This is part of the Compassion in Action series. If you just found this and are wondering what’s going on, click here for chapter 1.
Chapter 2 – Agitation Training
“When your mind is narrow, small things easily agitate you. Make your mind an ocean.” – Lama Thubten Yeshe
In the previous chapter, we discussed a specific example of agitation: a member of our circle was sitting next to someone with a nervous bounce in his leg. As time went on, that little thing began to agitate the observer, to the point where he became angry and thought of physically taking hold of his neighbor to make that leg stop moving.
We’ve all had similar experiences. I remember riding the bus back when I was a teenager. I had just gotten on, and sat at the edge of the aisle. Across from me, and two seats up, a woman sat down. After she had made herself comfortable, she proceeded to pull out a nail clipper, and spent the next ten minutes clipping her nails, right on the bus. Clip! Clip! The sound of that clipper really started to grate on me. Even more annoying was seeing the growing pile of nail shavings on her seat. Was she just going to leave those there? The interesting thing was that I couldn’t turn away from it. The whole time she was on the bus, I just watched her, and got angrier and more irritated with each passing minute.
There was nothing being done to me directly, but simply watching this event was enough to trigger me, just as the participant in our group got triggered by the bouncing knee. That’s agitation.
Was I being hurt in any way? No. Was anyone else being hurt in any way? No. Was this woman being rude or doing something outrageous? Not according to her rules, but definitely according to mine. So the only problem here was on my end of it. We talked about the ego and its need to label things as good or bad. In this case, my “bad” list was getting triggered, which caused a reaction in me, which completely messed with my state of mind. Is it alright to allow an external event to have enough power to derail your state of mind? No, I don’t think it is.
Whether you see a situation as good or bad depends entirely on your own mind and its interpretations. I didn’t know the woman on the bus. She was a stranger. But what if she was my lover? Would I have been as agitated then? Or what if I saw her as God in the form of the Divine Beloved? The Queen of the Universe and perfect embodiment of Beauty is sitting before you cutting her nails. Is that going to be an irritating experience? Cutting nails is a neutral action. It is neither good nor bad. My own judgements created the agitation. In other words, I agitated myself, using the woman as my excuse to do so. This is the problem with having all the ego’s lists and labels flying around.
All agitation ultimately happens inside your own head, because the triggers are simply sounds and images, and the actual experience of being agitated happens internally. The inputs themselves have no charge on them until you start filtering them through your brain.
I witnessed this first hand last year, when I woke up to some really loud snoring coming from the other side of the bed. I wouldn’t say that Laura is usually a bad snorer, but she definitely has her moments. At the time, there was no way I could go back to sleep with that noise, and I had to roll her over to get her to stop.
The interesting thing was that the dog, who sleeps next to the bed, had absolutely no problem with her snoring, and never has. It doesn’t wake him up, and if he wakes up for some other reason, he has no problem falling right back to sleep. The snoring is just a sound, like any other sound. It has a source, and the sound waves travel out. That’s all there is to it – there’s nothing else going on besides that. For me, I hear it and interpret it as “snoring”, then get agitated enough where it interferes with my sleep. For the dog, it just passes right through. However, let one fox bark in the night, and we have the reverse situation – it won’t bother me in the slightest, but the dog is instantly awake and alert, unable to sleep. Clearly, he interprets the sound of the fox very differently than I do, and whether the sound is irritating or not to him depends entirely on the result of his own interpretation.
What is the difference between me and the dog in these situations? It’s that when we access our internal file systems, and look up the “irritating sounds” list, one of us has snoring entered there, and one of us does not. The snoring itself is not irritating or annoying by its own nature. That all happens on the inside, as it gets processed by the listener.
Realizing this, it becomes clear that we have more than one option when presented with an external sound or stimulation, since we are the ones putting labels and meaning on it all. Coming back to the snoring example, there are three ways of responding:
Response 1: Unconscious Reaction
“Oh God, that snoring is so loud! Why won’t that person just shut up? I can’t sleep with all this racket!”
This is the most common response. It is completely reactive. The sound comes, and we react unconsciously. In this approach, we are at the mercy of external influences. Depending on how much self-control we have, our reaction will range from minor annoyance to major irritation. Jesse James, the famous outlaw, is known for shooting a man in the night who was snoring too loudly. Hell is not so much a place as a state of mind, and from that story alone you can imagine that Jesse must have spent quite a bit of time there.
Notice that this reaction is completely self-centered. It is all about how I feel, and how the sound is impacting me. This is why it can be thought of as an animal-level reaction.
Response 2: Conscious Reaction
“That person is snoring. They must be very tired.”
