How are you?

Today is our one year Civil Civil Servant anniversary!  Yay!  Cheers to me and all of you!

I want to take this opportunity to ask: How are you?  And I don’t want to hear “fine.”  I really want you to think about the question.  How are you doing?

When you stop to actually think about the question, it certainly ends up inspiring more questions.

  • am I  happy with the way my career is going?
  • am I happy with my personal life?  How is my relationship with my spouse/partner?  Have I invested  in my friendships?
  • what are my goals?  am I doing the things I need to do in order to reach them?

Those are just a few.  But, after those all die down, you are left with How am I in this moment?

In this moment, I am really quite happy with my life.  I’m accomplishing goals that I set for myself a long time ago.  I’m good with the people in my life.  I’ve gotten back into a spiritual practice.  I love my job and my home.  I love putting energy into this blog.  And in this very moment, I’m happy.  I’m writing this blog post sitting next to an awesome coworker; the sun is out; it’s not that cold; there is an art opening in our gallery today and those are always fun, interesting and …uhm…delicious (opening treats!) and I am looking forward to a lovely dinner with a lovely woman.

How are you?

It’s important to check in with yourself once in awhile.

And I think it’s important when you ask “How are you?” to others that you take the time to listen, just in case they don’t answer, “Fine.”

Ann Wilberton


Possibility of Kindness: Tricycle and Sharon Salzberg

I receive Tricyle Magazine’s Daily Dharma in my e-mail every day.  They are almost always thought provoking or act as little reminders ; but, occasionally they resonate deeply with me.  Today was one of those days.

We must realize, if tomorrow is going to look any better than today, that the currency for compassion isn’t what someone else does, right or wrong—it is the very fact that that person exists. Commitment to the possibility of kindness cannot be discarded as foolish or irrelevant, even in troubling times when we often can’t find easy answers. If we abandon the force of kindness as we confront cruelty, we won’t learn anything to take into tomorrow—not from history, not from one another, not from life.

– Sharon Salzberg, The Force of Kindness

I urge you to read just one sentence and take time to think about it before moving on to the next.

We must realize, if tomorrow is going to look any better than today, that the currency for compassion isn’t what someone else does, right or wrong—it is the very fact that that person exists.

This line is so powerful because our first instinct is usually to parcel out our compassion based on another person’s actions.  I recently had a discussion about Rush Limbaugh, where I said that I didn’t like his rhetoric and I believed that he was an incredibly irresponsible and possibly dangerous person; but, that I had compassion for him and the person I was talking to asked me how I could have compassion for a man like him.  I thought “because he is suffering.”  He is a human being sharing our planet and as much as I disagree with his behaviors, I truly do not wish him any suffering.  It does not benefit me or anyone else for him to experience suffering.

Commitment to the possibility of kindness cannot be discarded as foolish or irrelevant, even in troubling times when we often can’t find easy answers.

Kindness and compassion can’t just be trotted out in good times with good and happy people.  Our greatest challenge is to remain committed to being kind and compassionate when it is most difficult to do so.  On a small level this might be extending kindness and compassion to a coworker who is particularly difficult or unpleasant and on a large scale it is maintaining these commitments during war or when under great emotional and/or physical siege.  I heard the Dalai Lama speak in Minneapolis several years ago and he told the audience that one of his dearest friends, a Buddhist monk was finally released from a Chinese prison and he went to India to join a community of Tibetan exiles.  While out gardening with him one day, The Dalai Lama asked him what his greatest fear had been and he said that his greatest fear had been that he would lose compassion for the Chinese.

If we abandon the force of kindness as we confront cruelty, we won’t learn anything to take into tomorrow—not from history, not from one another, not from life.

This is a beautiful reminder that it is in our hands to break the cycle of violence and suffering in the world.  Years ago I saw an episode of Oprah, yes…Oprah.  She had a Jewish couple on who had been harassed and harassed by a white supremacist.  Instead of using anger and hatred to fight this man, they used love and when they found out that he needed help, they helped him and the cycle of hate was broken.

