Non-Reactivity: Bodhisattva Teachings for these Reactionary, Divided Times

We live in highly reactive, divisive, us-versus-them times, where it feels like violence, anger, and hatred are spiraling out of control. 

So many of us are feeling it, and it’s feeling increasingly unsafe.

The call-out, public shaming culture is running rampant, and people are afraid. Things have become so polarized and so extreme that it seems we have lost the capacity to stay open, listen, and respond with care rather than react with hostility. 

We all intuitively know this isn’t the kind of world we want to be creating, but where do we go from here? 

Regardless if you feel like you are contributing to this climax of reactivity, it’s becoming urgent that we recognize that we can all do something, right now, to help diffuse and disarm the global situation. 

So what can we do in this very moment to help the situation rather than add fuel to the fire? 

We can start by recognizing that the transformation we so desperately wish to see needs to first and foremost unfold within ourselves. This means we have to be willing and courageous enough to become intimately acquainted with our own habitual ways of reacting. 

We can’t control what other people do, but we have a say in how we choose to show up. Not just online, or in the public sphere, but in our direct relationships, with our beloveds, families, and friends. 

Most importantly, this starts with exploring the chronic and habitual tendencies that play out within ourselves, especially the ones that cause us to suffer. And we all have plenty of those. By doing this, we directly contribute to the global situation by putting water on a fire that’s raging out of control. 

This is the training ground for Warriors of Light, people who are committed to contributing to a more harmonious future on this planet. 

So how do we train? We can learn to reach for the necessary transformational tools and teachings to help transmute our own pain, fear, depression, anxiety, and worry, into the path of waking up. 

The wisdom teachings of the Bodhisattva can offer us on-the-spot guidance to help illuminate this path forward. This is no small task, but for those of you who aspire to walk the path of the Bodhisattva, it’s the journey we must take, and indeed, there’s no time to lose. 

Recognizing the Trigger

There’s no shortage of things to be angry or upset about these days.  

These can often feel like disheartening times. I invite you to think of the last time you felt triggered or upset. Maybe: 

  • You felt outraged by something you saw on the news.
  • Your partner said that thing to you that pushes your buttons. 
  • You judged a particular person in power for being a…(fill in the blank).
  • You saw someone publicly shamed on social media. 
  • You felt upset by the way someone you know is “fighting for a cause” they believe in, and disagree with what they are doing.
  • You felt angry by the atrocities of racial injustice or social inequality. 
  • You felt criticized by someone you love. 
  • You feel frustrated by continued stay-at-home orders. 

What’s helpful to see here is that there’s a common denominator underlying each of these situations, which unintentionally fuels an immediate chain reaction that’s usually highly destructive, for everyone involved. 

First, we’ll explore what that common denominator is, and then we’ll explore the chain reaction. 

Shenpa: Our Knee-Jerk Reactionary Tendencies 

There’s something that always happens underneath the surface when we witness or experience something that triggers us. Sometimes its subtle, and other times it’s not so subtle, but I invite you to start paying attention to how it’s always there. 

When we experience an uncomfortable emotion, no matter what the underlying trigger, the pull to react, and more importantly, the pull to move away from it, is enormously strong. 

It can be an intense emotional reaction that accompanies witnessing something as horrific as police brutality. Or it might be a mild pull or tug, like when someone says something that slightly rubs you the wrong way. 

What we experience is a visceral reaction, like a tightening or clenching. But it’s pre-verbal; it’s a chronic knee-jerk reaction that unfolds so fast, we’re not even consciously aware that this is what’s happening. 

But it’s what we all do, and it’s inherent in the human condition. 

In Tibet Buddhism, they have a name for this tendency to close or react; it’s called Shenpa

Shenpa is the knee-jerk reaction to tighten and shut down, and that urge is enormously strong. Pause and think about the last time you had a mosquito bite that you were just dying to scratch. Shenpa is that deep-seated visceral urge to scratch that itch. 

