Intense. Not in control. Loud. Blind, with flashes of light. Pushed. Pulled. Shaken. Fast, fast, fast. Dropped, falling. Too much. Too much. Too much.
Too much stimuli crashing against my senses. My amygdala going haywire and flooding my body with adrenalin. Nothing for my neo-cortex, my reasoning brain, to latch on to for reassurance. Emotional overflow and absolutely no self-regulation.
“Oh my God, I broke you girlfriend!” she exclaimed, her jaw dropped in almost comic horror as we trotted up the exit ramp almost at a run.
I wiped my eyes and desperately tried to stay ahead of everyone else until I had myself under control, but it was too late. My boyfriend’s youngest cousin and self-avowed Disney devotee (and employee) easily kept pace with me despite her shorter legs.
“Are you okay?!” she sounded shocked.
“Yes, yes,” I waived my hands in front of my face, half-laughing, and trying hard to smile. It really was a ridiculous situation. I choked out the words as the overload subsided. “I’m just overstimulated.”
We reached a lobby area at the top of the ramp and the rest of the herd gathered around, Colin and his aunt and uncle, his other cousin and her boyfriend, thankfully distracted by the photos from the ride. Everyone looks like they’re having a grand time, with big smiles and hands in the air, while I grip the rails for all I’m worth, eyes tightly closed, teeth exposed in a face contorting grimace. Kindly, no one comments on that.
They ask if I’m okay again. Everyone looks concerned as I wipe my eyes one last time and reassure them. I really am okay. Or about as okay as anyone who just touched the equivalent of a mental tazer can be.
I excused myself for the ladies room and headed for the farthest end at a determined pace, passing a dozen empty stalls. Once inside I let out a long sigh, reassured by the closeness of the thin walls, my ability to see my entire surroundings, the relative quiet (compared to the ride), and the complete lack of flashing lights or other people within my field of vision. I blew my nose.
How ridiculous! But not entirely unprecedented. I felt caught in a flashback. I was eight years old again and had just stepped off the very first roller coaster of my entire life, the Oriental Express at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. I had been entirely unprepared for that ride and came off shaken and bawling. I refused to go on almost every ride there for most of what remained of our two day family vacation, except for a couple very gentle ones where I could see everything that would happen before I set foot on the machine. Eventually, I did go back and conquer my fear of the red roller coaster, riding it and several others in succession, and moved on to even more intense ones after that. But none of them had been in the dark, literally without any ability to see the next corner coming. That all seemed a very long time ago now. I hadn’t even thought of it in years, not even just moments before, when we boarded Space Mountain.
I thought it would be the crowds that got me, with all their movement, and noise, and pressure. They were very stressful, but I’m used to. I could manage. Space Mountain took me entirely by surprise.
Colin and his family love Disney, both -world and -land. They love everything about it: the rides, the parades, shows, fireworks, costumes, characters, sets, shops, restaurants, pins, traditions, secrets, history, facades, and even how well they handle the parking.
My family, on the other hand, despite our three or four amusement park vacations when I was young, never once contemplated going to Disney. It just wasn’t our thing. Too expensive and crowded and contrived and very far away. You were more likely to find us in a national park or a natural history museum or, heck, just wandering around town to see what was there, but always staying away from the crowds. If there was a line, we didn’t go.
Since Colin and I have been together, Disney has been a sore subject between us. He wants to share one of his favorite things with me and include me in his family. I understand. But I also want him to understand and accept that his thing he loves so much is very difficult for me.
“It’s okay,” he says. “We’ll just go for a half day.”
I feel relieved. Maybe we can compromise. Maybe he gets it.
“They close at midnight and we won’t even get there until noon.”
I feel like he just slapped me. Twelve hours is not a ‘half day.’ I was thinking six hours or less. I’ll never last for twelve hours. I’ll start freaking out and he’ll be disappointed, and anything that was fun up until that point will be tainted.
“You’re always talking about the power of the mind to change situations,” he protests. I don’t really think he understands how I can object so strongly to somewhere I’ve never been. “I’m an introvert, too. But I just filter all those people out. Why can’t you do that?”
