Essay 1: Just Because You Think It….
…doesn’t mean it is true.
OK, be honest about this question: How often do you think to yourself “this person doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.”? How often do you KNOW that the other person is wrong? Yes, you know the truth here, you think it a lot! So do I, frankly. We’re always assuming we’re right and the other guy is wrong.
Now, think about it this way: How often does somebody hear what you have to say and think “this person doesn’t know what he/she is talking about”? Ha! Got you there. Just as often probably.
I think it is natural that we assume that if we think it then it must be true. In a way we’re programmed to believe ourselves. But how often do you hear someone else and realize they’re wrong, and try to correct them?
Just because we think something doesn’t mean it is true. Letting go of that assumption is liberating; I am no longer trapped by my automatic thoughts and prejudices. I am free to regard my thoughts as mental events occurring in my brain that can be witnessed, understood, and accepted for what they are, and nothing more (and nothing less). When I am free to believe or disbelieve my own thoughts, I am free to exercise that greatest of human capacities, the ability to reason. If I can exercise the ability to reason, then I can make my next choice based on the wisest action, which may or may not conform to how I was thinking automatically about things. Combining mindful observance of thoughts with mindful observance of events, my reactions become responses as I exercise reason.
Let go of your need to be correct. Use your reactions wisely as an indication of what MAY be going on, but see each situation with clarity, as it presents itself to you, and consider all of the possibilities for a wise response.
Mindful living invites us to observe the flow of our thoughts, without drowning in them. This act of humility weakens the grip of ego on our actions.
One last thought. If you habitually doubt your ability to reason, consider the possibility that your doubtful thoughts are wrong, too!
Essay 2: Emotions, Thoughts, Behaviors: More Reasons to Practice Mindfulness
To paraphrase Descartes: ”I FEEL therefore I am.”
OK, that was a pretty cheesy opening, but the way we feel matters a lot. Ask someone “how are you doing?” and if that person answers sincerely (usually most of us just say “fine” whether we’re actually fine or not) you’ll probably find out how s/he is feeling. And feelings come in a lot of varieties. There are feelings that we think of as emotions: sad, angry, afraid, ashamed, joyous, excited, loving, interested, blissful. There are feelings we think of as medical: sick, feverish, congested, achy, sore. There are feelings that we think of as physical: tired, relaxed, energetic, aroused, alert. There are feelings we think of as drives: defecation, urination, thirst, hunger, desire. And, of course, there are feelings we think of as the senses: seeing, tasting, hearing, feeling (tactile, that is), and smelling. There are all sorts of feelings.
Feelings matter. Did you ever notice that most, if not all, advertising, appeals to feelings? Mazda doesn’t sell us a car by telling us about the engineering of their new SKYACTIV technology, they have someone whisper “zoom zoom” as you watch a shiny new Mazda zipping along a curvy seaside highway. They want you to FEEL what it’s like to be so lucky as to have a brand new Mazda, not think about it. And it’s a smart approach to selling cars. Medicine marketers sell the same way. When Advil is advertised you don’t get an explanation about chemical and neurological mechanisms, you see people in pain who end up with big smiles and happier times after taking an Advil or two. Same with antidepressant ads. And please don’t ask me to comment on ads for Cialis! Advertisers know better than anyone: the way we feel drives our behaviors.
Now, you may not like that idea about feelings driving behaviors. But there’s a lot of very good research out there that demonstrates this to be true, not to mention that every advertiser known to humankind bases its advertising on this principle, and quite successfully! When some event occurs in our immediate environment, our bodies respond immediately with some felt sensation, some feeling. There’s no way to stop that. A loud noise happens followed immediately by the startle reflex, followed by a felt sensation of fear (maybe a little fear, which we would call “nervous,” or maybe a big fear, which we would call “panic;” it all depends on how loud the noise is, what it sounds like, our past experiences with loud noises, and a host of other variables). Now our bodies do something wonderful, something that is intended to keep us alive: our bodies move. Move to the nearest escape, move to stop the noise, move to get safe in some way. That behavior follows feeling is incontrovertible; just ask anyone who is skilled at motivating people. The greatest of the early American psychologists, William James, made this fact the bedrock of his thoughts about human psychology.
