Beyond The Golden Rule

July 30, 2012

Cleopatra by Alexandre Cabanel

Treat others and you would wish to be treated yourself. Reasonable enough. Irrefutably logical. Every religion has it as part of its creed. Atheists, humanists, liberals all agree on it in principal. Then why is it that so few humans live up to it? What is missing?

John, a friend who is an avid bicyclist, related this story: he had locked his bicycle on a stand along the sidewalk. When he returned from his errand, someone had chained her bicycle to his. He was livid. When the woman did show up, he could see she had mental health issues, and his anger evaporated. He mentioned this incident on his Facebook page. A dozen of his friends immediately wrote comments insulting this woman’s behavior. The most vitriolic of which was from one of his friends who has HIV/AIDS. I found that surprising. Here was a man who expects unconditional compassions from others, he demands that he not be judged on why or how he acquired his virus. Yet he was quick to express contempt for the woman’s shortcomings. Of course, he is one of a billion examples. It seems that to blame is a reflex but applying the Golden Rule is just a philosophical ideal.

Perhaps that is the key. Can it be that blame is an emotion, a primitive reflex, whereas the Golden Rule is embedded in the rational brain? Critical thinking is slower, it takes time and energy and intention to summon. Emotions happen by instinct. Dogs, cats, monkeys have the same reflexes. We blame first, and if we are immature, we are content with that. If we are a little smarter, we blame first, then regret it, perhaps even apologize. Surely, the wisest eschew blame and apply the Golden Rule first and foremost. But how to get there?

It was my sister who first gave me a clue. In those days we still had door-to-door salesmen, which I found as annoying as telemarketers are today. My sister declined each one politely, without the slightest rudeness. I asked her why she did that. It turned out that our older brother had once worked as a door-to-door salesmen, when he first arrived in the UK, a fact I had not known. What she had done, inadvertently perhaps, was apply the Golden Rule by proxy.  She treated each salesman as she would have wanted her brother to be treated. I thought that very smart.

One of the beautiful aspects of Hindu culture is that all elders are referred to as “Aunty” or “Uncle”. Sometimes, women of the same age are referred to as “sister” by the men. Even small girls are referred to as “Amma” or “Mother” by very cultured Brahmins. When such an epitaph is used, a shift happens in the consciousness. The baser, primitive emotional reflexes are supplanted by the deep feelings of love, respect that the words mother, sister, uncle symbolize for the speaker. While this tradition may be impossible to transplant in a Western social setting, the principle behind it can still be utilized, as my sister discovered. Remove the sense of ‘otherness’ by proxy. Any relationship where you have reverence will do. At school there was a boy who was a vocal racist, but he loved Jazz. Hence, he made an exception for African peoples within his racism. In a basic way, it seemed to me, this boy was seeing his Jazz idols in all African peoples. It’s a good start.

It actually takes very little effort to find a connectivity with most people you encounter. He is a male just like me. He is of my age group. She looks as stressed as I feel. Any excuse, no matter how flimsy, works. Even the love for a vapid celebrity (during the Michael Jackson crazy Eighties, many pretty white girls dated skinny black men sporting Gerri curls).

What is wonderful about applying the Golden Rule is that we lose the habit of assigning blame. By blame I do not mean the legal sense of responsibility, but the emotional sense of helplessness, coupled with a contempt for the other. Blame is not only illogical, it is most destructive for health and well-being. It is a shade of anger which, when left to fester, morphs into vengeance and violence. As far as I see, blame serves no useful purpose. I can’t think of an example in my life where blaming someone has helped the situation. And most importantly, I detest being blamed by others so much that why would I inflict that on  another? That would be illogical.


Edouard Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass

I am sitting on the subway train, minding my own business. A woman wearing sunglasses(yes, in the underground) is staring at me.  I mean a full-on, relentless stare. It leaves me uncomfortable. All kinds of thoughts go through my mind. I feel threatened, I feel self-conscious. Why is it that being stared at is so darned uncomfortable?

Everyone has had that classic stress dream: you are naked in a crowd of clothed people. That maybe why Manet’s painting is so powerful.  Psychologists says being stared at makes you remember your vulnerability. We cringe from such reminders. We don’t want to think how fragile our bodies really are, we would rather forget the smallness of our status, our utter lack of power. No wonder we cringe. But what might happen if instead of cringing we dived into it and investigated it? What if instead we observed our own reaction to being vulnerable? Is it possible to shift our attention away from the starer and focus upon process of being self-conscious? What might we discover about ourselves?

