When you’re caught in your habitual patterns, says Joan Sutherland, try not to fixate on your reactions. Instead cultivate awareness of everything that is happening in the moment.
Sometimes it can seem as though being human is a problem that spiritual practice is meant to solve. But Buddhist meditative and related practices actually have a different focus: developing our human faculties to see more clearly the true nature of things, so that we can participate in and respond to how things are in a more generous and helpful way. Our individual awakenings become part of the world’s awakening. This means leaning into life, and to do that we have to recognize what gets in the way. For each of us, this is likely to include certain habitual patterns of thinking and feeling in reaction to what we encounter.
Meditation and inquiry are methods, ways to have direct experiences of the deepest insights of our tradition—of the interpermeation of all things and the way things, including our habitual reactions, rise into existence for awhile and then fall away again. Everything is provisional, and everything influences everything else. The implication for our inner lives is that they are seamless with the outer world, and constantly changing with it. We’re not encapsulated consciousnesses bouncing around in a world of other consciousnesses and inert matter, but part of a vibrant, ever-changing field that encompasses everything we can experience, and more. Everything is rising and falling in this field, sometimes for a nanosecond and sometimes for a geological age, but still appearing and disappearing in an infinitely complex web of other things doing the same. To the extent that we experience, in the ordinary moments of our lives, the seamlessness of our inner states and outer circumstances, we’re being more realistic, more in tune with the way things actually are.
From this perspective, how do we deal with the habitual patterns of heart and mind that inhibit us from having a more realistic understanding of life, and a more intimate engagement with it? Perhaps it becomes less important to tackle the thoughts and feelings directly, to do something about them, than it is to see them in their true proportion. A reaction, after all, is just one thing among many appearing in the field at that particular moment, no more or less important than anything else.
Simply put, how we react is not the most important element of any situation. When we fixate on our reactions, they pull us away from a primary experience of what’s actually happening, into a small room where how we think and feel about the experience becomes the most important thing, the thing we’re now in relationship with. If you and I are having a conversation and I become angry, I might find my emotions so compelling that suddenly I’m not in a conversation with you anymore, but with my anger. What’s wrong with this person? This must not stand! Then, particularly if I’m involved in a spiritual practice, I’m likely to have reactions to my reactions. After all this meditation, I shouldn’t be getting angry like this! Or, This is righteous anger! Now I’m in the third order of experience, moving further and further away from the actual conversation with you.
If we pull the camera back for a wider view, it’s immediately apparent that a reaction like this is only one of many things rising in any given moment in the field. There’s you and me and our surroundings, your mood, my capacity for misunderstanding, the temperature of the air, the sound of birds or traffic outside the window and the neighborhood beyond that, the most recent calamity in the news, and more other phenomena than we can possibly take into account. The moment is vast, with a lot of space between the things in it. The moment is generous. I don’t have to zero in on my reaction, to act impulsively on it or repudiate it or improve it, all of which tend to reinforce the sense of its importance, but just accept it as one (small) part of what’s happening. Usually that simple shift changes everything. It allows us to step out of the small room of second-order experience and back into a fuller, more realistic experience of the moment.
If reaction is a move into the partial, a privileging of how we think and feel above everything else, response emerges from the whole of oneself, grounded in the whole situation, with each element assuming its true size and shape. In responding we’re not doing something about a situation, but participating in it.
It’s interesting that our evaluation of a habitual reaction as negative doesn’t arise until the third order of experience, fully two circles away from what’s actually happening: it’s our reaction to our reaction to what’s happening. The ancients called this putting a head on top of your head. Not only are we distancing ourselves from the original situation, but even from our reaction to the situation. That kind of distancing can be a defense against a reaction that’s causing unease out of proportion to its proportion, as it were, and that’s when inquiry can be useful.
The basic inquiry is What is this? And it’s a way back to what we’re trying to avoid. We drop the self-centered focus of the third order of experience and re-enter the second, encountering our reaction directly, without preconceptions and even with interest. We’ve picked up one thing from the field and are taking a closer look for a while. We inquire into whatever What is this? evokes—thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, memories. The unexpected and surprising are particularly valuable, because they come from somewhere other than what we can usually imagine. Habits can be deeply ingrained, but over time it’s possible that even a quite troublesome reaction can assume its proper size and shape as one thing among many, rising and falling with everything else, no longer especially inhibiting or especially fascinating. And we move closer to a life lived in response instead of reaction, closer to participation in the way things actually are.
Joan Sutherland, Roshi is a Zen koan teacher and the founder of Awakened Life in Santa Fe, New Mexico.