In this response, we acknowledge that the sound is disturbing, but we make a conscious choice to choose another emotion besides anger as our reaction. By thinking of others in addition to ourselves, this gives us the opportunity to bring compassion to the situation.
Meeting a situation with compassion rather than anger feels infinitely better internally, and naturally reduces the level of agitation felt by the listener. It still may be annoying, but not nearly as annoying as it would be would be otherwise.
Have you ever come across a puppy snoring? The absolute last impulse you’ll have when seeing a puppy snore is to shake that puppy awake to make him stop. You may be unable to resist the urge to pet the puppy, but not to shake him or treat him with anger. That’s because, in that moment, you are completely focused on the puppy rather than on yourself.
Response 3: Enlightened Reaction
“I hear the sound of the Divine Mother inside the body of a sleeping person. How beautiful!”
This is the response of the yogi. Realizing that God is all-pervading and omnipresent, the yogi doesn’t see an annoying snoring person, but sees the manifestation of the Divine playing out a human drama. God is snoring, and at the same time, God is also hearing the snoring. Oneness in duality.
At this level, there is no agitation, only love. Our goal is, through meditation, to be able to see the world in this state at all times, and in all circumstances.
There is a story about Paramahamsa Ramakrishna, the famous Indian sage. When he was younger, he lived at an ashram, and due to his extreme devotion and love towards God, he began to break some of the traditional rules and customs. As he prepared a bowl of milk as part of his offerings to the altar, he came across a cat, and seeing God in the cat, he offered the milk there, rather than at the statue. One of the priests saw him do this, and not possessing the same level of spiritual insight, thought it was extremely sacrilegious.
This priest got together with another in charge, and discussed what was to be done with Ramakrishna. They decided that although Ramakrishna was acting strangely, it was most likely due to his age and situation, and they figured that the real problem was that Ramakrishna simply needed to get laid. Yes, that was really their conclusion! Obviously, not the solution that you’d expect from two senior monks in an ashram, but nonetheless, that’s what they came up with.
So they went out and hired two prostitutes from the nearby village, and told them to go to Ramakrishna’s room and take care of him. However, Ramakrishna’s reaction was not a common one. As he saw the two women enter his room, he didn’t see two prostitutes, but saw the manifestation of Kali, the Divine Mother, and in awe of her beauty before him, he immediately fell into Samadhi, a deep state of meditation where one loses body consciousness and is immersed in bliss.
It may be very difficult to start shifting your perceptions at first, but once you realize that all the agitation and irritation you feel is being generated by your own mind, it becomes easier. With regard to irritating sounds, one trick is to simply overlay the name of someone you love, or even the word “love” itself, on top of whatever you are hearing.
In the case of a nail clipper, rather than hearing:
Clip! Clip! Clip!
We can try to hear this instead:
Love! Love! Love!
The human brain is a master of seeing patterns in nature, even when what we are looking for isn’t really there. Simply go outside and find a cloud, and look for the dragon in it. I bet you can find that dragon easily. So with sound, if you try just a little, it will be easy to start hearing the words you are looking for.
When we practiced this in our meditation group, I snuck some bubble wrap into the circle. Then, as everyone was meditating, I started randomly popping bubbles, and the participants would try to hear “love” in those pops. Unfortunately, we all have a great deal of affection for each other, and it was impossible to really get anyone to feel any real agitation in the moment, because they knew I was the one popping the bubbles, and it would have taken a lot more than that for them to really get irritated with me.
The participants had more luck with their homework assignment, which was to actively seek out agitating experiences and try to work on changing how the mind interprets those experiences. There is a lot of agitation available to us in our society, so this is a very easy thing to practice.
I find one of the best times to work with this is when I drive, because it is so easy to get annoyed by other drivers on the road. Next time you get cut off, or someone is driving too slow in the left lane, or someone fails to use their turn signal, practice transforming your irritation into love. Rather than cursing at other drivers under your breath, try blessing them. If you really give a blessing with sincerity, it will be impossible to feel irritation in the moment. And then rather than getting worked up and angry during your commute, you’ll find yourself calm and at ease. You will have to drive one way or the other, and you’re going to come up against that slow left-lane driver no matter what, so why choose to feel anger and irritation when you can choose to feel peace and happiness?
You have the ability to feel however you want to feel at any given moment. The mind is very powerful, but it is a creature of habit. If you teach the mind to interpret things negatively, you will find yourself frequently agitated and irritated. If you teach the mind to interpret things positively, you will find yourself usually happy and in good spirits.
