I forgot to mention one other travel-related item from my Thanksgiving trip to Michigan. Sitting on the plane heading back to San Francisco, from my aisle seat, I could hear tinny speaker sounds evidently coming from the headphones of the man in the window seat. I considered just putting up with the minor annoyance, but fell prey to the same line of thought that has caused so much unnecessary conflict, both minor and major, over the decades: maybe if I speak up, the person who is doing the thing I don’t like will be delighted to stop doing it. You’d think I’d know by now how rarely this is the case.
I had exchanged pleasantries with the man’s wife, in the middle seat, and now turned to her and asked, in my finest faux-innocent manner, “Do you hear a tinny sort of speaker noise?” She immediately turned to her husband and loudly told him to turn it down. Then it dawned on me that it was turned up so high because he was hard of hearing, and then I felt terrible for probably making him feel self-conscious.
On Christmas Eve, Tom and F. and I drove to Sacramento in the car Tom’s co-worker lends him every year over the holidays in exchange for a ride to the airport and for his moving the car from place to place so it doesn’t get a parking ticket. We had a really nice evening at Ann’s, along with Steve and Julie. Ann and Julie made us a perfect dinner of lasagna, salad and soft rolls. We didn’t exchange any gifts beyond Steve giving us his beautiful family calendar, as he has done for many years now.
A couple of fruit flies made their way into my apartment from the compost bin a floor below my kitchen window and were quite pesky until I put three drops of lemongrass oil into a small metal cup and set it on the counter. The fruit flies not only stopped trying to sit on the edge of my cereal bowl but left the entire apartment and have not been seen since.
I’m still slowly working my way through Rob Burbea’s book Seeing That Frees. It can be thought of as a collection of ways to meditate, though I mainly try out his ideas during the rest of the day. Some require some reflection or analysis, such as thinking about what factors caused something to occur. He recommends considering past inner and outer conditions, and present inner and outer conditions. At first, this sounded like way too much work—you certainly wouldn’t want to do this for everything that happens—but doing it even a couple of times was illuminating.
For instance, someone spills something on the kitchen floor. Past inner conditions: He was a dreamy child who was often lost in an imaginary world and did not attend to details. Past outer conditions: His parents often yelled at him and even spanked him for small domestic mishaps, and so he now feels tense when moving around a kitchen, making him even more likely to drop something. Present inner conditions: He knows he is late for work and accordingly is hurrying. Present outer conditions: The fact that it is past the time he should have left for work. Seeing all this makes it harder to feel annoyed.
Trying out another suggestion, we can reflect on what identities we have assigned to ourselves and consider if they are really factual. We may say, “I’m such-and-such type of person”: I’m generous, I’m angry, I’m altruistic, I’m fearful. However, if there are times when we don’t act that way, or even act the opposite way, we can’t really assert such a thing as true.
When we are having an unpleasant experience, Burbea suggests making the quality of unpleasantness itself our temporary object of attention. A physical pain can seem to be steadily unpleasant, but moment to moment examination can reveal that some moments are less unpleasant than others, or even not unpleasant at all.
The quality of pleasantness, unpleasantness or neither is known by the Pali word vedana and is a particularly fruitful thing to be mindful of, because it sits between having a pleasant or unpleasant experience and the grasping or aversion that cause the bulk of our suffering. Meanwhile, when things are neither pleasant nor unpleasant, we can tend to space out or drift into a fantasy. Being conscious of vedana and accommodating the experience of it can handily interrupt these oft-repeated progressions.