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Lions Roar : September 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2011 23 had no time to think about what to do. They had to fight or flee to survive, and they would begin doing one or the other before they even consciously registered the thought tiger. Today, though there are no big cats on our urban streets, if we get into a quarrel, hormones still kick in within milliseconds, stimulating primitive regions in our brains. And our instinctive reactions can easily shove us in the opposite direction from what we ultimately hope to achieve. Thankfully, my neighbor moved out a short time after our confrontation, but I often thought about what had gone wrong between us. I should have known better, as I’d been treated to a vivid demonstration of the problem of habitual reactions when I studied tai chi. After I had taken classes for three or four years, my teacher sometimes invited me to stay afterward for a round of push hands. Mostly, the martial art involves solo forms, but in this special practice two people face off against each other. There in that empty, mirror-walled studio, we would sink into a bent- knee stance and raise our arms until the backs of our wrists met, and then we would slowly shift our weight back and forth, round and round, hoping to discover the other person’s center of gravity. If, through subtle probing and testing, one of us could find it, we would press forward and throw the other off balance. Ideally, I should have presented myself fluidly, like a formless cloud, so that if my opponent pushed me, he would find that there was no there there. My teacher, however, knew better than to BEFORE I MOVED into my apartment, the previous tenants warned me that a teenager downstairs occasionally annoyed them with the sound of his video games. It turned out that the techno music and beepings were hard to ignore. I tried to be patient but one night, after I was woken up at 2 a.m. and again at five, I reached my limit. Later that morning, I went downstairs and knocked on the door. The kid didn’t answer, though I knew he was home. I rapped harder. Suddenly, the door swung open. Instead of a teen- ager, however, I was confronted with the sight of a half-naked, heavily muscled and tattooed, fully grown man. (Think Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.) He was wrapped in a towel because I had just gotten him out of the bathtub. He did not look pleased. As you might expect, our “discussion” quickly spiraled down- hill. “Why the hell are you banging on my door?” he demanded. I wanted to complain about his rudeness in playing his video games so late and all he could focus on was my rudeness in ham- mering on his door. After a couple minutes of pointless cross- talk, I trudged back upstairs, mulling over how I had botched the situation. I had let myself be overwhelmed by my instinctive fight-or-flight reaction. Even before the door opened, I had felt my breath tighten and my heart race. By the time my neighbor and I actually faced each other, our brains were already flooding with the hormonal equivalent of Tabasco sauce. We were both behaving as evolution had programmed us. If a tiger jumped out at our ancestors while they were foraging, they ILLUSTRATIONSBYANDRÉSLOB Beyond Fight or Flight GABRIEL COHEN on how you can defuse stressful situations by pausing before you react instinctively.