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Everyday hate

I learned to stop saying I hated anyone after my mother scolded me. “We don’t hate anyone. We might dislike what they do but we don’t hate other people,” she said. Being a good girl, I thought it instead. I hated kids who teased me, mean teachers, and even my siblings. Learning that I was free, in the privacy of my own mind, to have such thoughts was a great source of liberation for me as a child.

Of course, as an adult, my mother was free to openly hate other people. She hated everyone from Richard Nixon to the next-door neighbor. Fortunately, she had a great sense of humor that included the ability to laugh at herself. Here’s one of her favorite stories. She was the nurse at a residential treatment center run by an order of Catholic nuns. Having attended Catholic schools, churches, and nurse’s training, she was very comfortable around nuns. Maybe too comfortable. One day, she drove to a nearby pharmacy to pick up a prescription and one of the nuns, who was about 85, went along for the ride. At some point, another driver cut my mom off and she made a derogatory, profanity-enhanced comment about his intelligence. The nun gently patted my mother’s hand and said, “You know dear, he can’t hear you. But I can.”

Over the years, I’ve perceived my hateful thoughts as a sort of victimless crime because, in contrast to my mother, I kept my harshest thoughts to myself. The trivial transgressions of other drivers and other shoppers, people in yoga class and pundits on television give my ego the opportunity to take me on a wild ride of judgment, criticism, and hate. Matthieu Ricard writes that when we feel wronged by another our vision narrows such that we only see the other’s negative qualities and “fail to see people and events in the context of a much vaster web of interrelated causes and conditions.” Everyday hateful thoughts can are sustained not by being present to the moment but fixating on a particular, decontextualized moment in time.

The more I’ve learned to watch my mind at work the more I notice how little satisfaction I derive from reducing others to a single aggravating act. What starts out as a pleasurable sensation of moral superiority quickly evolves into what Ricard describes as a corrosive force, one that shreds my equanimity and weakens my capacity for compassion.

Getting caught up in hateful thoughts is as useless as shouting at someone in another car so I am grateful when I can reach out to gently remind myself that the only person damaged by such thoughts is me.

What thoughts keep you trapped in a particular moment in time?

Ratatouille pie

I glanced through the recipe eager to try an alternative to yet another pot of ratatouille. I could see there were a lot of steps but I enjoy chopping vegetables and I’ve succeeded at piecrust before. I planned it for Sunday but I hadn’t accounted for chilling the pie dough. Finally, on Tuesday I had enough time.

Make the pie dough, chill it for an hour, chop eggplant, onion, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes and marinate them with garlic cloves in olive oil, thyme, and rosemary. Roll out the dough, wrangle it into the pie pan and chill for another 30 minutes then cook it with pie weights for 15 minutes, then without pie weights for another ten. Turn the oven up to 400 and roast the onion and tomatoes on one cookie sheet for 35 minutes and the zucchini, eggplant, and garlic on another for 45. Mix grated cheese, an egg, and mayonnaise in a bowl.

At this point, I’d been in the kitchen for most of the afternoon. As I reached the final stage of the recipe, my partner came home from work. A charming and sunny woman she was full of entertaining stories about her day. She had gathered more produce from our garden and was working around me to get it cleaned and put away. As she talked, I filled the now cooled piecrust with the roasted vegetables, spooned the egg, cheese, mayo mixture on top, turned the oven down to 375 and put the pie in the oven to cook for 30 minutes. We both thought it looked delicious as we left the kitchen to continue our conversation in the living room.

When I went to check on it about 20 minutes later, I was surprised to see that while the cheese mixture had melted, it didn’t look as though it, or the piecrust had cooked. As I tried to figure out if this was how it was supposed to look I glanced up to see that the oven, though still warm from par baking the pie crust and roasting vegetables, was off. Confused, my first thought was that my partner had turned it off but in the next moment I realized it was my fault. When you change the temperature on our oven, you hit the stop button, enter the new temperature, and then hit start. I did the first two steps but not the third. I let out a loud expletive. My partner said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “I forgot to turn the oven back on.” She laughed.

