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choice points

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Yesterday’s post touched on the fact that life’s path is made up of choices: we can behave or feel this way or that. Yet we repeat certain behaviors that are harmful to self and others, to nature and the world. Many of us go back in personal history looking for causes and explanations: I behave like this because such-and-such happened to me in school, at home; because my father did this, my spouse that, and the world the other. 

For much of my adult life I’ve carried anger (rage even) just below the skin. Until not long ago, I’d quickly fly off the handle when I felt wronged or misunderstood. My behavior caused suffering to others and to myself. When challenged, I’d cite physical and emotional abuse as a child and teenager. No wonder I get angry, it’s in my nature, I’ve every reason to be angry, I can’t help it.

Anger may be a natural behavior in the context of one situation (such as prolonged abuse), but useless, harmful, and unacceptable in most others. So, what to do. A long time ago I sent myself to anger management courses and have, over the years, spent much time in therapy. In due time I developed a good grasp of the why of anger, but was at a loss on how of behave more skilfully.

One of the practical benefits of Zen practice — which comprises regular meditation, silent retreats, serving others, and being guided by the precepts — is gradually opening new ways of being with anger. A four-fold approach:

1. Less and less blaming on past experiences and the behavior of others.
2. Recognizing the windows of choice between automatic reaction and right action
3. Apologizing to others and making amends. 
4. Compassion towards myself as I learn to recognize and diffuse my reactivity.

All are grounded in the practice of mindfulness: becoming aware of emotions as they arise in the body, taking responsibility for my actions; and not beating myself up for being ‘imperfect.’

image: (fork in the road)


2 responses »

  1. P.N. wrote: this post is very encouraging to me as I investigate my own reactivity.

  2. One of the things I notice about times when I’ve come a bit unhinged is that there’s a subtle story I’m telling myself about what’s unfolding. The things I’ve previously told myself about a person or behavior suddenly push to the front and really inflame my view of things. And usually, they’re very little nagging things, that on the face of them, seem like almost nothing. But somehow they gain momentum, and at a precarious moment, can really tip the scales.

    Not quite the same thing, but one time I was having a bit of a heated argument over something not too important, and suddenly I realized that this person and my awareness of her seemed to fill my entire horizon. And that almost-unconscious awareness was “this must be the stupidest person on the Earth.” Which was totaly unfair, (and unlikely!) and seemed be coming from some part of me that was unhappy things weren’t going how I’d anticipated. Just realizing that this way of thinking was going on within me has been a big help at not getting caught by it again.

    I was once really angry and frustrated about something a Dharma brother’d been doing, when I passed by the Dharma hall. At that moment I heard a phrase from a ceremony saying that “All minds and my mind are one mind.” Somehow just repeating this to myself really cools things off for me. My guess is that it’s like medicine for those semi-conscious chains of dualistic thinking.


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