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How Do You Forgive People Who Won’t Admit They’ve Done Anything Wrong?

States of mind

In recent posts like “3 Keys to Living Effectively: Attention, Calmness, and Understanding” and “You, Me, and the Dalai Lama” I’ve talked about some of the things I’ve been learning and contemplating from listening to recorded talks by the 14th Dalai Lama after having the good fortune to see him speak in person last month. At the end of his talks, he generally takes questions, and one of the questions that seems to come up pretty frequently is how to forgive someone who won’t admit they’ve done wrong.

When relationships in our life are disrupted or hurt through some past or present trouble, it can be a constant drain. In some cases the problem can be solved–or at least mostly solved–by cutting ties: friends who mistreat or lie to us, for instance, are sometimes not friends worth having, at least not if we’re trying to lift ourselves up by keeping company with people we admire.

In many cases, though, cutting ties is either not an option or too drastic an option, for instance when immediate family members do something (or a lot of things) that we find harmful. Even when it’s possible to stop communicating with a family member, the problem can still fester, and of course cutting off a family member creates its own problems.

So another avenue is to have a heart-to-heart discussion with the person who has done the harmful thing to try to understand and forgive. Of course this approach is a big improvement on simply cutting ties, and it’s likely to bring more peace. But what if the other person doesn’t want to be forgiven? What if the other person doesn’t even agree that there was any wrongdoing? For that matter, what if the person keeps doing the harmful thing?

A situation like this begins to make it clear what real compassion and forgiveness are. For us to feel compassion or forgiveness toward another person, that person doesn’t have to act according to our preferences or beliefs, because there is a difference between the person and the action. We can and should condemn actions that we think are harmful or unjust, but even while doing that we can accept and feel compassion toward that person. We can even feel compassion toward people we oppose.

I admit, this isn’t an easy thing to do, but at least the steps are clear. All we have to do is say “I condemn what you’ve done, but I support you“–and mean it.

There’s another piece of this, an important one: forgiveness and peace of mind are matters that happen within ourselves, not outside us. If we want peace of mind, we have to take complete responsibility for it ourselves. If we let even a small part of our peace of mind depend on what other people do, then we open ourselves to being disturbed and angered and made unable to act and think as we wish based on things other people do, things outside of our control.

In the same way that we can release anger that might come up from, say, getting cut off in traffic by reminding ourselves “I can’t make other people drive the way I want them to,” letting go of any feeling of possession about other people’s wrongdoings is necessary to feel peace of mind in troubled relationships and to offer compassion and support even to people whose actions we condemn.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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3 Keys to Living Effectively: Attention, Calmness, and Understanding

Strategies and goals

A number of my posts in coming weeks will make mention of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I was fortunate enough to hear him speak recently in Middlebury, Vermont, and since then I’ve been listening to some of his recorded public talks, which are freely available along with a lot more interesting material at Thinking about some of the things the Dalai Lama has said, I found myself faced with a question about my own life: I know a lot about how to act in my own best interests, yet some of the time I act as though I only understood short-term pleasures and not long-term happiness. Why is that?

Based on bits gleaned from psychology, neurology, and meditative practice, I came up with three things I need in order to ensure I act in the best way possible–to encourage my own success while simultaneously letting go of stress, overcoming fear, enjoying what I’m doing, and staying in touch with my highest goals and aspirations. It’s a tall order, and the three things aren’t easy. On the bright side, though, they are simple.

1. Attention
A good habit is a treasure, because it takes no special effort to follow. When I show up to Taekwondo several times a week and get a good, long workout, it’s not because I’m thinking about or planning exercise: it’s because I’m used to going to Taekwondo. In the same way, bad habits are serious trouble. In order to break a bad habit, or even to overcome it on a one-time basis, we usually need to be able to direct attention to what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing. We could also talk about attention as having to do with self-awareness or mindfulness.