Why can’t I do that? I went hunting for an answer. I learned a lot about introverts and highly sensitive persons and self-monitoring and genetics and neurology and biochemistry. What it all in my head? No, and yes. I used that to explain that our brains are wired differently. I can use the power of my mind, but I’m working against a neuro-biology that he’s never had to deal with. (Probably. I’m not a doctor and I’ve never had an MRI, so I can’t confirm this, but it all fits with the research.) He sort of gets it, but I can see the doubt.
I think all that doubt got erased on Space Mountain. Although Colin can filter out strangers, he’s always well attuned to the people he cares about, including me. So he gives me a hug and lets me bury my face in his neck. He stays close and holds my hand and keeps checking in with me to see if I’m okay.
The other cousins go trotting away and we follow, zigzagging through the teaming crowds under a million miles of twinkling Christmas lights, past the Christmas parade in full swing, from Fantasyland through Frontierland and into Adventureland.
We end up on Indian Jones and I can feel that overwhelming sensation staring to build. So I do something different. I meditate.
Well, not exactly. I can’t even manage a trance state on a cushion, let along a raging roller coaster that hurls giant boulders at you. I just center myself on my breath. Breath in, fast curve, breath out, bats in the dark, breath in, big drop, breath out (shout a little), giant bolder, breath in, big plunge. I stayed focused on my breathe rather than letting my focus become shattered and overwhelmed by everything that was happening around me and to me. I laughed and gasped and didn’t cry a single tear.
“You okay?” Colin asked as our carriage pulled back into the station.
“Yeah, that was fun.” I gave him a thumbs up. He looked confused. “I meditated,” I told him.
He laughed. He didn’t push me to stay longer when it was time to go. I think he understood that five hours was a long time for me now that he’d seen me do it. And there’s hope for that to increase in the future.
Now that I know I can center on my breath, I want to go back on Space Mountain. I want to put monks on space mountain and hook their brains up to machines. I want to meditate more and see what else I can do. I don’t think I’ll every love Disney, but maybe we can at least be friends.
I am convinced that if people just took care of one another, the world would be a better place. I am convinced that we don’t take very good care of each other because we are afraid. I am convinced that only by taking care and being taken care of can we find our way free from fear. And I am convinced that only freedom from fear will allow us to take care of each other the best way we can, the way that will empower everyone to make the world better. The world can’t be better for any of us unless it’s better for all of us, because when one person has reason to fear, he or she will instill fear in others. Nevertheless, making the world better by taking care of just one person makes it better for everyone, because then he or she will have less reason to do harm and more reason to care for others.
Care comes from an intention of goodwill. In Buddhism this is called metta, which is often translated as loving-kindness. However, it is not care if it remains merely an intention. It must be active in our relationships with the world, active through compassion (karuna, sharing suffering) and sympathetic joy (mudita, sharing happiness). Care is a twofold relationship. One person gives care through her words or deeds. Another person receives care through his recognition of the caring act.
Of course, we can also give care to ourselves. We must give care to ourselves not merely as a means of making ourselves able to care for others, but because we too are intrinsically worthy of care. All beings, ourselves included, experience suffering (dukkha), seek freedom from suffering (nibbana), and possess buddhanature. We must recognize our worthiness and, further, our basic need for care and then find ways to take care of ourselves and allow others to take care of us.
Whether it involves one person, two, or a thousand, there must be the intention to give care (metta), the act of caring, and the recognition of the caring act to be truly effective. This is skillful (upaya, or kusala meaning wholesome) care built upon wisdom (panna). Sometimes care may take a harsh form, such as cutting an addict off from his drug or putting a person in prison to prevent her from harming others, and the receiver will not recognize the act as care. It is no less care, but it is less effective than it could have been. When we learn to recognize care given to us, then we can learn to care for others.
When we take care of others we must do what is in their best interest and we must do it in a way that they can recognize as care. Of course, we will fail at both the first and the second task. This is why it is important to have equanimity (upekkha), so survive the ups and downs of our struggle, when all the goodwill in the world isn’t quite enough. But if we do not try, then we can never take care of anyone and no one (maybe not even ourselves) will ever take care of us.
