Category Archives: negativity bias

This too shall pass.


Hell in a hand basket?

Despair is in the air this season, coming to the end of a year full of disasters, nuclear brinkmanship and sickening revelations. It’s enough to make a meditation teacher wonder what is the point of teaching how to find personal happiness. It seems equal parts selfishness and delusion.

But then I remember that Pollyanna happiness is not what I teach. Looking on the bright side and wearing blinders is not what I teach. I teach how to be present with whatever is happening with clarity and compassion for ourselves and all beings. That’s all I teach. And it’s always in season.

Last week I had a very bad cold, the first in many years. It wiped me out physically and mentally. I felt like all the color of life had been washed out of me. There was not one creative thought, not one ounce of curiosity. I was completely drained of everything except pain. One particular pain that went on for days was especially challenging: a sinus drip on a nerve ending in my temple. Every time it hit — erratically seconds and minutes apart — my whole body would clench up. No drugs alleviated it. And the only thing that helped was the reminder of the nature of impermanence: This too shall pass.

We can trust in impermanence when the world around us seems to be spinning off kilter. This too shall pass. Lord, I hope so! In class I opened the gates of despair and gave a big permission slip for students to express their feelings. And they did. And there were tears. And you know what? It was good.

Recently I was on a poetry retreat with Kim Stafford, and once we had all written a few poems, he encouraged us to go back and find the ‘B’ story in each poem. The ‘B’ story, he explained, is the hidden truth in what we write, the part that was trained out of us because it might not be nice glossy version our parents would approve.

So this week, after meditating and sending loving kindness to ourselves and out into the world that is so in need of it, we shared our deepest concerns, sorrows, longings and fears for ourselves and the world as honestly and openly as we could.

Part of the reason we resist such looking is the fear of seeing things we can’t cope with, can’t explain, can’t talk ourselves out of. We may worry that we will get lost there, get stuck in the murky mire, succumb to depression and never return.  But when we are looking with clarity and compassion, we can sit with fear. We can embrace uncertainty. The ongoing regular practice of meditation makes this possible.

I meditate every morning and am deeply grateful for my practice. But it is when we gather and meditate together that the real solace of the practice comes. There is something so rich and sacred in the shared silence. And out of that sacredness comes the antidote for despair.

First we discover we are not alone. The group gathers, each person feeling so isolated, stressed out and exhausted. And then, somehow, after ninety minutes together of sitting in silence and then exploring the dharma, we come away feeling refreshed, renewed and awakened.

Meditation lightens us to an awareness of the infinite nature of being. There is no way to explain what happens, but it feels to me like we relax into the flow of the ongoing dance of energy transforming into and out of matter. It’s a joyous dance of welcoming and letting go all that arises as we release into the continuum of being. Oh life! What a miracle! Wacky and wondrous and woeful, all at once.

With this expansive view, we see that, as bad as current times seem, history is full of parallel examples, that life is like this. We see through the lie of our nostalgia, that somehow we were all better, more noble, more exemplary in some long past day. In fact quite the reverse might be true in many cases, but we don’t need to compare. We can just remind ourselves that there is a tendency for the rear view mirror to be rose-colored.

Our tendency toward current events is to focus on negative news. The life we see is the result of the choices we make of what to pay attention to. We who are alive today have the capacity to be ultra-informed about every horror in every part of the world by an information industry playing on our inbred negativity bias ready and willing to scare us to death. If we are looking clearly we can also see that the distressing events are met by heroic and touching actions. We can see that horror, humor and honor all are represented. Yes, this awfulness exists. But so does this beauty, this communion of being, this sweetness, this enlightened awakening of deep appreciation of being here in this moment to experience whatever is arising.

It’s useful to remember that our ancestors had many challenges, hardships and losses, but they also had long periods of quiet and a deep interaction with the rest of nature. This is why meditation feels like a homecoming — it is a natural and necessary part of our experience.

Human evolution is not so quick as technological revolution, so here we are, ill-equipped to cope with all that confronts us moment to moment in our various devices. We are wise to give ourselves permission to turn them off, to step away, to reconnect with nature and with the natural eye-to-eye contact with our fellow beings. And even when we are using these devices, can we be sure to balance our exposure? Can we find a video of a flash mob Handel’s Messiah in a mall food court? And baby animals doing adorable things? This too is our world. Aw and awe!

