Starting small: On not taking on the world all at once

In response to my first post, a friend said, “As the election season comes up, I hope you find time to write about moral anger. For me, getting unhooked from small irritations is one thing, but what about major disappointments in humanity?” That’s a great question, and a timely one as our country heads into the summer and fall legs of the US presidential campaign.

I think that we need to lay a pretty strong foundation in dealing with minor irritations and emotional reactivity, first with relatively easy things, like dropping a box of cherry tomatoes on the floor, before approaching “warmer” things like human interactions or the hothouse of polarized politics. My own unskillful tendency is to react impatiently or impulsively to things I don’t like, whether that’s something small (e.g., someone pulls out in front of me and goes 10 mph slower than I prefer), a bit larger (e.g., a teenaged child makes what I see as an unreasonable demand on my time and good nature!), or kind of huge (e.g., Really, Mr. Pharmacist? You won’t sell me contraception because of your private religious beliefs? Really?). Because that is the case, I need to take baby steps before giant steps. I need to work with the cherry tomatoes.

Two time-honored ways of improving our ability to “stop, drop, and breathe,” in Zen teacher Cheri Huber’s words, is cultivating a daily meditation practice and then bringing the fruits of that practice into awareness/mindfulness throughout the day. There is no shortage of books and websites dedicated to meditation, so I will probably deal less with that topic here in this blog and a bit more on ways we can “come to” into awareness throughout the day so that we can notice that hit of shenpa as it occurs. Developing the ability to notice, breathe, and pause throughout the day and respond rather than react is not as easy as even the most patient person might imagine.

As you go about your day today, try to notice when you get hooked. It doesn’t have to be anything hugely significant, although naturally it’s easier to notice the big gut-clenchers than it is to pick up on that slight tightening in your mind or belly in reaction to something you hear, see, or think you don’t like. It can be anything that provokes you out of “neutral” in some way. It can even be stimulated by something as simple as seeing your partner’s dirty socks left on the floor for the umpteenth gazillionth time. Or a fly loudly buzzing through your living room… a person clearing their throat over and over behind you in line at the post office… not liking how your hair looks today… ahem, who brushed their teeth and left gobs of Crest hardening on the sink without cleaning them up?! There is no end to things that can hook us.

First, we’ll get better at noticing our reactivity. Then, we’ll start talking about what we do after we notice.

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