Drawing the circle ever bigger: Accepting the unacceptable

Well, I was hoping not to have to write yet about shenpa arising when we get triggered by a political or social issue or a tragic event because I really don’t know for sure how Buddhism treats our reactions to things of this magnitude. Today’s mass murders in a Colorado movie theater ending with at least 12 dead cry out for attention, though, because “guns and violence” is a serious and highly provocative issue in our country.

I suppose this kind of shenpa hook is like anything else: instead of getting swept away by the storyline, we need to become aware of how we are reacting so that we can insert a breath, a pause, into our usual dynamic. Even doing something that small can create helpful space in our minds and conversations with others.

When a gunman mows down folks in a public place, for example, it provokes my habitual knee-jerk reaction around gun control/availability. For the sake of the present discussion, I will say that I support strong gun-control measures and think that something is very wrong in our culture where we continue to tolerate “the routine massacre of our children [as] the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns,” as Adam Gopnick wrote in his New Yorker article today. Personal opinions on guns aside, though, we all know this feeling of being hugely hooked by an event or issue about which we have strong emotions and beliefs.

One thing Zen teacher Cheri Huber suggests is imagining drawing a circle around yourself. Now, it’s easy to draw a circle big enough to include the people and things you like and agree with. But what about someone we dislike? Or a deeply troubling event? Or someone with a diametrically opposed view on, say, ease of gun availability or some other hot-button social issue? Can we draw the circle big enough to include them as well? Our egos will strongly resist doing so. No, I can’t possibly include Uncle Norman who carries a concealed weapon everywhere he goes in case he gets mugged. No, it’s not right that the Boy Scouts don’t permit boys identifying as gay to become or stay members. No, that political candidate has Neanderthal views on women’s access to contraception. There is no end to the things, people, and groups we fear, don’t like, or even hate. However, it takes an enormous amount of physical and emotional energy to resist and hate anything.

“Love anything. Hate anything. The effect you have on the thing you hate might be negligible, the effect on you, monumental,” Huber says. “When we learn to accept everything that comes into our lives, we are free from the pain and suffering of resistance.”

Can I draw a circle of acceptance around the NRA and Uncle Norman? Oh, god, please don’t make me do that. I can’t, I just can’t. But I expend an enormous amount of energy in resisting and hating the reality of the NRA and Uncle Norman’s guns. “Resistance does not work,” says Huber. “We have two choices: #1. We can accept what is. #2. We can resist what is. Results of our choice: #1. None. #2. None, except suffering.”

“If you find something unacceptable, draw a bigger circle of acceptance. Just keep drawing a bigger circle until nothing is excluded,” she says. Well, notice that she didn’t say it would be easy. Sometimes it takes a long time to include something “unacceptable” in our circle. Months. Years, maybe. What we want to do is to watch how things move into or remain outside of our circle of acceptance over time.

I hasten to say that acceptance of the unacceptable does not mean that we become passive, resigned, uncaring, wishy-washy people. Far from it. When we release the resistance to what is — I mean, the NRA exists and operates, whether I like it or not! — we free up the energy it takes to hate or push against, to do something (or not) about the issue. We stop fighting our resistance so that we are more free to work on behalf of peace, LGBTQ rights, and women’s health care with much less draining, emotional reactivity. And if we do not choose to put energy into doing something about an issue, then our acceptance of, rather than resistance to, the current reality of the situation brings us greater peace.

That said, the grief we feel around the loss of life in this gun-related massacre should not be repressed or skipped over. We need to experience and honor the grief in our hearts while withdrawing our attention from the tired old story of how much we hate guns and violence in the US. Unfortunately, we know the story so very well. Maybe this time, though, we could do a new thing: drop the resistance to reality and see how much energy and peace are released for deeper thinking, calmer conversation, and more effective work. May it be so.

PS – I will be pondering and reading about how to deal with shenpa in reaction to social and political issues and writing about it in the future. Drawing a bigger circle is only one thing we can do. There is more.

(Quotes by Cheri Huber are taken from her 1984/1998 book “The Key and the Name of the Key is Willingness.” It is not her best book by a long shot, but I appreciate her take on acceptance, resistance, and change.)

Photo credit: http://www.wma.com/jim_denevan/summary/

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.

(Photo credit: http://www.purposefulhomemaker.com/2012/01/grace-and-gobs-of-toothpaste.html)