Wednesday, February 23, 2011
The Five Qualities
Hello again, NIP,
I would like to begin by apologizing for the brevity of the previous letter. With the wedding that afternoon and my inability to find the specific type of Poppycock that Erin wanted for Valentine’s Day, I was trying to write with little time. Additionally, I wanted to also discuss something further that I mentioned in the letter: the five qualities. The reason I wanted to come back and revisit this topic so soon is due to the book I recently started reading by Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Though I’ve only read the first half of the book, so much of what she has talked about in those pages explains a fundamental part of the metamorphosis that I’ve been going through. And it all begins with my daily meditation.
If you’ve been reading my letters for a while, NIP, then you know how crucial meditation has been to my personal transformation. While there are many other activities that one can pursue in order to cultivate a similar level of mental focus and control over one’s thoughts, meditation has been proven to be one of (if not “the”) most effective. I’ve been meditating for over a year now. I began slowly and over the course of a few months eventually built up my practice to 30 minutes every morning. There are lots of ways to meditate, but mine is a rather simple technique. All I do is focus on my breathing. Usually I begin with deep breaths while trying to keep my mind vacant. It sounds easier than it is, because our minds tend to be like wild beasts when we first shut our eyes. Thoughts about what you have to do that day, thoughts from the night before, thoughts about what you’re hearing in the outside world while trying to be still and silent, even random crazy memories will pop up—but you must wipe them all away. Focusing on your breath, though, makes the thoughts go away. By focusing on the sound of your breathing, the thoughts (in time) will plague you less and less. Like any other skill, the more you practice the easier it becomes. After a few minutes of focusing on the breath, you will become more relaxed physically (this works especially well if you do some light yoga before trying meditation, as the stretches help your body relax) and begin to notice the sensation in your body. Breathing will eventually get shallow, which will allow you to relax even more. For the last ten minutes or so of my meditation, however, I do start to activate my mind by honing in on what I have dubbed “the five qualities”: love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience. I return to breathing deeply, yet with each breath I imagine drawing in these attributes one at a time. Breathe in love, breathe out love. Breathe in compassion, breathe out compassion. You get the idea.
Why these qualities, though? I’ve asked myself the same thing, NIP, and I don’t have a good answer. When I had just started my meditation practice—probably at the point when I would try to meditate for 10 straight minutes—I thought it would be a good idea to concentrate on the things I wanted to change most about myself (or at least my outward demeanor). The first one that popped into my head was patience. Anyone who has known me long enough can tell you that there is a world of difference in my levels of patience now compared to even 3 years ago. It was simple enough; all I did was focus on the word and imagined that with each breath I was becoming a more patient person. Over time I added the other four. Sometimes I’d imagine what these attributes looked like when put into action, or I would pick a single one and meditate on it for an entire week. And after consistent meditation, I really can see how these changes are occurring within me. While I don’t think these qualities are the only ones to center on, they are fairly universal. For you, NIP, there may be other qualities that you’d prefer to nurture because, functionally speaking, they may be more beneficial to breaking bad habits or some other goal. Regardless of the ones you choose, if you pay particular attention to nurture these attributes they will become stronger and more developed.
The five qualities I have listed are fairly universal, so they may be a good place to start for you too. I feel these five in particular have a lot to offer, as the world needs people to be better to one another. Or at least counteract some of our “me-first” tendencies, as Armstrong calls them in her book. As I mentioned in the prior letter, love is the most important. One could even make the case that the other four qualities are in some ways manifestations of love. Love is central because it is what bonds us together as human beings. First in the family, then perhaps among our friends, maybe even some of our coworkers. But it shouldn’t stop there. I know it sounds crazy to say that we should love everyone, but why not? Do we not want to be loved by others? Of course we do. So it is safe to assume (in this one case, at least) that “the other” feels the same way.
Compassion is the next logical step, because in many ways compassion is love actualized. Armstrong goes to great lengths in her book to define compassion and distinguish it from pity, which is often how it is perceived. Compassion is not to feel bad for someone, but to fully understand the other person’s predicament, to empathize with what that person is going through. Sure we might not have been through the exact same experience, but we can often call to mind some similar ordeal that tested us. By being compassionate it helps put into perspective that the person in question is a real human being too. One who shares the human condition and who may have similar aspirations and faults, just like we all have. Ultimately, compassion is the step that brings us all to common ground.
