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Resolutions as Drops in a Bucket

Resolutions as Drops in a Bucket

A slight smell of must lingered in the air. A cool sense of damp touched my skin in that little utility room just off the basement. It drove Amelia crazy each time I went down to walk the treadmill or do the laundry. She’d meow urgently at the bi-fold door until I left it ajar and she could commence her inspection.

To me, the smell was never so strong to cause immediate alarm. Why not put it off? The dampness was never so great to cause puddling or any signs, really, of actual build up. Why not tend to things more pressing?

One day last month, after my workout, after Amelia’s latest inspection, I bit the bullet and decided to move the dehumidifier the 20 feet from where it stood, unused the past two years, to that annoying antechamber where it might find value. (Are December resolutions are thing?)

It took little physical effort to push it across the tiled basement floor on its tiny metal wheels, which squeaked for attention. It took little mental effort to decide where in the small room to place it—not too far from the door that it couldn’t be plugged in, not too close to flammables that it risked my life. Effort expended, the humidifier was set to work.

It seems silly, writing out the process. Seeing evidence of how truly small were the obstacles to this logical solution. Unexamined, simple little steps incubate in our minds into what we soon decide, without thinking, are true barriers to our resolutions. They keep us from keeping commitments.

Having jumped the truly tiny hurdles last month, the dehumidifier is now in place. Producing a full bucket of water every few days. From a light musty smell and a slight feeling of damp—actual matter emerges.

It’s just like meditation. The mind builds many small obstacles to daily committed practice. Shifting from most days to truly daily. Wouldn’t it be harsh, to be so disciplined? Increasing from 20-ish minutes to 60 solid. Isn’t that unreasonable? (Of course many spend that long in traffic, watching tv, surfing the internet each day). Expanding from once a day to twice or throughout. What am I, a monk?

Deepened commitment to practice seemed like a good idea in theory—a little was useful, why not more? But, like setting up the humidifier: how could I ever surmount these big, make believe, in-my-mind hurdles? Was it worth it? Was I?

One day last fall, I finally just decided to take the small amount of time it takes to make a plan for regular practice. Then I gave the minimal mental effort of following the plan. Then I troubleshot the parts of the plan that needed it. Then I put in the energy required to keep the commitment. Simple little steps. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now, as I show up regularly, most days the effects are imperceptible. Barely drops in a bucket. As I continue day after day regardless, full gallons materialize, ready to be dumped down the drain and out of my life. The air less damp and that much more breathable. Resolutions well made; effort well spent.

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How Do You Make Yourself Angry?

by Denise Bike 0 Comments
How Do You Make Yourself Angry?

One of the best experiences I’ve had was training with a highly skilled, very experienced, really dedicated team of psychotherapists at an intensive outpatient program. The group met four hours each evening, four days a week. We took a break together for dinner. The primary therapy mode was cognitive-behavioral therapy, which assists people in figuring out how their thoughts and patterns of thinking can make them feel and behave in undesirable ways. They also used mindfulness, seamlessly weaving its tenets into therapy.

One Wednesday, the lead psychologist for that evening began the group with a question. “How do you make yourself angry?” he asked. It provoked the intended responses. We don’t! Things outside our control do! Other people do! In fact, you’re making us angry right now!

I considered my own anger and its (fully external) causes. Traffic makes me angry a lot. People and the way they drive in traffic. People making choices in traffic that are not the choices that I want them to make... My attention returned to the group.

As everyone settled down, they became curious about what he meant. How can people can make themselves angry? He wrote two phrases learned in mindfulness training on the board:

  • Getting something you don’t want
  • Wanting something you don’t get

The group members were incredulous at first. It can’t be that simple, they maintained. Conflicts are much more complicated than that—and they certainly aren’t our fault! One by one, he invited each member to describe a time they made themselves angry. Decrying the premise, but playing along, each person made their case for how things and people caused their anger. One by one, while making their case, they realized their story fell into one of the categories or the other. Or both.

Take my ongoing relationship with traffic. I get angry when the person in front of me holds up the lane to take a left (getting something I don’t want). I get angry when I have to be somewhere in 10 minutes and the longer I sit the more minutes the GPS adds to my projected arrival time (wanting something I don’t get.) How about that; I make myself angry.

How do you make yourself angry?

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Am I Creating Chaos or Community?

by Denise Bike 0 Comments

Back in spring, 2009, I did my first weekend retreat. It was with Gina Sharpe, a wonderful teacher whose home sangha is in New York City. One of the ideas she left me with was the practice of examining an action according to whether it would create chaos or community. Before I speak, will what I say, when I say it, how I say it bring us closer to together or split us further apart? Before I act, will what I do, how I do it, when I do it connect or divide? Am I choosing to operate from my ego or from my essence? Because I do have a choice. Always. It’s a powerful practice in its simplicity—it not only illuminates our space to choose based on projected outcome, but it offers the opportunity to examine the intentions we habitually base our choices on.

