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Noncontentiousness

A Talk by Ines Freedman (IMC, August 28, 2005)
(Transcribed and lightly edited by S.C.L. Eiler)

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Gil asked me to give a short talk today and leave plenty of time for discussion; so, I’m going to talk about contentiousness and practice in daily life. Towards the end of my last retreat I realized, became very aware of the difference and the quality of my attention during formal meditation and in the rest of my life. I realized that a balanced life involves giving daily life the same quality of attention as the formal meditation practice. In meditation, I primarily use my breath as the anchor. I may pay attention to all the different types of things that come up—desire, aversion, restlessness, doubt—but then I always come back to my breath. So the question for me was, what can I use as an anchor in daily life when I’m busy running around doing a million things, when I’m involved in intense conversations, lots of emotions, lots of busyness?

Throughout the years I’ve used my breath to anchor myself but I found that I quickly got lost and distracted. I realized how much of my life I wasn’t awake for. I felt I needed just something, a little bit of something else. I paid attention to what I noticed was one of my most recurring mental states, and that’s what I call, “contentiousness.” Contentiousness is resisting or fighting what is. I noticed that every time I wasn’t happy, it was because I wanted something to be different than it was. It could be minor, something like it’s just a little too warm, with just a flavor of contentiousness, or something much stronger, like reading the news about our political situation; but it was still the same quality, contentiousness with what is, any form of resistance to what is. So I came up with a formula that I try to use throughout the day; I call it “neck, N-E-C-K.”

As the neck supports the head, this NECK supports my practice in daily life. Of course, having been a chiropractor, that kind of comes naturally to me. NECK stands for, noncontentiousness, embodiment, continuity of practice and kindness. The first letter, “N,” noncontentiousness, I could have used acceptance or letting go, which are all really skillful terms. But for me, it was very important to actually recognize what I seem to be doing so much of the time; to recognize that I’m actually resisting what’s going on, which is completely useless. Being irritated by the weather doesn’t make a hot day any more pleasant. It doesn’t make me any cooler. Being angry that there’s too much traffic and I might be late doesn’t make the traffic any better, doesn’t get me there on time. Like Yogi Bruce says, “If you argue with reality, you lose.”

Noncontentiousness doesn’t mean I may not do something about a situation if I’m able to. It means that I accept that it’s there to begin with, that this is what’s happening, that my heart is not entangled. It allows me to respond skillfully to a situation. Being irritated with our government doesn’t help me act more skillfully or effectively. Instead, just the opposite. Being contentious actually takes energy; it tires us to be contentious. It’s a state of stress. We can waste our energy by focusing on how we think things should be different, instead of focusing on what we can do to make them better.

As I started to look at this quality more carefully, I became interested in how prevalent it was in my life. I noticed thoughts like, ‘I’m tired,’ and then the contentiousness that came with it hand-in-hand, ‘I shouldn’t be so tired, I shouldn’t feel this way;’ or the thought would arise, ‘I have to clean up now,’ and underneath, ‘I wish I didn’t have to clean up now;’ and on and on, this second layer. So as I thought about the prevalence of contentiousness in my life, I decided to add the next letter to my formula, ‘E,’ for embodiment. Contentiousness or resistance is accompanied by certain physical reactions. You can’t feel contentious without somewhere in you tightening up.

Usually the contraction’s either somewhere in the body or in the breath, or both. So I remind myself by taking a deep breath, by relaxing my body. Using the body as my anchor, ‘here I am.’ People check in with their bodies in different ways. They also tense up in many different patterns.

While you’re listening here, pay attention. Is any part of your body right now tense or contracted? You can check your body by paying attention to your breathing. Are you holding your breath? Are you breathing shallowly?

You can check your face. Is your forehead relaxed? Is your jaw? Is your abdomen relaxed? Are your shoulders up by your ears? Are your fists clenched? If you have pain, are you relaxed around the pain?

