What is the secret to staying calm whatever happens? It’s all about telling the difference between (a) what happens, and (b) our reaction to what happens. If we believe they’re the same thing, then we are stuck blindly reacting to everything. If, on the other hand, we believe that our reaction is a completely different thing to events, then we have our emotional freedom.
CHILDHOOD AND ADULTHOOD
When we’re born, we react to events quite blindly. We cry when we are uncomfortable, and go quiet when we are satisfied. We eat and sleep, and many of our moods are related to those functions. We are so embodied that we have little freedom. That’s why we need carers to manage us.
As we grow up, we learn the difference between events and our reaction to them. We learn, for instance, that shouting ‘I’m hungry!’ in adulthood doesn’t have quite the same effect as when we were babies. Polite society has different rules of behaviour, and, if we carry on blindly reacting, we will not get very far.
Meditation is a practice which is designed to enhance our ability to differentiate between events, and our reaction to them. We notice our body itching, and we live with the itch. We notice our mind replaying the old familiar sob stories, and we watch them calmly, and then let them drop. We learn pure awareness: that is, the art of remaining calmly alert, whatever is going on in our bodies or the outside world.
Just for today, we can try approaching every moment with the same attitude: that events do not define our reaction. We can observe events, and we can observe our bodily reaction to them. We can watch our inner dialogue, and hear ourselves argue out the usual worries, attractions and repulsions. But we can remain apart from these things, so that they affect us less and less in a negative way.
We will still have feelings. But those feelings will be more subtle. Instead of anger, we may feel compassion or curiosity. Instead of irritation, we may feel interest. The negative, aversive behaviours will tend to disappear. The positive, kind, sympathetic behaviours will have more room to breathe. We can still be assertive when we need to be, but it will be in a much more controlled way, and not motivated by spite.
Our mental state and behaviour do not depend on events or other people. If we can realise this key truth, we are set free from spirals of reactivity. We will still be a part of the world, and will still relate to it. But it will be on the basis of wise engagement, and not blind reaction.