In this analogy, the itch is the overwhelming desire to want to move away from the present moment, to cover over it in any way we can, and find relief from the levels of discomfort we are abruptly being forced to face.

Someone criticizes us, and before we even know it, bam––Shenpa. We witness police brutality, and bam, we tighten and we’re hooked. 

What’s helpful here, as a first step we can take, is to recognize how the core of what we all do is inherently reactionary. 

This is not about shaming ourselves, or calling anyone “bad”; that kind of thinking is not helpful. But if we genuinely want to wake up and see the situation improve “out there,” we all need to become familiar with our reactions “in here.” 

These teachings offer us a framework that allows us to start recognizing what we all do, and as a result, have much more compassion for the human predicament we are all in. 

Becoming Familiar With Our Coping Mechanisms

When describing Shenpa, Chögyam’s analogy gets a little more graphic. He said that each of us is like a child with a bad case of scabies itch.

We’re aware that scratching brings us that immediate relief from pain, a brief moment of pleasure that offers us short term symptom relief. But we’re not yet wise enough to know that continuing to scratch will ultimately cause us more suffering in the end. 

The moment we start scratching, we’re hooked and swept away. Because the pain of the itch is so intense, we reach for coping mechanisms, doing whatever we can to move away from it. And we all have our styles of coping. 

Some people use anger or rage as a coping mechanism. Some people see a movement fighting for “a good cause” and use it as an outlet, like a pressure-release valve to let off steam by raging and screaming at other people “on the other side”, or attacking people on social media. 

Some people use depression as a coping mechanism. Some people dissociate and prefer numbing out with food, alcohol, social media or TV. 

This is how addictions can easily spiral out of control. Powerful cravings can completely hook us. We scratch and scratch because the urge is so strong, we get caught in the cycle of endlessly seeking temporary relief. We think it’s easier to give in and scratch than to face what’s underlying the itch. 

Eventually, we’re scratching to the point that we have these raw open wounds. We see how badly we’re bleeding, and yet, it’s still so hard to stop. 

These are all coping mechanisms that we all cling to. It’s something we reach for that feels solid in a shifting world. It helps cover over the primordial discomfort of being alive and helps us make sense of the confusion surrounding us. 

Becoming familiar with your reactionary tendencies requires an enormous amount of self-compassion and kindness. We need to be willing to forgive ourselves for the neurotic ways we all continue to act. 

So why do we do this? Why do we need these coping strategies in the first place? 

Protecting Our Soft Spot

Think of this inherent reaction to tighten, shut down (or scratch the itch), as a defense mechanism. 

But what are we defending, and why? 

We are all trying to protect a core quality of vulnerability and tenderness. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this the soft spot, and it’s inherent in the human condition. 

Even people we consider to be ‘hard criminals” who have committed horrendous acts of violence have this soft spot. You may get a brief glimpse of this kind of tenderness when they connect with an animal or pet. 

This soft spot is synonymous with compassion and our capacity to love. As I’ve heard Pema quote Chögyam Trungpa many times: “Everyone loves something, even if it’s only tortillas.” 

Think about the last time you got into a heated argument with someone. When you peel back the layers under rage, anger, or resentment, that same vulnerability and tenderness is always there. 

It’s actually underneath every emotion we feel. It’s equally present in fear and hostility, but it’s also there under joy, love, and sadness. This tender, soft spot has a quality of rawness to it. It’s the epitome of connecting with the bitter-sweetness of being human, the core vulnerability of simply being alive, and the full spectrum experience that entails. 

The key thing to understand here is that no matter what, we’re so afraid to feel this soft spot. This causes us to do whatever we can to cover over it at all costs, and we’ve been strengthening this tendency our entire lives. 

We’d rather burn down the house and go on a rampage than connect with and feel the tenderness of our soft spot. 

So what happens as a result of this tendency to protect ourselves? 

Defending the Soft Spot 

We don’t want to make contact with this soft spot of vulnerability, so the natural response is to protect ourselves with armor and defenses. 