Thich Nhat Hanh uses a wonderful Gatha. A Gatha is a short phrase that’s used as a reminder for mindfulness during the day. It goes like this: “Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”

The next letter of the acronym is, “C,” for continuity of practice, to remind myself to keep paying attention, to incline my mind to the idea that I want to be awake for my life, for every single part of my life; that every moment counts. There are no in between moments in life. It’s just as important to be aware when I go to the hardware store for an errand as it is for me giving this talk. Another thing I’ve noticed is that I have the habit of being judgmental with any kind of failure, and since contentiousness is an unskillful habit, whenever I’m contentious I tend to think I’ve failed, which happens a lot. So I’ve noticed that even though I may have let go of the initial contentiousness or resistance, and I’ve brought my attention to my body, there often is a subtle residual feeling of failure of judging myself—‘Oh, I blew it! I was contentious,’—which is a form of resistance itself.

So therefore I came up with the last letter of my formula, “K,” for kindness. I remind myself to bring kindness to myself. The Dalai Lama said: “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

Many of you are familiar with the Buddhist loving-kindness practice. It’s a practice of cultivating the heart-felt wish for the well-being and happiness of oneself and others. A common way that we practice here, of doing this, is by repeating several phrases of good will, first towards ourselves, and then systematically towards others. The phrases can be very simple phrases, such as, “may I be happy; may I be peaceful; may I be free of harm.” As the purpose of using this acronym is to use it during daily activities where there isn’t time for a more formal practice, I may use one of the phrases, just, “may I be happy;” or sometimes just the concept of kindness is enough to soften my heart and affect my attitude.

Recently, I was working at the computer trying to finish some work before a deadline. The phone rang and it was a friend who needed to talk. I was torn. I didn’t want to talk then. I wanted to finish my work, but they needed me. Paying attention, I noticed that I was suddenly unhappy. I recognized that I felt contentious with the fact that my friend had even called. I wished they hadn’t, that they didn’t need me right then.

So I connected to how my body felt. My abdomen was tense. I realized that if I chose to talk to my friend, I needed to let go of my contentiousness. Otherwise I couldn’t really be fully present for my friend. I made the choice to talk to them. I took a deep breath and relaxed. I reminded myself to be kind to myself and to my friend, and to let go of any resentment at the interruption. I committed myself to continuity of attention, to stay mindful during the conversation.

During the day, I try to use this formula to work with contentiousness in the body, in the emotions and in my thoughts. I check regularly. If I’m not peaceful then I’m usually contentious. Another useful thing for me about using this acronym, NECK, is that it reminds me of my physical posture. I recognize that my posture can reflect my attitude in life. How do I hold my head? It’s amazing sometimes how much energy can arise when I just sit up or stand up straight when I’m slumping.

It’s easy to see that the things we don’t like cause resistance or contentiousness, but desire also often says this isn’t good enough, and that, that will be. The feeling of, ‘not good enough,’ can be a form of contentiousness. In Buddhism, the most refined type of love and the last of the Paramis or The Ten Perfections is considered to be equanimity. Equanimity is a mental state that’s rich and alive and it doesn’t want anything to be different. But it’s much easier to notice what gets in the way of equanimity than somehow just trying to be equanimous.

I find that I work with contentiousness in several major different areas of my life: in the body, with emotions, in relationships, in work and play and in thinking. One major area is in the body. I’d like you all to just take a minute right now and close your eyes. Pay attention to your body. How do you feel right now?

Do you have any pain, any discomfort? Do you feel too warm? Do you feel cold? How’s your energy level? Are you contentious with any part of your physical experience? Is there anything you feel resistant to? And are you holding yourself kindly?

(Silence)

Go ahead and open your eyes. How many of you experienced any contentiousness just now? Just raise your hands. It’s pretty prevalent, huh? Contentiousness is insidious.

If you’re aware that you’re aging, how often are you contentious with the fact that there’s something you may no longer able to do, or do as well as you used to? If you’re a runner, how often are you saying, “I’m not fast enough, I didn’t run far enough.” Or, if you practice yoga, how often are you saying, “I’m just not flexible enough.” Or, when you’re meditating, “I wasn’t able to concentrate long enough. I didn’t pay attention to enough breaths.”

Another area we can work with this is with emotions. I may notice anger arise during a conversation. That’s a very overt and obvious form of contentiousness; it’s actually what most people think of when they hear the word. I remind myself that my purpose is to be non-contentious. By framing it this way, it’s easier for me not to take the anger so personally. It helps me to see it as just another form of not liking what is.

