Many of the ways we think about our experiences, talk about them or react to them are habitual, and therefore, extremely predictable. Most people are like this, and because of this human tendency it is easy to push each other’s buttons, to manipulate others and to be manipulated by them. One effect of Zen training is that we begin to change conditioned habits. We become unpredictable and we develop the type of independence that allows us to create a life that truly benefits others.
If we do not make an effort to become aware of the roots of our behavior, if we do not pay attention to how conditioning creates the present, then much of what we think, say and do will be controlled by automatic reactions that we have learned in the past. A consistent meditation practice allows us to see this process as it happens. We can recognize the force of our conditioning in the sinking feeling of “here I go again.” But even if we see it coming, our reaction can be so fast that we are unable to interrupt habitual and harmful responses.
This kind of predictability is fueled by the self-centered undercurrent of fascination with our own concerns and our indifference to the concerns of others. Humans have a tendency to be interested in others only to the extent that they threaten them or satisfy their wants and needs. When someone does us harm, we can hang onto a grudge for a very long time. But when someone helps us, we appreciate their contributions to our well-being, and then, in many cases, soon forget their kindness.
We do not have to be so programmed and predictable. If we cultivate enough awareness to step back from immediately reacting to the words and actions of others, we can insert a gap or a pause before we are carried away by automatic response. A popular version of this idea is contained in the advice to count to 10 before reacting to anything. In that little gap between stimulus and response we find the freedom to respond in a fresh way that is not predetermined by the conditioning of the past.
When we stop in this miniscule space of time, we have entered the “gap that awakens.” It is there that we respond from a unique and dispassionate perspective. It is there that we are free from the game of defending or promoting ego. It is as if a new world has opened, one in which we respond in a completely unpredictable way. When we learn to step into the gap that awakens, we see how limited focus has squelched a more expansive vision of our lives and relationships.
Suggested practice: When you feel threatened, don’t get defensive; instead, pause, and then react. When you are praised, don’t just lap it up; pause, and then react. What do you notice? Explore the contrast between using experience to further your own agenda and seeing it from a broader perspective.
This column is a long series of short essays exploring the meaning of the Lojong Slogans. It is inspired by the work of Judy Lief.
Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-3390.