that I feel good about.  It’s cool how this seemingly-morbid look at life has encouraged me to engage in life:  say the compliment that I might not have, apologize more quickly, and help, even in a small way, however I can.

If I fight the inevitable transience of life, and work to stay as some previous, faster-running, firmer-skinned version of myself, I lose the chance to become who I am now.   With one month left of my sabbatical, I’m ready to teach Nia again*.  It is a small way that I can be of service and offer my gifts, and it feels good.  If this birthday was my last, I would feel that I made a contribution in a way that only I can.  Reading Buddha’s Remembrances every day is helping me to actively choose more ways that I can connect and shine my light.  “My actions are the ground upon which I stand.”

In Nia, we borrow the famous Crazy Horse quote and say “Today is a good day to die” when we are surrounded by what we love and we have done our best.  Today is my birthday and today is a good day to die.

Happy Transience Day, everybody!  Let me know how you are celebrating the precious impermanence of your life!

* For Nia fans in Charlottesville, starting September 1, I’ll be teaching on Mondays and Wednesdays at 1045 at ACAC Albemarle Square and on Thursdays at 9am at ACAC Downtown.  I’m also subbing a bunch in August, so you can check the schedule!  Do come play with me!

Note to self:  when I pick a focus for the week, the Universe says, “Hey cool!  You want to learn from this?  Well HERE you go!”

As they often do, the focus has shifted and evolved this week.  (That’s the magic of inquiry and intent!)  I started out with “Luck isn’t what happens but how we see it” which expanded into “Expand your vision of what is happening to see the luck” to … well, then I started having a really poopie week.  Things didn’t go the way I’d hoped, I didn’t feel good, I was indecisive, and I wasn’t in the Grand Canyon with my sweetie anymore.  Craptastic.

I realized that I could be lucky and suffering at the same time.  Both can be true.  And it IS true:  the very fact that you are reading this post, evidently on some sort of World Wide Internet Web reading device, makes you one of the luckiest of the lucky on Earth.  AND sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.  I bet you have poopie days, too, days when you don’t feel so lucky.  We all do, of course, no matter how nice the house or full the cupboard or however you like to measure these things.

Does that make me an ingrate for not feeling splendiferous even though I rank in the most fortunate humans on the planet?  I would say:  Ingrate NO (at least not necessarily), Attached to Outcome YES.

Buddhist teachings remind us that the root of all suffering – ALL SUFFERING – is wanting things to be different than they are.  Think about that:  All suffering comes from wanting things to be different than they are.

Wow.

You might say, “Well, hold on there, Little Miss Smartie Pants!  The world is full of injustice and tragedy and craziness that SHOULD be different than it is.  What are we to do?  Just be okay with it?”  Not at all.  We need to act and work to change the things that aren’t right.  We need to throw ourselves into doing whatever we can to make a difference, and then we have to let go of our attachment to how it all turns out.

We don’t have to start with world hunger or the national debt.  We can start with ourselves.  When I’m having a bad week and I wish I was hiking in Arizona instead of dealing with the detritus of everyday, I want things to be different than they are.  I’m attached to feeling differently than I do and I suffer (and sadly, so do those around me).  Instead, I can be with what’s happening, feel what I’m feeling without wishing it away.  I can talk about it with trusted people, I can take care of myself (I eat greens when I feel crappy and I think I ate two whole bunches of kale this week and one of spinach), I can do my best to help things shift and then I can let go.   The more I can stay with what is so, on a moment-to-moment basis, the more I can expand my vision and see the possibilities — the luckiness — in each of those moments.

So yes: I make my own luck, and the harder I work the luckier I get, and I am a lucky person if I believe I am …  and when I  don’t feel lucky (and I want to punch the Blogger of Relentless Optimism in the nose), I can pause and notice what I want to be different than it is.  Releasing my attachment to outcome can make the difference between being stuck in the crappiness and finding something new to feel lucky about.

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