I incline my mind in the direction of letting go of the anger. I don’t insist on letting go of it; it may take time. Then I connect with my body and pay attention to where I’m contracted. Is my stomach tight, tense, my face, my hands? What can I let go of right now? I then incline my mind with kindness, to myself and to who I’m with. I don’t demand it of myself, but I also don’t feed the anger. I gently go in that direction, in the direction of letting go of the anger.

One of the most difficult things for me has been to work with underlying emotional states. It’s pretty obvious to notice when you get angry; there’s no two ways about it, you’re angry. You see it come, and then when it’s gone you realize how different you feel. But there can be a prevalent, background emotional state that sometimes can last for days. That’s much harder to recognize. I might just know that I’m just not happy but not know why. It just feels like this underlying feeling; and it’s been very hard to work with, when you get that subtle thing that you just have no idea why it’s there. What I’ve been able to notice is that I’m contentious about it, I don’t like it, I don’t want it to be there; and by being aware of that it becomes much more workable.

The next very rich area to work with is what Gregory Kramer calls, “social dukkha.” I love the concept because it really puts our difficult interactions with people in the context of practice. Any time I don’t feel peaceful in an interaction, I can go to my formula. Am I being contentious? If I find myself wanting to impress someone, what’s really happening? I’m being contentious with how I might be seen.

I may be contentious with how the other person is. If I’m judgmental I’m fighting what is. They talk too slow. They’re too egotistical. The myriad of judgments we make which keep us fully from appreciating who we’re with. I become aware of it, maybe take a deep breath, connect with my body, and remind myself to be kind to both of us, to myself for being judgmental.

Another very challenging area to work with is when we’re doing things that demand a lot of our attention, such as both work and play. The same issues might apply. We might have a deadline at work; so, there might be an underlying feeling of urgency, ‘I have to get this done quickly,’ which can keep us grim and tight. It doesn’t help us get it done any more quickly. Actually, physiologically, when we feel urgent, when we feel stressed, it reduces the blood flow to the brain and to the rest of the body, and we actually function less efficiently than we do when we’re at ease. A moment of checking our attitude and posture can very rapidly sometimes change our state. Even in play, let’s say we’re playing a game like racket ball and there’s an underlying feeling of, ‘I’ve got to get this point,’ or ‘I’ve got to win this game.’ The contentiousness takes us out of our bodies, into our thoughts, and out of the zone, which is usually where you play best.

The next area that’s challenging, and the last area I’ll talk about, is thinking. When we have gaps between what we’re actually doing physically or who we’re interacting with, there’s lots of time to think, probably a lot more time than we realize. How we spend that time, if we’re worrying or contentious with the potential future. Our thinking time can be very productive time: a time to make plans, a time for reflection; but how much of our planning time is really productive? How much of it is just worry about the future in disguise? If we’re not aware that the underlying drive is fear and what might happen, then the planning isn’t clear or useful, it can just become repetitive and compulsive. I’m sure you’ve all noticed in meditation sometimes, you’ll make the same plan over, and over and over again. As Mark Twin said, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.”

How much time are we spending regretting the past? Regret is saying that the past shouldn’t have happened. How useful is that? Regretting the past is not reflection. It has the quality of judgment, of contraction.

When we’re regretting the past we’re rarely learning from it; we’re just resisting that it even happened at all. For me, checking with my body while I’m thinking let’s me know if my thinking is skillful; if I’m not relaxed and at peace I’m contentious. So, practicing the formula, I notice and consciously let go of my resistance. I gently correct my posture if needed. I may take a deep breath; and I incline myself in kindness.

So that’s it for today. I’d like to hear any questions or comments from you. In particular, I’d like to hear when you find it most difficult to be present in your daily life. But anything else we’re open to.

***

QUESTIONS

Student 1: Thanks for your talk, Ines. It’s wonderful to see one of our members elevated to speaker and teacher. It was wonderful. My memory being what it is, can you tell us what NECK stands for again?

Ines: Noncontentiousness, Embodiment, Continuity and Kindness.

Student 2: Ines, there’s someone at work that’s really irritating to me, and I’m trying really hard to deal with that; so, what’s a good plan?

