Saturday, November 26, 2011

IF by Rudyard Kipling


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son

(Rudyard Kipling)

Saturday, November 12, 2011


In the library today, I found these verses, from the 'Eight Verses of Thought Transformation' by Langri Tangpa.

I will learn to cherish beings of bad nature
And those pressed by strong sins and sufferings.
May I cherish them as the rarest find,
Like chancing upon a treasury of jewels.

When others feel jealous of me
And abuse and attack me wrongly,
I will learn to take all loss
And offer the victory to them.

When one whom I have benefitted with great hope
Unreasonably hurts me very badly,
I will learn to view that person
As an excellent spiritual guide.

At first, this may seem a strange attitude.  You may think: if I offer bad people the victory, and cherish them, then they will take advantage of me!  But think of it from the point of view of learning.  If the aim is to become a better person, then bad people, who attack us wrongly, and hurt us unreasonably, have the potential to help us to improve ourselves.  They can be our coaches, training us to a better nature, if we can respond kindly, and overcome any temptation to react badly.

So, next time someone acts badly towards you, try not to attack them back.  Try to be glad that you are being given the opportunity to practise patience!

NOTE: does this mean we always give in?  No.  As the Dalai Lama comments:
"Where it says that we should accept defeat and offer the victory to others, we have to differentiate two kinds of situation.  If, on the one hand, we are obsessed with our own welfare and very selfishly motivated, we should accept defeat and offer victory to the other, even if our life is at stake. But if, on the other hand, the situation is such that the welfare of others is at stake, we have to work very hard and fight for the rights of others, and not accept the loss at all."

For more commentary, by the Dalai Lama, on the 'Eight Verses of Thought Transormation', see:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


On the radio this morning, a doctor was talking about a patient of his, named Martha.  At regular intervals, Martha suffers from amnesia, and needs to be reminded of crucial elements of her life.  One key piece of information she forgets, is that her husband died a while ago.  At regular intervals, then, Martha will ask where her husband is.  The doctor's dilemma is what to say in reply.  If the doctor tells the whole truth: 'Your husband has died', then Martha becomes extremely upset, and suffers a grieving process.  Then, later, if she forgets again, and asks once more, then if the doctor repeats the information, Martha yet again will suffer extreme grief.  The question is this: is it better to tell the whole truth every time, causing extreme grief every time; or is it better to withhold the truth in the interests of avoiding suffering?  Martha has two daughters.  One accepts the withholding of information to avoid suffering.  But the other daughter believes quite strongly that to withhold an important truth is abusive, and the truth should be told, however much suffering it causes.  Which daughter is right?

We will all have a natural response to the dilemma.  For my own part, I have a strong instinctive preference for telling the truth at all costs.  If someone asks me something, I will feel constrained to reply as clearly as possible, because I have a strong belief that the truth is an important possession, and we steal it from others if we withhold it.  However, I am aware that different people have different instinctive responses to the same dilemma.  I remember my parents making decisions to withhold information from their children in order to avoid suffering: they clearly believed that children should be protected from certain truths, so that they could grow up happy and content.

One of the important principles for the doctor mentioned above, was the principle of acting in the best interests of the patient.  Under this principle, it would be clearly wrong for a doctor to withhold information simply because it made the doctor's life easier - that would not be prioritising the patient.  But even if we accept the principle 'always consider the best interests of the other person', it does not resolve a major dilemma, which is this: is it in someone's best interests to know the truth, even if it makes them suffer?  Or is it better for them to remain unknowing, if that keeps them happier?

In practice, one way we resolve this dilemma is by using another overriding principle: that of consent.  We are able to ask the other person: would you rather know, or not know?  For instance, the doctor could ask Martha in the example above: 'Martha, when you forget, do you want us to remind you, when you ask, that your husband is dead?'  If Martha says yes, then the decision is made.  If she says no, then equally, the decision is made.

However, there is one more important factor which we can control, even if we choose to tell the truth.  We can decide where to direct the attention of the person.  In the example of Martha above, it may be that she can be distracted onto other subjects: perhaps she has children or family to think about, which will draw her attention away from the sad fact of her husband's death.  As a parent, although I always tried to tell my children the truth about everything, I was still able to manage the focus of our attention, so that we didn't become too obsessed by one thing.  In this way, even if we decide to share the truth with people frequently, we can still take responsibility for helping to manage awareness, so that sad truths are counterbalanced by happier things.

