Nothing Seems Fair, Part 2

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 of the Buddha’s views on suffering.

Here’s an article suggested by this widget that’s attached to my blog:


I’m sick–just a cold, or maybe the flu.  Everybody talks about the awfulness of the flu, but when I look up the symptoms of flu vs cold online, every cold / flu I’ve ever had seems to fall right on the line between two.  Are muscle aches and fatigue really just the purview of the flu? Well, maybe it’s the flu..

Whatever the diagnosis, I stayed home for two work days, and now I’m staying home through the long weekend.  I have very little will to do…anything.  You know how they say the “mind is a good servant, but a bad master”?  It’s a kinda buddhist thing to say, about how you have to restrain your mind and not just let it run rampant as it likes.  This restraint requires a certain kind of determination that at various times in my life I have had, and at present do not have.  My mind has no desire to do disciplined things like stay still for meditation, apply itself to writing or even pay pay attention to a conversation.  If you call me, there’s a good chance I won’t pick up the phone, because holding a conversation, even with you, seems like too monumental an effort.  My mind doesn’t want to do anything on its own steam, it wants to have its hand held and to be entertained.

And in my current state, my mind wins:

I let it watch two seasons of Downton Abbey in two days until I was bleary-eyed and my brain was sodden and saturated with the stream of soapy input. (Everything in italics is a spoiler, avert your eyes.) She’s pregnant with the new heir of Downton. She’s slipped on a bar of soap left by the wicked servant and miscarried! The heir of Downton is lost at war.  He’s miraculously returned! He’ll never walk again, or bear children.  Oh my god, he’s walking! But he’s about to marry the wrong woman. No, wait–she has Spanish Influenza…she’s dead! The Season Two finale provides some beautiful closure with a proposal on a snowy night.  It was a good and convenient place to stop for what I hope is a long while.
On the third day, I let my mind read seven scripts for the Good Wife.
Because it is not related to writing, it will sometime accept forty minutes of Illustrator CS5 instructional videos, so there’s that.
And of course there is sleeping.

Slowing the Sixth Mind

I’ve mentioned the fairy tales class I’m taking, right?  It was only five weeks long and this week is the last week.  Right now I’m reading an essay by Aimee Bender called “Character Motivation.” She says,

In Murakami’s short story “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day,” the main character is a writer.  In describing the act of writing to a tightrope walker, he says, “What a writer is supposed to do is observe and observe and observe again, and put off making judgements to the last possible moment.”  I think that is a beautiful description of writing; it lets the world be, but also there is a moment, finally of some kind of opinion.  There is that moment, but to hold it off is a lovely and worthwhile goal.

 Reading this brought to mind for me something that I actually think about not infrequently–in fact I may have mentioned it before. Back in 2004 I attended lecture by Soygal Rinpoche in Melbourne where he talked about the Eight Minds, or Consciousnesses.  1 through 5 are our sensory consciousnesses–eye consciousness, ear consciousness etc.  6 through 8, Rinpoche described as “Mental Consciousnesses,” and of these he said that 6 and 7 were active, while 8 was inactive.

The 6th consciousness he described (in my memory at least, I’ve never found it written or recorded in exactly the same way) as a consciousness of perceiving, of observation, of taking in. “It is broccoli. It is green, It has a texture, a taste.

The 7th consciousness was about judgment–but not necessarily in a good way–because it is about attaching a positive or negative value to the perceived thing.  “I hate broccoli. It tastes bad to me.”  The 7th consciousness inserts the “I” in a strong fashion.

The 7th consciousness is problematic.  When we are very attached to our opinions, and our identity as opion-havers, we can create our own little prisons, and make ourselves unhappier.  If “I hate broccoli” then I have created a world in which I must avoid broccoli, or at least have negative feelings whenever I am confronted by broccoli. My hatred of broccoli might even be so great as to poison my enjoyment of other things–a meal, or event in good company.

Soygal Rinpoche’s suggestion, then, was to elongate the 6th mind and thus delay the 7th.  If one can slow or repeat the perception–“It’s broccoli,” keeping judgment and opinion at bay for an extra moment or so, then we buy ourselves some time to be alert for the negative thought and perhaps temper it in some manner.  We exert a little more control over our own processes, and withhold some of that control from our wayward minds.

I believe, that with practice, I can sometimes retreat from the 7th and go back to the 6th–especially when I can feel the 7th exerting an influence that isn’t really beneficial.  It does not benefit me to hate broccoli, or feel aversion to the pain of going to the gym, or dislike talking to stranger at a party. So I try to go back to the state of perception I try to simply observe, again, in greater detail–the physical sensation that I have defined as pain: where do I feel it?  What is it’s intensity? What is the sensation of walking up to a person at a party, absent of the feeling that I myself have attached to it?  Sometimes it works, and, over time, certain things become less disagreeable to me, and I am able to then navigate the world in a way that is less encumbered by my own “baggage.”

So Murakami’s words reminded me of this. Is this what he or Bender is talking about?   I’d say the context is quite different and any the connection tenuous.  However, when I see a few paragraphs of keen observation, absent of opinion, I think it allows me, as a reader, some life and activity that would otherwise be confined.  As a writer,  it might allow one to reach a different conclusion than one might have, and perhaps, having come to a conclusion, the writer decides to leave the spaciousness, or perhaps writer goes back and uses the discovered information, threading it in earlier, depending on the case.  In this way, the writer is kind of like the mind that influences the process…

August 25, 2012

August 25, 2012

Things I am already doing to help my case:

Meditating again…  I once had a practice.  I had a tendency to act like I still had a practice, but I didn’t.  I do now. Twenty-five to thirty minutes in the morning and the evening, ten or fifteen minutes mid-day at work, and whenever I wake up in the wee hours of the morning buzzing with adrenaline–for however long it takes to calm myself down.