Ines: The first thing that I do with something that’s recurring, that won’t go away, is I accept the fact that I might be irritated. That’s the very first thing, because I find that if I’m saying to myself, ‘I shouldn’t be irritated, I should be more evolved than this,’ that automatically sets me up in conflict with myself. The next thing is I pay attention to my body, and it really helps to ground myself and pay attention to where I’m contracting. Usually when I’m irritated, I tend to get tight in my chest. That’s where I get tight, but everybody’s a little bit different. Then I try to be kind to myself, that I am irritated and that I have some compassion towards myself for having those feelings; and then if I can, I try to generate those feelings towards the other person, at least wish them to be happy.

Student 3: I’m just sort of thinking out loud here, and I’m trying to think, what’s the positive aspect of seeing something you don’t like?

Ines: Of what?

Student 3: Seeing something you don’t like. It seems to me that there is something, there’s another way of going about this, looking at the past and saying, “oh, that could have been better,” and thinking about what you might do to make it better; and I can think of something for the “K,” trying to make your suggestions with kindness. But is there something else to say about this sort of thing? I hope you don’t mean by, “contentiousness,” I guess I could ask you to repeat your definition, but it seems to me that it’s not always negative to look in the past and see how there is something that you don’t like.

Ines: I think I’d like to clarify that. When you look at the past, reflection is looking at the past usefully. It’s like saying, “okay, this is what I did, or, “this is what happened, and this is how I can learn from it;” but often what we’re doing is just looking at the past and saying, “oh, I had a terrible childhood and that’s why I’m screwed up,” and it just kind of goes in this cycle over and over again, and that doesn’t help. Whereas, if you say, “this is what happened to me in my childhood and I’m going to definitely not do this to my kids,” that’s really useful. So, I’m not sure if there’s anything else you’re asking with that.

Student 3: Maybe just another thing about, something about making suggestions, and how that fits in.

Ines: Making suggestions?

Student 3: I mean, that’s something I sometimes can think of doing as a way of dealing with something I don’t like, is to, if I think of a better way. There’s still some contentiousness in maybe another sense, when you try to make suggestions and people don’t take it well. So there’s a bit of kindness involved there too.

Ines: When you make suggestions to someone else?

Student 3: Yes

Ines: When the Buddha talked about right speech, he said that one of the factors that is really important is timeliness, and often when we want to give a suggestion we have to really be sensitive that the other person actually wants to hear it. What I find in my life is that I have very few people that are very close to me who actually want to hear my suggestions. I have a permission with them, those are really close friends; and I’ve given permission to them to tell me anything, because I feel a friend is someone who can really help you be a better person; so, I want to hear anything, I don’t care how painful it is, how difficult, but I want to hear it. And we have those relationships, and those are incredible relationships, are really valuable, but very often people aren’t ready or they don’t want to hear; so, it’s just a matter of being really sensitive to that. And sometimes we’re just wrong and we do it anyway, and we’re not sensitive, and that’s okay, that happens.

Student 4: This is kind of in response to the question about the difficult colleague. With my case, it was my manager, which made it even more difficult, and the suggestion that I got was to look at her as my Buddha, and that everything that she did that irritated me, I took it on as, ‘thank you for bringing that up so that I can work on it.’

I also have a question. This is, you had said you wanted to hear about times when it’s difficult or times when I feel more contentious, right? It’s usually at the beginning of a relationship, when it’s kind of being infatuated; so, that’s the point of being contentious with this desire, in a sense. Then also, at the end of a relationship, when things are ending, and so there’s another layer there, obviously. I guess I’m looking for your thoughts on how one should deal with both of these periods.

Ines: Wow! So, the beginning of a relationship, okay that’s a really exciting time, usually, so what are you contentious with at that time?

Student 4: I think the contentiousness is that I don’t feel as mindful; I feel like I’m not centered, I’m very much jumpy and eager.

Ines: So, what do you want from that situation? What do you want to be different?

Student 4: Well, I think, I don’t want to feel that way; I want to feel calm and peaceful.

Ines: So, what it’s about is embracing the way you actually feel, which isn’t calm and peaceful.

Student 4: Okay.