Gina’s teaching was six years ago. It popped into my mind last night while watching the debate. Does this statement create community or chaos? I grew increasingly disheartened as I digested the extent to which divisiveness was chosen. It may be argued that the speakers were using it to build their group of “good guys.” I began to question the meaning of community. Does community leave anyone out? Can a true community exclude (at best) and target (at worst) people deemed to not merit membership? Isn’t that chaos masquerading as community? Barry Levin reported on Rachel Maddow last night that the FBI average reported hate crimes were 13 per month for the past five years. This number is up to 33 in recent months. Examining the outcome—a recent increase in violent and terrorizing acts aimed at those who don’t belong—appears to evidence the chaos of cultivating such a ‘community.’

If we wish to choose community over chaos, Gina Sharpe’s elegant model shows us how to examine our choices before making them. By anticipating the outcome, we can choose a different action. By making conscious our unexamined motivations, we free ourselves from them in the future.

Perhaps most poignantly, as I continue this practice, I can recognize more and more what is behind my egoic, chaos-creating intentions and discover all the ways that I am just like those fellow humans on stage last night. Further expanding my view of community.

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One Day I Stopped Killing Ants

by Denise Bike 0 Comments
One Day I Stopped Killing Ants

This fall, shortly after I began meditating for one hour each morning and again each night, I stopped wanting to kill things.

That doesn’t sound right.

To clarify, I did not walk the earth for the 47.75 years prior wanting to kill things. A deep blood lust barely contained under the surface. No. What happened was (officer), after I began meditating for two of each day’s waking hours, roughly 1/8th of my conscious day, I became more, well, conscious of what I was doing. One thing I became aware of was how often I killed things. Bugs. I started noticing that without thinking, I would always kill a bug when I saw one near me. This began to seem odd. How was it that my reflexive response to something so small comparatively and so harmless was to end its life? Without thinking. That’s odd, right? When you stop and think about it.

Having stopped to think about it, I decided to stop doing it. At first this proved easier to say than it was to do. In the early days of my commitment, I’d catch myself just after smooshing the ant that was crawling on my computer. Why do ants like my laptop keyboard, I’d wonder, then Doh! I’d realize I’d just killed an ant. Rats! Okay, just recommit, I’d think, and catch yourself next time.

Soon I’d notice when my hand was just about to make contact, and I’d stop it. After a while, I’d catch my arm midair and drop it back to my side. Then I’d recognize the thought about to move the arm into action. Finally, I’d stopped killing things altogether; the insectocide was over. It was miraculous.

Except it wasn’t a miracle, really—this is exactly how mindfulness works. We practice regularly, slowing ourselves down, which empties out the day’s refuse, and when enough refuse has been emptied, old built up gunk can move out, and when enough old built up gunk has moved out, we can pay attention to what we’re doing, and when we pay attention to what we’re doing, we find that there’s space to make choices about our actions, and when we recognize that we have a choice, we decide to do things like stop killing other living beings.

This is how mindfulness works. Sometimes slowly—over a lifetime for some things. Other times in seismic, revelatory aha moments. More often it’s somewhere in between.

This is how mindfulness works.

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A Message from the Biology Department Microwave

by Denise Bike 0 Comments

Every Friday afternoon, I meet up with friends from my previous job. We write together. Today, while waiting for the group to convene, I found a microwave in the break room down the hall and warmed up my belated lunch. (We meet at 1; I usually eat beforehand.) It was one of those large, old, clunky microwaves from the 90s. The decrepit kind that usually finds its way into the back alleys of academia.

As I waited, I read some emails. BEEP. I dutifully responded to the sound, walking over to the microwave door and opening it. On the side panel, a little message had replaced the expired minutes in the display. It said, “ENJOY.

What a great idea, I thought smiling. I hadn’t intentionally grabbed my plastic-encased lunch out of the microwave with that explicit intention. But now that you mention it, enjoying my lunch seems like a perfectly good idea. Thank you, microwave. I will now enjoy my lunch. And I did.

The invitation remained with me in the three hours since. When I left the university and merged into traffic, I thought, Why not enjoy this? This was where I was: in my car, in traffic that wasn’t moving very far very fast. It was not in my control to change the traffic into an event more inherently enjoyable. But, what was stopping me from being the source that the enjoyment emanated from? Nothing. I decided to enjoy my time in traffic. And I did.

I went on to enjoy the time I spent driving in circles trying to find a little shop in Hampden. Then, having found the shop, I chose to enjoy the time I spent driving in circles around it trying to find parking. Then, the decision to drive home past three schools consecutively that were all letting out. Enjoy, the microwave entreated, enjoy.

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