In my last post I mentioned my friend who is having issues with his health and posted on Facebook the status, “nothing seems fair anymore.” His post got an overwhelming response, because he has so many friends who love him, and also, i think because they are words that hit a cord with all of us. Because we all suffer, and we all cannot help but notice that some of us seem to suffer more than others. And what is that all about? How can we reconcile that we want things, but we don’t get the things that we want–other people get them. And the things we have, other people want: Jobs, respect, human rights, health, economic security, freedom from fear and pain. What can we do to avoid being overwhelmed by the UNFAIRNESS of it all?
Last night I attended this mindfullness group I sometimes go to on campus after work. We had a guest speaker who talked about neuroplasticity, and how we can form new neural pathways and change our temperments and the way we think and feel about events and circumstances. Apparently, through evolution, humans have developed a negative bias when we look at the world, because back in the day it wasn’t as important to remember all the nights that you ducked into a cave and it was empty so you had a good sleep or campfire with roasted elk-meat as it was to remember the one time you ducked into a cave and found a BEAR inside. The UNPLEASANT experience of running from the bear and shivering in the cold hiding behind a rock was the one you needed to remember in order to avoid the bear caves in the future!
Nowadays, the “negative bias” doesn’t always serve us so well. Say twenty people compliment your outfit but one person makes a snide remark. In this case, focusing on the one negative comment is unnecessary for survival, and bad for your mood. All else being equal, why not think about the nice things that people said, and be happier? And maybe because you’re happier, you’ll be nicer and maybe that will lead to better relationships…etc.
However (according to this guest speaker’s summary of several books), because we aren’t naturally wired to think about the good things, we have to consciously practice, until our brains starts to do it naturally. Much of it sounded very similar to cultivating gratitude, of which I’m a fan.
The speaker gave an example of an exercise where you find something pleasant but overlooked to meditate upon, like “how nice it is to breathe, to have enough air.” When she said this, I thought, “that’s right! It is pretty awesome to breathe.” And I felt grateful!
WARNING: This is where I should end this blog post, but instead I’m going to veer off track…
…which I think maybe our guest speaker did as well, as I think what she said next was something that occurred to her in the moment and not part of her teaching plan. She said, “I have a friend who has cancer, and when we talked the other day, he told me he was having trouble breathing, that he couldn’t get enough air anymore.”
I think she simply intended to just emphasize even how the simple act of breathing is something to appreciate, kind of like a parent tossing off an aside about being thankful for your food because of starving children in Africa. She didn’t dwell on it. But I did. I am still dwelling.
While statements about other people’s misfortunes can make us feel lucky, I’m not sure they make us happy. I wonder what kind of neural pathways are formed if one makes a practice of appreciating a thing by contemplating that thing’s absence.
My seven-year-old niece once told me: “we don’t compare, because it doesn’t make anyone feel good,” She’s right. At work, I’ve deposited monthly paychecks for people that equal my annual pay. That comparison doesn’t make me happy. Nor has the specter of starving children ever enhanced my enjoyment of a meal.
Basically, I think comparisons don’t make me feel good, because they highlight what seems to be the inherent lack of fairness in the universe. Not that the universe is intentionally unfair, it’s just that the dice shake out how they do.
Through my two cancer experiences, I experienced emotional and physical pain and I came to know a fair number of people with their own pain. On the other side now (as much as anyone reaches the other side) I am frequently–habitually–grateful for the absence of pain. I’m thankful for every test result that doesn’t predict more pain. I’m incredibly thankful for my everyday life. But at the same time — maybe because my work with cultivating gratitude has its roots in illness — I’m acutely aware that my state of blessed health has a random quality to it. While I healed and my pain went away, others, equally deserving, did not heal. There are people who deal with chronic pain, who are suffering even as I am not suffering. I’m also aware that my own suffering can return at any unexpected moment.
I believe I’ve gotten pretty good at appreciating things great and small which makes me a generally a grateful person. But somehow I’ve also gotten in the habit of, in almost the same moment, considering the tenuous, ephemeral and random nature of whatever thing I’m appreciating, which adds a dollop of sadness onto my gratitude.
On one had I am grateful for, you know, life, because it’s amazing! But on the other hand, my friend is absolutely right: Nothing seems fair, because nothing is. And those are two pretty big and heavy concepts to lift at the same time.
Scroll back up and click on that “Neuroplasticity” link. It’s a 2-minute video that’s interesting.
The book being discussed by our speaker was called Hardwiring Happiness.
The author did a TED talk.
You might be interested in this cliff’s Notes Version (actually About.com) of the Buddha’s views on suffering.
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