So, that’s part of life, is feeling uncomfortable. It gets a lot more comfortable when we’re comfortable being uncomfortable. And, at the end of the relationship, what don’t you want to feel at the end of a relationship?

Student 4: It depends on how it ends. If it’s not my choice then of course it’s being contentious in not wanting it to end, and then, I think even if it is my choice, there is still whatever emotions are brought up, and I think the answer is the same, just be with what is: sadness, anger, and whatever is there.

Ines: The other thing that sometimes helps, the Buddha mentioned several reflections that are useful to think about every day, and one of them is the reflection that everything dies, that we all die, and that, that’s impermanence, and holding that. It’s personal; when a relationship ends it’s very personal and very painful. It’s also the universal constant. Hold it with compassion towards yourself, that’s really the most important part.

Student 5: Being a chiropractor, I’d like to hear more about the awareness of the body, because we are in the mind, in anxious, in feeling all those fears, but you talk about your tightness in your breath. Immediately, when you feel that awareness, what do you do? Do you take deeper breaths, are you willing to go out and take a walk, what are some of your antidotes?

Ines: It depends. As I was giving the talk I was thinking more in terms of daily life when you’re very busy. When you’re in the midst of things you can’t really go out and take a walk or go do some stretching, but if you’re home alone and you’re feeling tense, those antidotes are really great. Sometimes, just by being aware of it, like right now, if you’re doing this with your forehead, you’re tightening your forehead; it’s pretty obvious to notice, ‘oh, I’m tightening my forehead.’ Or, if you’re fists are clenched, it’s pretty obvious. So some of the things, my number one practice has been, in terms of connecting with the body, actually it’s been relaxing the abdomen, because I became aware, it actually came from, I took Jean Couch’s class on body balance. I don’t know if any of you have taken that. It’s a wonderful class, you know, many years ago, and she just constantly made us aware of how tight we keep our abdomen all the time, and I would just, actually my husband and I did this for each other, where we would just keep checking in with each other, “is your abdomen relaxed; is your abdomen relaxed?” We did this for a six-week course; we just kept doing it, and doing it and doing it, and it was amazing; almost every time we checked in, we were tight.

So, over the years that has been a really primary place for me to look, and usually if my abdomen’s relaxed, I tend to be relaxed. But people have different emotional patterns, and you have to kind of recognize how you hold your own tension. And different situations cause different areas to tighten up. If I’m worrying, I’ll tend to maybe scrunch up my face, if I’m trying to concentrate or figure something out. If I’m feeling very emotional, it will be my chest or my abdomen. That’s how my body reacts.

I remember, I used to work on someone, and he would lay on the table, and I’d say, “okay, now, relax,” and he’d be sitting there with his fists like this, and I’d say, “okay, relax, relax your head.” And he’d say, “I am, I am.” So everybody’s different. You really have to pay attention. And it really helps to have some sort of practice where you look within your body on a systematic basis, on a regular basis, whether you just take a minute every morning and just kind of scan your body; so, you get in the habit of looking, looking at your body; or whether you practice something like yoga, or tai chi, or chi kung or a number of different practices.

Student 5: Thank you.

Student 6: Ines, great to hear you. Thank you so much. One of my current practices, I guess it’s been about a year now, has been dancing, and I’d like you to comment on these few statements, if you would. When I was new to the dancing, I gave myself a certain kind of slack, and allowed myself to be dorky and new and expected the people to give me space, or whatever. Now that I’ve done it for about a year, I guess I’m getting to the point where I’m embarrassed about some of the non-progress I’ve made. I’ve made amazing progress and I can dance at way higher levels, but the standards that I continue to raise and the bar that I set keeps moving, and I understand it’s a constant practice but I get kind of frustrated. I’m almost more embarrassed now, at times, around going out to dance. I had joy at the six-month period or earlier than this, and I have to continue to renew something in myself to keep it fresh and to not get down on myself around the progress that I’m making, for my expectation. Could you speak about that in the point that you were making?

Ines: The first thing that comes to mind is to remember that dancing is about play and it’s about joy, and not about accomplishment. I think that, that’s what happens when we do something that’s, where our image, what’s happening is your image is becoming more important than your fun, than your joy. And so, just skillfully shifting your attention to how much you’re enjoying yourself instead of how you look, how you appear. It can still allow you to get better. You can still hold the idea that you can improve because it’s fun and challenging to improve, but not because of your image as someone who dances better.