Ix-nay on the sugar-say… I did this the first time around for about a year after my surgery.  Everything I read supports that sugars and cancer do not play well together (or, more specifically, that they play too well.  The first time around there were days when this was really difficult and emotional.  Thus far (i.e. for the last five days) it has not been difficult at all to cut out recognizable refined sugars. Rice and bread are a little harder, I think because it’s harder for me to believe they are “as bad,” but I have pared them way down.

Juicing:  All veggies, all the time.  I haven’t actually been manning the juicer, as life is, per usual, a little crazy right now–but I’ve been hitting the Robek’s at every chance, cutting the juice with water at home when I can (to decrease the sugars) and keeping half in an air-tight container for later.

Pulling remedies off the shelf:  I guess I can say I’m “lucky” that the last time I had cancer, I was not employed, and I spend several months doing very little but researching supplements, various diets, etc.  I had a pared down “maintainence” vitamin regime that I was never going to quit.  I did.  just got busy and didn’t reach for the containers on the shelf.  But conveniently, they are all still there.  The enzymes, the IP6 /maitake mushroom extract, the Pau D’ Arco tea, the Chlorella (alkalizing)/Tumeric (anti-inflammatory) tablets.  Hot lemon-juice to flush the liver (and other stuff) in the morning.

I have scans happening this week, and an appointment with a gynecologic oncologist.  I don’t know what I will find out, and especially when I’m tired I get anxious.  But then I remind myself that no matter how dire the case may seem, I have met real people who have overcome worse, and I believe I can do as well.

Why I’m Being So Crazy

It’s 2:30 in the morning Los Angeles time, 5:30 AM Indiana time. I am at the Indianapolis airport with some time before my generous and early-rising friend arrives to pick me up. I am sitting at an empty gate, with my stolen airline blanket, contemplating my recent behavior.

Traveling is always anxious-making for me. I’m not scared of flying, but I am scared of packing. I have recurring nightmares where I’m running late, packing at the last moment, searching for lost items. In my nightmares, time is running out and I can’t find something, I keep changing my clothes at last minute, what I have on or have packed seems totally unacceptable, and I can’t keep myself from trying to alter it, despite the fact that those actions are self-sabotaging, and I’m making myself late and other people are waiting for me. I can’t control myself.

Life imitates nightmares. I tried to prevent it, even wrote on my calendar for Thursday night “pack for trip,” to save myself a Friday panic. But my plans were derailed as soon as I decided to pack electronics first. I had promised my mother I’d bring my digital camera, tohelp her take pictures and put some items on Craig’s list. I’d felt like the helpful, responsible got-it-together daughter. I envisioned snapping pictures with my shiny camera. I was such a good person.

Until I couldn’t find the camera charger. I checked every outlet in the house, every shelf, and un-used purse. I hoped it might be at my sister’s, I hoped it might magically be at my internship on Friday. I searched some more. By Friday evening I knew I needed to cut my losses and pack my things, but I waited too long. My packing was haphazard. Paul had to witness my obsession and my shame spiral, and still get me to the plane on time. It was too late to buy a replacement charger. I borrowed a camera from a friend–but instead of being comforted by this, picking it up on the way to the airport brought an irrational lump of anxiety to my chest. Then, arriving at the airport I realized, with a sinking sensation—I had left my sunglasses behind. I have light eyes, and am rather blind as a bat in the sun without a really good pair of sunglasses.

Surveying my domino-fall of bad decisions, and I felt a terrible sense of loss, regret, self-loathing, I felt keenly the cost of replacing lost items, then my lack of money, then my late stage in life for lacking money. Soon I was contemplating my grey hairs, and dissipating youth, my mother’s questionable health, my inability to provide for her as I’d like to do. In the car I was fighting back tears as Paul looked at me and wondered why I was being so crazy.

And as I sat in the waiting area for my flight, I too, thought, “Why am I being so crazy?”

I do not have big problems. Not even a busted hard-drive, or no money, certainly not a grave illness. I have a camera to use. I have a credit card, if I have to get new glasses, it’s not the end of the world. I could, if I had to, even squint for ten days.

My real problem is that, for this moment in time, I have lost my equanimity, my flexibility, my ability to emotionally roll with the punches.

And that, in fact, is probably because my life is going too well.

By this I mean that, despite my practical worries, I am doing things each day that engage me—working full days at my internships, seeing friends and shows and networking in the evenings. The drama of my own life is fun to get wrapped up in, I get swept away by the momentum and let my mind revel in visions of future outcomes—be these bad or good. At night I fall to the pillow, exhausted, and sleep almost immediately.

In other words, I’m not taking the time and space to step away from own drama. Simply, I’m not meditating. I’m not doing the thing that gives me perspective and distance. And with no distance, I fall into bad habits. I eat sugary foods that add to my emotional instability, I push away my emotional and spiritual work, saying I don’t have time, I rush around, I fall apart in little ways.

When I was ill, I had very little sense of the future. Because there was pain in the present, and so much uncertainty, I wasn’t so engaged with the future, and this made it easier to devote time to meditation. Not thinking was a pleasurable relief.

Not thinking is always a relief. I know it in when I reach that state, but it’s harder work to get there. It’s more difficult to convince my mind that this is what it wants and needs. Thinking seems like the more immediate pleasure, it seems like the soft sofa compared to the boring treadmill of working not to think. But in metaphors, and in reality, the treadmill pays off. So. meditation. I must return to it. Or I will make myself crazy.