I’m happy to report that I did not shout at her for finding my afternoon’s wasted labor funny. However, I’m unhappy to report that my equanimity was shattered. I turned the oven to 375, pressed start, and walked upstairs. I sat on the bed screaming (quietly to myself) about all that ruined effort and if not ruined then certainly not the dish featured in the New York Times. I wanted to blame my partner for her distracting stories but I knew I had committed two of the cardinal sins of my mother’s house: Carelessness and wasted food.

The truest, deepest feeling I had in that moment was: There is no room for error in my life. I will always be thwarted in reaching my desires because I’m always going to make a mistake that ruins all the effort that preceded that mistake. The universe is just waiting for me to screw up so it can say, “You’re not good enough to get what you want. Even if all you want is to try out a new recipe.”

I stayed there for several minutes before I took three deep breaths. In the space of those breaths I was able to remember something important. I was never making the pie described in the recipe. The recipe didn’t call for a half wheat half white flour crust. I’d changed cheeses, skipped the olives, and sautéed the zucchini instead of roasting it because I already had a grated a bag of it to use up.

What had I wanted if not the original recipe? I’d wanted to spend an afternoon making pie dough, chopping vegetables, and managing the complications of a new recipe. The pleasure of making something with my own hands, using the vegetables from our garden, creating something I knew my partner would enjoy—all of that was real. The only thing that was going to ruin what I had done was my willingness to give my happiness away to the illusion that I am not allowed to make mistakes.

I wish I’d taken a picture of it. It looked nothing like the quiche I made a few years ago that’s pictured above but it tasted just as good.

 

When are you most intolerant of your humanness, your fallibility?

Oh hell

I once had a job in a small space with a small staff—director, newly hired associate director (me), program coordinator, and administrative assistant. Renee, the administrative assistant was a friendly woman with a complicated personal life involving teenagers, in-laws, and health problems. She was comfortable speaking freely about her challenges. My challenge was getting past her to get to my office. I saw my options as blowing by without speaking or pausing to say, “Hi, how are you?” only to find myself rooted to the spot 20 minutes later. Most days I chose the second option but grew increasingly frustrated because she seemed oblivious to my desire to get to on with my day.

I’ve been known to mutter the line, “Hell is other people” in situations like this. While many of us use that line from Sartre’s play, No Exit, to mean that other people can be a pain in the ass, Sartre’s meaning is more fundamental to human experience and worth exploring in a quest for mindfulness in our relationships.

In the play, Sartre’s three main characters find themselves locked in a room that they understand is hell. They were expecting fire and brimstone and torture but instead find three couches and each other. Through their dialogue we come to understand that they are each other’s perfect torturer. One woman seeks confirmation of her desirability from the sole man. But he can’t provide it because, like her, he’s obsessed with his own identity needs—in his case the need to be seen as brave and manly. She tries to give him what he wants but as the third member of the group points out, her words are insincere. This third character is a woman who longs to provide the first woman the attention she craves. Unfortunately, only the masculine gaze can meet the other woman’s need. For Sartre’s characters, for all of us, we cannot exit from the experience of seeing other people seeing us or from having their view of us shape our view of ourselves. Sartre said this about the meaning of the play:

“When we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, we use the knowledge of us, which other people already have. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.”

Many of us raised in societies that worship individuality forget that no matter how much we want to see ourselves as products of our own creation, how others react to us and interact with us tells us who we are. While there is no exit from seeing others seeing us, mindful presence and non-judging awareness may allow us to bring to conscious awareness our habit of creating stories about how we think we need to be seen by others.

My story with Renee was based on the many personal and professional differences I saw between us. I stood at her desk instead of going to my office because I needed to see myself, through her eyes, as a person who cares about other people, a person who doesn’t think she’s better than other people. Even though I listened to Renee, my growing resentment overshadowed the experience. I don’t know how she saw me but I certainly didn’t see myself as a caring person.

Wanting to be authentic in my relationship to Renee, I tried a new strategy. I greeted her each day with a big smile and a friendly “Good morning” but didn’t ask, “How are you?” and walked past her desk and into my office. Then, several times a week I invited her to join me on breaks or at lunch and I asked her, “How are you?” She told me about the daily struggles she faced, she asked for my perspective, she often told me about quoting me to her husband or children.

No longer trapped in my story about how I needed to see myself being seen, I was free to care about this person on my path.

When are you aware of needing to be seen in a particular way by others?

When does that need to be seen in a particular way trap you in place?

