Fakin’ It

photo: mmlolek via flickr cc

I recently had an awesome experience.

At our library, we are starting up a wellness team to think up and plan health and wellness programs for staff. Our township does not provide any health and wellness activities so we thought it would be a good idea to start some in-house.

At our Annual Staff Day, I got to introduce the idea of having a wellness team, some of the initial ideas we had, conduct a survey to see what staff actually want and I taught a class on 2 different meditation techniques. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed sharing some of the things I’ve learned over the years about meditation. The theme of the day was “Civility” and I took that idea and applied it to my meditation class by choosing to teach them Loving kindness Meditation. I was a bit nervous at first because I understand that people sometimes don’t like activities which they perceive as touchy–feely. I asked them to open their hearts to the technique and give it a try and I asked them to give me the space to talk about love and kindness openly.

The class went well and there was a lively discussion. One of the things that kept coming up for people is that it is hard to do loving kindness meditation for someone who is their “less than favorable” person. One person asked me point blank how I do it for someone who has angered or hurt me. That it is impossible to be sincere. What do I do?

Fake it. That was my answer and I think it was a pretty good one. Repetition breeds habit. I also said that I sometimes need to try it on, to think about WHAT it would really feel like to have these wishes and love and compassion for this person. I think faking it is also part of that process. But what about the insincerity of it? If the intention is sincere, the motivation behind the practice is sincere, then I think faking it is just practice. Practice that eventually leads to meaning and sincere feelings. Even if you are thinking of the worst, violently abusive person, you can wish them health and happiness. Why? Why would you? Because if their suffering is lessened what would their impact on the world be?

Plus, I think faking it, practicing it, leads to a softening of your heart and that benefits you and lessens your suffering.

I think this technique is particularly useful in the workplace. If you do loving kindness meditation for a toxic coworker and your heart softens towards them, you are helping to heal the workplace and that is always good. I guarantee that there are NO negative side effects to loving kindness meditation!

Yesterday, one of my coworkers called me on the phone to tell me that she was thinking about the empty boat story and that it was hard but she was going to help me carry the torch.  This is win/win all the way around.  She will have less suffering. She will provide better customer service.  She will spread joy to other people.  I feel inspired by her.

Cultivating Compassion Takes Practice not Magic

I think there is a belief that a person is either “nice” or not.  There is a belief that people don’t change.

This is not true.  People do and can change.  If you want to be a nicer, kinder, calmer person there are things you can do to cultivate that.  Years ago, I met a man who told me that I was one thought away from changing my life and in some ways he was right.  Maybe the thought is:  it doesn’t have to be this way.  Or maybe the thought is:  I really hate when I get angry and say things I end up regretting.

Compassion requires the ability to let go of preconceived ideas and perceptions.  It requires you to open your heart and to see another person’s suffering.  You can cultivate compassion through a sustained effort, a practice of focus on other and a practice of seeing other as you.

Ode Magazine in 2007 published an article on cultivating compassion that included the following exercise:

Practising compassion

Compassion can be practised anywhere: at airports, on beaches or in shops, whenever we are together with other people. Try this five-step exercise around friends and strangers. Do it discreetly and try to do all the steps with the same person.

With your attention geared to the other person, tell yourself:

Step 1: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.”

Step 2: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.”

Step 3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”

Step 4: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.”

Step 5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.”


I really love the simplicity of this exercise.  I think it an excellent practice to begin cultivating compassion.  You can use it with strangers and you can use it with coworkers who are toxic and with family members who are annoying.  In my previous post, I called for some compassion for the two college students who bullied Tyler Clementi.  Let’s try using Mr. Ravi in our exercise:

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is seeking happiness in his life.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is trying to avoid suffering in his life.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi has known sadness, loneliness and despair.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is seeking to fill his needs.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is learning about life.

I think the last one particularly resonates with me in this case.  I think that he is learning very hard lessons about life right now.

There is no magic in developing compassion.  There are no secrets, no special skills, no barriers outside your control.  All that you need to develop compassion is within you.  Start your practice today.  The pay off is enormous, as described in this well known quote of the Dalai Lama:

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”


Tyler Clementi and the Seduction of Revenge

The media is rabid over the death of Tyler Clementi.  I have a self imposed limit on news filtering into my life and even I have been bombarded with headlines, chats between DJs on the rock station and my Facebook News Feed has been a steady stream of “It Get’s Better” videos and links to various newspaper articles on the events leading up to Tyler’s suicide.

The two Rutgers students who are being charged with invasion of privacy, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei have been vilified as gay bashers who should be additionally charged with hate crimes and/or manslaughter and defended with the argument that they were just being typical kids.

We’ll never really know what motivated these young people to secretly tape another student in the privacy of his own room and  stream it to the Internet.  They have been quieted by lawyers and fear for their futures and fear for their own safety in the aftermath of these events.  The media has turned it into theater and aren’t really interested in a quiet analyses of how we got here.

I won’t pretend to know what led these kids to do something so hurtful and stupid; but, I’m going to propose something radical.  Let’s stop yelling for one moment and consider treating Ms. Wei and Mr. Ravi with a bit of compassion.

But, we want revenge.  We want revenge because then Ms. Wei and Mr. Ravi become other.  They are now steps removed from us because the higher the punishment the less they are us.  We want revenge because we’ve all been bullied in our lives by someone and somebody should pay.  We want revenge because some of us are gay and we’re sick of being targeted and picked on and we’re sick of being fearful.

Revenge is not the answer.  Compassion is.  I do not think ruining these two people’s lives is the answer.  I don’t think a sustained effort of harassment and shame and threats is the answer.

I think bullying is a complex problem that can’t be dissected in one blog post or even in the mainstream media.

It does bring up a topic I think about a lot, which is, where is the kindness?  Where is the empathy?  Instead of putting all of our energies into anti-bullying laws (which 45 states have done) we should be developing a plan to cultivate compassion and empathy into children asap and this training should be long and sustained.  Empathy can be learned.  Compassion can be cultivated.

And we have to turn the focus on ourselves.  Here in the United States we have a bully culture.  That’s why the  greatest reality television heroes are the bullies.  Does anyone even remember the names of the people that win?  No.  We love the bullies.  We are bombarded with images and plots where the bullies win and we have little tolerance for the weak.  We love Simon Cowell and his snarky commentary.  We love Jerry Springer and Jersey Shore.

If these kids had stopped for one second and thought about how THEY would feel if this were done to them, they wouldn’t have done it.

And here we have it, the Golden Rule, a rule that is upheld in almost every religion that I know of and is a common lesson taught in secular society.  Treat people the way you wish to be treated.  Most of us abandon it in the heat of the moment or when we feel we’ve been wronged or when we’re over-tired, stressed, hurt, immature or a host of other reasons.

If you had done something stupid and cruel when you were 18 or 25 or even yesterday, how would you wish to be treated?

Ultimately, we are responsible for our own mark on the world.  I know people who are vigilant about packing out the minutest piece of trash from the wilderness; but, think nothing of being rude or careless with their words and behaviors in their interactions with other humans.  It is a different kind of pollution they are leaving behind.

We are not that far removed from Ms. Wei and Mr. Ravi.  Now is not the time for revenge.  Now is the time for reflection and action that builds a sustainable culture of compassion.