Student 6: It’s interesting; I guess it is my image and my ego that I’m worried about. There’s this constant thing in something like dance, of like, ‘I want that person to like dancing with me; I want that other person to avoid me because I don’t like dancing with them,’ etc. etc. No really, I mean, it’s just all over the place, not that, that’s not the dance of life, but you get to see it a lot on the dance floor really condensed. Thank you.

Ines: Thank you.

Student 7: I just have a question. You were trying to relax your body when you noticed that you have contraction. Isn’t it a form of resisting the experience, like being contentious, like you were saying, that could be the number one conflict when we’re resisting something, whatever state. So, if I’m contracted in the heart or whatever, wherever I am, then I know it, but then if I’m intentionally trying to relax it, almost that to me is I’m resisting, I’m trying to change it.

Ines: We’re trying to be skillful, so what’s actually skillful in this situation? If you’re contracted, if you’re tense, you’re actually hurting yourself; so, it’s not skillful. Changing whatever you’re doing doesn’t mean that you’re resisting your experience. You’re just moving towards what’s skillful. That’s what we do in practice. We train the mind to go into more skillful states.

Being contracted is not a skillful state. Just like, if you put your hand on a hot stove, you want to take it off; it’s not resistance to not want to do that, because it just isn’t unskillful. What’s not skillful is to move away from the contraction too quickly, and maybe that’s what you’re addressing. I remember Gil saying, “sometimes Buddhists let go too quickly.” You want to get peaceful; so, you kind of ignore a whole bunch of stuff, just so you can get peaceful really quickly, and I think that’s what you’re alluding to. Sometimes when we have pain in our heart, in our abdomen, it’s really important to hold it and to actually be able to look at it often. In daily life sometimes you don’t have the time, but when you do have the time; but if you don’t have the time it’s more skillful to drop the tension than to keep it going.

Student 8: Thanks, Ines. You asked the question, what are the circumstances in which we find ourselves contentious or find it difficult to stay peaceful. I just noticed one the other day. When I have maybe three different projects or deadlines or something simultaneously, and I’m kind of worried about all of them, and there’s something that I’ve got to do to all of them or I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to do on time to all of them. They’re kind of all up, and I’m sort of furiously batting between one and the other, or while I’m doing one worrying about the other. And I realized when I left work the other day, ten years ago when I wasn’t a meditator I wouldn’t have even noticed it, but that wow, I’m really in a serene place.

What I noticed was, my mind was just racing back and forth between, ‘okay, so, have I got it under control on this one? Oh no! I’ve got this problem on this one.’ And I’m driving home, like, ‘okay I’ve stopped working for the day, this isn’t doing any good,’ but this racing was going on and it had this very un-serene quality, and there was kind of this sense of juggling. I think part of the holding tight is that, like if I were juggling and I didn’t know how to juggle, ‘oh God, I’ve got to concentrate really hard because another ball’s going to come down any second, while I’m moving this one,’ or something. So, I would love any suggestions about the application of your formula to this kind of situation.

Ines: Mental juggling leaves a residual. You’re doing this so long; you kind of keep doing it when you no longer have to. I really identify with that. Using the formula while you’re busy sometimes can really help put that juggling, you still have to do it to some degree, but it can really help put it in perspective, because you just keep going back to the body, realizing that getting tense doesn’t help you do anything. Worrying doesn’t help; so, just taking that moment to just take the deep breath. When I’m that busy, when I’m that crazy and there are so many phone calls and things going on, I actually try to take, when I’m working on my computer, I try to take ten breaths an hour, ten conscious breaths an hour. Having these little reminders that work for you during these crazy times, sometimes one breath, sometimes just stand up for a moment. If you’re work is sitting and you’re doing all this mental work, just stand up for a moment and stretch, thirty seconds, you can usually take that out of your day and still, you have plenty of time to worry.

But I just realized it’s food time; so, if you’d all like to join us, even if you didn’t bring anything please feel free to join us for the pot luck.

So, thank you all very much.