Drop the defence

Yesterday, I heard a great story about the Saint Tukaram Maharaj from Maharashtra, India. This Saint had resolved never to be angry, no matter what. The Gods must have been already rubbing their hands with glee upon hearing such a grand resolution. So one day, Tukaram emerged from the Indrayani river after his bath. A Brahmin approached him and started saying abusive things to Tukaram because Tukaram associated with lower caste people. And then he spat on Tukaram’s face. Tukaram did not say anything and calmly turned back to take a bath in the river once more. After he came out, again the same thing happened – the Brahmin spat on his face. Again, he turned to take a bath in the river. This scene repeated itself more than one hundred times, and every time Tukaram was spat on, he calmly turned to take another bath. The Brahmin then realized what an enlightened soul Tukaram was, fell to his feet and asked for forgiveness. Tukaram only smiled and said, ‘Don’t be sorry. Because of you, I had the privilege of bathing in the Indrayani river one hundred times in a day!’

I was greatly inspired after hearing this story. This is exactly what spiritual practices lead towards: autonomous decisions. No matter how somebody treats you, it is always your choice how you want to react to it. And truly, everything depends on how you look at it. You can take something positive and learn a lesson from every situation, no matter how negative it may seem. Most of our pain is self-created. We are like little wind-up dolls that react to conditioned stimuli. Somebody criticizes us and our response is anger. And who do we harm the most with that anger? Ourselves. If we resolve not to get angry, we can be sure that some person will come along, push our most sore button and Damn! – the resolve is gone. So that shows that unless we are like Saint Tukaram, we have very little control over our minds and our emotional responses. Spiritual practices like meditation and ‘intelligent austerities’ (as Prem Baba calls them) can help us to gain mastery of our emotions. Just like we have been conditioned to react in certain ways to certain situations, we can also de-condition our minds if we know how.

Don’t get me wrong. Anger can be really useful sometimes. But most of the time, and especially in intimate relationships, it’s unnecessary and caused through misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication. This became really clear to me again a few days ago. Over the Easter weekend, my family of origin had a get-together for the first time in years. One family member felt aggrieved by something another family member had done without their knowledge. Everybody, including myself, felt that the issue at hand didn’t warrant such an outburst of anger, especially as it wasn’t intentional. But later, when I meditated on it, I realized that I was judging the person. ‘It’s not that big a deal’, I had told her when she just couldn’t let the issue go. Who was I to tell her that it was no big deal? To her, it obviously was, even though the rest of us couldn’t relate to it. I am not her and couldn’t see what was triggered for her through that interaction. And when I came to that conclusion, the only feeling left in me was compassion for the hurt that had been caused, and gratitude to the interaction for expanding my understanding and humility.

And then I saw that this happens in a lot of arguments. One person is hurt about something the other person says or does, and often the response is ‘Ah, come on. Calm down. Don’t get angry about such a small thing.’ Or you get the ‘yes, but…’ response. But no matter how insignificant or ridiculous we perceive the reason to be, the other person is hurting. Instead of belittling their anger and thus defending ourselves, perhaps we can be curious. Why did the other person react so strongly to my statement or behaviour? What’s really behind it that s/he is reacting in that way? Could we not just get out of the way for a minute and say ‘I’m sorry my behaviour caused you so much pain. Do you want to tell me more?’

That in itself usually takes the charge out of any situation. When a person is angry, all he or she wants is actually being heard. And when that happens, when you can listen calmly to that person with interest and empathy, the anger often goes by itself. In one of the biggest arguments I had in my life with an ex-partner, he calmly turned to me at the height of my outrage and said to me: ‘I have just one thing to say to you.’ ‘Yes?’ I replied, expecting to hear an insult. ‘I love you’, was the simple reply. All my anger vanished in an instant. When we stay calm and listen, we often see that the other person is most likely not hurting because of us (though our behaviour may have contributed), but because our behaviour triggered a samskara in them. And once the angry person sees how things really are (often very different how s/he interpreted them, remember the dirty window analogy from yesterday?), then s/he also sees that anger was most likely unnecessary and perhaps next time will not even get angry when a similar situation occurs.

But, and that’s a big but, for us to offer that type of response, we need to have matured emotionally. We need to have a secure self that does not feel attacked when another person is unhappy with us. When we feel internally secure, we don’t need to defend ourselves. We can later on explain our point of view if we don’t agree with the person, but we can actually take the time and hear them out before we go on the defensive. And this is where it gets complicated. Most of us need to defend ourselves when criticized because of our own samskaras and our own insecurity. We don’t want another person to be angry with us or to think badly of us. We need their approval. And that samskara also deserves understanding and compassion.

So here we are: In many intimate relationships, what really happens in an argument is that  two hurt children who haven’t developed mature ways of dealing with conflict fight with each other. Many of us have never grown emotionally past the age of seven because most likely, nobody ever showed us how. Our parents probably had the same silly arguments which we now face. So then, how to solve this situation? The first step is awareness. We need to become aware of our issues, where our blind spots are, and where we are most likely to get triggered. Instead of looking towards the other person and their faults, we need to turn the gaze inwards and look at our own. This process is greatly helped by introspective practices like meditation, in which we get to know ourselves intimately.

Another really helpful thing is to learn about conscious communication. There is a method called the ‘Imago dialogue’ which was developed for couples in conflict. It’s a wonderful way of learning to actively listen to another person by mirroring what s/he is saying to you and empathizing, even if you don’t agree with them. It really helps to understand the other’s point of view and why they are feeling so aggrieved, and it takes all the messiness out of normal arguments. You can find out more at http://gettingtheloveyouwant.com/articles/imago-dialogue-101 Learning about non-violent communication can also be a real gem: http://www.cnvc.org/

Working with these different modes of conflict resolution, we often find out that the way we have been taught to communicate is extremely ineffective and that there is a much easier way of relating with others. If you have problems with expressing yourself or with hearing others , I highly recommend them – they have enriched my life immensely.

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