It is another rainy June morning in Bellingham. I see the young children across the street, outside in their pajamas! They are huddled under a tiny umbrella, crouched low to the ground. What can they be so curious about that they don’t mind the rain, the cold, little gap between pajama top and pajama bottom where the skin is exposed? These little girls seem able to steer away from any troubles and focus on the worm or snail they’re watching.
I feel the contrast between these girls and myself. I am irritated right now, and feel it in the shakiness of my body, the rounding together of my shoulders, a subtle pressure in my tear ducts. My mind has lead me to the 10% part of my life that isn’t going well right now. It is surely even less than 10% and is all about how I think things should be regarding photos I ordered online! I want these photos for my child, who is about to leave home, my youngest. I already have other photos for her but I had an idea, took action weeks ago, and I got really invested in having them to give her as she graduates from high school.
I’m giving you all this detail because I want you to see how a small thing can hijack the mind and feel huge. I believe that you might also get hooked by your mind’s habit of getting really invested in small things and I want you to know that you’re not alone. I like pretending I have some control in my life and apparently this usually goes pretty well. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised and upset when it doesn’t.
The next layer that gets applied to my frustration is shame or embarrassment: why am I crying over photos? This might be peppered with other emotions: why am I angry with the business, the clerk who answered the phone? Who can I blame? Then comes righteous indignation: who is going to make this up to me? Shame might persist: I am such a first-worlder, fragile, white, sensitive. Why aren’t all the years of meditation and yoga saving me from this? I may also try to push the feelings away because of the shame.
All of this comes because I don’t want to feel the pain. Like all beings, I don’t want to suffer. I want to be happy.
I heard a new spin on all of this yesterday, in an interview with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche on Ten Percent Happier. He says that every time we feel discomfort and the urge to get out of discomfort, this is an expression of self-love. What? The self wants to be happy and needs me to know. I feel sad or angry and I don’t want to feel this way. I want to relieve this suffering. My body feels sick or uncomfortable and I do everything to try to relieve the pain. This is self love. All of my systems are dialed in to notice the 10% of me that has a problem. Rinpoche compares our awareness to our 10 fingers, 9 of which are just fine. The negativity bias in our human mind puts all of the attention on that 1 finger that is hurt. We are pushed to care for this single finger, the 10%, because of self-love. Once I attend to that single finger I can attend to the 90% that were already feeling fine and evenly distribute my care.
The second helpful point Rinpoche brought is that of remembering gratitude for the 90% that’s already doing well. We could use the two in a rhythm: practice gratitude for fingers 1-9, maybe counting on the fingers (I am safe, my body is healthy, I have enough food, my children are safe, my home is warm and comfortable, I have enough clothes, I have work, I love my work, I have friends). Now notice finger 10 (my photos have been lost in delivery) and remember that this happens because you love yourself and you want to be happy. This 10th finger may be so seductive with its story that you get stuck here. That’s OK, just remember that this is part of loving yourself. When we remember the self-love part, the nervous system can down-regulate and we can pull out of the eddy. With regular practice you might remember to give equal time to this second part of practice (gratitude) below.
I want to acknowledge that the 90/10 idea doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people are born into difficulty and life just gets harder and more complicated from there. Think of the main character in The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. Life was difficult under a cruel regime, he went to bed in his meager apartment and when we woke up, he was a bug! His 90/10 might be 90% difficulty and 10% mediocre.
If you’re reading this email, life might be easier for you than others right now. You could add gratitude for this new idea about self love to the 90% part of your practice and you may be more resourced to face that 10% of pain. Notice that we’re not resolving the 10%, just reframing its role. Before, the pain or disappointment about my photos was a source of shame, discouragement, hopelessness. Reframed as self-love, I can live with it. Rather than feeling like a failure, I can step back and strive to recognize that I am trying to take care of myself. From life experience, I recognize that the 10% will always be there. Maybe the store will find the photos I wanted to give my daughter. Real life will continue to give me 10% or else my mind will go seeking that. This is not a failure, but the relentless pursuit of happiness, an expression of self-love. I feel more resilient and able to allow that 10% to show up. I have to stay very awake, because the 10% is so clever and because of my strategies to distract myself are wiley.
If we transfer this 90/10 idea to the whole planet, we could say that at least 10% of us are really suffering right now. I don’t know how to measure suffering so these numbers may not sit with you. Adjust as needed. Notice how your attention goes to those who are suffering, automatically. We notice the “bad news” of loss, grief and violence because it’s unusual. Our hearts are drawn to the difficulty of our fellows. We love them in an innate way. Like that 10th wounded finger, we give them our attention, we are drawn there. Don’t turn away, believing that you can ignore this pain and it will heal itself. It needs you.
For balance, we look to the 90% (or whatever number works for you) who are doing OK. Most of us are OK and have some resources, so shift awareness to remind yourself about them. Maybe there are adorable children outside your window right now. Find a puppy or kitty video. Check out “Some Good News” with John Krasanski. Feel the nervous system let down. You can recover and become more resilient to face the 10% again. When you go back to that 10%, if this becomes overwhelming, return to using the practice for yourself: the overwhelm becomes your 10%, your 10th, hurt finger. Attend, without trying to fix it, just allowing your feelings to be. Remember this pain is here because you love yourself and want to feel better. Remember that you love your fellows and want them to feel better. Let yourself feel.
By witnessing our thoughts and feelings, we can learn to recognize, that we do love ourselves. We can recognize that our attraction to “bad news” means that we do love others. By decreasing shame and guilt, our words and actions may feel more authentic and grounded. Let’s listen. Let’s take responsibility for ourselves. Let’s care for ourselves and our fellows.