When we give ourselves this permission, we find more balance in our lives. It is not turning a blind eye to suffering, just acknowledging the truth of our situation as one of 7.6 billion people in the world and it’s not all up to us in every minute so solve every problem. If we give ourselves the gift of clarity and compassion through regular meditation practice, and especially gathering to practice together, we are rendered more alive, more ready to spread the joy of the season, all year long.

Moment by moment


Papermill Creek II, watercolor by Will Noble

With the regular practice of meditation there is a subtle but profound shift of mind state into a spacious sense of infinite ease and compassionate awareness. Thoughts and emotions still arise, but we are better able to see them as objects of awareness passing through. When our attention wavers and the mind slips back to buying into thoughts and emotions as the whole of our experience, we become entangled for a period. But then, when we remember ‘Oh yeah, I’m meditating’, the practice allows us to come back to awareness without self-recrimination. We don’t make an enemy of anything. We are grounded in a growing ability to hold all life experience in an open embrace.

If you read my last post, you know that I credit my meditation practice for getting me through a very challenging time as a caregiver for my brother in his last days of life. Now in mourning, I continue my practice. I stay present with what arises in my experience and take care of myself. I haven’t rushed back into life’s demands, but allow myself extra time to simply sit, walk and be. My natural inclination is to indulge myself in treats I think I deserve because I’ve lost someone so precious to me. But no amount of ice cream will change my situation. So instead, to whatever degree I am able, I give myself moments to appreciate life. Just now a little songbird caught my attention and I gave myself over to his funny little hopping about on the deck outside my window. Although we didn’t plan for any summer vacation, not knowing what our schedule would be with the care of my brother, my husband Will and I now we find ourselves taking little day trips and walking with all our senses more alert, noticing and appreciating this gift of life. We trim our to do list down to a manageable size. We live as fully in the moment as we can.

Thanks to the practice of meditation, I am able to notice the new set of post-loss thoughts that are arising. Now that I am not as exhausted as I was, not as caught up in an emotional tsunami, I can see the nature of these new thoughts. Any of you who have lost a family member will most likely recognize some of these avenues of thought that tend to arise.

What might I have done that would have made a difference? In this case, I had a few regrets, but none of my actions affected the final outcome, but it is not at all unusual to believe we could have saved our loved one. I am reminded of a conversation my parents had just a couple months before my mother died. They were talking about the death of my grandfather over forty years before. Dad said that it was because he didn’t give his father a ride home on a cold day when he dropped his car off to be serviced that he had the stroke that caused his death. My mother, married to this man for almost fifty years, could not believe what she was hearing. ‘That’s ridiculous! What a thing to think! You had absolutely nothing to do with it.’ And he seemed to accept with great relief her take on that part of their personal history. Had she not been there, he would have continued to believe that he killed his father.

Believing that at the time of his father’s death that he could have saved him gave Dad some sense of control over a difficult situation. That this ‘control’ was self-condemning may have felt easier to bear at the time than pure grief which demands a surrender to tears and a sense of helplessness that few men of his day felt comfortable with. He then went on to live his busy life without ever revisiting that assumption, and he was still holding that guilt. Fortunately, my mother was around to set him straight. But what if she hadn’t been? Had my father been a meditator, especially in the Insight Meditation tradition, he may have been able to do some skillful inquiry when that line of thinking arose in his awareness. We all have the opportunity to revisit erroneous assumptions as part of our post-meditation practice. Of any thought we can ask, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’

Who am I without…
The kinds of thoughts that have been coming up for me are also ones that are helped by Buddhist exploration. For example, the quest for identity. Who am I without my brother? From a Buddhist standpoint, this quest is fruitless, based in the erroneous assumption that we are separate, isolated individuals whose identity needs to be shored up and put on display for others to admire or love. The people around us are like mirrors telling us who we are. What happens when yet one more mirror — in this case the final mirror for the earliest part of my life — is gone?

To be honest my brother wasn’t much use as a holder of memories of me as a child. I once asked him ‘What was I like as a little girl?’ and he told me ‘You were a very nice girl.’ Oh, brother!

