Going To War
Two armies face off
across a dusty plain
armored for a long siege
arrows dipped in poison.
Death is imminent.
Warriors pound chests
build to a cacophony
A perfect killing storm.
The battle is joined
and no one
or Head of State
Can remember what the war is about.
We all live in a perpetual state of war. Or at least on the cusp of war. It might be war with your wife, kids, boss or friends. It might be political, religious, or ideological. A person is mean to you or to someone within you hearing. Someone cuts in front of you in the supermarket line, drives erratically while messing with their cell phone, gets your order wrong at the drive through, puts you on hold before you get to talk. It might even be that mosquito that keeps buzzing you when you are trying to concentrate. These little battles are a part of life. There are as many different reasons for war as there are people on this planet. They are inevitable. Unavoidable.
Or are they?
Life’s little battles happen all the time. We can ignore them or let them ruin our day. I am notorious for allowing my train to be thrown off the tracks by little things that I won’t even remember a week from now. It was especially bad when I was in the restaurant business. Heaven forbid that a pizza got made wrong, a server gave poor service, or a guest had to wait too long to get a table. If dishwasher or oven went down or the toilets backed up, I was a borderline basket case. If I am out of balance, I am not a nice person. You don’t want to be around me. I will make you cry.
There is a crucial moment that occurs right before we start to go off the deep end. You can see it in others. The eyes start to glaze over. The corners of her mouth start to tighten up. Her shoulders hunch. Her heart starts to harden and you can almost see the walls going up between her and the rest of the world. The stress is palpable. It is painful to watch it happen to a loved one.
Now imagine how they feel when they see it happen to you.
But does it have to happen? Perhaps. In the beginning. This “hardening of the heart” has been recognized and expounded upon over the course of history.
When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it. ~ Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius – MEDITATIONS (121 – 180 CE)
Equanimity is defined as “evenness of mind especially under stress” (Merriam Webster). I’ll call it balance. I think we can all agree that life is great when we feel like we are in balance, in the flow. We are like a finely tuned (or poorly tuned, in my case) automobile. When all the cylinders are firing in order we feel like we can conquer the world. But add a little water into the gasoline, throw in a bad sparkplug or a pinhole in the radiator and suddenly we are laboring to get through the day. The key is not eliminating all of the little distractions in our lives, but recognizing them and not allowing them to get in the way and slow us down.
Buddhist Pema Chödrön of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia does extensive teaching on this subject. There is a Tibetan word, shenpa, which translates to “attachment.” Pema Chödrön prefers to call it “the hook.” Shenpa refers to all of these little speed-bumps that I’m talking about. It is that instant when we feel ourselves going off kilter. The moment when we get caught by that traffic light. The moment when our loved one is not as attentive as we wish. The moment when the cable goes out. The moment when the person hangs up on us or slams the door in our face.
Pema Chödrön teaches that shenpa can be a powerful and instructive tool to not only help us keep our balance but improve it. Rather than viewing our little irritations as a weakness, we can learn to recognize their onset and power through them. She calls the irritation a “hardening of the heart” and advises us to “hold on to the soft spot behind it. Every time that we can conquer irritation in this way, we condition ourselves to be better and faster the next time.
Marcus Aurelius used to play a game with himself. Whenever he felt an irritation coming on, a flux in his equanimity, he would race to see how fast he could conquer it. He called it his “Equanimity Game.” Since I discovered this game a couple of years ago, I have learned to calm down, attack things rationally instead of emotionally. I make less people cry now.
Life is like a fisherman who casts his line in a barrel. Millions of little hooks are dangling in the water, waiting for one of us to swim along and take the bait. If I get lucky and make that traffic light, the hook is still waiting there for the next driver, the unlucky one. If I say the right thing and make you smile instead of cry, the hook is waiting at the next table for the couple that is not on the same page. The hooks will always be there, dangling, waiting to catch you unaware.
The trick is knowing that they are there, dealing with them unemotionally, and getting on with your life. Pema Chödrön calls it her Four R’s.
RECOGNIZING (that the hook is there)
REFRAINING (from being knocked off-kilter)
RELAXING (into the feeling)
RESOLVING (to deal with irritation the same way over and over again)
The more you practice, the better, and more in balance, you will be. Not only will you be one step ahead of the game, but you can avoid some of the wars that seem inevitable in your life.