I joined Tricycle as a sustaining member so that I can go back and read from the archives and now, participate in their “online retreats.”  As a sampler, right now, for free they have the first installment of Sharon Salzberg’s audio teachings on kindness.  You don’t have to be Buddhist or even a believer in any religion or spiritual practice to learn important lessons about cultivating compassion and kindness from this gifted teacher.   There is a new book out called, Good Without God that talks about how we as humans have potential for goodness and can lead lives of purpose and compassion without belief in God or a higher being.

I tend to lean on Buddhist teaching because they speak to me; but, cultivating kindness and compassion is not exclusive to Buddhism or any other religion, or religion at all.  Find a way to cultivate kindness in yourself in the way that feels right to you.

Empty Boat and the Key to Less Suffering

photo: shutterbabe510 on Flickr Creative Commons

Suppose we are out on a lake and it’s a bit foggy – not too foggy, but a bit foggy- and we’re rowing along in our little boat having a good time.  And then, all of a sudden, coming out of the fog, there’s this other rowboat and it’s heading right at us.  And… crash!  Well, for a second we’re really angry – what is that fool doing?  I just painted my boat!  And here he comes – crash! – right into it.  An then suddenly we notice that the rowboat is empty.  What happens to our anger?  Well, the anger collapses. . . I’ll just have to paint my boat again, that’s all.  But if that rowboat that hit ours had another person it it how would we react?  You know what would happen!  Now our encounters with life, with other people, with events are like being bumped by an empty rowboat.  But we don’t experience life that way.  We experience it as though there are people in that other rowboat and we’re really getting clobbered by them.  What am I talking about when I say that all of life is an encounter, a collision with an empty rowboat?  What’s that all about?

from Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck (pg. 57 of the 1989 trade paper edition).

I like to say that this is the story that changed my life.  It is one paragraph long in a book that is 212 pages.  I never even finished the whole book.  I read, maybe 50 pages beyond what I now call “the empty boat” story.  I’m sure the second half of the book is just as wonderful as the first half; but, the empty boat story so resonated with me that I basically just stopped reading.

Rereading the empty boat story now after so many years is odd because it’s just such a small story and since then I have read many other profound passages in numerous other books, including The Dhammapada which quickly became one of my favorites.  But it is the this story, in Joko Beck’s book that flipped a switch in me and I never looked back.

This story shone a very bright light onto my life and I realized that I had absolutely been living my life as if there was a person in the other boat.  In fact, I may have been living it as if there were a few people in the other boat.  All this anger and worrying about what other folks were doing in their boat caused me a mountain of suffering.  This was especially true on the road while I was driving.  I would frequently get angry at other drivers.  In my teens and early twenties, I was known to end an argument with a door slam.  Looking back, I can see that most of this suffering was caused by my lack of compassion for others.

I don’t know why it was the empty boat story that struck a nerve in me.  Right place right time?  I don’t want to mislead you.  I didn’t change over night.  And I’m far from perfect now.  But, I started using the empty boat story to alter my reactions to things.  Get cut off on the highway, instead of yelling and stewing over it, I would literally say “empty boat, empty boat, empty boat, empty boat.”  It became my mantra.  I got my partner at the time, Kate, to start saying it.  We would say it to each other.  One of us would come home from work and tell a story about an annoying person and we would be getting all worked up and the other person would just say: empty boat.  We helped train each other to change our thinking.

After some time passed, and by time I mean a couple of years, I started to notice that it was becoming automatic and that I was developing empathy without even realizing that was what I was doing.  All of this happened about 14 years ago and I still sometimes use the empty boat mantra; but, I don’t need it as much as I used to.  I let things go more quickly now.

I sometimes wonder what life would be like today had I not discovered the empty boat.  In 2005/2006, I experienced a crazy, life altering accident and my partnership with Kate ended after 18 years together.  That is kind of a lot to process in a such a short time span and throw in a brain injury and sometimes I’m amazed I’m here: healed, forgiving, experiencing compassion for Kate and her experiences and for the man that hit me.   The empty boat sparked a practice and a lifestyle change that has served me well, helped me be resilient during and after traumatic events and just generally made it easier for me to have fun and find joy in life.

