A friend and I have been talking about default emotions, but what I will talk about today applies equally to any recurring thought form or emotion (some refer to this as self-talk); most generally, I am talking about what emerges when you are tired or your buttons are pushed. It might be self pity; a tendency to reflexively blame others; any one of hundreds of behaviours, internal feelings, or recurring self-talk—but notice that for each of us, there’s a ‘signature’ response, and one that you have experienced 10,000 times. One of the ideas that one of my teachers pushed endlessly on to me is that “it is never the other guy”. For me personally, this was simply the hardest of the lessons that I have had to learn (and I resisted accepting it for years); let me try to explain.
Anger is my default: it starts with unsatisfactoriness, moves through irritation and, depending on the day, may move to volcanic rage. In my case, the anger is directed inwards; for others, it might be projected outwards. Often, when anger ‘is upon me’ (as the Tibetans say), it will have been triggered by technology not doing what it’s supposed to do*. I will return to this below; it is the critical aspect. Internally, there’s always a reason (this is the self-talk part); externally, a clenching of the jaw and a tightening of the muscles of the neck and upper back. Anger is the ‘arrangement of my mental furniture’; I was born with and it will always be there, a feature as distinctive as my nose or eye colour. It is my spur to grow.
All this is by way of an introduction. A well-known spiritual teacher by the name of Byron Katie was the first to articulate this in contemporary English, I believe. Her own life story is extremely interesting; her big realisation came when she saw and understood clearly that all internal reactions like anger or resentment or annoyance are actually nothing to do with the ostensible cause. I will speak about anger, because it is most familiar to me; the closest I can come to explaining this in words is that my bodymind is primed for, or is waiting to be, angry. For example, the resentment, irritation, and anger, I feel about the guy next door playing rap music I project on to him because my mind tells me were he not there, then I would not be feeling those feelings. This is a lie.
Byron Katie’s insight was to realise that if those feelings are not already in you, they simply cannot be triggered by any external event. In other words, the event that I describe reveals the structure of my mind perfectly.
I resisted this idea for a very long period of time because I would argue to myself if the person next door playing the rap music was not there, then I wouldn’t be feeling those feelings. But, the more closely I looked, I see that these feelings and potential reactions are there all the time; they are, in fact, the structure of my mind.
I was born with this and it’s not my fault. The more I cultivate serenity in my own body, the less this is any difficulty for me. This was the deep (though unconscious) reason I gravitated to the samatha style of meditation.
The same teacher pointed out that this aspect of my mind will never change; it was depressing to consider this at the time. But this is what I learned:
Imagine you are standing on a train platform, an infinitely long one. You don’t know when the train will next appear, but you know that when it does, it will always take the same journey. You wait. The train pulls in; and the doors open. Do I step in today? No, thank you; the train pulls away.
Everyone who recognises the structure of their own mind will, at some point, want to change it, or improve it—but this can’t be done. You can’t polish a turd.
All that’s useful is to become aware of it. It’s not a problem. Awareness changes everything; the more aware you become of your innate tendencies, the easier it becomes to adopt what I call the ‘Nancy Reagan’ response: “Just say no”—but gently (and lovingly, if you can!).
And there is a second thing I have learned, too:
In every case I have been awake enough to catch, there is always a corresponding body state change.
So, to allow what another teacher called a “pivot” to occur, I drop my awareness into my lower abdomen, and let it relax completely, and I pay close attention to the sensations of the next breath or two, in and out, and in the process choose: do I step onto the train? I know where it’s going, with certainty. This is pivoting.
So: from left field, this is one of the benefits of learning how to stretch your physical body: the more familiar you become with the sensations in your gut and your muscles, fascia and nervous system, the easier it is to feel these “setup” changes occurring, and the easier it is to insert an “interrupt“, and the more gracefully one can pivot. Truly, these are skilful means.
* This is dukkha, our old friend. As I see it, the root of dukkha is wanting reality to be different to how it’s actually presenting to you now. Good luck with that.
The degree of the perception of the gap of what the mind wants, and what is, yields the degree/severity of the dukkha experienced. A totally relaxed person does not experience dukkha at all.
“You can’t polish a turd.” These immortal words were first uttered to me by Chic Henry, a famous car show promoter. He was talking about a car, but the principle is universal.
Skilful means: Upaya.