That is what we fear: that no one will take care of us. We fear the failure and we fear that it will make us incapable of being in true relationship with others. We fear a loss of or lack of connection.
People respond to threat in different ways – some with anger, some with hatred, some with avoidance (all forms of dosa) – but all reactions to threat are based in fear (also dosa, aversion). We feel threatened when we are not able, or feel we may not be as able, to take care of ourselves and the people we love. Sometimes this threat is real. Billions of people face threats of starvation, personal violence, and repression each day, even in so-called developed nations. However, even where these threats have largely been eliminated, we still perceive threats and respond with fear. Our brain is wired this way for our survival. It is not something we can turn off just with wishing. No matter how safe our lives become, we are still bound by our evolutionary karma.
If we cannot turn off the fear, we can be curious about it and put that same brain to work on it. We can make it an object of mindfulness (sati). Where does it come from? How does it work? What does it do? Fear loses some of its power in the face of questions. Eventually, through the cultivation in insight (panna), we can relinquish fear, as well as greed (lobha) and delusion (moha). I believe that fear, most of all, interferes with our ability to care.
When we are curious, I think that we will most often find that we fear a loss of connection, which can also be a loss of self. We wish to remain connected to the people, places, and things we love for our entire lives. We wish to remain connected to a self we can easily identify and constantly reify. Of course, this cannot happen. We will be separated from the people, places, and things we love by change or death (anicca, impermanence) and we ourselves are a constantly changing constellation of aggregates with no fixed identity (anatta, non-self).
We want to spend our time and energy caring for these connections, for this self. They have to be continuously maintained and shored up in the face of inexorable change (anicca). We are afraid of what will happen if they are lost (anatta), so anything that threatens our ability to care for them – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or socially – is cause for extreme reaction – anger, hate, fear, aversion (dosa). These are all words for the outward variations of the same deep response. I name that thing fear, because that is my strongest manifestation and it is a response to threat, but I am comfortable if some name it otherwise.
A Better World
When we can start to be brave in the face of our fear, to step out of our worries of how we will care for ourselves and our connections (without actually ceasing to take care), then we can start to build better lives and better relationships. Fear actually hinders connection. It builds walls and barriers for defense, but also for disconnection. Freedom from fear is the freedom to find unlimited connection. More connections help us make a better world.
Better means a world with less suffering (dukkha), a world with more peace, happiness, contentment, wisdom, and equanimity. A better world is one where fewer people are paralyzed into inaction or provoked into harmful actions by fear. A better world is one where more people can be brave enough to take care of one another, to make new connections without the fear of losing old ones. When we take care of one another, we mitigate fear and amplify bravery.
Eventually, when everyone takes care of each other as easily as breathing, then I think we will be able to live in a world that no longer needs bravery because it will no longer have fear. I believe it is possible to live in that world even now (nibbana), though I’m not yet sure quite how to get there. I am convinced I can get there, though, and so can you.
I am convinced of these things. I have watched and tested and waited for a long time to say so because for so long I was not sure and for longer than that I did not have the words. Now I am sure and I have the words.
Take care of each other. Do good and be good. Be brave in the face of fear so that others can be brave. This will make the world a better place. It will make all of us better people, too.
Harvard Business School conducts something called “The Subarctic Survival Exercise” every year. It tests team synergy. Five people are stranded in the subarctic Canadian wilderness with fifteen objects. Each person ranks the objects for their survival importance and then works with the team to come up with a single team ranking, the idea being that the team’s answer, when compared to an expert answer, should be better than that of any single one of its members. Sometimes it works out this way, but teams fail often enough to keep it challenging. A team fails when the team’s answer is worse than that of any of the individual member’s answers. This happens when the team listens to the loudest, quickest, most confident member instead of the wisest member. All hat, no cattle.
So why do we listen to the better talker? Because make no mistake, studies show that we do. Presentation skills and the ability to “sell ourselves” reliably correlates with perceptions of intelligence, knowledge, and competence. Sadly, they don’t reliably correlate with actual intelligence, knowledge, or competence. Fancy talkers aren’t necessarily incompetent, they just aren’t any more competent than the quiet person, the nerd, or the stutter. (For more information see Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain) So what’s a poor introvert to do?
