Monday, February 23, 2009

Reacting vs Responding

Last night at our sangha meeting we had a really interesting discussion about the differences between reacting and responding. Hearing people's thoughts helped me clarify my own about what this means.

When we react, we're on autopilot because our behavior is governed by repetitive conditioning that took place in the past. Something happened in the outside world that wasn't to our liking so we formed a reactive behavior of one sort or another to act as a shield against any potential misery that might come about if things don't go just as we'd like them to. As kids, we'd scream and carry on when we had a parent tell us we couldn't have that cookie before dinner or stay up past our bedtime. We carry our automatic reactions into adulthood, only we've cleverly adapted them so that they seem more justifiable and socially acceptable.

We're only truly free when we're able to pause for a moment before responding to someone or something that pushes our buttons. There is no freedom when we react like a robot: when we do that we're nothing more than a prisoner of our past conditioned experiences.

Those moments of anger are the most difficult to control because when we're angry we often thing we have to respond NOW and in the loudest, boldest way possible. But if we just sit with our anger and get really up close and personal with it, we can see that it doesn't necessarily require the extreme and hurtful behavior we're normally so tempted to attach to it.

As we sit and practice each day, we create more spaciousness in our heads and therefore in our lives. When we function with a mind that is bigger and calmer, we're not as likely to be hasty and hurtful and counterproductive.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Meditation in the Dentist's Chair

This morning I had an appointment with my dentist to have two cavities filled (only 5 more to go! Yay!)

For as long as I can remember, my way of coping with dental visits was to distract my body and my brain as much as possible from the pain, discomfort, and awkwardness of the experience. I mean, there is a whole lot of drilling and drooling to contend with at the dentist's office and if there were ever any moments of my life I hesitated to embrace, it would be these.

One method of distraction I'd use was to focus entirely on my hands--and as soon as the huge scary novacaine needle was about to pierce the wall of my mouth, I'd start tapping or scratching the top of my left hand with my right one, in a semi-successful attempt at redirecting my awareness from one area of my body to the other. And of course I'd keep my eyes closed and picture myself sipping on fruity cocktails in an exotic beach somewhere very far away from here. As usual I'd attempt to push away the unpleasant, and summon a degree of neutral-to-semi-unpleasant sensations in their place.

Today I experimented with sitting zazen in the dentist's chair. As I lay there reclined in the chair, I simply focused on my breathing and paid keen attention to the cold sharpness of the needle as it dug into the top row of my gums. I kept completely still as my hands rested on each of the chair arms, my body open and vulnerable to the entire experience. My mouth and tongue gradually numbed, and I took stock of what that felt like: nothing actually, it felt like nothing. A second injection followed and again, I sat motionless, and didn't entertain any judgments or opinions about what was happening, I just let it happen and submitted to the moment.

My dentist conversed with her assistant as she filled my two teeth (are they still putting mercury into our mouths?) and before I knew it, it was all over. Uncomfortable and awkward, complete with saliva streaming down my numbed-out mouth and onto my shirt, but it was over.

No big deal, just a dental appointment I decided to keep.

By the way, if you don't floss now, start.