For example, I might be tempted to sleep in some morning and risk being late for an appointment. It’s difficult to battle this intention if I’m just thinking about how it would feel to stay in bed versus how it would feel to get up, and especially if I have a habit of sleeping past my alarm. However, if I consciously think about things like

  • “If I get up now, I can be on time–and if I don’t, I risk being late”
  • “Staying in bed is pleasurable, but I like showing up on time to things too”
  • “I’ll have to get up sooner or later, and it probably won’t be any easier in 15 minutes than it is now”

… and other things in the same vein, then I’m able to make a decision rather than just succumbing to my gut feelings.

2. Calmness
Buddhist teaching warns about the danger of attachment, of strong emotion. Speaking honestly, I’m not entirely sure how this applies to strong positive emotions like love or delight, though I could make some guesses. What I am sure of is that getting wrapped up in my own emotions and doing nothing about it leaves me in a position where it’s hard to change or do the things that are best for me. Being able to step back from our emotions and out of a frame of mind dominated by thoughts like “I really, really want that” or “I’m afraid!” or “I feel embarrassed” puts us in a place of calmness from which we can think about our long-term interest and our well-being–not to mention other people’s long-term interest and well being. Not having that calmness keeps us confused and short-sighted, bogged down in an obscuring cloud of emotional debris.

This site offers a wide range of tools for working with emotions, even very strong ones, including idea repair, understanding mental schemas, and much else. If I want calmness, there’s usually some way for me to achieve it.

3. Understanding
I started out thinking of this item as “knowledge,” but I realized that it includes not just understanding how my mind works, having good organizational strategies, and knowing how to keep myself healthy, but also ideas of what’s truly important, what leads to real happiness, what the value of a good relationship is, and what kinds of goals are worth pursuing. Having attention and calmness is not nearly as useful when I don’t have the understanding to use that attention and calmness by making and acting on good decisions.

That’s it: attention, calmness, and understanding. If I can remember to look for those three things, my theory goes, I’ll be on top of the world. I’ll report back and let you know how it’s been working for me. I’d be very interested if you care to do the same, whether in comments or privately through the contact form.

Photo by Hani Amir

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You, Me, and the Dalai Lama

States of mind

This is the first in a short series of posts arising from the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Vermont.

So the Dalai Lama walks into the room, and he says “I always consider we are the same human being. Physically, mentally, emotionally, we are the same. I believe it is extremely important we have this feeling or concept–oneness of humanity–because a lot of problems are essentially our own creation.” (Note: I’ve paraphrased that a little.)

The room was kind of a large one–actually, an arena. The Dalai Lama was speaking at the Nelson Recreational Center in Middlebury last Saturday. I sat about 60 feet away, close enough to exercise my dazzling photography skills and get this fuzzy phone cam shot you see to the left. If you’d like to watch the event for yourself, there’s good video footage of the whole thing here, courtesy of Middlebury College.

Getting tickets for this event was like trying to get into a sold-out rock concert. The morning the tickets went on sale, I got up early, went to my computer, and sat there pressing the refresh button until the ticket purchase page finally showed up for me, 45 minutes later. I believe their servers were a little overwhelmed. This investment of time and button-pushing was nothing compared to what I received from the experience. One of the things I received was some glint of understanding of how you and I the Dalai Lama are the same.

There’s some obvious truth to the idea that we’re the same: after all, we’re all human. We all have human frailties and limitations, and we have commonalities that range from our natural environment and the air we breathe to literature to neurotransmitters to basic needs to genetics and history. According to Buddhist thought (at least, according to my very limited apprehension of it), any distinction between two humans is arbitrary. There is no clear line of division.

Yet it’s hard to make much use of that idea when you compare how most of us deal with the world to how the 14th Dalai Lama deals with the world. He faces very difficult truths with compassion and humor. He tells hundreds or thousands of people about peeking in someone’s medicine cabinet even though he knew it was, in his words “a little illegal,” or about regretting how he spent much of his youth, and he laughs at himself with genuine mirth and acceptance. For most of us, accepting the worst things about the world or ourselves is a lot more challenging than that. Even on our best days, most of us can’t come near radiating the joy and compassion that comes from the Dalai Lama.