Lurk. Lurk with confidence. Lurk with glee. Lurk like a pro, dear introverts (and extroverts, too!). It’s your superpower.
Let me explain. Those of us who are naturally quiet and reflective have a certain superpower. It’s not spoken about very much because we’re not naturally the most talkative group, but it lets us do amazing things. We can absorb, evaluate, integrate, synthesize, and capitalize on large amounts of information in a way that is different from our more extroverted siblings. Extroverts get their energy from others and they can become experts at analyzing and reacting to people and social situations. Introverts get their energy from inside, from the engines of our mind, so to speak, which work best without all those external distractions. When you can take that churning mind and apply it to creating the best solutions in a team setting, you get the best of both worlds – but only when the introvert in question has the confidence to trust in her unique superpower!
So let the extroverts talk! You need them to bounce ideas around, flesh out scenarios, debate and deliberate. Ask questions. Draw them out and they’ll love you for it. Listen carefully and reflectively. Interject when necessary to clarify or draw the conversation towards the areas that need to be considered. This is the lurking portion. As you lurk, you are gathering and evaluating information about situations, viewpoints, and solutions. You’re filling up your bank account with wisdom. Don’t feel bad about being quieter than others. You’re working just as hard and contributing in your own way.
But you can’t just lurk! At some point you have to cash out, but when you do so you can do it with confidence in your superpower. You have deliberated carefully. You’ve listened and probably understood everyone’s viewpoint better than anyone else at the table. You haven’t jumped to conclusions and you’ve worked hard to overcome assumptions. You’re more concerned with the good of the group than a personal ego-boost. Have faith in that! Let that give you strength and confidence. You don’t have a speak loudly, but you do have to speak.
When you speak, start by reflecting what you’ve heard. You probably have some good insights into what everyone has been talking about for the last hour, so don’t be afraid to reframe the matter in a helpful way. Once you’ve reflected and reframed, people will be listening to you, and probably thinking “Wow, she really gets it!” Then you can propose one or more solutions, highlighting the contributions and desires of each team member along the way. That would work for Phillip but no for Lee, so we might consider doing it this way instead. Maria needs this, so it would work for her, too. Joe was right to point that out, so maybe he can help us with this. Using this kind reflecting, reframing, acknowledging, inclusive, solution proposal will help bring people at the table together.
“But what if I don’t have a solution?!” you might be wondering. That’s okay, too. This where you trust in your teammates. Just reflecting the problem carefully and succinctly may help them come to the insight they needed to find the solution themselves. More likely, however, they have already proposed a solution (or several) at some point in the discussion. You’re just picking it up, dusting it off, and presenting it in light of everything that’s been discussed, without all the ego attachment weighing it down. This is why its so important to acknowledge the contributions of others. If you don’t enjoy the spotlight, it also keeps it on them, not you. And it gives them ownership of the solution and the energy and authority to implement their idea so you don’t have to worry about getting saddled with all the work.
This is the method I use. I’m an introvert, but I’m adaptively extroverted. This means I can perform a mean small talk or give a smooth presentation, but they aren’t my favorite things. I like working in small groups, not with big crowds. Over time, I’ve become adept at organizing small groups, keeping them on task, and capitalizing on shared wisdom. I do that by lurking. It works. It has helped me gain the respect of my colleagues, advance in my institution, do the best work possible both collectively and individually, and capitalize on my strengths, rather than trying to be something I’m not (like an actual extrovert!).
Finally, I believe this method of teamwork is in keeping with what the Buddha taught about Right Speech. It means listening more than I talk, having compassion for others, recognizing their wisdom, and speaking only when I have something valuable to contribute. This method, although it sounds like a business tactic, is largely a product of my religious practice. I started out lurking because I was trying to be a “good Buddhist.” I continued because I saw that it was actually working in a practical sense, benefiting others as much as myself. I offer it now to you in hope that it might benefit you in your work and your lives, especially if you are an introvert like me, but also for all the extroverts out there, too. Happy lurking!
Karma of My Voice
We all have a voice. Each voice has its karma.
