Sunday, April 05, 2009

When the Going Gets Awkward

When we're new to a path, we often find it pretty difficult to relate with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. This is certainly true when we embark on a spiritual path.

Fortunately, we also form strong bonds of friendships as we meet people along our paths. Erica Knight has been an important friend for me discussing mindfulness, happiness, and how to have a meaningful life. These conversations often illuminate me because she challenges everything on her path, which is similar to mine, yet still uniquely hers. This constantly pushes me to rethink and re-contemplate. Much of the content on this blog comes from my discussions with Erica.

We both experiment with the mindfulness practices espoused in Buddhism, in Taoism, by Tolle, etc. and report back on how they work for us. We both comment about the awkwardness of the path, especially when they contradict societal maxims. Having lived in this society, attachment, judgment, desire, and suffering-in-the-face-of-hardship seem to be so naturally human. On the other hand, spirituality teaches us to favor non-attachment, non-judgment, renunciation, and avoidance of suffering. Is this dehumanizing or transcendent? Pondering this is a valuable mindfulness practice, especially as practicing the spiritual teachings puts us at odds with others.

Goodness knows I have gone through some pretty embarrassing moments when I first began living by new ideals, and still sometimes now and again. I have come to interpret these times as challenges to grow my practice stronger through perseverance and contemplation. I have to learn how to fit new realizations with my nature, rather than just adopt them from a book or example. There are a few lessons learned along the way that make it easier.

First of all, it helps to have a definition of spirituality -- or whatever word you choose -- that fits your style, something that you can say comfortably. I define spirituality as "meaningful living," and I view it as orthogonal to religiosity. It is connecting at a deep level with my own spirit or soul or Being or me-ness or I am; this transfers to connecting with the spirits of others. When you communicate about it, you will be more comfortable with the words that fit you, though I encourage you not to place too much into the words themselves. It is sort of like clothing. If you're from Texas you may be comfortable in a cowboy hat and boots, if you're from Luzon you may be comfortable in a barong, and if you're from Oahu you may be comfortable in a grass skirt. Try wearing these things out of your element, and you will both feel and look funny to others. Spirituality is the same way. So you see, the clothing is a metaphor, and actually the choice of words is an even subtler metaphor. It's not the choice of words, it is the comfort with them.

Another important thing to note is that spiritual or mindful living (whatever you want to call it) is a skill just like any other. When you're first starting out, you don't really know how to incorporate it into your life yet. You copy from books or other examples and it seems unnatural to others because it is unnatural to you. It is like learning to play the piano; nobody wants to hear your playing at first (except for your teachers, maybe) because you're still on the very basics, you still make mistakes, and you have not developed your own style, yet. Can you really expect that your Chopsticks-level spiritual practice is going to be super-inspiring? Bear with it until you know how to live this way. Its actually quite rewarding to work through this phase.

There are a number of other issues that you might bump up against. Here are a few of the common ones.
  1. People you have known for a while may feel your change as a form of judgment. Even though you may have honestly made a complete change to non-judgment (hard, hard, hard), a spiritual practice often comes across as self-righteous and obnoxious. By changing your view of the world and refusing to interact in the same way as previously, this can be upsetting to people we love who see our changes as challenging their ways of life. This concept is explored in the New York Times opinion piece Being and Mindfulness.
  2. If you're like many people, you may often err on the side of proselytizing. After learning something new and very useful, it is natural to want to share this with friends, family, and others who might think that you sound like an obnoxious lecturer. The lessons of Consoling Wisely need to be taken into account here, especially: "When you communicate your views, do so casually and in a nondogmatic manner. Allow the people you speak with to ask questions. Offer only as much information as they are ready to hear." From the Daily Om's Expanding Their Vision.
  3. You may find difficulty relating to people with whom you previously spent a lot of time ranting and complaining. When you engage in the practices of positivity and non-judgment, complaint-based relationships are no longer as interesting to you. So it seems that you would no longer be able to relate to these friends. But perhaps, this is a challenge to learn to be compassionate along with them, acknowledge their suffering, and connect with them based on who they are rather than an mutual grudges. This is much easier said than done, I know. I often catch myself in the complaining side of things and can commiserate with others.

All in all, where it may feel that spiritual practices are isolating and solitary, even dehumanizing, they are really the contrary. By following a practice of compassion and loving-kindness, you begin to notice the interconnectedness of everything, even the amount of people that it takes to bring A Pistachio to your table. Matthieu Ricard addresses this eloquently in Happiness:
But how, you might ask, can I avoid being shattered when my child is sick and I know he's going to die? How can I not be torn up at the sight of thousands of civilian war victims being deported or mutilated? Am I supposed to stop feeling? What could ever make me accept something like that? Who wouldn't be affected by it, including the most serene of wise men? The difference between the sage and the ordinary person is that the former can feel unconditional love for those who suffer and do everything in his power to attenuate their pain without allowing his lucid vision of existence to be shaken. The essential thing is to be available to others without giving in to despair when the natural episodes of life and death follow their course.
This post is dedicated to my close friend and mindfulness companion Erica Knight. A lot of the concepts in this blog come from realizations made during conversations with her where she challanges my practices, holding me accountable to live the most meaningful life that I can live. She helps maintain humanity and grounding into spiritual practices, keeping me away from purely intellectual and theoretical understandings.


  1. very thoughtful post.
    also, i thought of you when i read an article in TIME- "the end of excess: is this crisis good for america?"- it reminded me of your silver lining post. :)

  2. Thank you, Brittany. This is a pretty special piece for me. It is based on this last year of trial and error (and plenty of years before that, too). I've been lucky to have wonderful friends on this path, and plenty of people whom I've known before this path who have been patient with me as I work things out.

    Thank you for the pointer to the TIME article. It's heartwarming to see people turning to optimism in this crazy time.