My Favorite Pastime: Complaining
by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron©
I don't know about
you, but I frequently find myself indulging in my favorite pastime,
complaining. Well, it's not exactly my favorite one, because it
makes me more miserable than I was before, but it's certainly one
that I engage in often enough. Of course, I don't always see what
I'm doing as complaining - in fact, I often think I'm simply telling
the truth about the world. But when I really look carefully, I am
forced to acknowledge that my woebegone statements are actually
What constitutes complaining?
One dictionary defines it as "An expression of pain, dissatisfaction,
or resentment." I would add that it's a statement of dislike,
blame, or judgment that we whine about repeatedly. Why say it once
when we can indulge in our misery?
Contents of Complaints
What do we complain about? You name it - we
can complain about it. My flight has been cancelled. The auto insurance
company refused to hear my claim. It's too hot. It's too cold. My
dog is in a bad mood.
We complain about our wealth, or lack of it.
I just saw a bumper sticker that said, "I'm too poor to vote
Republican." Who ever has enough money? It's not fair that
others have more than we do and that they have better opportunities
to earn it.
We complain about our health. This is not limited
to just the ill and elderly. Those of us who are precocious start
complaining about our body from day one. "My knees hurt, my
back hurts. My allergies are acting up. I have a headache. My cholesterol
is too high. I'm exhausted. My heart beats irregularly. My kidneys
don't work right. My little toe is infected."
One of the juiciest topics of complaint is
others' actions and personalities. We're all like mental gossip
"My colleague at work doesn't turn in his work on time."
"My boss is too bossy."
"My employees are ungrateful."
"After everything I did for my kids, they moved to another
town, and they don't come home for holidays."
"I'm fifty, and my parents are still trying to run my life."
"This person talks too loud."
"That one doesn't talk loudly enough, and I always have to
ask her to repeat what she said."
Complaining about political leaders and the
government - not just our own, but others' too - is a national pastime.
We bemoan unfair policies, the brutality of oppressive regimes,
the injustice of the justice system, and the cruelty of the global
economy. We write e-mails to friends who have the same political
views as we do and hope they will do something to change the situation.
In essence, we complain about anything and
everything that meets with our disapproval.
Why Do We Complain?
We complain for a variety of reasons. In all
the cases, we're looking for something, even though we may not be
aware of what it is at the time.
Sometimes we complain because we simply want
someone to recognize our suffering. Once they do, something inside
us feels satisfied, but until they do, we go on and on telling our
story. For example, we may tell the story of a dear one's betrayal
of our trust. When our friends try to fix our problem, we feel more
frustrated. We may even feel that they're not hearing us. But when
they say, "You must be very disappointed," we feel heard
- our misery has been acknowledged - and we say no more.
At other times, it isn't so simple. For example,
we may repeatedly complain about our health out of self-pity or
the wish to gain others' sympathy. Others may show they understand,
but no matter what they say or do for us, we are dissatisfied and
continue to lament.
We may complain in the hopes that someone will
fix our problem. Instead of asking someone directly for help, we
recount our sad story again and again in the hopes that he will
get the message and change the situation for us. We may do this
because we're too lazy or frightened to try to solve the problem
ourselves. For instance, we complain to a colleague about a disturbing
situation at work in the hopes that she will go to the manager about
We complain to vent our emotions and our feelings
of powerlessness. We criticize government policies, the corruption
of CEOs, and the politicking of the politicians that prevents them
from actually caring for the country. We dislike these things, but
we feel powerless to change them, so we preside over what amounts
to a court case - either mentally or with our friends - in which
we prosecute, convict, and banish the people involved.
"Venting" is often used to justify
ranting to whomever about whatever we want. One friend told me that
he regularly hears people say, "I just have to vent! I'm so
angry, I just can't help it." They seem to feel that they will
explode if they don't let off some steam. But I wonder about that.
Shouldn't we take into account the consequences, for ourselves and
others, of venting? In the Buddha's teachings we find many other
options to resolve our frustration and anger without spewing out
Discussing vs. Complaining
What is the difference between complaining and
discussing certain topics in a constructive way? It lies in our
attitude - our motivation - for speaking. Discussing a situation
involves taking a more balanced approach, in which we actively try
to understand the origin of the problem and think of a remedy. In
our mind we become proactive, not reactive. We assume responsibility
for what is our responsibility and stop blaming others when we cannot
control a situation.