Karma means action. It is the singular term for the collective causes and conditions that have given rise to the present moment, all the actions of the past leading to this. Were any of them absent, the moment would be otherwise. Newton would understand karma quickly as action and reaction. Einstein would understand it as the continuous exchange of matter and energy. Pop psychology calls it “baggage.” Ancestry.com wants to sell it to you in a monthly subscription. We all have our karma, the forces that shape us and make us who we are today and tomorrow and the day after that.
My voice has a lot of karma. When I was a child it took me a long time, too long, to discover that everyone doesn’t know what I know. My perception of the world is not a shared perception. There are walls between thoughts and feelings, surmounted only occasionally by words. I vividly remember the frustration of having to tell people what seemed so obvious to me? Why didn’t they already know? This karma sent me on a lifelong quest for clarity of communication. Keep it simple. Make it vivid. Find common ground.
When I was in school, my mother always told me to ignore the bullies. They only wanted attention. As right as she was, it was horrible advice. Never tell your children that. The bullies want attention, but they don’t want your attention. There is never a bully without an audience. I was thin and physically unremarkable (until I grew tall), but one day I learned to fight back with words, sharp and deadly weapons. Soon I had respect. Eventually even the bullies grew up into worthwhile people, but I stopped letting them make me miserable in the meantime. I stood up.
When I went away to college, I studied architecture, a very demanding field. Designing a building is complex, but I don’t actually think it’s hard. Surviving final critique, now that’s hard. Many a young woman (or man) crying in the bathroom. A first year attrition rate of half the class, by design. Maybe one in three survive into the third year; most transfer to less critical programs.
Those who remain learn to stand up in public and defend their work as the best, greatest, most magnificent building that ever was (though they know it isn’t), to answer every professor’s question, to circumvent every logical objection, to appeal to every emotional weakness, and throw back every critique. These are professional bullies and we take their slings and arrows without batting an eye.
We learn how to describe our design concept in one word, our goal in one sentence, and out solution in an elevator pitch. We communicate with diagrams and drawing and color. We gain poise and professionalism, but we also build those walls higher, towering fortifications of ego. I had built my wall very high, indeed, but now I got a good view from the top when I climbed over it and I could see how much more there was.
I studied urban planning in graduate school. I learned how to listen to communities, how to assess needs and get genuine feedback on solutions, not just ego-aimed barbs. I joined the student government and stood for the opposition more often than not in four-hour debates. Afterward my opponent would thank me for my voice (and for loosing the vote). Nebraskans living up to our legacy of pragmatic hospitality, even in governance with million-dollar budgets on the line.
Somewhere in the midst of these battles, I found the Buddha. I learned to sit with my mind, listen mindfully, walk mindfully, eat mindfully, and, hardest of all, speak mindfully. Speak only when needed and always (in theory) with compassion and wisdom. This is very hard. I blogged to connect with other Buddhists thousands of miles away. That was seven years ago.
One day a man came to the retreat center I was working at over the summer. We chatted, hung out with friends, laughed and cried. No one was ever quite sure who he was or why he was there, but it was the same for all of us, so welcome. He was a New York Times travel writer, we discovered later, and he published a link to my blog in his next column. Fifteen seconds of fame, but enough to get me a new gig when I got home. Suddenly I was writing an opinion column in the student newspaper, first every other week, then every week, with eleven thousand print copies and more on the web. Then I was an assistant editor and then a section editor.
Writing opinion was different than blogging, different from academia. I found a new voice. When I worked with other columnists as an editor, I helped them find their voices. Some of them are still writing and we keep in touch. My co-editor for the section was a devout Christian and we edited each other’s columns, strengthened each other’s arguments. I helped him get his publicly-proclaimed Christian message out there and he helped me spread my subversive, never-to-be-named-as-such Buddhist message. I learned to see past my walls and the walls of others.
Then I left it all behind, the architecture, the planning, the newspaper, the student government, and Nebraska, too. I came west and learned Buddhism and non-violent communication and reflective listening and the vast, vast differences between a culture of explicit (horribly rude) communication and one of implicit (frustratingly subtle) communication. I learned diplomacy and the art of relationship building. I added the subtle poetry and vibrant metaphor of theological writing to my well-developed academic double-speak. Most important, I learned to listen more and talk less (though not to write less, I’m afraid).