Gratitude is another extension of love insofar as loving what life offers us. Whether we see something in our lives as good or bad is completely up to us. It took me a long time to truly realize this and make the according changes to the way I lived, but when I did I can’t tell you how much richer my life became. Not because I won the lottery (well, I did marrying Erin), but because having constant gratitude has enabled me to broaden my view of the miraculous. I pay much more attention to the details of life that we most often overlook as being insignificant and it has paid tremendous dividends to my mental well-being. If you’ve never read the post from my 35th birthday (Gratitude for the Here and Now), there is a short mantra that you may read and try to incorporate into your routine (or create one of your own!). Without fail, I wake each morning, take care of the girls, bring Erin her coffee, and then silently recite my mantra when I get to my yoga mat. Try it even for a few days and see if you feel any differently. I bet you’ll find you are more grateful, especially for life’s little intangible gifts.
Generosity is the fourth on the list. In my original conception of the five qualities, this space was for kindness. Not to say that kindness isn’t important, but I felt it was a redundancy considering love and compassion were already two of the five qualities I was trying to cultivate. Generosity is something that we can all practice easily. Generosity is not about money. While you can be generous with your money, not all people have funds with which to be generous. And that’s totally fine. Anyone can be generous in a number of ways, but perhaps the most important is being generous with our time. As you know, NIP, I think time is easily our most precious commodity. We have only a limited amount and of that limited amount we really don’t know how much there is to begin with. Being generous with our time could mean volunteer work at a favorite charity or just sitting with a friend or family member who needs us. Whether we are working or listening, devoting that time to the person in need is a form of generosity. Much like the rest of these qualities, generosity opens us up to our fellow human beings in ways that allow us to become the best of who we are.
And then there’s patience. As I mentioned earlier, I am much, much more patient than I once was. It’s funny when my senior students whom I taught as freshmen talk about this. They get wide-eyed and tell the underclassmen sitting nearby that I am very different from 3 years ago. I think they can tell that I released my anger. I’m older (definitely) and wiser (hopefully) now, and much of that change has been a willingness to relinquish control over certain areas of my life; namely, the ones I thought I could control but in actuality had no control over. By putting patience into practice I have learned to take so much in stride. It’s definitely had the biggest impact in my professional life, as I don’t get so easily riled by student apathy. While I’m not going to deny that student apathy doesn’t bother me, I also have accrued the wisdom to know that it is part of youth. We were that age at one time and I’m sure that we were all apathetic about certain parts of life, particularly education. By being patient with my students, and by extension other people, I have learned to slow myself down, take stock of the miraculous life around me, and thereby appreciate each moment a little more. Patience also often prevents us from blowing things out of proportion, because our knee-jerk reactions to certain situations can sometimes put us in a bind. We may say mean or hurtful things in the heat of the moment, only to apologize later for our behavior. By developing our patience, it allows us to take a deep breath, formulate our thoughts, and avoid making a situation worse than it needs to be.
The final part of the puzzle is putting these attributes into practice. You can’t simply focus on them in your interior life, NIP, they must be exercised in the exterior life as well. This is easier said than done, to be honest. We are all fallible. We all make mistakes. Though I can unequivocally say I have changed since beginning my meditation practice and focusing on the improvement of these five qualities in my own life, I am still a work in progress. This past weekend, in fact, taught me a valuable lesson in equanimity. While I think these attributes have changed me for the better, I have yet to learn to utilize them equally in all situations. As I’m sure you have experienced in your own life, NIP, we often save our worst for those we love the most. Perhaps this comes from the fact that there is no persona for family. We let it all hang out and we show our true colors quite freely. Sometimes this can be bad. I was definitely not exercising patience when my brother was finally ready to leave for Clearwater beach at 1 in the afternoon. I won’t bore you with the details, but my choice to be impatient with him was no one’s fault other than my own. I thought about it the rest of the weekend and have since been focusing on equanimity in my meditations. If these five qualities are going to make me a better person, they must do so at all times and under all conditions. It may take time, but I’m willing to put in the work. Every day that I keep chipping at my life’s labor, I see progress. In that progress I find reassurance. And each new day I pick up the metaphorical hammer and chisel and begin again.
Keep chipping away, NIP.