Once those behaviors begin our minds begin to think. We appraise the situation, form opinions, wonder about the meaning, consider the next steps, or simply justify (or rationalize) our actions. And here’s what can be very interesting: sometimes we mentally reconstruct the event in such a way as to remember it in this order: event happened, I thought of what I should do, I did it, and then I felt a certain way afterward. And that’s why memory is so tricky: it is so often a reconstruction.
This happens with emotions too. It’s difficult to accept sometimes that we are driven by feelings that arise before we’ve mentally considered all of the facts concerning some event. But our bodies have evolved in such a way as to maximize survival (of ourselves and of our species). Feelings are triggered only by the important phenomena that arise in our immediate environment. Someone is crying, and you feel sad. You complete a task and you feel joy. Someone speaks meanly to you and you feel anger. You see a red sky as the sun sets over the trees and you feel awe. Life happens, and you feel it.
This is all the more reason to practice mindfulness. The awareness that we cultivate in our sitting or walking or yoga or body scanning practices strengthens our mind’s capacity to realize in the moment what feeling is arising and what it’s about. That we cultivate this awareness with a non-judgmental attitude makes us all the more able to manage our reactivity with greater skill and ease. So instead of getting swept up in the feeling of the moment and the behavioral reaction that emerges from that feeling, we’re able to slow down our body’s protective and/or adaptive reactions to ensure that we respond with the utmost skill to the needs presented in that moment. Whether you’re practicing mindfulness for stress reduction, relaxation, insight, prayerfulness, or Buddhist enlightenment, it’s a great skill to have in the moment when the proverbial “you know what” hits the fan! And it’s also a great skill to have when any sort of feeling emerges.
In my next post I want to consider two forms of mental activity: emotional reasoning and perspective taking. These two ways that the mind works can determine whether we are happy or sad, satisfied with our lives or in despair. I’ve presented the relationship between emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in order to set the stage for understanding emotional reasoning and perspective taking. I’ll be sure to post those mental meanderings of mine in a day or so.
Essay 3: Emotional Reasoning
In my previous post I spent some time discussing the relationship between Events, Affects, Behaviors, and Cognitions. Or, put more simply, that something happens, initiating (quite spontaneously) a bodily sensation (an emotion, drive, reaction), leading to the emergence of a behavior, followed by an explanatory thought. If that were the entire picture of our minute to minute activities during the course of a normal day, then we would seem to be some sort of automata, driven as if programmed like a computer or a robot.
There’s more to the story, beginning with the nature of the explanatory thought. Under many circumstances the process of event-driven behavior stops at the explanatory thought. For instance, the traffic light ahead turns yellow, the urge to stop the car arises, my foot lifts to touch and press the brake pedal, and I think “better stop; hey I can check my text messages!” Well, maybe better to ignore the text messages; the State Police might be watching! But you get the point; there’s no need to think about much beyond the “better stop” thought.
But not all event-driven behavior is so simple. And this is where our mindfulness practice can help us. When mindful, one is able to notice the process as it unfolds. Maybe at the point of the bodily and/or emotional arousal, maybe not until the behavior has commenced or even subsided; perhaps not until the explanatory thought has arisen. But, when mindful, one does eventually notice what is going on.