So I have to conclude that something does separate us, something worth knowing about. I think I finally began to get a clue as to what that thing was when His Holiness was answering questions at the end of the presentation. Someone asked him about the problem of dying with awareness when the norm these days is often to pump dying individuals full of pain medications. In response, the Dalai Lama said

That I think … we have to examine case to case. Those individuals who have some sort of … practice and experience, then it is very, very important to keep sharp mind … clear mind.

The word that struck me here was practice. There’s no question that we’re just as human whether or not we’ve spent time meditating or trying to be more aware of ourselves, but having a meditation practice, working hard at understanding ourselves, taking time each day to think about who we are and what we’re trying to do in the world–these things allow us to access different moods, different behaviors, different reactions–an entirely different side of ourselves. My impression is that the Dalai Lama has worked diligently for many years to develop this side of himself. I’ve worked much less diligently for much less time, and perhaps the same is true of you. Yet there is nothing stopping either of us from realizing that side of our humanity, so that we’re not just one with the Dalai Lama, but also are increasingly able to see the world in the same way he does.

Top photo by Sarah Harris

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The Dalai Lama to Speak in Middlebury, Vermont in October


The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, will speak at Middlebury College on October 12th and 13th. The event on the 12th is for Middlebury students and staff only, while tickets for the event on the 13th will be available to the public in late September. You can find more information at .

Photo by Luca Galuzzi –

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If You Want to Be Happier, You Have to Care Less

States of mind

Think of the most serene, compassionate, happy-looking person in the world. What does that person look like? A movie star, someone who’s climbed to the top of the fame ladder? I’m guessing not. A powerful politician? Absolutely not. A toddler with adoring parents? Maybe, but check again in five minutes and the answer is probably no. A bride on her wedding day? Not so serene, usually. An incredibly successful entrepreneur? Smug, maybe: I’m not so sure about serene or compassionate.

How about the Dalai Lama–or virtually any other highly accomplished Buddhist monk?

Serene? Check. Compassionate? Double check. Happy looking? Those lines didn’t come from years of yelling at the cat to get off the furniture, for damn sure. Check out the images that come up if we search Google for pictures of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: except for a couple of expressions of attentive interest, it’s a complete smilefest. (Scroll down to the bottom to see the screen shot: I didn’t want to put the picture at the top and prime you to choose the answer I’d thought of.)

Does happiness work the same way for everyone?
But then again, what does that prove? This is the Dalai Lama, for the love of Pete. It’s his job to be serene and compassionate. That guy doesn’t have to argue on the phone with his wireless provider. That guy doesn’t have a neighbor who mows the lawn every Sunday morning at 6:15. That guy has never been jilted by someone he was pity-dating (to the best of my knowledge).

Although, OK, he did have his country stolen from him, is exposed to the profound suffering of millions daily, and is never allowed to have sex at all, ever. Still, his approach to happiness probably has to be a lot different than our approach to happiness, right?

Happiness in four bullet points
I was thinking about this just a short while ago, after a conversation with my wireless provider (I bet you thought that was a hypothetical example, huh?) in which I was informed that while yes, the equipment I just purchased from them does not work, and yes, it’s their fault and yes, I’ll have to exchange it, and yes, the whole reason I had to buy it in the first place is that their coverage at my home is unusably bad, that no, they would not give me a new one before they receive the old one: in the mean time I would just have to suffer without it.

There’s the key word: “suffer.” The central lesson Buddhism has for us about happiness (even for people who, like me, don’t consider themselves Buddhists) is contained in something called “The Four Noble Truths.” The millennia-old Four Noble Truths are surprisingly in tune with psychological research from the past couple of decades, and they go a little something like this:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

For the moment, let’s not worry about the Eightfold Path: that’s a discussion for another day, although the short version of it is what my girlfriend reminds me of (patiently) time and time again: the more that the things you do are in harmony with each other and with you, the happier you’ll be.