I’m still too outspoken, but now I own it. My walls are still too high, but now I’m tearing them down. I still stand up, but sometimes I do so with quiet power. I still keep it simple, but I don’t expect that will always be enough to get my message across. I’m always hunting for common ground, but usually only finding common islands in a vast uncommon sea. C’est la vie. This is the karma of my voice.
Archer and I pass a dilapidated little building almost every day on our walk. Though empty, someone maintains the disused structure because the grass is always neatly mowed. I always see the potential in space, which is why I studied architecture for so many years. This little hall is no exception. It reminds me of the Meditation Hall at Metta Forest Monastery and sets me dreaming of how a little space like this one could be used. I see the seeds of a fourfold sangha in this little hall and dream of creating a new community anchored in this neglected structure. I also recall all the things in my own life and practice I often neglect. The eye for potential can see more than just space.
As our daily walk continues, the little hall falls farther behind and my home office looms ever closer. My mind drifts from lazy daydreams to concrete realities, and I turn those eyes of potential onto myself and my work. “What must I accomplish today?” transforms from an imposition to an opportunity.
Today I must finish writing my paper about Wangari Maathai and Aung San Suu Kyi, two women from former British colonies who have both won the Nobel Peace Prize. How I go about that paper is, in many ways, more important than whether I go about it. I long since learned how to “knock out” a bit of academic gibberish. But I want to learn. Likewise, how I go about cleaning my home or speaking with my partner or doing my work has the greatest impact on the potential of these activities to contribute positively to my day or not.
As I sat to write these words, a warm cup of coffee at my fingertips, I heard an tiny crack and the lip of foam on the top of my cup seemed to spontaneously bubble. I explored the little glass cup carefully, watching, listening, tapping my nail against the edge, and finally taking it to the sink to wash it out (rescuing the still steaming coffee to a second cup). I could clearly see where the crack had formed around the bottom, interior wall of the cup. This spontaneous crack is a very strange thing, some kind of anomaly or defect. The cup will be going back to it’s company to be replaced or refunded.
I remember something similar happening years ago while pouring hot water into a glass pitcher, it shattered into a dozen pieces (thankfully in the sink). I was distraught and dismayed, particularly because it belonged to my mother and I had only just borrowed it that day. I remember vibrating with anxious energy as I picked up the phone, but my mother, much older and wiser, had a very pragmatic response, “Okay. Well, that happens sometimes. Toss it out. Carefully. I can always get another.” She was not dismayed at all!
It did not really sink in until many years later that each instance carries this potential. I could choose a path of suffering for myself … or not. I can choose to look at the disused little building as an eyesore or the seed of a new community. I can choose to approach my work as a burden or an opportunity for growth. I can choose to get sad and dismayed at a broken cup or curious about how such a thing could happen.
This is not to say it’s easy, of course. It took me many years to overcome the karma of my habit energies to go from dismay to curiosity, burden to opportunity. But the spark of that ability to see potential was always there within me – whenever I looked at a building or a vista or a hollow in a copse of bushes. I think that is our buddhanature shining through the cracks of our karma. Just like my little cup, everyone’s cracks are a bit different. If we can find our ability to see potential in one thing, a blank canvas, a ball of yarn, a line of computer code, a conversation, a new book to read, or a field of wheat, then we can learn to transfer that eye for potential to other aspects of our lives.
It may seem a strange connection to make between an empty building, cracked cup, and an entire way of viewing life, but life is all connected, sometimes in unexpected ways. So forgive my mental rambling a bit and let me summarize.
Every day when we walk, I have my dreams of the fourfold sangha to relax my mind and tap into my eyes for potential (or there will be some other little building or empty lot to notice and dream about). Every day when I return to my work, I have that opportunity to find the potential in it (even if sometimes it’s damned hard!). Every day when something unexpected (maybe even “bad”) happens, I have the potential to react to that in a way that will make my day (and other’s) either better or worse. And I get to choose whether to abandon or neglect that potential or not. So do you.