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Lions Roar : September 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2011 24 expect the ideal. He would make a sudden, aggressive show of force and, instantly, with an almost audible click, all of my muscles would tense and my whole body would go rigid. Laughing, he would deliver a little nudge and I’d topple over. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but here’s the thing: even when I was aware of how he was manipulating my instinctive reaction, I still—literally—fell for the trick. The intellectual understanding was nice, but I had thousands of years of neural programming to overcome. Speaking as a divorcé, I wish that I had understood the dynamic of defensive reactions years ago, when, at the end of our marriage, my wife and I seemed to trigger each other on a daily basis. Now I’m trying to learn from my mistakes. I don’t always succeed, though. Not right away. Recently, I went on a romantic date with my girlfriend. We were sitting at a candlelit wine bar when we noticed a fellow patron’s big diamond ring. Without thinking, I launched into what I thought was a funny anecdote about buying my former wife the wrong engagement ring. This oversharing was not quite as stupid as it sounds—on other occa- sions, my girlfriend had asked for details about my marriage— but it was still pretty dumb. My girlfriend got angry. Thinking that she was overreacting, I reacted the way I tend to: I shut down. We suffered a silent, frosty walk home. But I was trying to be mindful, struggling to parse what was really going on. And I realized that my girlfriend was not, deep down, trying to tell me that she was angry. She was try- ing to tell me she felt hurt. And I was reacting to her anger (fight) by moving away (flight). The fight-or-flight instinct doesn’t just kick in when we want to shield our bodies; we also use it to shield our fragile sense of self. Such reactions seem to protect us. After all, that’s the whole point of fighting or fleeing. Sadly, though, these defenses often block us from getting what we really want. We want love from our partners, but if we’re afraid we won’t get it, we act out in resentment or jealousy or emotional shutdown. We become like crazy magnets that repel when we really mean to attract. It occurred to me that my girlfriend and I might greatly improve our relationship if we could become more aware of these unhelpful patterns. If she could say something like, “I feel left out when you talk about your ex-wife,” I would feel a desire to move toward her, rather than away. If I could get closer to my own real feelings, I might soften when I feel threatened, rather than tightening up. The challenge is to put a breathing space between the instinctive response—the jolt of anger or jealousy or whatever it is—and the way we then behave. I know that if I want to get good at finding that space, it’s going to take a lot of practice. Meditation provides me with a great arena, a kind of tai chi studio in my mind. When I’m sitting on a cushion, I’m not rushing to confront someone or scurrying away, so I can turn an internal microscope on myself and see how my thoughts and feelings arise. I notice how I tense up when I think about certain people or situations, and I breathe out to let that tension go. Over time, I’m literally rewiring my neural pathways so that I can react to conflict with more patience and equanimity. Contemplation also helps. In the middle of a conflict, I try to ask myself one simple, crucial question: if I fol- low my knee-jerk reaction, will it move me toward what I ultimately hope to achieve? In the situation with my downstairs neighbor, for example, what I really wanted was not the fleeting satisfaction of expressing my outrage. I wanted peace and quiet in my home. I like the notion that the seemingly difficult people in my life can serve as teachers, offering me opportunities to develop patience and compassion. I was given another such occasion just last week. I also have neighbors upstairs. (A New York City apartment building turns out to be a perfect behavioral test- ing ground.) We had never met, but for months I’d heard them stomp around, drop things on the floor, and generally behave in a way that seemed to indicate that they didn’t know (or didn’t care) that someone lived below. I was told when I was moving in that they had a four-year-old daughter, so I tried to cut them slack, but the situation proved very challenging. I was at home trying to write when things reached a head. I heard the child running across the floor, bouncing a rubber ball, and knew I had to go up and say something. Keep your eye on the prize, I warned myself. You’re not going up there to show them how irritated they’ve made you. Your goal is to present the situation in a way that will allow them to understand why their behavior is creating a problem without activating their own fight-or-flight response. Before I did anything else, I meditated for a few minutes so that I could slow my heart rate and head off hormonal flooding. When I managed to increase my sense of calm, I went upstairs. Before I knocked on the door, I did a physical check. Was I stand- ing in an aggressive posture? Were my fists clenched? I took a few long, even breaths. Above all, I made sure that I was clear about my ultimate objective: to lessen the noise. Showtime. I reached out and knocked. The door opened a crack and I could see a woman looking at me with suspicion. “Hi,” I said, keeping my volume low. “I live downstairs. My I try to ask myself one simple question: if I follow my knee-jerk reaction, will it move me toward what I ultimately hope to achieve? GABRIEL COHEN is author of Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce and The Graving Dock, a mystery novel with a Buddhist subplot.