I was recently given a great gift: a hand-me-down car. I haven’t owned a car in over 10 years, not since coming back home to the city from graduate school. Driving in the city is always a trip. It is kind of like a video game, all the unexpected objects darting out from different corners, other cars around you driving close, speeding up to cross over 3 lanes to make that right turn that you don’t want to miss. I had always thought about driving in the city as offensive rather than defensive, “every man/woman for him or herself!” But driving recently, I realized that it is much more collaborative than I thought, much more interdependent, drivers “inter-being.”
“Interbeing” refers to an inherent interdependence of all things. It refers to the web of life and how all of our actions can have consequences for the greater world and world community. What does this have to do with driving? Well, as I was making my way through Times Square, it was pretty hectic. Trucks double parked, making deliveries, taxis darting in an out of cars going too slow, tourists not sure how to navigate the crosswalks, cyclists weaving through the cars. But it worked. No car crashes. No one hurt crossing the street or riding a bike. The drivers just knew the dance, how to negotiate the rugged terrain of the pot-holes, how to avert disaster with the perfect swerve. It struck me that city life is a lot like that. Millions of people somehow making it through, day to day, riding the trains, waiting on lines, avoiding traffic, not bumping into each other despite the 50 people sharing the sidewalk with you. This awareness sure made me appreciate my fellow New Yorkers more and perhaps even gave me a little more patience for the very, very slow driving guy from Georgia. Just a little…
There is an “interbeing” of city life, an ecosystem that we all contribute to. How much do we see that? How much do we pay attention? I am not usually aware of this connection in the flow of city life, but a car helped me to be more mindful of just that this week. What would it be like if we all carried the awareness of interbeing in our city life?
It's that time of year again. Thanksgiving is associated with so many things, including time with family, holiday sales, football, and eating to the point of exhaustion. What about actually giving thanks? Is there room this weekend for such sentiments?
Research by Robert Emmons and his colleagues at UC Davis have repeatedly shown the benefits of expressing appreciation and gratitude. In his initial study (Emmons & McCollough, 2003), people who kept a weekly gratitude journal reported more optimism, fewer physical problems, and more physical exercise relative to people who recorded neutral or negative events. These findings should not be too surprising, especially as religions across the world have practiced extending prayers of thanks. In Christianity, for example, saying grace is an exalted tradition to offer thanks to God for sustenance and life on earth.
So, with a special day set aside for it, why not practice gratitude tomorrow? Not sure, what to do? Here's 5 suggestions:
Consider for what you feel grateful over the past year. Name 10 things as you finish the sentence, "I feel grateful for ....." Whatever you list need not be particularly grandiose. You don't have to thank the cosmos for your existence, but your statements should reflect your true sentiments, not we you think you should feel. You might to allow yourself a few moments to fully consider something (or someone) before you decide if it's list-worthy. For example, you might not feel particularly thankful for someone in your family given the headache that he/she caused you today. However, if you sit long enough in contemplation, you might be able to see through this storm of an ill mood and find true gratitude.
Share your feelings of gratitude with friends and family. Early in the day tomorrow, arrange a time in which you all will discuss thanksgiving. You can center this practice around the holiday meal, and go around the table to discuss things for which each person feels grateful.
Think about the people who have helped you get to this point in your life. Who has helped, loved, and supported you? Send them a wish of thanks, either mentally or by expressing your appreciation directly to them.
Reconsider your anger or bitterness directed at family members. Often, we carry a lot of "baggage" when it comes to our families of origin. We usually tend to focus on all the injustices that we suffered with little appreciation for the (likely) fact that our parents and siblings did the best they could with what they had. For example, it is unlikely that your parents purposefully tried to disrupt your emotional growth. Instead, they--as outwardly imperfect as we are--likely tried their best to manage the difficulties of raising a family. The results? Not perfect, presumably. However, maybe there are some things for which you can feel appreciation or even gratitude. Maybe they sacrificed a lot for you to learn the piano or go to summer camp. See if it's possible to notice and get in touch with helpful, supportive ways in which your family has loved you.