Think for a moment about what you tell yourself.  In a way, every moment of the day, we are in the position of Martha.  Our mind is always asking us: 'What is happening? Where is everybody?'  And we are also in the position of the doctor!  How shall we reply to ourselves?  Shall we keep on reminding ourselves of sad things, or focus on happy things?  The issues of consent and attention apply to our self-management.  Ask yourself: 'When I am ready to think about life, where do I want my attention to focus?  Do I want to hear the truth?  And even if I make myself aware of the truth, and accept it, what shall I do then?  Shall I draw my attention to happy things, or sad things?'

The above example of Martha is extreme.  But it reminds us strongly that we all have a responsibility to make good choices about sharing the truth, and focusing attention, with those we care for, and even with ourselves.  The decisions aren't easy, but perhaps the important thing is to  keep in mind the best interests of the person we are dealing with.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Experts behave differently from novices.  Think of many areas of activity: football, chess, particle physics - in all these spheres of human endeavour, we acknowledge that there is such a thing as an expert, and such a thing as a novice.  In relationships, too, some people act like perpetual novices, always making the same mistakes; and some people manage to graduate to a level which many would recognize as 'relationship expert'.  I am not just talking about the traditional 'relationship experts' - therapists, counsellors, and publicized 'gurus'.  I am thinking about those around us who seem to be able to conduct relationships in a way that leads to a good level of mutual fulfilment, respect and happiness.  What defines a 'relationship expert'?  Can we learn relationships in the same way as we learn other skills, such as chess?  And, if so, how would we recognize a 'relationship expert' if we saw one?  Perhaps an expert is good at solving problems, in which case a look at psychological research into problem-solving may help…

A problem could be defined as a goal which we have difficulty reaching.  With regard to solving simple problems, human beings have two big behavioural difficulties which are obstacles to good solutions:

1. HABIT - We are very reliant on habit, and tend to just repeat the same solutions time after time
2. IMPATIENCE - We are bad at delaying satisfaction, and tend to choose short-term solutions which may not work in the long term

A relationship novice will, therefore, show two main characteristics.  When faced with a relationship problem, they will repeat the same behaviour as last time (even if it didn't really work last time!).  And they will push for immediate satisfaction instead of playing the long game.  A relationship expert, on the other hand, is not the victim of their own habits, but is flexible enough to use a new solution if it is required.  And secondly, the relationship expert will show a lot of patience in thinking things through carefully from different perspectives.

In general, the relationship expert is characterized by this: their ability to see different perspectives, and patiently adapt their behaviour to suit them.

Another aspect of becoming an expert is the ability to learn from different situations.  This can, for example, involve the ability to 'take a hint'.  Life does not put up signposts for you  saying: 'Beware, angry response ahead'… we need to learn by analogy: to recognize situations because of a similarity in their underlying structure.  People who are bad at relationships tend to be bad at recognizing particular patterns until it is too late.  You hear them say things like: 'I always choose the wrong partners.'  What they should really say is: 'I am bad at responding to damaging situations until it is too late.'

The inability to learn from experience can be divided into two main aspects:

1. Inability to recognize - some people simply can't 'read' other people's hints or expressions.  The 'code' that is usually available to the rest of us, is not available to them.  To become relationship experts, these people need to improve their ability to watch, listen to, and interpret, others' actions.

2. Inability to respond appropriately - some people can recognize a problem, and may even know the solution.  But their problem is behavioural: they can't make themselves do the right thing.  You hear them say things like: 'I just couldn't help myself.'  This is a clue that their difficulty is one of self-control.  They can see the right thing clearly enough; but they just can't do it.  To become relationship experts, these people need to improve their ability to master their own actions.

Studies of chess expertise have found that chess masters do not necessarily have greater basic intelligence - but they do have the ability to organize their knowledge in meaningful patterns.  In other words, they can recognize and remember situations, using their experience to 'map out' the territory in a more memorable way.  If this translates to relationship expertise, then relationship experts are not necessarily more clever, but they are better at spotting important patterns and situations, and responding accordingly.  Practice seems to have a big effect - psychologists generally estimate that it takes around 10 years to become an expert in a field, and relationships may be no different.  So expect yourself to take at least 10 years of tough practice to become expert at relationships in a particular context - for example, in a new culture or work area… or even with a new person!  Learn attentively until you become very familiar with people and situations.

So, to become an expert in more complicated relationship issues, be prepared to become a little bit 'obsessed' with the subject; pay attention carefully, and get lots of practice in different situations.

In summary, perhaps there are three things that can turn us into relationship experts:

1. RECOGNIZE - Learn to interpret other people's behaviour.  Spend time with them until you feel you understand why they act the way they do.

2. CONTROL - Learn to control yourself.  Use meditation, and other self-discipline exercises, to improve your ability to defer gratification and be flexible.

3. PRACTICE - Get plenty of practice with other people - remember, it takes around 10 years to become an expert!

Further reading on aspects of relationship research: