Here’s a story my friend and acclaimed Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg tells. Years ago, as a young woman, she traveled to India to study meditation. One of her teachers lived in Calcutta. After finishing her time with Dipa Ma, Sharon planned to get on a train to visit another teacher who lived in a different part of India. With a friend, she hired a rickshaw to get to the train station. However, on the way there, the driver took a shortcut through a back alley and a man leaped out of the shadows to grab at Sharon and tried to pull her out of the cart. Luckily, her friend pushed the man away, and the two women escaped unharmed. When she arrived at her teacher’s place, Sharon related her experience. His response went something like this: “With all the loving-kindness in your heart, you should have used your umbrella and hit the man over the head.”
As with most Buddhist teaching tales, we can draw various lessons from this story. One is that we often feel conflicted about how to act in adverse situations. When fear or anger, grief or worry take over, confusion, paralysis, indecision, and a desire to escape can occur. Women especially are conditioned to acquiesce to the societal norms of “good behavior” and ignore prompts to respond assertively against injury. Strong emotions can cloud anyone’s mind. Meeting violence in any form, whether it comes toward oneself from within or from another, requires wise and skillful action. This is not our intuitive response. Reacting in a habitual and conditioned way is.
The key word in the teacher’s advice is loving-kindness. Knowing Sharon had suffered from a disturbing event, he was encouraging her to hold herself with loving-kindness, but also to have compassion for the perpetrator, a victim of injustice and poverty. The unfortunate conditions of the attacker’s life, however, are not excuses for his hurtful actions. Skillful or right action includes moral conduct. When we decide to take action, are we aware of the ethical dimensions of our actions? What is our motivating force? Are we attached to specific outcomes? Are we doing harm—with a look, a harsh word, with indifferent or malicious behavior? How can we become more conscious of how we affect others and ourselves?
I recently thought of the umbrella story after our house was robbed while my husband and I were asleep. Not even our usually alert pooch that barks at every squirrel in the neighborhood woke up. My initial reaction to the burglary was fear, violation, and anger. The anger soon dissipated, but the fear lingered. As I observed my mind getting caught in the dukkha, the Pãli word for suffering, I saw that the fear had its roots in a sense of helplessness, disappointment, and a damaged sense of safety. Jeesh, even my beloved doggie let me down! For days, I struggled with alternating big emotions, but when I looked deeper, I saw that the need to feel safe had long been a core issue in my life.
To break patterns of reactivity requires we cultivate an awareness of our mind’s biases and preoccupations. Renowned teacher Pema Chödrön states: “The Sanskrit word klesha refers to a strong emotion that reliably leads to suffering. It’s sometimes translated as “neurosis” and as “afflictions” and “defiled emotions.” In essence, kleshas are dynamic, ineffable energy, yet their energy can easily enslave us and cause us to act and speak in unintelligent ways.
Our lives give us plenty of opportunities to work with kleshas. “Learning takes place only in a mind that is innocent and vulnerable,” wrote the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. I find his words highly comforting. They take the sting out of the shame of vulnerability. They remind me that a tender and unblemished part exists in all of us. Just think of it— every moment we are alive is a brand new moment, a chance to take a fresh breath and begin again. When strong feelings sweep us up, when we are caught in a craving or are numbing out, we can pause, go inward and pay attention to our breath. We can ask ourselves with open curiosity: What’s here? Is it fear, sorrow, frustration, rage? What is asking for my attention? No matter what we have experienced, no matter how troublesome our circumstances, we can meet it with a mind unbound from past patterns.
Let me offer a simple strategy for staying mindful. As I like to joke, we have to be mindful to remember to be mindful!
Several Buddhist teachers encourage a practice with the acronym RAIN that is helpful in stabilizing the mind and directing our awareness to our deep truth. According to teacher Tara Brach, RAIN is a four-step process that can be accessed in almost any situation. She writes: “RAIN directly de-conditions the habitual ways in which you resist your moment-to-moment experience. It doesn’t matter whether you resist “what is” by lashing out in anger, by having a cigarette, or by getting immersed in obsessive thinking. Your attempt to control the life within and around you actually cuts you off from your own heart.”
The easily remembered steps to RAIN are:
The willingness to recognize what is happening in your life right here, right now is the first step to mindfulness. It involves focusing your attention on all that is happening within you, your thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations. Some of us find it easier to notice our cold fingertips and racing heart than our racing thoughts. Start wherever you can focus, the tightness in your chest or the words repeating in your head; wherever you start, attend to yourself with curiosity and without judgment.
Can you allow what’s occurring in the moment to just be? It’s completely natural to want to push away difficult thoughts, feelings or sensations and resist unpleasantness in all forms. The teachings tell us that when we soften and open to whatever is happening, our level of ease and comfort actually increase. A phrase that’s often helpful in making space for the unwanted is the accepting acknowledgment: And this, too.
Tara calls this step, “investigating with kindness.” She encourages us to ask ourselves the questions, “What is happening inside me right now?” What am I believing?” “What does this feeling want from me?” We may ask ourselves what judgment are we holding about a situation. Beneath the judgment, what else can be discovered?
When we identify with our thoughts, stories, or emotions, when we say to ourselves, I am an anxious, or greedy, or angry person, we limit our view of who we really are, and ignore our vast and wise “Buddha” nature. Non-identification means we acknowledge that we are not our thoughts or emotions and that our emotions are not unique to us. When we live in our larger selves, we are freed from the constrictions of our limited minds.
The American essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson urged us to be “active souls.” An active soul is an inquiring soul, a soul participating in the world. By claiming our full human experience—life as it is, not as we wish it to be, and accepting things as they are—our closed-off hearts break open in recognition of our common plight with all beings. We understand that our existence on the planet, no less than the existence of the planet itself, depends on the comprehension of our interconnectedness. The personal is universal; by befriending our individual minds and hearts with genuine curiosity and non-judgment, we contact our essential goodness and intelligence. With greater ease, we naturally lift out of despair and hopelessness and discover new energy for our role in planetary well-being.
Several days after the robbery, I had a realization that in a world of haves and have-nots, stealing will inevitably occur. This understanding lessened my sense of personal injury and softened my attitude toward the thieves. The thought came to me while sitting in meditation and arose as a deep insight about the world. I have not dwelt on the fate of the thieves or tried to imagine them, but when they come to mind, without trying to push anything away, I feel no trace of bitterness.
And here’s a PS to consider about the umbrella story. As the teacher advises: If with the intention of compassion and loving-kindness, we stop our attacker by hitting him on the head, we prevent him from accumulating bad karma from an unwholesome deed!
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”