How to suffer: a practical example
The thing I want to latch onto here is the whole suffering and attachment deal. Let’s use the example of the wireless company: Why is it frustrating and annoying to me that they aren’t helping solve my problem now, when I want it solved–frustrating enough that I literally went directly from their store to the bakery across the way with the idea of possibly having a really unhealthy lunch revolving around pastry? (Note: I did get a handle on things after a minute or two and went on to have a lunch of roasted chicken, black beans, and salad.)

The reason it was annoying is that I cared. My self-talk was subtly but inescapably guiding me toward misery by dwelling on what the wireless company–OK, I’ll go ahead and say that it’s AT&T–“should” do, what I “deserved” to have, how “unfair” it was that the device I’d pay for didn’t work, and how I “needed” an immediate solution. Note the words in quotes: they’re all indicators (in this case) of broken ideas, our primary mechanism for making ourselves miserable and the focus of a number of highly successful cognitive therapies (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“).

As long as I cared whether or not AT&T did what I wanted, I would be unhappy. The moment I ceased to care–became unattached from–that concern, it would no longer bother me.

How not to suffer
Again I’m not talking theoretically: I let that concern go, and I immediately felt better. Of course, the problem with bad habits–even when they’re very general habits like making ourselves unhappy when things don’t go our way–is that we’ve grown specialized neural connections to keep them going, so releasing that concern generally just means that I’ll stop worrying about it right at that moment, but that it will come back as soon as I’m reminded of the original problem at a time when I’m not concentrating on being unattached.

Fortunately, I then have the option of not caring again. It turns into a long-term battle: my habits kick in to make me act in ways that will cause me to be unhappy, then I exert conscious effort to free myself and become happy again … and round and round we go. Yet this cycle weakens the habit over time, because the more we think or act a certain way, the more robust our mental wiring for that approach becomes, while the more disruptive we are to a behavior, the more that behavior weakens. This is how habits are made and destroyed.

When next we talk about this …
There’s a lot more to talk about here, especially the idea that caring less is a good thing (which on a gut level has always given me trouble) and about when caring more is important (because there are times when caring is indispensable)–but I’ll leave those subjects for other posts, so that this one can remain a fairly readable length. I had wanted to cram more into this post, but with a little effort, I’ve stopped caring whether I do that or not.

Silo image by Timothy K Hamilton


The Best 40 Percent of Happiness

States of mind

What do lottery jackpot winners and people who have been paralyzed in an accident have in common? Major life changes. These two groups were the focus of a 1978 study on happiness and how it’s affected by our situation in life, including our ups and downs. In years since then it has contributed to a lot of other studies, including Adaptation and the Set-Point Model of Subjective Well-Being: Does Happiness Change After Major Life Events? by Richard E. Lucas in 2007, which argues that our happiness has a level–different levels for different people–to which we naturally tend to return (even after things like winning the lottery or having a spinal cord injury).

Different researchers conclude slightly different levels for the importance of genetics, conditions, and attitude in happiness, but as a good example, in their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks, authors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler give these percentages:

50% genetic,
40% attitude, and
10% situational

In other words, if your life goes amazingly well and you’re the luckiest person on the planet, you’ll probably be only about 10% happier than someone just like you who has the worst luck on the planet. However, if you cultivate habits of finding happiness in your situation regardless of whether or not things go your way, you can make a major difference in how happy you are.  This is probably why the Dalai Lama is such a happy-looking guy (just take a look at him! And that’s not just for the cameras: our faces begin to show our emotions in wrinkles as we get older–ever notice the difference in appearance between a happy 80-year-old’s face and a grim 80-year-old’s face?–and His Holiness the Dalai Lama has the face of a guy who has been doing a lot of smiling). Buddhist teachings promote letting go of desire, and as Ben Franklin once observed, “Blessed is he that expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll touch on some of the reasons happiness works the way it does, and what we can take away from that to become happier ourselves.

Lottery photo by jackace

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