On a recent day, I was walking on the street where I live which has a sharp turn at the end of it and continues on past a school. As is often the case in many towns here in New Jersey people tend to drive too fast through towns and residential streets. Everyone is in a hurry. I had just passed the turn when I saw a car speeding toward me. I made the hand motion to slow down. What happened instead is the driver sped up, screeching his tires as he went around the bend. My suggestion caused a reaction in him that delivered the opposite result of what I had wanted. It caused me to think about the usefulness (or not) of my gesture, but also what we do when we get a reaction from someone that pushes our buttons, or we hear challenging feedback from a teacher or mentor, or comments on our work. I clearly pushed his buttons causing defensiveness in him, anger, and a reaction that went along the lines of “I’ll show you...” So I tried on an alternative scenario where the driver saw my gesture as a reminder that he could slow down driving by a school, on a residential street. What if instead of “screw you” he responded with “oh, right I see I’m driving fast here, maybe it would be safer if I slowed down. Or maybe it would bring that person peace of mind. I can do that.” Sounds idealistic or as my husband would say, I “live on Sesame Street.” But when I really sit with it, I recognize that the reason this inner questioning doesn’t happen is because to do that would be to admit to behavior that we might possibly change. For many of us, to do this opens up a door of self-berating thinking, a sense of I must be wrong, bad, not enough, etc. To avoid that unpleasantness, it is far easier to just say “screw you.” But, what if we could take in someone’s response to us and not beat ourselves up over it, but rather look deeply and see instead if there is something to learn from it. Maybe there is something about ourselves to know, to change, to move towards, or maybe we look deeply and see it’s not about me at all and I don’t need to react. Either way the moment of looking and not habitually reacting could be of use, arduous as it may feel. It’s not the easy route.
Of course, this is easy to see in looking at someone else’s life, but then came my turn that same night. Just before I went to sleep, I learned that one of my meditations got published on the Insight Timer, a well known meditation app. I submitted 5 meditations and it took 6 months for the first one to get approved. At first, I was just delighted. Then, I noticed there were comments and stars. Oh no. I winced while I opened them. While the comments are largely good so far with thousands of people listening to it, I did get feedback that some listeners didn’t like that I shared my website at the very end. When I made the meditations I didn’t know I was going to share them on the Insight Timer where your profile gives all that information. I simply wanted people to be able to know where the meditation was coming from if it was downloaded and passed around. Once I saw the comments, my mind kept going to that feedback, not to all the positive responses I received. It’s fascinating really, how we do this. And so here is where I can look deeply. I understand their feedback and would change the recording if I could, but I can’t and even the ones that are pending I can’t change or it will take another year before they get approved, if they even get approved. I can take their suggestions, make changes going forward, and relate to their sense of marketing bombardment that we all feel at times. I can feel the pain of my own self-critic acting up and tend to her with loving-kindness, seeing where that self-criticism comes from and what it needs. Finally, I can celebrate the fact that the meditation got approved at all and that people are benefitting from my effort to bring more presence and spaciousness to our everyday life. Sounds easy, but it is truly hard to do. I've been working on it.
I invite you this week to see what is underneath any strong reactions you may find yourself having in response to another’s suggestion, feedback, gesture, or really to anything. If you find yourself reacting negatively to it, you might see if it comes down to your own voice that says “I’m not good enough, I’m wrong, I’m flawed,” etc. It is surprising how often that is the case. Can you tend to that place with kindness and grow from there. It is not easy, but the fruits of this effort benefit not just you, but all beings as we start to find the space to choose a different reaction than our habitual one. Though it can sound cliche and not what we want to hear, our growth lies in our difficulties if we are willing to do the work of looking.
It only feels right to add that sometimes our initial response is “screw you” and that’s okay, too, if we are still willing to come back to it and see if there is anything more underneath that response. It is a maturing process really and we get to mature all through our lives if we are fortunate to let ourselves. There is no time when that “should” be finished. It is humbling for sure. The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths: suffering, looking into the creation of suffering, the cessation of suffering, the Noble Eightfold Path that ends suffering. To look at what causes us to react is to look at suffering and see what we do in the face of it. To mature is to go on the path and practice the tools of Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. We won’t get it right; we just keep moving down the path, getting clarity along the way when the conditions are right. And we don’t need to speed down the path either. We can enjoy the speed bumps along the way. I hope they add some to my street.