It’s as if we erect walls and barriers around ourselves to prevent anyone from making contact with the tenderness of our soft spot, including ourselves. And we all react and take action to try to cover over it, but no matter what we do, the soft spot is always there. 

But over time, this hardens us, and it especially hardens our hearts. This weakens our innate capacity to connect with how we feel and have empathy for how other’s might be feeling, and we become increasingly afraid of uncomfortable emotions. 

Instead of feeling, we’d rather strengthen these walls with harsh opinions, judgments, anger, and fear, always pointing the finger in the other direction. But instead of protecting us, we’ve effectively locked ourselves in a prison that’s suffocating us, and we can’t move. These walls effectively cut us off from the rest of the world, leading to further disconnection. 

This perpetuation of disconnection and separation lies at the source of so many of our problems, directly fueling these divided times.

Non-Reactivity, The Medicine For Our Times 

If we have a strong willingness to grow and heal, then very slowly and gradually, we realize that the wise thing to do is train in non-reactivity. 

This means we refrain from scratching, openly explore the itch, make peace with the urge, and learn to contact the soft spot. 

Essentially, we learn how to hold space with the tenderness of how we feel, the rawness of our pain, without freaking out and immediately inflicting harm on ourselves or others. 

Making Contact with the Present Moment 

Walking the path of the Bodhisattva means we train in cultivating the practice of meeting whatever we encounter while staying wide open and wide awake. We learn to explore every level of discomfort–from the mild to the extreme–with a sense of open-hearted awareness, kindness, and compassion. 

Can you witness someone in a rage without getting completely swept away by it? Can you hold space for someone who’s grieving the loss of a loved one without shutting down your heart in the face of so much pain? 

This kind of training requires us to sit in the middle of whatever arises–– intense emotions or not––without trying to escape, like sitting in the middle of a burning fire without trying to pull away from it.

That’s what makes this path of the Bodhisattva a warrior training. It’s about learning to stay, rather than strengthening the knee-jerk reactions of bolting and looking for the exit at the first sign of difficulty.

We can start to realize that continuing to scratch the itch despite the enormous amount of pain it causes, weakens us. When we learn to stay open, grounded, and centered, this is an infinitely more powerful place to act and move from. 

This requires a lifetime of practice and a willingness to keep an open heart and mind. But we just start wherever we are. 

Start With Non-Threatening Situations

It’s better to start training yourself in non-triggering situations. This is how we strengthen our presence of mind. All the reactions we are witnessing stem from this fundamental lack of presence. 

If you try to face situations that are deeply triggering or invoke intense emotions like grief and rage, just like facing an enormous wave, you’re likely to get completely swept away.

Motivation to Cultivate a Meditation Practice 

One of the ways we train ourselves on the path is by practicing meditation. Meditation is a crucial ally for anyone on the bodhisattva medicine path. 

When you choose to meditate, you train your mind to repeatedly and continuously come back to whatever is arising right here, right now, without getting swept away by your reactions. 

All you have to do is meditate for five minutes to see how we are rarely present. The urge to move away is so strong. We might feel a literal itch and see if we can refrain from scratching it. We think about what we need to make for dinner, the person we need to call, and off we go in our minds. 

You see your mind get swept away, and over and over again, you just keep bringing it back––with gentleness and loving-kindness. You can use your breath as the reference point for coming back. Mind goes off, return to the breath. Mind immediately goes off again, back to breath once again. 

It sounds so simple, yet this is the training ground. This strengthens our capacity to wake up to all of our habitual, reactionary, unconscious tendencies. You start to see how, when you feel anxious, you automatically pour a glass of wine or open the fridge door, or how when you feel insecure you start shopping online or yell at your partner. We all do these things, in one way or another. 

When practicing, imagine wrapping yourself in these essential qualities:

  • Compassion
  • Loving-kindness
  • Gentleness 
  • Patience
  • Acceptance 
  • Honesty 

Think of these qualities as like the atmosphere or environment for which you train. Once we start seeing our habitual reactions more clearly, we will surely need to draw upon these qualities. 