Help someone. Offer to carve the turkey, cut-up food for children at the table, or even--horror of horrors!--do the dishes. Especially if you don't want to have a "touchy-feely" conversation with your family, extend your gratitude practically through your actions. Whatever you decide to do, give it away freely with no expectation of acknowledgement or payback. Just do it because it feels right and matters to you.
So I've been away on Cape Cod for the past two weeks. People don't get angry there.
This morning, my local morning train was not in service, so I had to find a bus, along with the throngs. Throngs make people tense. At a certain point the bus driver stopped for someone who was waiting at a bus stop, basically to tell him that he couldn't allow him on, because the bus was so crowded. The man was not happy and got on the bus anyway. The driver didn't like this. They got angry at each other, fairly loudly.
Oh, I'm back in the city. I immediately felt my body respond, my head started spinning because I had been free of this sort of conflict for weeks, and resented that I had to feel this, when I wasn't even involved. So I resented, and listened to myself and my body, trying to find opportunity through annoyance. Lo and behold, I found fear, because of course I found fear, I always find fear. And I didn’t like this fear. And I listened more and I found sadness, and of course my own anger, and confusion, because being mindful didn't make everything all better. And it's not supposed to, it's just supposed to help us be more mindful.
On Friday and Saturday, I attended a conference on meditation and psychotherapy co-sponsored by Harvard Medical School. The theme of the conference was “Wisdom and Compassion”, featuring the Dalai Lama as the main speaker. He answered questions posed by prominent scientists and clinicians, including Drs. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Richard Davidson, Steven Pinker, Marsha Linehan, Bessel van der Kolk, and Judith Jordan.
Not surprisingly, the Dalai Lama emphasized the importance of mindfulness. He explained that wisdom and compassion can be cultivated through “mental engagement” with an object and aspiration, respectively. In other words, we become wise through deepening our understanding of things around us, and we become compassionate by focusing on compassion. He noted that mindfulness is important for both: it helps us maintain our focus, whether on a particular fact or goal.
Dr. Judith Jordan, one of the Founding Fellows and current Director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, inquired about cross-cultural differences in relationships and autonomy. She observed that Western culture (and psychotherapy) emphasizes separateness and individuality, while Eastern cultures emphasize interdependence and collectivism.
The Dalai Lama opined that there is “no big difference” between the West and East mentally, emotionally, and physically. However, there is a “difference between the big city and countryside.” He indicated that urban environments cultivate a mental state in which people more concerned with money, which gives rise to more anxiety and stress. He also noted that rich people are more likely to experience “destructive emotions” (e.g., jealousy, arrogance, etc.) and a decreased sense of community. As a result, he noted--somewhat self-consciously--that it is even more important to mindfully maintain humility and connectedness when when you become “an object of reverence.”
It is validating to hear the Dalai Lama note that there is something about city living that’s different--something that requires us to be especially mindful and present given our vulnerability to distraction, preoccupation with money, and self-aggrandizement. It underscores the important cultivation of urban mindfulness through both formal and informal practice.
So, please continue to practice and visit our site regularly. I welcome your comments and questions, too. Together, we can build a community in which we experience city living in a way that promotes peace, awareness, and purpose.
P.S. You might be wondering, “What was it like being with the Dalai Lama?” Of course, it was interesting to hear his perspective on many matters. However, two things made a bigger impression on me: (1) his playfulness, and (2) his ignorance. He was quick to smile during he day, and often giggled and joked with panelists. It reminded me of a quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn on the following day: “Life is too serious to take seriously.” Also, following a pregnant pause, the Dalai Lama often answered questions with a well-considered “I don’t know.” While he is quite learned and smart, he also recognized the limits of his knowledge. So, if he did not know the answer, he just said so. Quite refreshing!