I would like to focus on event-driven behaviors that lead to unpleasant emotional (affective) states. It may seem a bit morbid to put my attention there, but it is the long-term effects of unpleasant emotional states that we’re more concerned about. After all, when the event is pleasant, such as learning that your friend got the promotion she had been working so hard to earn, it is joy that arises. Your behaviors emerging from the joy are probably congratulations and well wishes, leading to thoughts that reflect on how wonderful it is for your friend to have this achievement and how lucky you are to have such a wonderful friend. You hardly want to alter THAT experience. But when the event is some kind of loss, or threat, or violation, the feeling that arises is unpleasant, along the lines of sadness, or fear, or anger. Each of these unpleasant emotions lead to certain kinds of behaviors, such as crying and withdrawal when sad, fight/flight/freeze when afraid, or aggressive when angry. These feelings and behaviors are quite ordinary, a normal part of our lived experience. And they’re not inherently unhealthy, as there is a time and place for feeling sad, afraid and angry.
But sadness, fear, and anger, when perpetuated, can be a health risk. We know that persistent stress leads to a host of medical and psychological maladies, including ulcers, colitis, headache, reduced immune function, depression, anxiety, and addiction. How is it that these normal and healthy emotions can perpetuate to the point where they threaten our health? This is where we must turn our attention to the explanatory thought, and specifically to one kind of explanatory thought, emotional reasoning.
When we feel an emotion it stands to reason that the first set of thoughts that arise would be consistent with the emotion. We hear bad news, feel sad, and think along those lines. For instance, when I learned that my dad was diagnosed with cancer I felt sad, and immediately began to think about what life would be like for him as he went through chemotherapy, the strain it would put on my mother, the anguish that would be felt by me, my sister, my mother and extended family and friends as we watched this man that we love endure this trial. This way of thinking, that is congruent with the feeling that I was having, can be named as “emotional reasoning.” And there’s nothing wrong with emotional reasoning; like the emotions it emerges from, it is quite normal and rather ordinary. But there is a problem with emotional reasoning if it is the end of the story: since emotional reasoning emerges from the felt emotion, it tends to support and sustain the feeling of that emotion. And that’s what can lead to diminished health responses associated with sustained stress.
The practice of mindfulness allows us to become aware of our emotional reasoning very easily and rapidly. As with all mindful activity, the key to mindful awareness is to be non-judgmental about the object of awareness, in this case the emotions arising and the emotional reasoning that goes with it. Note that we’re focused here on embodied mental activity, not on the event itself. By focusing on embodied mental activity, we create the space for the next chapter in mindful living, perspective taking, which will be the topic of my next post.
Essay 4: Perspective Taking
Nearly a year ago I posted an essay on emotional reasoning (see “Emotional Reasoning” in the archive for August 2012). I hope it all made sense, but I’m afraid I fell down on the job a bit because I promised, at the end of that post, that my next post would be on “perspective taking.” I never posted that essay, an error I am correcting today.
In that essay a year ago on emotional reasoning I discussed the normal human process of witnessing events (a continuous and seemingly infinite process even during an ordinary day), having emotions/feelings emerge nearly spontaneously, and then having behaviors at least initiate, if not actually occur. The example I used back then was our response to perceiving a yellow traffic light far enough ahead so that we slow down and stop. You perceive the event (the yellow light), a feeling emerges (caution), and a behavior ensues (you stop, or at least we’re hoping you will!).
It’s not until all of these phenomena have occurred that thinking gets into the action. The first thoughts we have, which we can call automatic thoughts, generally emerge from the feeling of the event and usually support the behavior that emerged. In the case above the automatic thought would be simple: good thing I stopped, wouldn’t want to have an accident.
In this rather simple example we see how all of our mental processes work, to a point. The way of thinking that is automatic can be referred to as “emotional reasoning;” that is, the way our mind makes sense of the feeling we have and the way we behaved. Here’s another example, less mundane than the previous one. I receive an email from my boss that says “I noticed you didn’t get that report I wanted done on time. Please come to my office at your earliest convenience.” Oy Vey! This could be serious. A feeling arises, probably anxiety (dread of future danger) or even fear (dread of present danger). Now behaviors emerge; perhaps you pace a bit, or fidget, or bite your nails, or begin calling around to see if anyone knows if s/he is in a good mood today. But, like our “yellow light” example above, the behaviors that arise are typically congruent with the feeling that emerges. And now, here comes emotional reasoning in the form of automatic thoughts! “I know I’ll get fired!” “He didn’t give me enough time to do the report the RIGHT way!” “I’m always putting myself in these jams; what’s wrong with me!” It can go on and on.