Compassion, kindness, forgiveness, patience, and understanding; this is exactly the medicine we can apply to the hardness of our hearts to help them soften. And as we begin to soften, we start to reach out and have more compassion for the rest of humanity.

Training Your Body to Relax 

You can up the ante in meditation and use your mind to think about the last time you felt triggered and start training your body to stay calm, open and relaxed. 

This whole business of being swept away by our reactionary tendencies triggers the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. 

Part of this training is to see if you can stay open and attentive to the triggering content while keeping your heart, mind, and entire being, completely relaxed and open. 

No matter what triggers arise, no matter what knee-jerk reactions we face, we just learn to stick with it through thick and thin. Repeatedly, moment after moment, we sit and stay. In a sense, we are continuously urging ourselves to make direct contact with the present moment and whatever that brings without moving away from it. 

Connecting to Our Common Humanity 

Starting to see our own coping and defense mechanisms is a humbling process that helps puts us on common ground with the people we feel we need to judge, argue with, or defend against. 

The more we dissolve the barriers that harden our hearts, the more we wake up from the illusion of separation. True healing happens through connection and through being willing to reach out and see that we are all human.

When we soften, we start to approach the chaos that we see from a very different perspective. As we put down our armor, we give other people permission to do the same.

We start to realize that these are all strategies to mask our collective pain and fear. Shit is getting real out there, and it’s a lot for anyone to feel. Pile severe and chronic stress, a mental health crisis, racial injustice, and economic inequality on top of the situation, and it’s easy to see why things are spiraling out of control.

This isn’t to condone what’s happening; it’s to help bring more understanding to what it means to be a human being living through these tumultuous times. 

When you feel the pain of resentment or anger––or whatever trigger you are working with that is causing you to suffer––you can use an aspiration to immediately reach out and connect with the rest of humanity.  

“May everyone else who’s currently feeling this pain of resentment that I’m feeling, also be free from suffering. May all beings come to know peace in their hearts.” 

We know that when we hold the intention for other people to heal, we directly contribute to our healing. Pausing to feel this connection with everyone else who feels afraid and scared is how you can immediately help de-escalate the momentum associated with Shenpa.  

Choosing to Pause 

I hope by now, you have a clear sense of how we are all contributing to the global climate of reactivity, to one degree or another, and how we can immediately help dis-arm and diffuse the situation, right here and right now. 

It seems that everywhere we look, reactivity is spiraling out of control, and it’s having disastrous consequences. 

No matter what the situation, the next time you feel triggered by someone, I encourage you to make an effort to pause before reacting. Notice how you feel in your body. Ask yourself, am I about to do more damage than good? Am I just strengthening my own knee-jerk reactions? 

Ask yourself: what would a kind, compassionate person say? How would an open-minded person respond? 

When you read or hear something that triggers you, just for a moment, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Maybe they are feeling just as anxious, afraid, alone, or depressed as you?

Maybe before you vehemently disagree with someone, you can thank the person for having the courage to take the increasing risk of speaking their truth. 

None of us wants to create a reality where we are afraid to speak our truth because we’re scared of being attacked. We can learn to listen and stay open to each other’s perspectives without publicly crucifying each other. We can even learn to get more curious about where people are coming from. 

Right now, more than ever, we need to support free-thinking ideas. We need to support discussions where people feel safe enough to step out and offer opinions and perspectives without fear of being publicly shamed. We need to cultivate our capacity to listen with an open heart and an open mind without reacting. 

Ending the Cycle of Reactivity Starts With Ourselves

Instead of getting triggered and reacting, numbing out, or turning away––whatever your style of scratching––we train ourselves to connect with the soft spot and stay open to how we feel without it wreaking havoc on all of our lives.

We can shine the light of compassion, patience, gentleness, and loving-kindness, as well as radical honesty and acceptance to help make the situation more workable–for all of us. 

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