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Lions Roar : November 2014
When i tell the story about this class, it usually elicits an enthusiastic response: “yes, that’s me! matter of fact, i have two of those five response patterns. Can a person have more than one?” “in fact,” i respond, “we each have all those habitual patterns of response in varying combinations in response to different circumstances.” on one notable occasion, though, a man who had recently joined the class said, “i don’t understand any of this. i would have phoned my work to tell them i’d be late. then i would have phoned the police, my insurance company, and an auto repair to get the car towed and serviced. then i would have taken the bus to work. What’s the matter with these people?” everyone laughed, and i probably did too. But i was very careful in my response, because no one had been wrong in identifying how they responded to stress and nothing was “the matter” with anyone. i replied, “i think most of us here would have done that too. What people are describing is what they felt like doing, what thoughts flashed through their minds before they did the obvi- ous sensible thing.” the silk pajama story served as a prompt for people to notice what their minds habitually bring up in response to stress and difficulty. my moSt PromInent default position, the one that’s been the most painful all my life, is restlessness, an agitation of mind that manifests as obsessive worrying. Long before i knew about restlessness as a recognizable, commonly shared form of confusion, i knew i had it. i worried about things that were sometimes genuine concerns (which required attention, but not obsessive fretting) and i worried about imagined concerns, things that had not yet happened but could. When i describe to people the kinds of worst-case scenarios my mind can construct out of minimal data, many heads nod in rueful recognition of this familiar experience. imagine this scene: i was traveling with my husband in a foreign country, before there were cellphones, and we planned to meet at a particular res- taurant for lunch. i arrived on time, at noon. He wasn’t there yet. i waited a minute, maybe two, and then i thought, “What if some- thing bad happened to him? What if he got lost? He doesn’t speak the language. What if he took ill? He is old. What if he is missing and no one can find him? i suppose i could call the american embassy. if something terrible happened i’d need to call our family...” only a few minutes passed before he strolled into view, happy to tell me about his morning’s adventures.” i felt dismayed to find myself caught, yet again, in a gratuitous mind-storm. each experience like this solidified my view of myself. “i am a world class worrier,” i would think, “and i guess i’ll need to deal with this forever.” Calling myself “world class” was an attempt to make light of my uncomfortable habit. i wouldn’t do that now. every afflictive mind tendency that becomes a habit is painful. Here’s a second scene from the pre-cellphone era: i was waiting with other parents for a ski bus to return from a day in the mountains. aboard were sixty eleven-year-olds, one of whom was mine. the bus was fifteen minutes late. as we stood together in the winter evening darkness, it began to rain. ten more minutes passed. i thought, “How come these oth- ers parents, like the one who just said, ‘Let’s get something to eat while we wait?’, are not thinking that if it’s raining here, it’s snow- ing in the mountains, and quite likely there has been a accident?” i was aware of the frightening thoughts i was having, and the pain of having those thoughts. i was also aware that the other parents did not take every situation of ambiguity to a dreadful conclusion. i felt envious. Sloth SylVIa boorSteIn is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books including Pay attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happi- ness is an inside Job. She will be teaching at the Shambhala Su n’ s meditation retreat at the Omega Institute, August 26 to 30, 2015. PHotoBymaRGotDuaNe SHAMBHALA SUN NoveMBer 2014 44