A Practice of Great Mercy
Stepping into my husband's space, he stiffened, but as I wrapped my arms around him, he melted and released. I held him until there was a shift in his energy and he could let go of his frustration. A couple of hours later Jeff asked, “What did you do differently this time in response to my anger? That was the first time that I snapped out of my frustration so quickly.” The cause of upset was a misplaced wallet; impatience took over and it burst into blame towards himself and me. My responses in the past exacerbated the situation, as I jumped into hyper-alert and defensive mode, causing us to escalate what had begun as a simple frustration. As our feelings of distress rose, bouncing back and forth between us, it would blow way out of proportion and both of us ended up angry and annoyed. This time there was a shift in my usual reaction. I paused, centered myself, took a deep breath, and stepped into his space. My arms wrapped around him, and as I silently held him, I breathed in his anger and breathed out calm and healing energy. Without a word I held him, and in that place of non-judgment, he let go emotionally and was able to move on quickly. Breaking my old pattern of response made a huge difference in the outcome for both of us.
We all carry habitual patterns in our responses to challenging situations. When faced with anger, animosity and fear, we might overreact; pointing a finger in blame, or trying to withdraw and run away. Maybe we feel attacked, so we go on the defensive or worry about how we might be perceived by the other person, so say nothing. Food, shopping or sleep might become a balm for focusing and relieving our levels of stress. But by recognizing and changing habitual patterns, we have the capability to respond with balance and not get hooked by what has triggered us in the past.
The first step is recognizing our conditioned response and how that impacts the way we take in a stressful moment. This requires self reflection and dis-identifying with the emotional pattern, so that rather than thinking, “I am an angry person”, it helps to say, “I reacted in an angry way to that situation”. When you can pause and take a breath before responding, it allows for a shift in our reactions. We may feel frustrated with another person or situation, but in the end the only one we are truly hurting is ourselves if we react with a negative response.
A meditation practice is one of the ways we can develop self reflection, learning how to quiet the mind enough to recognize habitual responses. So instead of impulsively reacting to an emotional trigger, we can take a momentary break to reflect and respond from a place of balance. This has the potential to break old patterns, without the wounding attachment of the emotion.
What changed for me that morning with Jeff, were the benefits of a Buddhist practice called Tonglen or “A Practice of Great Mercy” that I had been exploring for a few months. I had been experiencing positive results, so was pleased when it worked so well with him. In exploring Tonglen, I found it to be counter intuitive to what I had always been taught in the past. Instead of breathing in the positive and breathing out the negative, with Tonglen, you breathe in the negative emotion you are experiencing and then breathe out the positive emotion that you'd like to be experiencing. Breathing in the negative gives space to that feeling, allows us to touch our suffering without rejecting it or holding on to it. It promotes self reflection and compassion, opening our hearts and transforming the pain into something positive. We become more available to our own and others suffering, letting go of fear, and allowing for compassionate expression and kindness. So instead of running away we embrace loving kindness, and as a result transform the challenges into understanding and acceptance, without the complications of judgment. This practice awakens a state of openness and can address personal as well as other people's challenges, thereby benefiting everyone. As our energy positively shifts, it is then reflected in those we encounter and interact with in our daily lives.