Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Leaning into the fear

I've just finished reading a book by Pema Chodron, The Places that Scare You. Actually, I read this book for the first time a couple of years ago, when I first started exploring the concepts of Buddhism. I think I wasn't ready for it. I didn't understand, I couldn't connect with Pema Chodron or the material. This time was different.

It just so happens that hubby and I have been going through some stress lately. Mine is just my usual existential angst, hubby's has been brought on by some personal things and the fact that his parents are experiencing very ill health and a sudden sharp decline in their independence. In essence, we've been feeling the strain, and the other day I flew completely off the handle because he came back from the store with a bottle of some sort of chili sauce instead of the kind of salad dressing I asked him to get. I was really, really angry, and even while angry I knew I wasn't angry about the shopping. The anger was a symptom of what was going on underneath. I was feeling stressed because we were expecting house guests and I didn't know what we'd do if we didn't have salad dressing. It was so stupid. I didn't yell, but I snapped at him and muttered a lot. I felt bad instantly afterwards and we talked about it. I know he remains stupefied by my ability to go from zero to bitch in a nanosecond, and then after the sharp flare to settle right back down and expect everyone to act as if nothing had happened. It's not something I understand, either, but it's something I have done all my life and something I want very much to overcome. I am a lot better about controlling my hair trigger temper than I used to be, but still. (By the way, it turns out neither of our guests even wanted salad dressing! *rolling eyes*)

This was a tiny incident in our day, but you know what? It's these little moments that make up our daily practice. I can't help but think it doesn't matter how many books I read or how long I sit in front of lit candles saying, 'Present moment, wonderful moment' in my head if at the first sign of things not going my way I flip out. That's why I want to improve in these habitual reactions, not just anger but sadness, envy, guilt, whatever the case may be. Overcoming these little battles will help strengthen me for the bigger emotions both in myself and others.

I had been reading this book, working my way through Pema Chodron's introductory overview of some basic Buddhist beliefs, when at last that afternoon I got to a section on dropping habitual reactions. Hello! How serendipitous that I should read this on the same day I'd begun wondering how to do just that.

Pema Chodron teaches us to train in 'the three difficulties.' 1)Acknowledging our neurosis as neurosis, 2)doing something different, 3)aspiring to continue practising in this way. She gives this summary of the practice:

In essence the practice is always the same: instead of falling prey to a chain reaction of revenge or self-hatred, we gradually learn to catch the emotional reaction and drop the story lines. Then we feel the bodily sensation completely. One way of doing this is to breathe into our heart. By acknowledging the emotion, dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves about it, and feeling the energy of the moment, we cultivate compassion for ourselves. Then we could take this a step further. We could recognize that there are millions who are feeling the way we are and breathe in the emotion for all of us with the wish that we could all be free of confusion and limiting habitual reactions. When we can recognize our own confusion with compassion, we can extend that compassion to others who are equally confused. This step of widening the circle of compassion is where the magic bodhichitta training lies.

I read that paragraph over and over. I even copied it out into my journal, and now I have typed it out yet again for this blog. For me, this is important stuff. This teaching asks me to do something different from any other coping mechanism I've ever read. It doesn't ask me to not feel what I'm feeling. It doesn't ask me to find the underlying cause of my feeling. It doesn't ask me to count to ten, jog around the block, run to the bedroom and punch the pillows, or even engage in primal scream therapy. It doesn't ask me to let it all out because I have a right to be angry and say whatever I please. No, it doesn't ask me to do any of those things. It asks me to feel what I feel and drop the storyline.

Stop the internal monologue.

Stop the spiralling imaginings of what could happen as a consequence of this thing that has upset me.

Stop wondering what childhood trauma or current trauma has made me so edgy.

Stop everything and feel the feeling. Breathe before you react. Thich Nhat Hanh would advise me to say something like, 'I am feeling anger now.' He would advise me to breathe in the anger and acknowledge it. Pema Chodron teaches me to go a step further. She teaches me to remember that millions of people all over the world are feeling this same exact feeling right now. She tells me to feel compassion for myself and for everyone suffering in this way. Suffering is part of life. Every kind of suffering is part of life and every kind of suffering is universal, even this current one.

Our patterns are well established, seductive, and comforting. Just wishing for them to be ventilated isn't enough. Those of us who struggle with this know. Awareness is the key. do we see the stories that we are telling ourselves and question their validity? When we are distracted by a strong emotion, do we remember that it is our path? Can we feel the emotion and breathe it into our hearts for ourselves and everyone else? If we can remember to experiment like this even occasionally, we are training as a warrior. And when we can't practice when distracted but know that we can't, we are still training well.

This seems such a useful practice. Of course I won't remember to do it every time I feel a strong emotion or feel myself spinning off into a habitual reaction. But as Pema Chodron says, the more frequently I catch myself and try to work with interrupting my habitual patterns, my desire to help not just myself but all sentient beings will slowly grow.

Let's just hope hubby doesn't come home with the wrong sauce again anytime soon! (Ha! Just kidding...)

May all beings be at ease.

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