What does any of this have to do with libraries?  Well, everything of course.  I’m my best at my job and in my life, when I am kind, empathetic, patient, compassionate and generous.   And the icing is that all of this also brings a deeper happiness to me.  There have been numerous studies showing that people who are altruistic are happier, people who have more compassion for others are happier and that people find happiness in being kind and helpful.

I don’t know that the empty boat story is for everyone; but, if it doesn’t resonate with you, go find your own empty boat story.  Figure out the best way for you to reduce the stress, anger and suffering in your life.  You will be happier and your impact on those around you will be more positive.  And that is clearly:  win/win.

Notes On The Dark Side: Illuminate the Shadows


Painting by Ann Wilberton

The painting above is called Devil Girl and started out as one in a series of paintings I did about my ex’s alter egos; but, the further I got into it I realized I was painting a self portrait:  My own alter ego.  I use this self portrait frequently as my online avatar.  It is this association that confuses people.  “But, you’re all about people being kind…I don’t get it.”  That is a statement or some variation, that I have heard many times when people see Devil Girl.

From Buddha all the way up to and beyond the philosophy of Carl Jung, great thinkers have tackled the question of the human dark side.  I’m not a big reader in the field of psychology; but, I believe Jung called it the “shadow side.”  This is the side that gives us negative and sometimes disturbing or  violent images/thoughts when we are angry/hurt.  In the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, there is a scene where Evelyn Couch, brilliantly played by Kathy Bates, has a parking spot stolen by two young, pretty and rude girls.  She waits until they get out of the car and then rams their car with hers (several times).  This is an example of when a thought and/or urge from Evelyn’s shadow side emerges and she allows it to take over. We cheered her on when she did this; but, obviously there are many dark thoughts that pass through our minds that we would NOT want to act on.

I used to not really believe that a dark side component existed in all of us.  I thought that you could “better” yourself to a place where you were free from negative thinking.  But, I met a Buddhist psychologist who explained different philosophies on our shadow side and I began to see that denying our dark sides is not really the way to go.  I think it creates a tension where one does not need to belong. Plus, it is setting you up to feel failure because it is just impossible to erase all negative thoughts from our brains.  She told me that by embracing our shadow side, examining it and coming to understand it, we will begin to be able to accept it and be in a better position to let it go instead of  letting it cause suffering in our lives.

Instead of resisting these thoughts what if we acknowledged them: “Well, there is a negative thought.”  Inspect it: “Where is it coming from?  Why am I thinking it?  What is it doing to me?”  And let it go:  “Okay.  I had a negative thought.  It doesn’t make me evil or a bad person.  I’m moving on now.”  You let the thought go and consciously move your mind away from it.

In my own experience, I have noticed that I hold onto the negative thinking for less time now.  For example, instead of allowing myself to churn an angry thought over and over in my mind, fueling it, I acknowledge it (label it: angry thought) and then I can quickly figure out where it originated and what it’s doing to me (it doesn’t feel good that’s for sure) and let it go.  In a past post I talked about road rage.  I have a lot of angry, negative thoughts when people do stupid things on the highway.  Labeling those thoughts and letting them go quicker and quicker will only benefit me physically and emotionally and benefit my customers who I’m about to spend the day helping.

The more practice you have doing this the more it will become automatic.  I barely have to put effort into the labeling part anymore.  As soon as I think pissed off thoughts, my brain is labeling: anger, anger, anger and I am already moving away from them.  Acceptance that we have these thoughts also can free us from the shame or guilt over having them in the first place.  It is a part of our human psyche to have these thoughts; but, we can cultivate practices that reduce the suffering to ourselves and the spreading of the negativity to others.

And for this blog, that is the important point of this post.  If you suffer less, if you have less bitterness and anger (not because it doesn’t exist but because you let it go quicker), I guarantee that you will  be happier, more light hearted and better able to help customers and interact with the people in your life in a kind and compassionate way.

Devil Girl is in me.  If I ignore her, there is no telling what sort of trouble she’ll get into behind my back.  If I acknowledge her and embrace her, I can soften the impact she has on my world.

Our happiness, our behaviors, our attitudes are all our responsibility.