On my next subway trip I decided to be vigilant and receptive to this idea. Curiously, when someone did stare at me, I did not feel self-conscious or vulnerable. It seems that we are only self-conscious when we are caught unawares. Perhaps that is the secret: Our vulnerability resides in our very inattentiveness. In another words, whatever it is within us that is weak and vulnerable, exists only in the grey area between awareness and distraction.
 Of course, it is not only being stared at which makes us self-conscious, we feel self-conscious and similarly vulnerable when someone draws attention to us with an insult or a taunt, both of which get their sting from making us self-conscious. If you are a visible minority, or are old, or fat or too thin or short, reminders of why we are different from others always feels wretched because they make us self-conscious. It is deeply lonely, you feel profoundly isolated and utterly vulnerable.  Each of us reacts differently to being made self-conscious, sometimes we turn shy, at other times we get defensive and snap back. Bullying and being bullied are both maladies of self-consciousness. The bully is reminded of his weakness and lashes out, the victim is reminded of his lack of power and withdraws. This type of self-consciousness is different from staring at yourself in the mirror (which is pleasing, or at the very least non-threatening). Or the spiritual exercise of ‘looking within'(which is profoundly peaceful and empowering). Self-consciousness requires others, and one needs to be not expecting it to happen. The moments happen spontaneously.
Of course feeling self-conscious is not always unpleasant. Whenever we are showered with praise, say when we are on stage accepting an award, we are self-conscious in a pleasing way (or are we?). During another shift at the hospital a patient said to me that I was a miracle man, that she was in awe of me. While initially this type of self-consciousness is seductively joyful, beware, it bites too. If you observe keenly, praise also separates you from others, it is also a lonely, isolating feeling, not much different to an insult. And of course, if you take the self-consciousness of  praise too seriously, it will smart when next it is deflated. But if we remain attentive, we can see self-consciousness for the phantom it really is. In fact full attention interferes with self-consciousness ever arising.

What happens when we inhibit or reject self-consciousness? Take the example of a public crisis, say an earthquake, a fire, an auto accident. We notice that our minds stops chattering. We naturally focus on only the most necessary task. No one has taught us this, it is a simple consequence of being not self-conscious. What if we could be not self-conscious all of the time, how would that feel? Perhaps we would always be focussed, doing the needful without fuss, our minds may not chatter incessantly. We may actually always be content.

Then there are those moments of forced self-consciousness. I saw a young woman walking along the sidewalk, a group of construction workers were sitting on a half-wall, eating their lunch. They whistled, made cat-calls. It was obvious from her face that the woman was acutely humiliated. I think it was akin to a punishment by stockade in olden days. As a writer I have sometimes been invited to read aloud on stage. Many people find that kind of public scrutiny to be deeply disturbing. I find that I do not have stage fright because I give attention of the process of being self-conscious.

When we are attentive to moments of self-consciousness, we see they happen more often than we imagine. They are not always dramatic. In conversation when someone humorously defines you: “But that’s so like you,” he might say. For a second you feel numb, uncomfortable, you might feel like withdrawing from the conversation. In fact, this is the surest way of ending a conversation dead in its tracks: just mention something deeply personal about him or her. Sometimes we do it inadvertently and ruin a perfect good rapport. Other times, when stuck with bore, it is a good way to get him or her to move along.

You can’t stop others from drawing attention to you, but what you can choose is to accept or reject being self-conscious. In my opinion, it never feels good.

It is one of life’s paradoxes: people love being in a clean, tidy home, but dislike the act of cleaning. I too used to feel it a chore. Then I figured out why. My mother had been an angry cleaner, as were my older sisters. Cleaning was a burden to be finished as quickly as possibly. Sometimes they would be resentful, blaming someone (usually me) for the mess. The vacuums would be banged against my feet. The TV would be sprayed with Windex even as I was watching it. The sofa pushed out of the way with me still seated in it. The atmosphere was so tense whenever they cleaned that the best thing you could do was stay out of the way. Of course that gave them another reason to be resentful. Not surprisingly, my sisters have children and husbands who also make themselves scarce when they clean their respective homes. And they complain, without the slightest trace of irony, that no one ever helps them.

