Equanimity in the face of our own reactivity
There’s nothing that does not grow light Through habit and familiarity. Putting up with little cares I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity!
From a talk by Andrea Fella
This talk explores the opportunities to choose more skillful responses in the face of default reaction patterns.
This encompasses individual events: small or dramatic, familiar patterns or habits that we carry through life that visit again and again.
Often these come as challenging emotions, or what we might call afflictive emotions.
How do we work with fear, anxiety, depression, how can we work with anger and frustration and impatience?
We will look at some basic guidelines overall that are really helpful and that I have found really helpful in my own practice.
These suggestions are for working with challenge in our lives, both on the cushion and off the cushion.
- Single most important tool in working with challenging mind states is simply recognizing them.
- Reognizing that it is happening and it is happening now in this present moment.
For example, there is a huge difference in having frustration coming up and getting CAUGHT in frustration, believing in frustration, acting out of frustration.
If we can incline the mind to begin to recognize that something is actually happening in the present moment as opposed to being caught in it, believing it, acting out of it, there can often be a little bit of space for some presence of mind that one can act out of.
That shift from BEING CAUGHT in a mind state to BEING AWARE that one is experiencing a mind state is the opportunity to move towards more skillful responses.
Becoming aware that we are experiencing an afflictive emotion gives an opportunity for mindfulness and some wisdom to infiltrate the mind.
Part of the power of that shift is often that when we are caught in a mind state like frustration for example- often what is going on is that we are telling ourselves the story of frustration.
We are convincing ourselves over and over again why we are frustrated and why it is true that we are frustrated.
So, there is the mental cycling that happens around these difficult mind states, and the simple recognition of, “OH there is something happening in the present moment.” This simple recognition, this tiny chink of light in the interior process can begin to shift us away from that thought stream. It allows a little bit of space in the mind.
One of the main ways that these challenging emotions function and operate in our minds is through their interaction with thought. Often emotions will arise because of a thought.
We hear something, we see something, we start thinking about it. We think is some ways that, “So and so made me angry,” or, “This person is doing something that frustrates me.”
What’s actually going on there is something objectively going on in the world, a person is actually saying something or doing something, and what’s going on is that we are thinking about it and we are thinking about it and depending on our habits and reaction patterns and our proclivities of mind-then we are reacting to it internally.
So, we think about it and we react to it internally.
Fortunately it is not possible actually for someone else to create our emotional state. It’s really good news.
We think, “Someone else is doing that, they are making me angry.”
But, it’s actually not possible for someone else to “Make” us angry.
Someone else can do something that lands in us and then there is a thought process, a reactive process that begins.
It is fortunate that someone else is unable to make us angry. It then allows the possibility of opening into an internal process that our minds can then learn to intervene in these inner processes and choose a response rather than submit to the default reaction pattern; i.e., getting angry, saying the mean word, blaming, road rage; and on and on.
This begina to allow us to see what it is that we are actually getting caught by, what we are actually reacting to.
So that first step of recognizing:
Oh, this is happening in the present moment.
This is something that is arising now.
This begins to help us to have a little gap that allows us to begin to look at what is going on inside of us, so that we are no longer caught so much by our thoughts. We no longer believe the train of our thoughts.
That is another way to help explore challenging emotions.
There is a sequence of causes and conditions that arise in the face of stimulus, we can dissect this process, we can break it down into some of its smallest components with the intention to enter into our process and have more choice and response, even the possibility of more equanimity in the face of our own afflictive emotions.
One neurobiologist talked about the emotional states regarding the working of emotions in the mind and the body. There is a release of hormones from the Amygdale in the brain and there is a flood of these reactive hormones into the body, so it is not only a state of mind, but a state of body. That is a good way to explore these challenging emotions, that of feeling them in the body.