I think you can see the problem that emotional reasoning, when perpetuated, can cause. Each one of those thoughts would only serve to make the feelings of anxiety and/or fear stronger, last longer, and dominate our conscious awareness. We become the fear; in a way we become fused with the fear as if we actually ARE the fear rather than a person having an experience of fear. It’s important, when we fall into a pattern of emotional reasoning that perpetuates a painful emotion, that we are able to use a different skill, perspective taking.
Perspective taking, as the term implies, is simply another way of thinking about a situation. Seems simple, and it is, but we have to work at it. In the example of the boss missing the report, my perspective taking might sound like this: “He’s right, I’m two days late with this. Just got so busy I couldn’t commit as well as I would have liked. He’s usually pretty understanding and probably will ask me to prioritize this report over my other projects. Oh well, I’ve faced bigger challenges that this and come through OK.”
You should notice a few things about this perspective taking. First, it is not automatic; it requires effort and reasoning. Second, it doesn’t white-wash the problem; it merely considers other possibilities about the issue at hand. Third, if affirms my ability to be resilient. Finally, it doesn’t take a “best case scenario” perspective but it does assume that the problem can be handled. I hope you can see how thinking this way would slow down the fear, restore some measure of calmness, and make it easier to stop by and see my boss.
Perspective taking is a very important skill. It is what parents teach their children when they get upset. It is what we do to make sense out of a world that can be very difficult at times. And the miracle of perspective taking is that it actually slows down the neurobiology of the “fear center” of the brain so that the relief you have after doing it is a genuine felt experience. Emotional reasoning is a key feature of the problem focused personality style. Perspective taking is a key feature of the solution focused personality style. Guess which type of personality is generally happier?
One other thought on perspective taking. When we are in the midst of emotional reasoning we experience “cognitive narrowing.” This is the phenomenon of not being able to think of anything else besides the emotion-driven events before us. Cognitive narrowing limits our capacity to find solutions to problems. Perspective taking, on the other hand, leads to “cognitive widening.” Because we are calmer we can see with greater clarity, and are much more disposed to find solutions.
Perspective taking is an important part of mindfulness meditation practice. In our formal practice we repeatedly dwell in a non-judgmental, present moment perspective that notices our internal experiences. Cultivating this perspective habituates our minds to this skill, so that in the moment our emotional reasoning arises we are much better equipped to use perspective taking as needed. People who practice mindfulness are better able to take new and sometimes novel perspectives about the occurrences of life, and less prone to get stuck in the revolving door of emotional reasoning. So the next time you wonder “why bother sitting today” notice the resistance (the feeling), the urge to do something else, and the emotional reasoning (“oh, I’ve got so much to do today; I’m afraid I’ll never get done”). Then do some perspective taking: “If I sit today I’ll be better at perspective taking!” The more you meditate, the more you will meditate again
Essay 5: Emotional Sensitivity I
I admit it, I’m a sensitive person.
There’s no shame in that, really. Emotional sensitivity is largely determined by heredity. Some babies are born fussy, others calm. The fussy ones need attention fairly frequently. It’s important that their parents soothe them, and teach them to soothe themselves. They may tremble a bit in the playground when they’re 3 years old, uncertain about venturing very far from mom or dad. And they may wail when you leave them for the first time in a classroom with only a teacher and maybe an aide there to comfort them.