Subconsciously I had learned that cleaning equal being in bad mood. I used to feel panicked and uncomfortable while cleaning around my apartment, without understanding where the sense of unease came from. One day it dawned on me that I had been taught to detest the act of cleaning rather consistently. Once I made this small realization, there was a huge  shift in my consciousness. I became aware of the resentful feelings and deliberately replaced them with a joyful mood. At first it felt forced, there was effort involved. But over time I now clean without blame or resentment. I clean for myself because I like an uncluttered environment, no matter who is responsible for the mess.

I live with someone who does not like to clean either. Because I like a tidy environment, I clean for the both of us. I used to resent this. I felt put upon. After I made that switch from angry cleaner to joyful cleaner, I clean up after the person I live with as an act of love. I remind myself of it each time I remove a coffee mug from the living room and put it in the dishwasher. Strangely, I now get help whenever I clean. It seems the people you live with pick on your moods as you clean. There is now a joyful air when I clean and everyone wants to be a part of that joy.

It may seem like a small change but actually it is huge. It has made me re-evaluate some of the other ‘chores’. Does having to take messages have to be a chore? I decided, no. It too can be an act of love. Doing the shopping, holding the door open for a stranger, letting others ahead of you when they look to be in a hurry. The common curtseys that have become uncommon in big cities. If we follow good manners it is usually out of fear of being judged by onlookers. In this ‘me first’ society, manners feel unnatural,  an anachronistic imposition. But all of these basic curtseys can be acts of love.

A gigantic change happens in the mind when we adopt this attitude. We start to feel better. We experience happiness, no matter what other problems are going on around us. The mind is uncluttered. We sleep more restfully. If we are meditators, that too becomes deeper and easier.

That attitude does not end there. Even when do small things ourselves, like opening a letter, or making a meal, we start to do it with more care. We start to relish the small personal acts of daily living. I used to think that to be happy I needed pots of money. Perhaps travel to exotic locales, engage in exciting sports like skydiving or parasailing. I no longer feel that sense of lacking about such bombastic activities. I am content with simply being alive.


There is  a popular quote doing the rounds of posters and greeting cards that goes something like this:

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away. 

It is attributed to Anonymous, who has been impressively prolific over the centuries.

What precisely happens during those moments when our breaths are taken away? A purple sunrise, a neon curtain of Northern Lights, a newborn’s grip. Our minds come to a complete stop. For a time, we are vaulted out of the thoughts whirlpool and are in pure awareness.We experience the inherent bliss of our true selves. We are calm, whole, connected.  What this little quote hints at, beyond its greeting card wisdom, is the link between the flow of thoughts and breathing.

Take another rudimentary example, when we are aroused by anger or fear, we hyperventilate. When we need to calm our minds, we are advised to take deep breaths.

A common preparatory step in meditation is to observe the breath. This is because the source of breath and the source of thoughts is one and the same. Somehow, observing the breath has the effect of slowing down the rate of breathing. They become deep, slow and rhythmic. We are not forcing the breath to comply, it just happens when we give it attention. Then we shift out attention to the thoughts, they follow a parallel pattern. As the breath slows, so does the rate of chatter in the mind. If we observe attentively, we notice that thoughts live during inhalation, and dissipate upon exhalation. And for the brief moment between breaths we are thought free. In that gap we experience the same bliss of pure awareness as during those moments when external beauty made us catch our breath.  Unfortunately, the pause between breaths is so fleeting in waking life that it goes by unnoticed.

Meditators sometimes complain that the onslaught of thinking is so compelling that the don’t even notice the gap between thoughts. It feels like a continuous barrage of mental spam – unwanted,  distractive nuisance. Not surprising that people give up meditation from frustration.

Observing the mind is a subtle habit to cultivate, but well worth the effort. The delicate trick to learn is to notice without getting involved with the contents of the thoughts. If we were asked to stand on the side of a busy highway and simply observe the cars driving by, I bet we could not. The task sounds simple enough but we are so much in the habit of commenting, judging. He is driving a ferrari, what does he think of himself. Why is she on the cellphone while driving. I don’t like the shade of green on that car. And on and on. Because we do not have this skill in daily life, of course it elludes us when we sit for meditation. Not to worry, the skill can be learned. Like any skill it requires patience and trials. Once the skill is established, we are able to dive into that silence between thoughts. Till that happens here are some points of inquiry designed to give attention to the process of mentation itself.

