God is Not One: Praxis #2 Exercise: Right Relationships

Sage Bennet didn’t have any exercises for Confucianism and the articles in Scott Alexander’s book where focused on partnerships, marriages, child raising and grief and loss–all good topics but none of which really felt right to me for our exploration of Confucian propriety. Branching out further I found a chapter in Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project (available at all the normal outlets including the public library) on friendship. In this book Gretchen documents her year of trying to be happier. She suggests that being a happier person will go a long way to making you a better person, or a Confucians might say becoming a junzi or exemplary person. The book documents both the activities Rubin chooses to engage in to increase her happiness and her achievements and stumbles along the way. Beginning in January, each month she focuses on a different aspect of her life.

In June she decides to “make time for friends.” Happiness researchers agree that having strong social bonds is perhaps the most powerful contributor to an individual’s happiness. Since friendship is the one Confucian relationship we can all engage in and in the modern world, friendships are often the model for the other Confucian relationship, I would like us to focus our spiritual discipline for the next week on relationships using some of Rubin’s ideas for making time for friendships. If you’d rather focus on a different one of the Five Relationships, perhaps you can use some of her ideas as well.

Rubin lists five activities for strengthening her friendships: remember birthdays, be generous, don’t gossip, make three new friends and show up. One way to strengthen the bonds with friends is remember their birthdays. Rubin decides to at least send out email birthday wishes and sets about to collect the birth dates of her friends and put them into an internet site (it appears that the site she chose no longer exists but there are other manual and automated way to collect and keep birthday information). Although it’s tedious for her to collect birthday information from her friends, she says she finds it quite rewarding to have done so and looks forward to staying closer to her friends. What about you? Do you send birthday greetings to your friends? If not, do you think that would help strengthen the bonds between you and your friends?

Rubin’s second activity is to be generous. She notes that we generally get more satisfaction out of going good deeds for others than by being on the receiving end of such support. She calls this the Secret of Adulthood: do good to feel good. Rubin had to consider what, within the confines of her own personality, she could do to be more generous. After rejecting such obvious choices as buying gifts for her friends, she hit upon some activities she could use to exhibit more generosity. She both hit upon something that worked for her and the idea that one of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. Perhaps for your spiritual discipline for the next week you might want to think about what you could do to exhibit generosity, what could you do that could make your happy by making others happy.

As part of being more generous Rubin also decided to cut people more slack by which she meant not to judge others too harshly for all those little irritations from others we face each day, cell phone ringing at inappropriate times, people that cut us off in traffic, or folks who jostle their way to the front of the line, for example. Do you think cutting others more slack would make you happier, would it, as Confucians might say, show your commitment to becoming a exemplary person?

Rubin’s third activity involved not action but inaction–giving up on gossip. Gossip has an important social role in reinforcing community values, making people feel closer to each other and exposing the bad behavior of others. It’s often fun, but not very nice and often make us feel bad after the fact. As Rubin discovered, giving up gossip is very difficult. Most of us love a good gossip session, even if we do feel bad afterwards. If you decide to give up gossiping this week, I’d love to hear about it. Were you successful? How did you feel when you avoiding gossip — and when you didn’t?

New friends expand your world and provide the opportunity for new interests, opportunities and activities. For many of us, making new friends is difficult and setting a goal, as Rubin did, seems a bit cold-blooded and calculating. However, she discovered that changing her attitude from “Do I like you? Do I have time to get to know you?” to “Are you someone who will be one of my three friends?” caused a shift in her behavior. She says it made her more open to people, prompted her to make an effort to go beyond the perfunctory hello, and in general caused her to act friendlier in many social situations. By acting friendlier, she began to feel friendlier. Looking for new friends also pushed her to work harder at making a good first impression so others would be interested in befriending her. She developed a check list for first encounters: smile more frequently, actively invite others to join a conversation, create a positive mood, open a conversation, try to look accessible and warm, show your vulnerable side, laugh at yourself, show a readiness to be pleased, follow others’ conversational leads and ask questions. Do you think actively trying to make new friends is artificial? Would you be willing to try it for a week? Let us know in the comments.

Rubin’s final activity is “show up.” She discusses how much of life depends on being there. In the case of friendships, showing up means making consistent efforts to be there with and for your friends. She note the many simple gestures we extend to each other help to deepen casual friendships and confirm the closeness between good friends. She talks about visiting her friends with new babies, going to the grand opening of a friend’s new store, going to her husband’s office party and attending events at her daughter’s school. Being with friends tends to deepen relationships. She says, “The more you see a person, the more intelligent and attractive you’ll find that person.… and the more that person likes [you].” Perhaps this week you make an effort to be with your friends, to just show up.

Potential spiritual practices for this week:

  • Remember birthdays
  • Be generous
  • Don’t gossip
  • Make three new friends
  • Show up

Choose one as your spiritual discipline for this week, then come back here and tell us how it went.

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