Monday, September 30, 2013

Monday morning mix-it-up; some fantastic articles I've read recently

Some of you follow me on twitter or facebook, and know that I post links to articles. In case you missed them, here are some great things I've read recently:

1. Don't Mix Up Empathy and Civil Rights by Judy Endow

This article reminds me I don't have to be the person who chooses to have empathy for one person over another. If I hear a parent screaming at a child and a child screaming back at a parent, I can have empathy for both of them. Only empathizing with the parents could mean I'm introducing bias.

2. Blame, a RadioLab podcast by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich

This one is a hard, hard one to listen to. Trigger warnings for those who have issues with sexual/violence stories. If you are comfortable listening then please do. For me, this was a great exercise in building up empathy for those we think of as 'evil' or 'monsters' in our society.

3. She Yelled and Called Me Names by Susan Basham

A fantastic story about reaching out to someone who is hurting you. Instead of hating them, try listening to them.

That's it for this week! Please share your favorite stories in the comments.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Can you do it while distracted?

I'm driving down the road. I need to merge into traffic, but there's no room. I look at the driver of the car next to me and think, "Hey, I've got my signal on. Can't you see I NEED to get in?"

Sometimes, I'll slow my car down, wait for an available space, and glide in. Usually I can do this if I'm feeling calm and relaxed, and nothing is bothering me. Even if I do get mad, I'll take a step back and put myself in his shoes. "Maybe he's in a real hurry", I'll think, "because he's carrying his pregnant-and-in-labor wife to the hospital". That usually works and the anger quickly dissipates.

Then, there are those days (perhaps you've had days like this) where I'm driving along and thinking about a problem at work. Or maybe I'm worried about the kids, or maybe I'm just a little sleepy. Those days I may react by shouting, "Hey, c'mon, what's your problem?!?" and giving the guy a nasty glare.

It's those times when I'm really distracted (by my own problems or whatever) that I'm really NOT having any empathy at all.


If being distracted means that I'm not feeling empathy, then I should just NOT be distracted, right? But sometimes I feel like I'm living in a state of distraction. Follow the New Jersey Turnpike, make the first turn at the Suburb roundabout, have two kids and you'll be there too. I'm giving attention to my kids AND watching a pot on the stove. Or I'm thinking about what I have to do that day AND getting dressed AND watching my kids. I'm multitasking and that's good, right?

From Wikipedia, (Human) Multitaskingis "the apparent performance by an individual of handling more than one task at the same time. " 

When computers multitask, they are switching processing power between different tasks, multiple times per second. I'm not a computer, and I can't switch between different tasks that fast. So when I feel that I'm 'multitasking', I'm really only doing one thing at a time. I'm watching the pot on the stove, then turning to kiss my kids, then turning back to the stove. Sometimes, I hurt myself because I'm not giving enough attention to the one thing that I should be paying attention to.

Let me extend this thought to people and relationships; if I'm thinking about how fast I need to get to work or how much money I'll need to fix my car, I won't be feeling empathy. 


With my busy life (don't we all have busy lives?) I don't think I'm going to suddenly become any less distracted doing the daily scroll. What I can do, and make efforts to change, is to try to stop multitasking. If I pick only one thing to do at a time, then maybe I can do it with empathy. I can have empathy for the other drivers, for my kids, and for myself.

Do you multitask?


Monday, September 16, 2013

Buddhism, a New York monastery, and a trip back in time

This weekend I traveled to one of my favorite far-away places, a beautiful Buddhist temple in New York called Chuang Yen Monastery.

You can check out more pictures by clicking here.

The monastery is a place of real joy and calmness for me, and not just because of the beautiful landscape or the big Buddha statues. I received my first Buddhist teachings here in the form of weekly meditation lessons and group discussion from a Buddhist priest. In nice weather we would all sit on those very benches you see in the picture above, and talk. His name was Venerable Wisdom, and he's still teaching in Danbury, CT.


The teachings were often very practical in nature, and he would answer questions from the group such as, "How do I deal with my angry neighbors?" Other times, they were more about the teachings of the Buddha. I remember telling him, "I read something about Buddhism and women - that women could not reach (the ultimate goal of Buddhism) enlightenment." I asked him what he thought of that.