The calm ones are different, of course. They wander off easily in the playground; you probably have to be a bit more vigilant to make sure they don’t wander off too far. They bump and bruise their way through life, barely ever crying or fussing, falling down, getting up, and moving on. That first grade class is a breeze for them, and they plunge head first into most activities. Calm babies most easily grow into confident adolescents and teens. The ups and downs of daily living do not usually affect them as deeply as their emotionally sensitive peers. I love my calm friends, much more unflappable to the vagaries of life than I, but it is to my emotionally sensitive friends that I direct these thoughts today.
Those fussy babies frequently grow up to be emotionally sensitive adolescents and adults. They see, hear, and feel every emotional nuance in the room. When happy they may become ecstatic. When sad they may feel despair. When praised they will beam with delight. When criticized they may want to crawl into the deepest hole. They are the first to notice when someone else is hurting, and frequently the first person others turn to when in need of support, nurturing, and guidance. They usually have a good “gut feel” for people, and are guided frequently by empathic recognition of the needs of others.
This was me growing up. I still get kidded by friends and family about how easily I fussed as a youngster. I can remember the times I was hurt by childhood friends, schoolyard companions, and various members of the different high school herds; I can still feel the sting of those hurts as I envision them. But I also remember golden times sharing thoughts and ideas, connecting deeply in play and in conversation with those same friends, companions, and high school herds. When I think back to the never-ending hours spent playing sports, especially stick ball, baseball, and basketball, I remember most the camaraderie of those games. I was a bit of a gym rat in college, spending hours playing basketball in sweaty, stinking gyms. But what wonderful friendships were formed in those gyms. What life lasting experiences we had.
Being emotionally sensitive is a two edged sword. The gift of emotional sensitivity is your capacity to feel deeply in the moment, a capacity that allows you to find deep meaning in the simplest experiences. And the emotional charge that those experiences kindle make those events deeply memorable; you carry those memories for life, gladly. But there’s a price you pay, because when you feel hurt, angered, saddened, frightened, or ashamed, you feel it very deeply, sometimes too deeply. And it’s hard to forget those emotionally charged experiences and sometimes even harder to know how to respond to another person who has hurt you. It can feel really overwhelming.
When we sit in meditation we must sit with our entire mind/body fully present. The point of our meditation is not to quell unpleasant feelings, but to know them, make room for them, learn from them, abide in them. Those of us who are sensitive are tempted, at times, to use the relaxation that comes so easily with meditation as a balm to our emotionally unpleasant bodily feelings. It’s so easy to see meditation as an escape, a way out of pain. But we know that this only leads to more suffering; aversion to a feeling quickly becomes attachment, and we find the unpleasant feeling reappearing again and again and again.
Instead, it’s important to bring unpleasant emotional states to our meditation seeking only to make peace with them. Radical acceptance, making space for the unpleasant, and most of all recognizing whether the unpleasant feelings can be paired with skillful responses, are all possible with mindfulness practice. When faced with the sequelae of an emotion provoking event, we have choices we can make as to how we will respond. I hope to take that up in my next essay. For now, please don’t feel ashamed if you’re very sensitive; it’s a gift you’ve been given, one that you return abundantly to the people in your life. It hurts at times, but it’s worth it when you weigh the benefit you bring to others in need, if only you can learn to manage the feelings of the hurtful side of this two edged gift.
Essay 6: Emotional Sensitivity II
In my last post I admitted to the world that I am an emotionally sensitive person. I can hear my friends and family now: “well, duh…” No great revelation there! If you want to see a grown man cry just sit with me when the right kind of movie is on. And the “right kind of movie” is not a short list. It even includes “Rocky,” believe it or not. Hey, that final scene after the titanic battle with Apollo Creed is over, and Adrian runs into the ring and says “I love you,” and Rocky responds in kind, if that doesn’t reduce you to tears what will? OK, I admit it, this is not exactly “Romeo and Juliet,” but you have to admit that it’s a great happy ending.
