irritation is the vanguard of basic goodness, or so I've heard from some of his students. In standard English, this means that when you find yourself irritable, you should stick with the feeling and not try to escape it by badmouthing your situation. If you you can be present with the raw feeling, without stories and justifications, you may be rewarded with an experience of the mind and the heart opening. You might see something beautiful... human... maybe even sacred.
I've had this experience a few times, where I'm walking down the street, trying to shake a negative emotion, hearing the story in my mind, and then something wakes me up. I see the bigger picture all of a sudden. Sometimes I have to laugh. Other times, I just shake my head in wonder. Unfortunately, there are many more times when I don't wake up and the negative emotion leads to complaints, stories, unnecessary conflicts.
We all get irritated and we all complain. We complain about traffic, about work, about our friends, about our lack of a friends... it seems like there is always something to complain about, even if it never solves anything.
We all seem to like complaining. It can be a group activity. We can all get in on the action with our complaints to add. We can bond over the lousy food on the airplane or those silly people from that one crazy political party. The ratings go up when people are complaining.
Complaining is the opposite of being present. When I complain too much, I feel miserable. I can make others feel miserable. When I complain often enough, it becomes the status quo of my mind, the whining, malcontent soundtrack to my life.
Meditation has made me less of a nuisance than I used to be, but I was reminded of how much I still complain when I spent some time with some major league complainers. After a 3 hour dinner in which several people serenaded each other with complaints, I got into a taxi with my friend. We looked at each other and joked about how exhausted we were by all that complaining. We also had to admit that we played along, throwing in many of our own complaints and doing little to stop the train wreck.
After this exhausting experience I made an aspiration to seek ways to laugh more and complain less. I'm not sure it is working yet. What it certainly has done is to make me hyper aware of complaining, both from other people's mouths and my own mouth. This has been a painful awakening to reality, but just like in meditation, the first step to making a change is to see clearly what is happening.
Anxiety may be the source of our urge to complain
Through my own investigation of complaints, I've come to understand that there is a deeply embedded anxiety in me and in all the humans I know personally. This anxiety can be described as an urge to constantly keep things in motion. It is like a raw nerve. It is the opposite of settling into peaceful stillness.
When a new meditator sits down and tries to focus on the breath, she often finds herself drowning in thoughts. The new meditator quickly learns that those thoughts were always there, she just never sat down to observe them all. She never noticed her own anxiety to this degree, and often it is too much for people to handle.
The untrained mind is the ultimate spazz. It seems to go on and on and on about all kinds of things. Some are consequential thoughts, but many don't serve any purpose.
With an untrained mind, in an environment where complaining is the norm, this fundamental anxiety can quickly latch onto complaining as a way to connect with other people and build bonds of solidarity. The anxiety is satisfied by doing something, saying something. The strange irony, however, is that the complaining only creates more discomfort, which usually leads to more anxiety.
The antidote to complaining is being present
If we are in an environment where complaining fills up a lot of time, we should take responsibility for our contribution. We might consider that thoughts multiply when we speak them out loud. We can use this as a mindfulness practice. When I feel my anxiety bubble up into a complaint, I can ask myself if this is a complaint or a constructive contribution, in line with my intentions and aspirations.
We can also just keep things to ourselves when we feel that tinge of anxiety and the urge to file an unofficial complaint. We don't have to shout everything from a mountain top. Instead, we can feel the anxiety, feel the rawness of it, without sprinkling salt and pepper all over it. We can see how it actually feels in the body. If it proves too seductive and we find ourselves vocalizing complaints, then we should see how that makes us feel. Does it feel good, exhilarating, satisfying, dangerous, tired, lazy, sexy, sad...?
This week my aspiration is to complain less. I have no idea where the week will take me, or what challenges I will face, but my secondary aspiration is to have a sense of humor about it all. In that spirit, I'll quote from Lodro Rinzler's new book, The Buddha Walks into a Bar:
As we start to stabilize our mind, we notice that our meditation practice is becoming more enjoyable. We can have a sense of humor about the display on the screen. What previously was all drama is now a comedy.
Thanks for reading the blog. May you have a brilliant week, full of laughs and few complaints!