There’s no question about it. Unless you are completely worry-proof, at some point, things will come along and disturb you. When they do, the usual cycle of disturbance will run its course.
It is worth running through the process most people go through when they hit a storm of disturbance. Everyone’s experience is different, but many experiences follow a similar pattern.
STAGE 1 – EXPECTATION
Firstly, if you think about it, the only reason things ever disturb us in the first instance, is because our mind or body is somehow surprised by events. There you are, pottering along ‘as usual’, when life disrupts you, throws you off course with something unexpected.
This throws into action your internal alarm system. Something is ‘wrong’, it says. This, in turn, makes your body and mind go into ‘action standby’, a kind of red alert in which your confidence in peace is shattered.
But even before your alarm system erupts, you must have been suffering under an illusion, or expectation, that the future would be one particular way. Its easy to do. Peace can lull us into a false sense of security.
STAGE 2 – INTERRUPTION
The second stage of such disturbance is when life provides you with something that does not fit with your expectation.
At this point, your body or mind grabs on to the difference or change, and resists it with an alert. Your blood pressure may rise, your focus may change, and you may become volatile in some way, either against yourself or against those around you.
You are now reacting to the broken expectation, and the disturbance begins.
STAGE 3 – ESCALATION
The third stage is the potential escalation of your response. At several points in your descent into alarmed reaction, you have a choice. The choice is whether to continue your fall, or catch yourself and become peaceful.
This stage, in particular, depends on your training. By training, I mean the work put in, by yourself or others, in preparing you to be mindful in the event of things going wrong. It’s a bit like an athlete being prepared for a challenging performance.
If you are totally unprepared and untrained, then you may find you clatter in a downward spiral – the classic ‘meltdown’. If you have some preparation and training, then you may be able to ‘find your feet’, achieve an awareness of what is happening, and rebalance yourself. It is very difficult sometimes, but often possible.
STAGE 4 – RECOVERY
The fourth stage is recovery to something you recognise as approaching ‘normality’, or a reasonably peaceful and non-reactive awareness.
Depending, in part, on how far you have ‘escalated’, recovery can be easy or difficult. If your escalation has involved hitting out at those around you in various ways, then the recovery can be longer, because you will have to deal with others’ reactions, as well as your own extra disturbance at your own behaviour. Like a child getting itself more and more worked up, your disturbance will be harder to recover from, the more you stay in the downward spiral.
STAGE 5 – LEARNING
The fifth stage is learning. Every situation is training for other situations.
Some people don’t learn very easily from events. There are things that make learning harder. In particular, sticking to your own viewpoint, blaming others, and being unable to be compassionate with other perspectives, are influences. In other words, a fluid sense that you are just experiencing a temporary disturbance, which can be interpreted in many different ways, can help you not only to recover, but to get used to how life can be, and learn not to expect life only to be one way.
You may notice that, in this way, disturbance is a cycle that returns to expectation. You live with expectations, life interrupts them, you allow your reaction to escalate, and you eventually recover and learn a wider pattern of expectation. Ultimately, those who have learned to expect anything, cannot, by definition, be surprised by anything. In this sense, suffering teaches us that our expectations are false, and we stop suffering when we learn to peacefully accept any consequences.
THE RELEVANCE OF MEDITATION
Meditation is specifically training in the art of accepting disturbance with equanimity. We sit. We prepare ourselves to stay focused. We notice when our focus is interrupted by disturbance. We remain mindful, practicing the art of ‘finding our feet’ again quickly, without escalating the disturbance. We practice recovering, bringing ourselves back to mindful focus. And, by meditating from a compassionate standpoint, we open ourselves to learn to accept disturbance without reacting.
Compassion is important, because it is self-cherishing that keeps us in the spiral of non-recovery. It is like that moment when we stop feeling sorry for ourselves in an argument, and smile at the other, and humour and kindness return. Self-cherishing keeps you self-involved and intense; compassion keeps you open and relaxed.
Everybody gets disturbed. Disturbance usually has 5 stages:
You walk around with illusory expectations
Those expectations get assaulted by experience
Your mind-and-body system, encouraged by selfishness, escalates your response
You eventually recover back to something approaching normality
You learn as much as you are able, in preparation for your next potential disturbance
Meditation is training in acceptance. Through it, you learn to focus, and remain focused, whatever life seems to throw at you. Recovery is made easier, because you have trained your mind and body to accept whatever comes without suffering.