I’ve often wondered what it is that makes someone “more emotionally sensitive.” Is it that we’re less resilient to the effects of emotions? Is it that our emotional neurobiology is just more highly strung than that of other people? I’m not sure, but I know that the feeling of emotion permeates my entire body when something that is emotion-provoking happens. I feel it everywhere, and I feel it strongly, too strongly to ignore. Over the years I’ve found that it’s so easy (and sometimes tempting) to simply surf on the surge of feelings, seeing the world through an emotional lens that shades events in less than rational ways. This can be a source of great unhappiness if it isn’t managed.
In my experience I have found a few helpful ways to manage my emotions so that they do not become a source of suffering. I’d like to list them here, with the caveat that this is what has worked for me; it may not work for you. Each one of us has to discover our own path. But I’ve also found that the paths that others have chosen frequently help me to discover my own, sometimes by following those other paths and sometimes by avoiding them. However you wish to take it, here’s my path, at least the one I’ve come to use for now.
Things got much better for me, emotionally speaking, when I stopped judging myself for being so emotional in the first place. When I was a teenager one of my parents criticized me harshly for “having a tendency to be so emotional,” and for years I believed that my emotional sensitivity was a pathology. It’s not; it’s just how I’ve been formed. When I accepted this part of myself it became much easier to live with.
With acceptance came relief, but I still found the strength of my emotions to be difficult to manage. I realized that I had to understand my feelings as if they were a part of me, not the whole of me. I found it helpful to think of my emotions as a part of me with which I could have a relationship, a friendly relationship, but a relationship with boundaries. I learned to greet the onslaught of strong feelings as I would greet a friend: warmly embracing, but wanting to hear what news he had for me before deciding if this was a good time to hang out with him.
So, accepting my sensitive self, and seeing that sensitive self as a “part” rather than the “whole” of me, I found myself becoming aware of my strong feelings as they arose. It was around this same time that I began the practice of mindfulness meditation. I found that my meditation practice strengthened my ability to be aware of, but not attached to, the experiences of body/mind phenomena. So thoughts, perceptions, and feelings could be observed and understood as a process with a period of arising, then abiding, and then a fading away. Turns out nothing is permanent!
Several years ago this observational quality led to a cathartic insight: these emotions are simple yet powerful instruments, much like the instruments we use to understand and predict the weather. Like a barometer, my feelings indicated atmospheric changes, but in my internal (and usually relational) climate rather than the external climate. My anger tells me the temperature; my fear is an anemometer, telling me which way the emotional winds are blowing. My shame is like a hygrometer, telling me the humidity in the air. My sadness is a rain gauge, letting me know how damp and dreary things have become. In this moment of insight these strong emotions became my best friends, because they were my spiritual compass, helping me to set direction and course with the wisdom of the informational body!
Having this vital information at my fingertips, I could now use my sensitive feelings as a guide to let me know how best to respond in the moment to whatever was happening between myself and another person. No longer bound by my feelings, I could welcome them and let them guide, but not control, my ways of being and intervening in the world. My strong feelings were now a source of comfort and celebration, not events to be feared.
And, finally, I learned to stop saying “he/she/it made me feel this way,” and learned to say “when he/she/it does “this”, my body usually feels “this way”, and that’s OK.” Now I’m free to say “OK, if my body feels “this way”, what’s the next best thing to do?” And for me, that equates to one very important quality: FREEDOM. I am free to choose my response, no longer a slave to my feelings. And this feels good!
That’s it. Probably doesn’t seem like much, but for me it was life saving. I found I wasn’t liking myself when I would get carried away by my feelings. It’s much easier now that I’m able to regard my feelings mindfully and embrace them, but not become attached.
I hope this is helpful for you. Please, don’t try to be me; find your way of managing your emotions. Maybe some of what I’ve done can help you, but don’t believe for a second that it’s the only way. You have to learn for yourself as I learned for myself, and continue to learn. I don’t think these six steps are the end of the story for me. I’m certain that I’ll be learning from life and refining my ways for as long as I live.
Essay 7: Mindful Freezing
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.