This is just one small aspect of a greater loss, and seeing it clearly as a craving for identity has helped me to release that thread of thought. This is not making an enemy of the thought. The process is done with great compassion and respect. The forlorn little sister inside me gets heard, and at the same time she gets the parenting from my wiser self that she deserves. Nothing’s being whisked away or swept under the rug — at least as far as I can tell.

If only…
Even if my brother wasn’t the most useful mirror, he certainly was the holder of many shared memories. It seems after every loss, I wonder why I wasn’t asking more questions, why I wasn’t demanding more stories. He was five years older and could fill in some gaps in my own memory. But again, from a Buddhist point of view, getting lost in memory pulls us out of the present moment, the only moment that actually exists. All else is just a tangle of thoughts.

Looking for a label
I also notice a desire to name this experience of loss, to define myself by it. There are words for children who lose their parents and people who lose their spouses – orphan, widow, widower — but why is there no label for this I can attach to myself? Is a word useful? Or painful? A protective shell that would limit me even more than it would shield me? Yet I sense that desire there. By noticing it, I feel freed from its lure. Noticing, not judging, is key.

Now is the time to notice
All these thoughts are fresh. They haven’t laid down a solid track for my mind to follow in a habitual way, but are feelers exploring a new space. What an amazing opportunity I have here to observe and inquire, to hold these thoughts lightly as they sketch themselves in pencil in my mind rather than letting them become indelible tattoos upon my psyche.

No bad days
As the days and weeks pass, I notice that some moments are more challenging than others. I guess grief is like a river that way, with the rapids and the placid lulls. Some moments of grief just arise, seemingly out of nowhere, but others are the result of dealing with what follows a loved one’s death. Yesterday I received my brother’s ashes in the morning and spent several hours in the afternoon helping in the final edit of his memorial video that my other brother has beautifully put together. Noticing and making room for the pain, allowing it to be present, is important. But allowing the moments to pass without exaggerating them is also important. There is a tendency many of us have to label day, a week or even a year ‘bad’ (on January 3rd, no less!). Acknowledging our unhappiness in the moment is skillful. Throwing any larger time period away because of it is unskillful. So I haven’t had bad days, but there have certainly been some very challenging moments that seemed to go on forever. And some very wondrous ones as well. Life is like this.

Shock and awe
The loss of a family member in his seventies, while heartbreaking, is well within the range of statistically normal life experience. It doesn’t make it easy, but it is certainly not shocking. In our family, as in most extended families, there have been more challenging losses because they felt very out of order. A young person dies, for example. That sets up a whole different set of thought patterns. But once we have recovered from the shock itself, we still have this ability, thanks to our practice, to see those patterns, to hold them with compassion, to gently question our own assumptions. In this way we make it possible to be resilient in life. We are not immune to the pain, but we are not keeping the suffering going endlessly by creating ruts of painful thinking for our minds to get stuck in. And we can see how the pain itself carves a larger space in our hearts to hold even more love and a capacity to see beauty everywhere.

My own mortality
Because this death takes place in my own generation, it naturally brings up thoughts of my own mortality. Thanks to the practice over so many years of noting the nature of impermanence, this particular thought strain is not as charged for me as it might be. Or maybe I’m saving it up for later. Who knows? The ‘I don’t know’ mind continues to keep me feeling buoyed by the wondrous mystery that is life. Que sera, sera, sang Doris Day, and my mother, and now me. Whatever will be will be.

Joy there for the noticing
The future’s not ours to see, but we often have a rather dim view of it. Neuroscientist and author Rick Hanson, for whom I guest teach, points out how our brains have a negativity bias built in for our survival. We pay attention first to what threatens our existence, figuring there’s plenty of time to appreciate what’s pleasant. This strong bias can become like an overworked muscle, so that we may focus exclusively on all that is wrong in our lives and not even notice what is positive, uplifting and pleasant in this moment. This can make us pessimistic about the future as well. Since it ultimately ends in death, and likely includes issues of aging and illness, how optimistic can we be?

So it is challenging to be present with our own experience, to notice the wondrous, the sweet, the pleasant experiences — not pursuing them to solve anything but noticing them as they arise.

Whatever you are going through in your life right now, stay present with your experience, may you allow for the sweetness of life to express itself in all its variations, without making an enemy of other emotions. Even when you are being jostled in a crowd, instead of focusing on the noise, the irritation and the hassle, open to the wondrous aliveness of it all. What a precious fleeting gift is life!