One meal at a time

When a local group met to talk about food insecurity the regional food bank director shared research showing there are 500,000 missed meals in our county each year. The political leader in the room asked one question, “How do food pantries and meal programs avoid duplication, you know, the same people getting served over and over?” The guy from the food bank was infinitely polite in his response but it boiled down to this: Folks, with a gap of 500,000 meals you are a very long way from needing to worry about duplication.

When I think about the meal gap program from the view of 500,000 missed meals I feel overwhelmed and doubt the impact of the free community dinner where I volunteer. We serve about 250 meals a month and give away food that provides another 250 meals. When the need is so much greater, how can I value what we do?

I thought about this when I was rereading Michael Singer’s Untethered Soul this week. When Singer writes about the ultimate experience of spiritual growth he describes it as identifying more with the “flow of pure energy” than with the physical or psychological realm. He goes on to say that identifying more with Spirit does not happen by “reaching for Spirit, but by letting go of the rest.” I can scare myself a little wondering who I will be if I succeed in letting go of the rest.

But just as it’s too soon for my community to worry about duplicating food services, it is too soon for me to worry about who I will become when I identify only with the flow of pure energy.

Yet, neither situation is a cause for despair nor is either one helped by despair. The meal gap is a complex issue related to jobs, schools, and public policy. It is also a simple issue. My organization and others like it provide food to the people right in front of us and we are always looking for more ways to provide more meals. As individuals and small organizations we will burnout if we only focus on the 500,000 missed meals. Instead we have to value every meal we provide, every bag of groceries someone takes home, and every time we bring awareness to the scope and the face of food insecurity in our community.

My journey toward spiritual growth is also complex as my history, community, and culture all pose challenges to it. It is also simple. Or it can be unless the only experience value is the endpoint—identifying with the flow of pure energy 24-7. That view tells me I am always failing. Instead, I choose to focus on what’s right in front of me: the limiting beliefs, the tired stories, and the old habits of hurt that rise up each day. Each time I let go of one of those beliefs, or stories, or habits, in that moment, I feel the flow of pure energy.

When do you question the impact you’re having in your world?

How do you focus on what you can do in the present to address a problem that seems overwhelming in its scope?

Intentions for my attention

We were measuring the width of the driveway with one of those tape measures that’s housed in a metal box. I was holding one end while my partner pulled the box-end to the other side of the driveway. She tried to lock it in place but the locked slipped, the metal box snapped out of her hand, and just as she yelled, “Watch out,” the box flew across the driveway and took a small bite out of my thumb. Of course it stung but we were both surprised to see blood sliding down to my wrist. I went inside to clean it up and put a small bandage on it.

After we picked crook-necked squash in the afternoon, I saw the bandage was blood-soaked. Had the pressure of grabbing the squash opened it up again? I kept a bandage on it for yoga class the next day fearing the pressure of down dog, as I followed instructions to press my thumbs and forefingers into the mat, would force it open again. But yoga was not a problem. However, turning a doorknob or a key in the ignition, writing with a pen and pulling up my pants all put pressure on that exact spot. It hurt so much I began to wonder if it was infected. It was not. It was just insistently and persistently present.

Banged knees, stubbed toes, and barked shins—our days are full of risks to our body; risks that remind us that we live in a body and that body is vulnerable. As my mindfulness practice grows, bumping into a doorframe or tripping on the stairs is often followed by the observation that prior to the bump or trip, my mind and my body were in two different places. It’s been years since I believed the hype about multitasking but that doesn’t stop me from allowing my mind to be in a thousand different places while I unsuccessfully navigate my body through one place.

For the better part of a week the little cut on my thumb forced me into the present Again and again it demanded that I pay attention to what I was doing with my mind and body. The cut is nearly healed but the tiny scar that remains signals my intention to bring my full self to each task, each interaction, each activity. It also signals a further intention. When I am unable or unwilling to give my full attention, I will ask myself, “Why am I participating in this task, this interaction, this activity?”

 

When do you find yourself partially engaged in multiple activities, giving your full attention to none of them?

If you haven’t done this lately, try watching television without checking your phone. Or reverse it and look at your phone without the television on in the background. What do you notice when you focus on one thing at a time?

