Much of our suffering is unnecessary. Maybe we have met with a doctor and we are frustrated, perhaps even angry. He has sent too little time with us or she has given us inadequate information. Whatever it might be, we go off dissatisfied. We carry our complaint for the next several days, repeating the story to our friends and to ourselves, newly aggrieved each time. And our listeners reinforce our sense of rightful indignation.
Unfortunately, we forget that each time we get agitated we are reacting to an event that is no longer present. Our past memory is similar to our worries about an imaginary future. Both are examples of resentment, adrenalized refeeling. Both are types of suffering, both unnecessary.
Take the story of two monks newly arrived at a river. A pregnant woman is waiting on the bank, in need of assistance to cross. Brother Ben reminds Brother Dan that they are not to touch even the cloak of a woman. Dan nods to Ben and proceeds to offer his strong arms to the young lady and carries her across. Ben cannot believe his eyes.
After putting the woman down on the opposite shore, the monks go on their way, Ben shaking his head and muttering to himself. Nearing the end of their journey, he finally turns to his old friend and asks, “How could you have broken your vows?” “My friend,” replies Dan. “I put her down miles ago while you still carry her.”
Brother Ben’s initial reaction is understandable, but his continued obsession with his fellow monk’s deed is a self inflicted wound. So it is with many of our emotional reactions. If we simply acknowledged our first responses to unexpected events-anger or anxiety, for example, and then put them down, that is what it is. We are human, and some degree of reactivity is to be expected.
But when we turn it over in our minds, getting angry again and again, especially when no constructive action is the result, then we are left with adrenaline ashes. “And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other,” Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount. Or, more colloquially,”Turn the other cheek.”
One meaning that suggests to me is to shift one’s consciousness from a reactive state to one of calm, presence, and choice–the being of Brother Dan, both at the moment he picked up the woman and when he responded to Brother Ben.
There are several things we can do at those moments to facilitate one response rather than another. Of course, the more we practice before events occur, the greater probability we can be mindful during these difficult moments. The foundation of all emotional management is to breathe diaphragmatically. A second practice is to remember the transience of all things. It is sad and true that our lives are brief and no matter what we do, for any and all of us, we will pass. With that perspective, how much is a particular situation worth being upset about?
A third effort is to remind ourselves that we actually know little of the circumstances of the person with whom we are upset. We are likely blind to whatever pain she is in or what he was thinking that led to his behavior.
What do we know of ourselves? Imagine how much less we know of another. Again recalling Jesus’ words, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Remember how little control we have of our own state and, therefore, be wary of judging another.
Fourth, recite a prayer like the 23rd psalm or lyrics like Dylan’s “My Back Pages” or “Amazing Grace” or write your own reminder of the peace of unknowing. Finally, and importantly, imagine the fact and energy of our suffering, doing some good in some way for ourselves, others, and the world.