A compliment I received the other week – a compliment on something I had worked really hard to create – made me feel good.

People often notice the things we didn’t work very hard to create. Various shirts I’ve worn over the years have received much more praise than any music I’ve composed or any essays I’ve labored to write.

I like being told I’m wearing a nice shirt, but all I did was put it on. Taking it off the hanger wasn’t hard; buttoning the buttons was no labor of love. Sewing it was difficult, I’m sure, but I didn’t do that.

A shirt is easy to see, so it’s easy to praise. When you make a complex piece of art or prose, that’s not always the case. People have to discover it and spend time getting to know it and even then they might not know what to say about it. The result is that shirts get the love.

But every once in a while someone notices exactly what you’re trying to do in a creative endeavor and tells you how much they admire it. And this happened to me the other week. I received the sincerest and most caring feedback I could have hoped for.

In the following days, I remembered the compliment from time to time, and it made me feel good all over again.

But as these kind words continued to echo in my mind, their thrill began to fade. This compliment had possessed a sort of magic for me at first – it could transform my mood for the better whenever I happened to think of it – but in the passing days, that magic lost some of its potency.

Of course, the facts of the compliment remained the same – the words that had been said were still thoughtful and heartfelt, and the person’s intent had still been friendly and generous. But I had already relished those words and now I was expecting more from the memory than it could give.

It came as a mild letdown to think of these words and not feel the same satisfaction I’d become accustomed to getting from them. The process of savoring a happy memory had turned into wanting and not receiving.

With its bright colors now faded through repetition, the gray shell of the compliment began to trigger negative thoughts: “Why don’t I receive more compliments like this? I should go out and get more compliments like this. Maybe that person will say something nice again if I show them another thing I’ve done. But that won’t count, because they’ve already praised me – a new compliment should come from a different person. But why do I even bother hoping for recognition if it’s going to leave me unsatisfied like this when I actually receive it?”

Normal life was ongoing at the time, to be clear. I was juggling issues at work, figuring out what I’d make for dinner, taking long walks for exercise, browsing the internet, sleeping, visiting friends, showering, brushing my teeth, writing emails, practicing banjo. The majority of my attention was not occupied by this compliment. It would pop into mind just once in a while, and linger there for a moment or two.

Still, you might say that I was overconsuming the compliment, as if I had been eating too much dessert and now it was time to stop. When a person overconsumes we tell them “Don’t overdo it. Everything in moderation.”

But how could I follow that advice here? I had made no plan for how often I’d think about the compliment, the way we might choose how many scoops of ice cream to put in our bowl. The memory simply appeared in my awareness, here and there, unannounced. I didn’t have much choice about when this would occur. And when was I supposed to decide it had been too much? I wasn’t keeping count. I could have told myself to forget about the compliment but we all know how struggling to forget an idea can make it all the more persistent.

Why would I try to keep the compliment out of mind, in any case? The coaches and the sages say we can be happy by focusing on what’s good in our lives and savoring positive experiences. Wasn’t I doing that? Wasn’t it better that I should return, now and then, to this positive memory instead of fretting over an upcoming dentist appointment, taxes, and the threat of nuclear war?

Earlier in life, I might have been frustrated with myself. “What is wrong with me that a compliment makes me feel so confused? Am I that insecure?”

In doubting myself, I might have doubted the compliment too, placing my faith in a negative reinterpretation. If the compliment seemed faded and hollow now, perhaps I was discovering what had been inside it all along – emptiness? Perhaps my earlier thrill had been a delusion. Now I was properly seeing through that delusion, arriving at a harsher truth that the compliment had been meaningless. 

On second thought, I could view the trajectory of this compliment in my mental landscape as entirely normal. I had had a positive experience – normal. The memory of it had recurred in my mind without any conscious choice or planning on my part – normal. I had enjoyed the good feelings associated with that recurring memory – normal. I had become accustomed to those good feelings – normal. As those good feelings subsided I felt a sense of loss – normal – which in turn triggered secondary thoughts of a more negative sort – normal. The “problem” here was attachment, which itself is normal.

Instead of concluding that I must be a weak person plagued by deep insecurity, or that I must have discovered a harsh truth about the compliment’s lack of worth, I could simply notice that I had become attached. And I was experiencing what Buddhists mean when they say that attachment is the root of suffering.

While it’s true that we can be happier by focusing on positive things and savoring good experiences, the trap of attachment is omnipresent. We can become attached even to things that are healthful or helpful – like a few kind words spoken by a friend with our best interests in mind. 

These attachments need not be taken as signs of a faulty character. They are a normal phenomenon, a part of the everyday dynamics of thought and memory. They’re the way our minds work. But how can we release these attachments that form so easily?

Meditation is a way to practice.

It seems obvious why we’d want to release negative thoughts, worries, and fears. If stressful ideas are crowding our minds, then calming them makes a sensible “goal” for meditation.

But meditation can seem counterintuitive when the thoughts we’re working with are positive, happy, exhilarating. Or when we feel we’re on the verge of a new insight – and we’re eager to see it crystallize – and we want to write it down. But the practice of meditation tells us to release this insight – let it go on its way – like any other thought.

What if we forget it? Why would we want to relinquish something of so much value? Something that excites us? Pleases us? Makes us smile?

Indeed, on those lucky days when our minds are full of positive stuff, meditation might seem pointless. But those are some of the best days to meditate, because those days are a chance to practice releasing the things we really, really want to keep. To get good at “letting go” we need to let go of what we love the most. It’s safe to do that in meditation, because we’re only letting go of thoughts – not real things, not people – only vapor, ether. By letting go of the treasures in our mind, we can stop their transformation – through attachment – into heavy weights, problems, sources of pain.

As for the starring compliment of this story, I chose to take the same approach to it that I would take to any thought that arises in a meditation session, although I encountered it mostly outside those sessions. First, I noticed what I had come to expect from it. What I was trying to get from it. And just by noticing my expectations, I could understand why my emotions had taken the turn that they did.

Second, I allowed the thought of the compliment to enter my mind without hoping it would do something for me, without trying to savor it or pursue it or find pleasure inside it. And just by viewing it with increasing detachment, I felt I had escaped from a whole world of struggle. 

The memory of the compliment could make me feel good again, in a simple way, once I stopped expecting or needing that good feeling from it. And before long, it stopped coming into mind altogether. It had already served its purpose. That kind person’s intention to appreciate me and share a good feeling had now – with a little hiccup – been fully realized. ■

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