Shutting down

A teacher stands at the blackboard rapidly working through the material. As she finishes she turns to the class and says, “Now you do it.” Wide-eyed and baffled I don’t have the faintest idea what she’s done or how to reproduce it. Using the distributive property, multiplying integers, factoring polynomials, third grade, seventh grade, tenth grade as my classmates busily followed instructions stomach clenched and near tears I fell further and further behind. A single thought in my head: I don’t get it, I’ll never get it.

Those same feelings came rushing back last week in beginners’ tai chi. Like a math class, movement classes set to music that require me to follow and reproduce the movements of the instructor are way outside my comfort zone. I did reasonably well with the first four movements, sort of like addition and subtraction, but the next four were all long division and fractions for me. If I concentrated on the hand movements, which were key to the transitions, I lost track of the footwork. If I focused on the footwork my hands and arms were out of sync and trying to manage both at once was comical but not funny. I kept waiting for it all to fall into place.

After many repetitions I noticed my insides were tightly clenched, my breathing was shallow, and right on cue, there was the thought: I don’t get it. I’ll never get it. And I noticed something else: it’s really hard to concentrate with that thought in my head. It’s hard to distinguish important information from irrelevant information. It’s hard to do anything but fight the urge to flee. As a kid my response was to shut down emotionally and intellectually. In course after I course I would reach a point where I just gave up. As an adult I am able to be curious about my reaction.

And here’s the value of my daily, mind calming practices—almost as soon as I realized I was shutting down, I was able to move to the witness seat and breathe through those feelings rather than get caught up in them. I made the choice to acknowledge them and keep moving rather than shove them away and tell myself that this was an unimportant situation, not worth the stress and strain I was feeling. That’s a habit I don’t love. Whether the stakes are high or low, when I’m not good at something and I’m overwhelmed by self-doubt, I shut down and walk away. Change comes from moving to the witness seat in every difficult situation regardless of the stakes.

When do you notice that you shut down?

When do you feel that you don’t get it, that you’ll never get it?

What practices help you remain present to yourself?

Close encounters

I was humming along on a writing project when I heard the knock at the front door. I suddenly remembered I’d meant to warn my partner about the enormous wasp on the back porch. I was going to tell her to use the front door but she doesn’t have a key for it. I hurried downstairs fearing she’d found the wasp the hard way. But I opened the door to a stranger. Filled with relief that I wasn’t looking at my wasp-stung partner and just barely surfacing from the writing zone, I happily opened the screen door and accepted the flyer he was holding out to me.

Like the phone that I don’t answer unless I recognize the caller’s name or number, I rarely open the front door without knowing who is on the other side. I don’t fear crime because I’m fortunate to live in a place with very little stranger-to-stranger crime. Instead, I fear someone trying to sell me something because I’m a pushover.

The man in front of me was selling his candidacy to our county board. I didn’t know if we held similar views so I tried to engage him while glancing at his flyer. With little prompting he said he supports everyone having the same access to the rights enumerated in the constitution. I found that a bit vague so I asked him about a specific political issue. I disagreed with his answer and was about to tell him that when he suggested that local issues were more relevant. I thought that was fair so I asked him what he thought the most pressing issue was for the county board.

The issue he picked is one I knew little about but it gave him a chance to explain his larger philosophy. I don’t find his general political view wholly abhorrent—it is simply not the case that I disagree with every aspect of it. Recognizing this gave me the mental space to listen to him, listen to myself, ask genuine questions, and express disagreement. He said it was unusual for someone to really engage him on the issues. I’m not surprised because it was hard work to keep going and stay focused while listening, thinking, and often disagreeing. Our exchange was not heated but we both seemed a bit stressed turning a little pink and sweating. I know I felt very wound up inside and my breathing was shallow. This is what my body does when I feel anxious but I remained aware that standing on my front step he was not a threat to me, in that moment I was safe. Staying present to the moment I could be open to the possibility of an authentic encounter with another even in the face of our differences.

I checked on the issue he thinks is central to the county board and as with much that he said I think he’s offering a simple solution to a complex problem. I won’t vote for him but I appreciate our conversation and I gained some empathy for the work of being a political candidate. Whether we’re knocking on doors or opening doors, the truth is we cannot know with certainty what we’ll find on the other side.

 

What doors do you avoid opening?

How do you remain in your integrity when someone’s trying to sell you something you don’t want?

What can you do to feel safe even in the presence of conflict?