I have a challenge for you.  Commit, for one day, to keep track of negative thoughts that pop into your head and label them.  You could do this in your head or even write them down on paper.   Don’t judge yourself for the existence or intensity of the thoughts (even if it is a momentary desire to inflict pain on someone).  Pretend you are completely removed and just taking inventory.  What did you find out?  What are you going to do about it?

Update 11/13:  A Rabbi Harold Kushner quote has been brought to my attention.  “Good people do bad things  …..  If they weren’t mightily tempted by their yetzer ha’ra [will to do evil], they might not be capable of the mightily good things they do.”  from Living a Life That Matters.

Road Rage is Not My Friend

Monday, after a week of relaxing vacation puttering around my house, spending time with friends and getting a few chores done, I hopped into my car ready to return to an exciting week of work.  We were about to switch to a new online catalog this week and I anticipated a day of busyness as we readied for the big day.

I was driving on a main street, navigating my way towards the Garden State Parkway, when a Ford 250 Truck came barreling out of a side street as I came upon it.  The man driving and I locked eyes as we both slammed on our brakes.  I have to say I admire that Ford Truck because although he was going way too fast, it seemed like he stopped on a dime.  We were both shocked and then I navigated around him and went on my way.

So many thoughts and emotions cycled through me from when I first became aware of the truck and as I pulled into the Library parking lot. Flash of adrenaline.  Fear. Panic. Hope. Relief. Anger.

If you read my previous post of July 7th, you know that I’ve survived a spectacular crash a few years ago.  Moments like Monday’s, honestly, freak me out a little.  The rest of the way to work I seesawed between feeling shaky and feeling royally pissed.

Today, on my way to work, a man in a truck turned in front of me and the guy in the lane next to me.  Neither one of us beeped or got angry…just slowed so he’d get by without us running into him.  Then he gave us the finger.  And that pissed me off.  I mean, c’mon, you are cutting across two lanes of on coming traffic and you are flipping us off?  What the hell did we do?

The common theme in both of these scenarios is that both men were on their cell phones.  The other commonality is that I got angry.

There are times I make excuses for my anger or feel justified because let’s face it: some idiot on a cell phone almost killed me and although I survived, it has been a long, difficult emotional and physical recovery.  But, I like to remind myself that anger is only prolonging the suffering from the accident.  I don’t really want to waste time and energy on being angry and I think it’s bad for my health to have all that “mad juice” wandering about my body.

It got me thinking about many things.  How many people start their day angry because of an encounter similar to the ones I described?  How long does this anger last? How many people are affected by it?  We can’t control people not being mindful and cautious drivers.  I truly wish we could.  It’s only going to get worse as more people fiddle with gadgets and computers when they should just be concentrating on the road.  So, what can we do to quickly contain the anger and get rid of it before it harms us or we let it poison our interactions with others?

In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor tells us that physiologically reactions/feelings last for only 90 seconds, any that last longer than that are because we are stimulating the feeling by thinking about it over and over.  If you have not seen her TED talk, you really should go watch it.  We choose to keep the feeling going and we can choose to let it go.  Now, we’ve all been pissed and know that is easier said than done sometimes.

So what do we do?  How do week keep the anger from the jerk that cut us off on our way to work from poisoning the rest of our day and those we encounter?

I think undertaking a consistent meditation practice would help with this.  I have been a non-consistent meditator for years now.  You don’t have to be Buddhist to meditate.  You don’t have to be interested in religion at all.  There is much meditation instruction out there that is stress reduction related and not connected to spiritual practice.

Distraction.  I find that turning the stereo up and forcing myself to sing along let’s me move beyond obsessing over another bad driver I’ve encountered.

I have done loving kindness meditation for the person who pissed me off.  This is generally a good one.  It triggers the compassionate part of my brain and I think of all the reasons the person might have been in a rush.  I actually think I like this method the best.  It leaves me feeling better and I just think it has lasting positive effects on me.  Try this and please drive safely and mindfully!

If you get a look at the person, think of their face and replay the following in your head or even say it out loud.

May you be happy.

May you find peace.

May you arrive at your destination safely.

Fall Challenge! Give Up Gossip!