One of my teachers likes to talk about the idea of rose-colored glasses. When you put them on, everything looks pink, no matter where you turn. He suggests trying on a pair of God-colored glasses instead. Wherever you turn, wherever you look, you see God. Change yourself, and you change your world.
There is a very interesting example from anthropology that illustrates the impact that our internal filters have on the quality of our lives. I was listening to the radio, and the person being interviewed was an anthropologist discussing his work on aggression in chimpanzees. It turns out that chimps use aggression socially, as a way to solve problems.
For example, if two chimps come across a banana in the woods, they will use aggression to determine who gets the banana. The strongest, most intimidating chimp wins the banana, and there is no rule against physical violence in determining the victor. Their entire society is wired like this, so screaming, fighting, and high drama are the tools they fall back on in order to settle disputes.
Bonobos are another kind of ape, very closely related to chimps. If you saw the two next to each other, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. In fact, if you go to the level of DNA, you’ll find that both bonobos and chimpanzees share almost 99% of their DNA with humans, which brings these sorts of studies a little closer to home.
Although bonobos might look like chimpanzees, they have a completely different approach to dealing with social issues. They’re lovers, not fighters. So if two bonobos meet in the woods, and come across a banana, they’ll trade sexual favors to figure out who gets to keep it. This is not gender-specific either, as male bonobos have no problem getting it on with other males in these types of situations.
So rather than immediately going into a fight-or-flight situation over every stray banana, the bonobos spend most of their time making out with each other, oftentimes in huge orgies that involve many individuals. Resources are still allocated, conflicts are still resolved, everyone gets to eat, but they’re using sex as their problem solving approach rather than aggression.
Let’s take this further, and move it into the human realm. Imagine two very dedicated Buddhist monks, meeting together in the forest over this banana. These monks uphold non-violence and compassion as their ideals. Are they going to fight over the banana? More likely, the exchange would go something like this:
“You take the banana.”
“No. You take it.”
“No, you are hungry, you need to eat.”
“So are you. I insist. The banana is yours.”
“Well, maybe we will split the banana.”
Rather than reacting from lower centers of consciousness, through violence or sex, we can interact with compassion for each other. There are many ways to solve the problem of who gets the banana, and the right solution isn’t necessarily getting the banana for ourselves.
What happens when you come across your own metaphorical banana in the woods? If you think this only applies to chimpanzees, you’ve never been to an event where free bag lunches were set out in a pile on a table. Normally highly functioning people will immediately revert to the levels of animals when faced with free food and the idea that there might not be enough for everyone in the room. 99% is a lot of DNA to share with a chimpanzee.
What is your knee-jerk, natural impulse in those kinds of situations? Do you feel anger? Do you grasp at that bag lunch? Do you push forward to get what is yours? Or do you react differently, feeling compassion and love for the other party, and putting their needs alongside your own?
In the spiritual lineage that I belong to, there lived a master named Bhupendranath Sanyal. He was one of the teachers of my guru, so I view him in sort of a grandfatherly way, although he died long before I was born. He was a householder yogi, meaning that he was married, held a job, and raised a family. At the same time, he was highly realized, and had many disciples.
One day, one of his disciples came across a bag of gold in the street. He rushed back with the gold to his guru, very excited about the unexpected windfall that he had come across. However, to his surprise, his teacher was not happy with the situation.
“Where did you come across this gold?” he sternly asked.
“I found it at such-and-such location,” the disciple replied.
“No one gave it to you?”
“No, it was just lying in the street. I stopped to pick it up.”
“Go back. Take the bag of gold and give it away piece by piece to whoever passes you by. Do not return until it is all gone,” the master instructed.
Dejected, the disciple left, and gave away all the gold he had just found, returning back with nothing. What he didn’t realize in the moment was that it wasn’t the gold that his guru was upset about, but his attachment to the idea of possessing the gold. The next time this disciple passed by loose coins in the street, he didn’t even bother to look at them.
In all of these examples, the banana represents something we desire. The chimpanzee wants the banana, and so it will fight for it. The bonobos want the banana, and so they will have sex for it. Even the monks have an attachment to who gets the banana, trying to give it to others. But rather than focusing on how to best allocate the banana, only the realized master questions the idea of even wanting the banana in the first place. The banana has power when it is wanted. This desire causes suffering. But when there is no desire for the banana, there is freedom.
The next time you find yourself reacting negatively to something or someone, take a moment to stop and notice what you are doing. Your reaction is coming from the software you have loaded between your two ears. If you don’t like what you feel, and don’t want to be at the mercy of your reactions, it’s possible to rewrite that software program so it works differently. It just takes some training. Try it and see for yourself.