Did you know that:
Online Dating may make people feel overwhelmed by too many options?
Exercise provides stress relief?
Kids like their dad’s around
Students benefit from tutoring?
Soda is bad for you?
So it smoking?
Too much porn?
Did you know that?
Of course you did.
I’m not fond of study-love. I feel as though I can barely get into a conversation before the phrase, “You know, studies show …” gets pulled in, flinging specificity to the wind in one fell swoop. I suppose research has its place, and I am glad (?) that studies exist – some of them can be illuminating, I guess. But studies and statistics are so often a. obvious b. overly generalizing c. misinterpreted and d. used as a nonsensical replacement of truths we already know.
I’ve decided that the “studies-show” mania is more about entertainment than insight. It’s fun to read about the tests and the research. It’s enjoyable to hear some incisive writers with fun voices analyze the study. It makes good cocktail party* fodder. Frankly I think that’s where the usefulness of these behavioral studies ends. I wish there was a study whose results told us to Forget. The. Study. And. Pay. Attention. To. Our. Own. Beautiful. Rich. Complex. And. Insightful. Experience. Who knows better than you what you feel? Where is there a more accurate control group for your experience than your own body and mind?” When did we become so mistrusting of ourselves or distanced from our experience that we rely on a google news feed to tell us that the internet can be addictive or The Secret doesn’t work? You know! We know! We all already know!
Quest-ce cue c’est la raison for this rant? Do I want to make everyone in the world feel bad for citing or liking studies? No. It just came to mind while I was walking over the Williamsburg Bridge to Hardcore Dharma, in between trying to figure out if I could think a melodic note inside my brain without actually making audible sound and enjoying my new shoes.
I thought about lovingkindness, the practice we are now studying in Hardcore Dharma in which you wish happiness, health, safety and ease for yourself and others. (The practice is far more systematic and structured than my description). I also thought about how Ethan reminded us to remember the power of a positive outlook during our retreat this weekend. Then I remembered this recent study that emerged that said positive thinking is actually more damaging than not. But wait, I thought, that can’t be true – I find great encouragement in Chogyam Trungpa’s famous advice to “Cheer Up.” Is this study in conflict with these practices and aspirations I find so helpful?
No, of course not. If you read notes about the study – it is actually saying that unrealistic, self-serving and delusional thinking is damaging. Duh. Thinking “I am a genius” is obviously not going to help deal with our aggression toward our menial job. Thinking “I AM a wonderful person” after we’ve snapped at our mother is not a skillful mental reaction. Thinking “I WILL have a Lamborghini” or “Jim” is a foolish waste of time. Those kind of thoughts are more self-deception than positive thinking because they’re reinforcing a solid state of being rather than a skillful manner of doing. They are result-oriented aspirations rather than method-oriented. They render you powerless. Of course they don’t help. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. We don’t need a study to tell us that!
The practice of lovingkindness is about uncovering the truth of our experience. We open our hearts and look at our reactions to the wish for all beings – ourselves included – to be happy. We don’t know the answer. We don’t know what we’re going to feel. We’re not tricking or kidding ourselves. We come to the practice and the investigation with the attempt to open our hearts. That’s not delusional convincing. That’s skillful intention. We’ve all heard actor’s talk about how they have to learn to understand and like the character that they’re playing, no matter how evil. Unless you can empathize there’s no possible way you can portray truth.
I love this quotation from Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindess (she refers to the practice here in the original Pali word metta):
Of course, in different life situations, many different courses of action might be appropriate. But the point here is that metta does not mean that we denigrate ouselves in *any* situation in order to uphold other people’s happiness. Authentic intimacy is not brought about by denying our own desire to be happy in unhappy deference to others, nor by denying others in narcissistic deference to ourselves. Metta means equality, oneness, wholeness. To truly walk the way of the Buddha, to avoid the extremes of addiction and self-hatred, we must walk in friendship with ourselves as well as with all beings.
While practicing metta in class last night I came to the realization that the best thing we can do for anyone in this world is to really see them. To sympathize, not judge, not rush to conclusions, to pay attention to them and to have compassion. When we really attempt to understand a person we come much closer to truth and reality than we ever could get by drawing conclusions based on generalizations or us-against-them judgement. It’s when we really really listen that we find that equality, oneness and wholeness of reality.
*Not that I or anyone I know in this world go to events called “cocktail parties” which, as I understand them, are early evening house parties where everyone dresses in clothes that they could also wear to a wedding and talks about German philosophic interpretation of pop culture and you come to grips with the ennui and emptiness of your well-compensated job in the literary business and overly attractive, highly achieving yet emotionally unavailable spouse.