There is an excellent, excellent post on Tricycle magazine’s blog right now called, “7 Tips for Giving Up Gossip.”  I urge you to go check it out.

All of these tips are so awesome I could weep; but, instead I challenge you and even though I don’t get much commenting on this blog, I know you’re out there because WordPress keeps stats!  So, dear readers, I challenge you to choose one or two of these tips and put them into practice this Fall and see what happens.

I am going to focus on the last one:

“7. Practice saying something kind to someone every day. Do this especially with people you don’t like. It gets easier with practice and bears surprisingly good results.”

I don’t dislike many people; but, I admit that there are some folks that I don’t particularly enjoy/like, whatever you want to call it and I tend to avoid them.  I think this also lends itself to participating in conversations about these folks because I am disconnected from them.  That is why I have chosen this one.  I’m going to seek these folks out and try to say something kind probably not every day; but, several times a week and see what happens to my willingness to talk about them, even if I’m defending them which seems to happen a lot.  It is like I’ve taken on the role of being the one to come up with scenarios and/or excuses for the way people act.

But really, I shouldn’t be discussing other people at all.

I’m going to try that for the next few months.  Perhaps it will just become a habit or practice.  That would be nice.  And feel free to share which one you are going to tackle and why in the comments section!

Simplicity in Action

mean librarian2

If someone wants help finding articles on a topic and I help them, but make them feel bad about it, they won’t feel like they got help. It won’t matter if they leave with a stack of articles and an armload of books that are perfect for them. If I’m a jerk, that’s all they’ll remember. Kate Sheehan in the preceding post.

This is one of the points in my interview with Kate Sheehan that particularly struck me.  It really is that simple.  It works the opposite way too.  If you’ve been nice and were helpful, even if you don’t have exactly what they need or the answer they were looking for, they still leave having a positive experience.

It’s not just important to appear helpful.  It’s important to BE helpful.  Sometimes, it’s easy to just say, “No, we don’t have it.” And be done.  But, it is the next step that can win the hearts of customers.  “No, we don’t have it; but, I can see if it is available through ILL.”  or “No, we don’t have that particular item; but, could I suggest something else along similar lines?”  This is the type of question that builds rapport because it takes the interaction from “do you have?” / “no we don’t” to a conversation and hopefully the patron leaves the library with something that interests them.

There is something about brief human interactions with strangers that is just an ingredient in the happiness soup and I don’t think it’s just me and my high level of social behavior.  I think most people would enjoy a few sentences between themselves and the folks they interact with during the day.  When I shop at Whole Foods, I always look for this one particular cashier because he will generally strike up a conversation about anything.  Once, we had a quite lengthy discussion about kid’s breakfast cereals.  And I loved that.  It is less drudgery to spin through his aisle with my groceries, have a pleasant and brief chat and then head home.  And I must admit that this adds to my Whole Foods loyalty.  I am a frugal person; but, will spend a bit more for quality food and pleasant experience because it adds to my quality of life.

When I lived in the Twin Cities, I frequented two grocery stores: a co-op and a small independent, local chain called Kowalski’s.  Both were pricier than the two big box grocers; but, I went to them partly for their product selection but mostly for the experience.  If you’ve been reading my blog then you know about my big dramatic accident.  While still in a wheelchair, I went to Kowalski’s and the front end manager came running up to me to chat with me about what happened.  I did not know this person other than to exchange some pleasantries as she checked me out.  Yet, here she was showing concern, letting me know that she cared and offering to help me if I needed it.

In Saint Paul, before I worked for the library system, I was a regular patron and the check out staff got to know me for my many holds and regular visits.  My partner used to tease me that it was like Cheers because I would walk in and one of the clerks would catch me, “Ann, you have some holds!”  Or they would ask me about something we had chatted about previously.  “How’s the scarf coming along?” after I picked up a hold on knitting and exchanged project tales with one of the clerks.  But, I liked that.  I liked that I had a relationship with these folks and this little branch library.

It really does not take much to build this rapport: a few extra seconds or a couple of minutes.  Sometimes I know we are rushed and crazy; but, slow down a wee bit, acknowledge the person, make sure you have HELPED them.  It makes all the difference in the world.