Thursday, 7 December 2017

Dealing With Hurt

Managing reactivity is effective in managing emotional pain and possibly also physical pain.

If I am cut by a knife the nerves in my tissues will respond to let me know something bad happened.  My body will take steps to repair the damage and I may feel those responses and associated them with the damage and suffering and the nerve pain.  It is not actually the cut that is causing me pain but my body’s reaction to it.  Now, we can argue that the reaction is essentially good and helpful but we also suffer because of it.  If my body has an allergic reaction to a substance that is normally not toxic, normally does not cause harm to a human, say the pollen of the broom plant, this is my body making a mistake and having a response that doesn’t actually help.  Just like physical reactions our emotional reactions may be beneficial to us or not, and even if they are beneficial they may hurt.  The more we understand when we react, how and why, the better able we are to cope.  We know if we need time or treatment to heal.

If I am hurt by something someone else has said or done,  I can look at my response and examine why I have reacted this way.  Perhaps the reason isn’t very logical or helpful and in seeing that I may be able to laugh it off and let it go or take a deep breath and move on.  Perhaps the response to hurt is quite valid and this is also good to know as it helps us choose appropriate action to remain safe from harm.

Reactivity, as understood in a Buddhist sense, means an emotional response which may lead to a physical response.  An emotional response has an effect on our mood and mood may  influence behaviour in varying degrees.  Although some branches of Buddhist religion teach that we are striving to overcome reactivity, it may be that the original philosophy as taught by Siddartha Gotama was intended to teach that awareness of our reactivity can help us to diminish it.  While the goal of religious Buddhism has a strong element of breaking free from the earthly life and aiming for nirvana or heaven, as most religions do, the Buddhist philosophy was focused on how to make this earthly life better by reducing suffering.  The Buddhist religion grew in the context of reincarnation beliefs so death may not lead to permanent residence in the afterlife, but Buddhist philosophy leaves the concept of after-life, what it is and how one gets there and stays there for others to worry about. 

The practical matter of how to be happier, healthier and able to assist others is the focus of Buddhism as philosophy.
Buddhist philosophy teaches that we can all recognise the suffering, acknowledge it, let go of identifying with it, experience a release from suffering, but it takes practice and effort.

Some of us are perhaps more reactive than others, or are better able to hide it, suppress it or let it arise and pass without too much bother.  We all know people who never seem to get flustered or who bear more pain than we think we can.  I suspect we all have areas where we are more or less reactive, so our triggers are different.  It doesn’t help in any way to compare ourselves positively or negatively to others, only perhaps to learn something or see something we’d like to emulate.  Ironically, perhaps, spending too much time agonising over your own flaws of character could be as much a reactivity problem as anything else.  I can be very impatient with myself because the bar is set very high.  I put it there myself so I know how high it is.  It is ridiculously high, to the point where I sometimes take myself to task and suggest that it’s a form of arrogance to even imagine that I could reach a bar so high.  I expect a lot of myself in terms of productivity and ability and because I am not Leonardo Da Vinci I consider myself a failure.  Intellectually I know this is ridiculous and yet this thought continues to hover in the back of my mind, influencing my self-talk.  Addressing this version of reactivity is a lifelong practice.  Being aware of it is part of the cure but there may never be a full cure to the human condition.

 I don’t know, and science doesn’t know for certain either, how much of our personality is nature or nurture and how much we can truly change it but some degree of change is probably worth the effort and there is evidence that we can change our beliefs and attitudes which certainly do efect our behaviour.  I would be inclined to say that I know full well what my flaws are, but perhaps a better way to word that and view that is to say I know what triggers strong reactivity in me.  This terminology diffuses the negativity to some degree.  I can be aware of aspects I would like to improve without having to identify them as bad and taking on another reaction, that of guilt or shame.  

 Awareness without negative judgement allows for consideration of how a behaviour or feeling might be limited rather than the very difficult if not impossible goal of eliminating it.  If it were my goal to never react to any stimulus it would be my goal to not be human.  Elimination of reactivity may not be a practical or achievable goal but management of it is.  Being aware of what makes me feel stressed, upset or angry or impatient and figuring out how to be less of that is within the realm of reason. 

Somewhere there is the balance of optimal humanity and Buddhist philosophy attempts to teach how to find it.
When I think of letting go of reactivity I don’t think of it as ridding myself of an emotion or a response, so much as a lessening of grip, my own grip on the feeling and also that feelings grip on me.  The goal is to step back a bit and see more clearly what happened and how I reacted.   With the ability to see oneself clearly can come the understanding of how it is the reaction that causes the suffering.

My personal challenge is to be mindful of how I become frustrated and why.  Knowing this I can take steps towards avoiding frustrating situations that are not productive, or I can begin a process of teaching myself that certain things really do not matter as much as I think they do and become better able to let go of frustration or experience less of it arising in the first place.  This is what it means to be aware of reactivity and to practice letting it go.  Every little bit helps, which makes it a journey or a path more than a destination.  There may not be a place to arrive at, but there is definitely a path that can take you to good places.


* My understanding of Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist religion comes from years of reading and a much longer bibliography than I will list here.  Buddhism as a religion is much easier to find writing on while the philosophy is more difficult, having been obscured by dogma over the centuries.  My best understanding of the philosophy comes from reading Stephen Batchelor, most recently his book After Buddhism, published by Yale University Press.

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