The Future’s Not Ours to See


The approach of a new year always reminds me of December 1959, the eve of my first conscious experience of transitioning not just from one year to the next, but of one decade to the next. 1960 loomed large in my twelve-year-old imagination. It felt like embarking on totally new territory, a new continent of time.

Midnight came. The clock struck twelve. Nothing changed. I went to bed and woke up to…just another day. Was I relieved or disappointed? Maybe a little of both.

Change, it turns out, is a continuous stream that has all to do with cycles and seasons, and little to do with our desire to measure it and put it on a timeline, making it seem linear rather than cyclical.

That New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the 1960’s, I was fortunate not to have any inkling what the future would bring. Had I had an advance glimpse of the headlines from that decade, I would have been terrified: A beloved president, his brother, and Martin Luther King Jr. all assassinated. A war in a small country in southeast Asia that would kill, maim and cause a lifetime of suffering to the people there and many of the boys of my generation.

And what would my very prudish, judgmental twelve-year-old self have thought of the nineteen-year-old I became, living in the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco, ingesting whatever hallucinogen anyone passed me without serious thought to the consequences? Would I have wanted to wake up the next morning to the decade of the 60’s?

Maybe not. But fortunately we don’t know the future. This is a blessing! Because everything sounds worse in anticipation, doesn’t it? And there’s something important that takes us so long to learn and we tend to forget: We have an incredible capacity to live through volatile times and not just survive but thrive.

Even if we could ‘know’ the future, we would not know it fully in the experiential way we actually live it. When I was nineteen, a fortune teller gave me a reading. She said, and I quote, ‘In the end your friends will all turn against you.’ Oh my! What a prophecy to live with! I imagined dying alone, having been abandoned by everyone I ever loved. Who knows if that will ever come to pass, but within six weeks of that reading, I had an experience that fulfilled that prophecy. I had moved back across the country, and was hanging out mostly with my closest friend and my high school boyfriend. He and I had casually taken up where we had left off. The three of us had been a tight little circle for a short period of time as I found my way in a new situation. So they were in that moment ‘all my friends’. And then they fell in love and became an couple, hiding it from me until they could figure a way to tell me. Of course at first it felt like a betrayal, as if they had turned against me. But that wasn’t the full truth of that experience. I recovered quickly, our friendships remained in tact. When I recognized that the prophecy was true, but in a much different way than I imagined, it was a life lesson: We just don’t know what life will bring and cannot predict how we will experience it.

See the truth of this for yourself: Think of a year where the headlines were horrendous. (Pick any year. Headlines are always horrendous!) Then think of your own life. Like most people you can probably list some triumphs and traumas. But how much of your ongoing state of mind has to do with the headlines? None of us live our lives in the headlines, even though they affect us at some level. Even if we are part of the news, it can’t capture the fullness of the experience. I remember the 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. It certainly affected us! But the national news distorted it beyond recognition. The news thrives on our tendency toward what neuroscientists call a ‘negativity bias’. We tend to focus on the negatives of any given situation first and foremost. It’s something useful to notice in ourselves, and good to try to bring into balance by observing what positive or pleasant things are also going on. It’s not to push the negative away, but simply to expand our awareness to the fullness of experience.

Good news does exist, it’s just harder to find in the news as it’s hidden away behind all the negative news that grabs our attention more readily. Here are just some of the many good news stories of the past year.

Imagine how we bring this negativity bias into the future. Dread arises! It’s not accurate because not only are we projecting our fears, but we do not know and do not have the ability to imagine all that is possible. The future may be better or worse than we imagine, but it will not be the way we imagine it. Of that much we can be sure.

Headlines do not write the story of our lives. And as Doris Day sang in ‘Que Sera, Sera’, the future’s not ours to see. Our focus is on how we are relating to the experience of being alive in this moment, whether we are being mindlessly reactive or mindfully responsive? Are we tightly wound in fear and striking out? Or are we cultivating our capacity for spacious awareness, compassion, integrity and wisdom? In this way, whatever the future brings we will thrive, not just survive, and not just for ourselves but for all beings.

I appreciate your comments and questions.

Wishing you all a very happy new year, whatever comes!