Thus, we can discuss our health without complaining
about it. We simply tell others the facts and go on. If we need
help, we ask for it directly, instead of lamenting in the hopes
that someone will rescue us or feel sorry for us. Similarly, we
can discuss our financial situation, a friendship gone awry, an
unfair policy at work, the uncooperative attitude of a salesperson,
the ills of society, the misconceptions of political leaders, or
the dishonesty of CEOs without complaining about them. This is far
more productive, because discussion with knowledgeable people can
help give us a new perspective on the situation, which, in turn,
helps us deal with it more effectively.
Antidotes to Complaining
For Buddhist practitioners, several meditations
act as healthy antidotes to the habit of complaining. Meditating
on impermanence is a good start; seeing that everything is transient
enables us to set our priorities wisely and determine what is important
in life. It becomes clear that the petty things we complain about
are not important in the long run, and we let them go.
Meditating on compassion is also helpful. When
our mind is imbued with compassion, we don't see others as enemies
or as obstacles to our happiness. Instead, we see that they do harmful
actions because they wish to be happy but don't know the correct
method for attaining happiness. They are, in fact, just like us:
imperfect, limited sentient beings who want happiness and not suffering.
Thus we can accept them as they are and seek to benefit them in
the future. We see that our own happiness, in comparison to the
problematic situations others' experience, is not so important.
Thus we are able to view others with understanding and kindness,
and automatically any inclination to complain about, blame, or judge
Meditating on the nature of cyclic existence
is another antidote. Seeing that we and others are under the influence
of ignorance, anger, and clinging attachment, we abandon idealistic
visions that things should be a certain way. As a friend always
says to me when I mindlessly complain, "This is cyclic existence.
What did you expect?" Well, I suppose that at that moment,
I expected perfection, i.e. that everything should happen the way
I think it should, the way I want it to. Examining the nature of
cyclic existence frees us from such unrealistic thinking and from
the complaining it foments.
In his Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life,
Shantideva counsels us, "If something can be changed, work
to change it. If it cannot, why worry, be upset, and complain?"
Wise advice. We need to remember it when the urge arises to complain.
When Others Complain
What can we do when someone incessantly
complains to us about something we cannot do anything to change?
Depending on the situation, I've discovered a few things to do.
One person I know is the chief of all
complainers. She is melodramatic about her ailments, sucks others
into her predicaments, and tries to turn all attention to her suffering.
At first I avoided her, since I disliked hearing her complaints.
When that didn't work, I told her that she had nothing to complain
about. That definitely backfired. Finally, I learned that if I earnestly
smile and am playful, she loosens up. For example, in our classes,
she would consistently be asking others to move because she was
so uncomfortable. Since I sat directly in front of her, her complaints
affected me. At first my mind recoiled with, "You have more
space than anyone else!" Later, I became more tolerant and
would joke with her about the "throne" she had made to
sit on. I pretended to lean back and rest on her desk which edged
into my back. She would tickle me, and we've become friends.
Another technique is to change the subject.
I had an elderly relative who, whenever I visited, would complain
about every member of the family. Needless to say, this was boring,
and I was dismayed to see him work himself into a bad mood. So,
in the middle of a tale, I would take something he had said and
lead the discussion in another direction. If we were complaining
about someone's cooking, I would ask if he had looked at the delicious
sounding-recipes in the Sunday paper. We would begin to talk about
the paper, and he would forget his previous complaints in preference
to more satisfying topics of discussion.
Reflective listening is also an aid.
Here we take someone's suffering seriously and listen with a compassionate
heart. We reflect back to the person the content or the feeling
he or she expresses: "It sounds like the diagnosis frightened
you." "You were relying on your son to take care of that,
and he was so busy he forgot. That left you in the lurch."
Sometimes we get the feeling that others
complain simply to hear themselves talk, that they don't really
want to resolve their difficulties. We sense that they've told the
story many times in the past to various people and are stuck in
a rut of their own making. In this case, I put the ball in their
court by asking, "What ideas do you have for what can be done?"
When they ignore the question and return to complaining, I ask again,
"What ideas to you have for what could help in this situation?"
In other words, I refocus them on the question at hand, instead
of allowing them to get lost in their tales. Eventually, they begin
to see that they could change their view of the situation or their
But when all else fails, I return to
my favorite pastime - complaining - when I can ignore their ailments
and sink into the sticky slime of my own. Oh, the luxury of venting
my judgments and airing my troubles!