  • What is the canvas upon which the images appear as your thoughts?
  • Do they have colour?
  • Imagine a landscape. Is there depth in your mind’s eye? Where is the space between two details within your thoughtscape?
  • Is there time intervals within the thought images? Do the images move from one action to another? Or is it that they morph like clouds?
  • When you exhale, what happens to the images of your thoughts? Do they reform exactly as before when you inhale?
  • Is the sender of the thoughts different from the receiver?
  • Why are some thoughts so fleeting whereas other memories appear concrete for years?
  • None of these questions require a definitive answer. The point is to notice, to observe without getting caught into the contents of the mind.
  • While there are precious external moments that do still our minds (and our breaths) we need not wait for those life’s gifts. We can learn to cultivate that state through deliberate and sustained observation of what constitutes this web of thoughts, awareness, and self.

Habit Management

July 2, 2012

Some habits feel larger than life.

Joe, a friend of a friend, is a classic grumpy old man. Now in his seventies, he has but one friend. He is not short of money but he is certainly short of charm. Worse, he is set in his ways. He knows what he likes and people and things must behave accordingly. Naturally, everyone irritates him. This is a classic human folly: we are sensitive to other people’s habits but oblivious our own habits. Why is that?

Did Joe not recognize when his own habits were fossilizing inside him? Probably not. Habits have a way of taking over unawares. Sarla’s thrift habit made her into a hoarder. Mark’s shyness with women caused him to be fired because he was surfing porn during work hours. Brandon used to be popular in school because he always had interesting gossip. Now he has no friends because he just cannot keep secrets. Habits begin as harmless, but at some point they take over, growing big and powerful. Then it is too late. We are helpless to stop.

But here is the joke: habits are primitive and follow a predictable path. By observing them ( that is, through experimentation) we can uncover the innards of habits. Then we are in position to unlearn habits, as well as to cultivate better ones.

Most people have heard  about Pavlov and his dogs. He was the scientist who discovered stimulus-response association. He rang a bell each time the dogs were fed. Over time, the dogs associated the bell with food and began to salivate when they heard it ring. Habits are built from this simple repetition of association. There has to a stimulus or trigger (the bell for the dogs), a behavior or response(salivating) and a pay off that drives the whole loop (the food reward in that case).

Our habit may appear more complicated than that, but in reality they are wired to this primeval brain function. They vary only slightly from those of dogs or mice. Some key things to understand about human habits.

1) They are flexible, no matter how deeply ingrained. And yes, you can teach an old coot new tricks. Provided, that is, he is sufficiently motivated. I know in my case, a near-death was motive aplenty to make radical changes in my life. So much so that I am now grateful for my heart failure. For others a belief in God or some higher power acts as a motive.

2) The pay-off or reward that drives the habit loop is often hidden. It maybe primal and unrelated to the behavior (just as the bell and food for Pavlov’s dogs). For example, some gay men indulge in promiscuous behavior not because they love sex, but rather because they are lonely. Obese people sometimes eat for comfort, not for the love of eating. Some get addicted to TV out of boredom.  If we can suss out the root reward, we can then address that need more appropriately (and be more fulfilled).

3) Habits operate in intertwined networks. That is why they feel so big and powerful. Undo any one component of the network, and the whole things becomes pliable. For example, I used to have problem with tidiness (even though I hate clutter). I tried using will power to stay vigilant throughout the day, but that was exhausting. Instead, I made a simple change. Each morning upon waking, I resolved to make the bed before doing anything else. Nothing more. This simple change opened the way, quite effortlessly, for other changes in the breakfast routine (plates now got put away without my noticing), and so on throughout the day. It is what some call a keystone habit, changing which changes all others.  This is useful when trying to change the habits of others, such as noisy neighbors.

4) Ask to change only small specific behavior. We in big city apartments will, from time to time, be forced to endure people above or beside us who disturb our quietude. I had a family with small children living above me, the children liked running on the wood floors with their shoes on. Asking them to be more quiet and respectful of me did not work. It was too non-specific and implied they had to watch themselves every single moment for my benefit. But when the parents were asked to not let the children roam about with shoes on, it had the desired effect of making the whole family more quiet. The request was specific and small, very doable and reasonable, not big and general as before.

5) Habits are not a bad thing. They are tools which, when used skillfully, help us to do the job with minimum effort. The keyword is skillfully. No one teaches us the mechanics of habits. So we flounder through life, by trial and error, without ever understanding our own compulsions and obsessions, nor those of people in our lives. Our needs evolve over time, but we do not know how to change the habit that no longer suits. Understanding habits means we can rebuild better tools that evolve with our needs.

%d bloggers like this: