No, I’m not talking about meditating outdoors on cold days!
Several years ago there was a sign posted on one of the trail entrances in White Clay Creek State Park giving this information: “Warning: Cougar Sighted in Area.” You have to admit that particular message is enough to give one pause before hitting the trail. When asked by my wife what we should do as we stared at that sign before taking a trail run together, I said the obvious: “Nothing to worry about. As long as I can outrun you, I’m perfectly safe.” This is not a good thing to say if you want to stay married for very long, but she forgave me and we decided to take the run anyway. The sign is still up, nobody has seen a cougar since, and I suspect someone had seen a big yellow labrador retriever in the distance and panicked.
But there are a lot of deer in the state park and I’m sure that they take the sign quite literally, at least the literate ones do 🙂 So, what’s a deer to do when it comes upon a hungry cougar? This is a question that deer have been asking for millennia no doubt, and we know the choices they have. Our biology guides our potential responses to danger; we have no other options. It’s either fight, flight, or freeze. When facing an existential threat the body is hardwired for safety; you cannot overcome these instincts. I’m sure that occasionally a deer, especially if it is a buck with a large rack of antlers, has stood his ground to fight a cougar, but in general I suspect that most of the time the deer either takes off at its highest speed or stands as still as possible, hoping the predator doesn’t see it.
I recently had a chance to talk to someone who faced down a bully. No, not a schoolyard bully, but the more common type we meet in our office or at the market or on the highway. You know the type of person I’m talking about: he talks over your voice at a meeting, she gossips about a friend of yours within your hearing, he stares you down as he cuts in front of you in line or while making an abrupt lane change at 65 miles per hour. When something like this happens it is difficult to not have a visceral response. Our bodies recognize the threat, our metabolism elevates a little or a lot, our muscles may tense, our teeth may clench, and it always seems that we think of a strong, assertive response a minute or an hour or a day later, but not in the moment.
When I talk to people about these kinds of situations the “fight” response is always seen as strong, the “flight” response as inevitable, but the “freeze” response is not understood. Why would you stay within plain view, still a target, when the bully uses his words or glance or body language to intimidate you. But I think a case can be made for freezing, and that a case can be made that this is a very mindful response in some circumstances.
Predators prey on others whether they are hungry or not. If you’ve ever had a pet cat who was a good hunter, you know this is true. When I was an adolescent we had a cat who was a great hunter, but very well fed by my mom. Yet he brought home birds and mice and all sorts of critters on a regular basis. He hunted for the fun of it, I’m convinced. He hunted to stave off boredom. He hunted because it was what he was wired to do. And he kept on hunting despite the chunk of ear an angry blue jay took out of him one day as he climbed the tree and approached her nest. I don’t think he caught any birds that day!
Most of the hunting, or bullying, that we face as adults is of the sort I described earlier. It is not life threatening, but rather it is a show of dominance. This is common in the animal kingdom. Each species has its own way to establish dominance, whether it is a grand display of plumage, locking horns in non-mortal combat until the rival is driven away from the herd, or rearing back on hind legs to threaten the rival into laying on its back, demonstrating its submission. Humans, at our antisocial worst, strive for dominance in all kinds of ways, sometimes aggressive, often passive aggressive.
Our mindfulness practice can make us very skilled to be aware in the moment when this is happening. Recognizing the signs of fear arousal as they occur, we can often see the show of dominance, the attempt to force submission, especially when it is in a social context, but also when it is an exchange between strangers, such as the driving or marketplace examples I cited earlier. And being aware that this is happening opens options for us, especially the “freeze” option. As we mindfully notice the elevation, the bodily arousal of fear, our minds accept this fear and assert that this attack is “not about me.” (Caveat: if the attack is an existential threat, an attempt at bodily assault, fight or flight is called for). In that moment one is able to mindfully return to a calm state. One is able to bring compassionate regard to the bully, and not be reactive. I’ve seen this happen, and I’ve seen the result: the predator eventually loses interest. This freeze response, standing in plain sight, refusing to react by running or fighting back, simply regarding the assault with non-judgmental awareness, is not what the predator expects. In a way it takes the fun out of the bullying, heightens a sense of boredom in the bully, and renders the “attack” into a useless waste of energy. She doesn’t get the rise out of you she wanted, so she goes away. He doesn’t get the submission from you he needs because of his own ego deficits, so he turns his gaze elsewhere. His angry stare recedes; she looks for someone else to badger. And you never lost your equanimity, and your sense of internal stillness remains intact.
Mindfully freezing is one response to the shows of dominance we come across. If you have someone in your life who can get under your skin, consider a mindful response. Aware in the moment, accepting the wisdom of our bodies, allowing compassion to arise, finding a skillful response that sets the boundaries where they need to be set, but does not seek to assault, damage, embarrass, or otherwise hurt the offender. This refusal to return anger for anger, hatred for hatred, seeking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, can bring an end to the little battles and wars we wage daily. Our mindful presence can be the center of gravity in the room, one that can ground ourselves in peaceful solutions, engage our friends to be curious about our calmness, and even occasionally prompt a predator to wonder about our strength and resilience. As Paul Newman’s classic character Luke Jackson says in the film Cool Hand Luke, “sometimes nothing is a real cool hand.” That “nothing” is not a bluff, but rather a demonstration that the show of dominance is an empty gesture, and we refuse to become engaged in playing a hand in another person’s card game of suffering. Then “nothing” becomes our strength, and we realize there was no battle to fight, there was no war to win, just a frightened ego caught in its own illusion that it has to show dominance in order to be real. There is no dominance, there was no ego, and in their place compassion can arise when we attend to the wisdom of our bodies and minds.