He told me that everyone makes their own effort towards enlightenment. It takes time, sometimes lifetimes to accomplish. Some of those lifetimes may be lived as women, some as men. "Why not focus on the gains you can make now, in this life, rather than worrying about someday?"

I still try to reach my goals a little at a time.


Now I come back here with my kids, to walk the grounds and to give my mind a chance to be calm again. It feels really, really good. I'm doing a little something toward my goal of a being a happier and more peaceful person.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Benefits to being open and vulnerable - I like myself even more this way

Today I was struck by the clear difference between the old-me and the new-me. The old-me avoided strangers - I used to think it wasn't important. It was unnecessary, a hassle, a bother. It wasn't fun and I could be putting myself at risk. It was scary.

I'd walk into a room full of people and run to the empty corner, sitting quietly and sorting through my purse or reading a magazine. 

The new me does things a lot differently.


Last weekend I walked into a doctor's waiting room. I was there to get a test done, and was in kind of a bad mood because I was anticipating an uncomfortable test (the kind where they poke and prod at you until the answers come out).

Walking into the waiting room I perked up, realizing that here was another chance for me to meet someone new and hear how they are living their amazing life. So I scoped out the room and spotted a young couple with a sleeping baby, and an older man dressed shabbily and reading a magazine. I chose the man because I understand that when entering a social arena people in sets of two usually don't like to be interrupted, but people alone are more approachable.

I chose well because he was in the mood to TALK. :)

Among all of the things he shared with me (his life, his kids, his grand-kids) he told me he was going in for a knee operation soon. "Really", I said, "I know some people who went through that recently. They told me that the operation was the best thing that ever happened to them, but that the rehab was challenging." (I found myself connecting with him and thinking about his feelings.) He was worried that they would botch the operation, but was really looking forward to having a new knee. He had been in the military (apparently that's where his knee was damaged) and said that he felt confident he could handle the rehab.

But then, he took the conversation to politics.

He said he wasn't happy about our recent health care reform laws. I could tell he was looking for me to nod my head and say "yeah, I agree." but I couldn't agree with him. "Here's where the rubber hits the road", I thought, "where who I am as a person may be different from what he expects, and he'll get mad or just stop talking to me." I've seen before that conversations (among friends or among strangers) will take a nose dive into anger and fighting when either politics or religion are brought up. If I stir up his negative feelings now (or my own) I'll kill the good vibe we've got going.*

I decided to leap in anyway. I said, "Hmm, yes lots of people feel that way." I tried to turn it around to him (since he seemed to like talking about himself) and said, "What concerns you about it?"

He told me of his brother-in-law Tony,** who had a plumbing business with a few employees. "Tony is going to have to pay $10,000 more!" His face turned to worry. "He told me he's going to have to lay-off some employees!" he said. He continued that he was worried about how much HE would have to pay under the law.

Instead of talking about the particular situation or the reasons I did or didn't agree with him, I was in empathy-mode so I was able to focus on his worried feelings. I looked down and said, "You know, I think we won't really know for sure how 'bad' things are going to be (or good) until the rest of the law comes into effect. You remember when HMOs were the 'big new thing that everyone was worried about?" He nodded. "That's not a big deal for anyone these days, but at the time I remember how upset everyone was about the new change."

He agreed with that, and we were able to move on to more conversations about his nephews (also in the marines). In general he seemed to be a happy man who is looking forward to having his new knee put in.


I really liked talking to this man, and I remember so much about him. Even though we only met once I feel like if I saw him again I'd want to connect with him some more.

I do really believe that all we take with us in this life are our memories. I like myself more now because living a more empathetic life has let me build some really, really great ones.

I like new-me, I think I'll keep her around awhile.


*I'm aware that there may be folks reading this who also don't approve of the new health care law, and may get mad or angry or want to debate me after reading this post. That's cool - feel free to use the comment section to tell me your thoughts. I'll start by saying that I'm not trying to convince anyone of my point of view.

**I don't remember the brother-in-law's name and even if I did, I probably shouldn't put it on the internet. :) So Tony he will be for this story.