A few days ago, I wrote about How To Calm Down when we feel agitated. It’s a tough task, to say the least. At the moment of aggravation, giving in to the hot flush of self-righteous indignation is so tempting. And yet, after the first nanosecond, the gratifying feeling quickly dissolves and another nanosecond later, it has completely disappeared.
Beyond the disappointment that follows, there emerges a feeling of regret. Did I have to say that? Was it necessary to react like that? Usually, the answer is No.
I believe we all want to be kind. We want to care for others, help them where we can, and make them happy. And yet, we are often the source of their hurt through our words and actions.
One of the key motivations behind my explorations of various religions has been a desire to find a way to end this pattern. As I searched for ways to understand this behaviour and how to end it, I stumbled upon a marvellous short essay by Charlotte Joko Beck, an American Zen Buddhist nun.
In sharing the teachings of Zen Buddhism, she described a still pond. When the pond is still, one can see clearly the reflections of the surroundings and also the pond’s deepest depths. Seeing things as they are is only possible when the pond is calm and unperturbed. When it is shaken, the image disintegrates and it becomes hard to see anything. The shapes break up into incoherent fragments and it becomes difficult to make sense. In such a state of confusion and disharmony, how is it possible to see things as they are and act correctly?
And yet, we react. Anger and upset create disturbance in the mind, stirring the calm surface into a maelstrom. Conflicting feelings, memories, and fears arise out of the churning and cloud judgment. In such a state, it is almost a given that any action taken is likely to be the wrong one. Hence, the inevitable regret when acting in haste.
In his outstanding classic, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote about the pause that exists between a stimulus and its reaction. That pause is what the Buddha talked about when he taught to break the chain of reaction and thereby end suffering.
Take that pause. Stretch it for as long as needed for the mind to settle down, for the cloudiness to drift away, for the clarity of stillness to reestablish itself. It is only then that an appropriate action can be taken.