So, the next time that we experience an afflictive emotion, if we say something like, “Oh, anger is happening in the present moment, frustration is happening in the present moment.” We can then recognize that it is happening, but we can also cultivate awareness of what is happening in the body. We can begin to identify how these emotions land in the body. This is also another huge help in taking us out of the thought cycle in the mind.
The neurobiologist said that if there is just one release of these neurochemicals in the body,just one, that specific activation will last a minute and a half, 90 seconds.
Yet typically what happens is that through our thoughts we exacerbate the first flood with a thought, the second arrow.
Something happens in the world and we have a thought and from that thought arises an emotion, and the flood of neurochemicals moves through our body, and then we start thinking about it, “They shouldn’t have done that!!! “ Every time we have a thought like that then a button in the brain gets pushed again and another release of chemicals happens.
“I’m gonna get back at them.” Another flood of chemicals happens.
“How dare they….” Another flood of chemicals happens.
Every time there are the thoughts that are hooked up with that emotion it makes it take longer for that emotion to wash through and dissipate.
So, we have bitten the hook. We are hooked and have to wait until we somehow get out of that process and let things unwind.
So if we can find a way to ground the attention with mindfulness in the body or just in knowing, “Frustration is happening right now, Anger is happening right now, Depression is happening right now.”, whatever the emotion is that is happening right now.
If we can hang out with it for 90 seconds, it will start to fade and disappear.
So, this is good news too.
Probably though, we will have a few of those thoughts, so its important to remember-just another 90 seconds, just another 90 seconds.
So, what we know about the brain can help us to have some of the confidence of , “Maybe I can hang out with this for a minute, a minute and a half.”
“Maybe I can not feed this, not fuel it for a minute and a half and see what happens.”
“Anger is happening in the present moment”
“Anger is happening in the present moment”
“Anger is happening in the present moment”
IF we find it doesn’t seem to be changing as in the chemical dissipating, often there may be another layer of something going on.
If that is the case, another tool is to “Check into the attitude.”
Our relationship to what is happening.
There is anger happening and what is our relationship to that anger?
There is confusion happening and what is my relationship to that confusion?
There is impatience happening and what is my relationship to that impatience?
There are so many different kinds of relationships that we can have and the simplest level of our relationships to strong emotions like that is that we don’t like it.
Sometimes around the experience of anger, it could be, “I’m right.
A self-justification. Part of the reason that the mind does not want to let go of the anger is because the mind is convinced that it i right about this.
So that is another tool that offers the possibility of uncovering and exposing more emotions attitudes and beliefs that may be going on at the same time.
You could ask the question-What is my relationship to this right now- or you could ask-What is being believed right now?
What do I believe right now?????????
That can be a helpful tool too.
So the attitude can be a really simple checking in, looking into what’s happening within you, rather than focusing on the outer stimulus.
Particularly around some strong or familiar patterns that recur over and over and over again.
Emotional Awareness Meditation
- Settle into a comfortable meditation posture.
- Breathing normally, bring your attention to your emotions. Notice if you are feeling any emotions, no matter how faintly. It is not necessary to know precisely which emotion you are having, or why you are having it. Just knowing that you are feeling something emotional is enough. Guessing is OK.
- Once you detect an emotion, see if you can find its expression in your body. Maybe there is a feeling of tension, gripping, tightening, burning, twisting, throbbing, pressure, lightness, openness, etc.
. If you like, you can mentally make the label “feel” when you detect a body sensation of emotion. Other labels are possible (“emotion” for example).
- Each time you detect an emotional body sensation, try to actually feel the sensation in your body, as completely as possible. Feel it through and through.
- Completely let go of any ideas you have about the emotion, or self talk you might have about why the emotion is arising. Return to the body sensation of the emotion.
- Continue contacting these emotional body sensations for as long as you wish.
Meditating on emotions is a traditional part of Vipassana practice in Buddhism. It is, for example, one of the four main techniques covered in the Vissudhimagga (The Path to Purity), an important Buddhist text.
The version presented here is a summary of a practice given by American Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young.