Laundry Lists and The Dharma IX
Reactivity, meet Loving Kindness
Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.
This is one of those traits that folk coming to their first ACA meeting most quickly and easily identify with. And often the identification is itself a reaction. Actually, most identification with traits comes initially in the form of reaction: anger, resentment, embarrassment, despair, etc.. One feels too accurately pegged, and at first this feels like the untimely opening of a deep wound. It is only when you see other heads around the table admitting that this or that trait absolutely describe them that you feel a measure of relief. Exasperation is there, how could I not have seen this myself? But mostly, in my case, there was relief. Ah, I am not alone; I am not crazy; I am not to blame; and, I have some hope.
Back to the reactivity. I have mentioned this before I am sure, but I keep coming back to this early lesson my sponsor taught me. He would hold up his index finger of one hand, and then the index finger of his other hand, put them close together—and then slowly pull them apart. Reactivity is bunching something coming at us with our response to it. Two fingers up close. Learning to create space between the experience and response is the important lesson. This is how one moves from being a reactor to being an actor.
I need to note that at first I was distracted by the word “actor”. I associate the word with fake personality types who do their best to hide their true natures behind a pleasant mask. I don’t like such behavior and know I indulge in it from time to time. It has taken me a while but now I see this phrase, moving from reactor to actor, as a focus on my actions.
The pausing is difficult: in the receipt of texts, emails, questions, requests from friends or strangers, decisions to buy, sell, speak, act and any number of daily moments when one could build in space but feels compulsively compelled to act right away. Because I am drawn to ready guilt if I don’t respond to someone immediately, or feel that somehow it is impolite or improper to delay response, I have a lot of energy always at hand pushing me to send that text or email, or return that phone call. (Buying stuff comes from a different sort of compulsion, but in the end it is a similar form of internal dosing—literally drugging—that makes reacting instantly such a comforting way to do things.)
Something came up last night. A text from a friend. My whole body tensed with reactivity. It was a situation where resolution felt imperative. Relief would only come when it was all sorted out. It is a strong dynamic. I tried to pull those index fingers apart just a little. I sat through dinner without looking at my phone (mostly!). A little pause, a little more peace, and certainly more skill in my response later in the evening.
How interesting that this final and fourteenth trait is so loaded with daily energetic application.
Brahma Viharas - Metta - Loving Kindness
The Brahma Viharas are an important pillar of Buddhist teaching. A fairly literal translation of the term is Divine Abodes, or in other words, where to hang out with ultimate Good. And, so you have them all right here as we get ready to look at the first of the four, the Brahma Viharas (with their Pali word) are: Loving Kindness (metta), Compassion (karuna), Appreciative Joy (mudita) and Equanimity (upekkha).
Metta is the jewel I am most familiar with. Metta is how I pray.
The traditional practice with any of the four Brahma Viharas is to incorporate them into a litany of phrases. Here is a typical string of ones I use:
May you be safe.
May you be free from suffering.
May you be happy.
May you be at peace and ease.
If you are doing formal metta practice you would use these phrases for:
a close benefactor/friend
an uncomplicated relationship
a hard relationship
a neutral relationship
I find the practice calming, soothing, enriching and powerful. You are reaching out beyond yourself to focus love, kindness and good will on the rest of the world. Metta, by the way, is a wonderful pause in the face of reactivity; especially metta for self.
In fact, I have done more metta for myself these past two years in ACA than metta for others. And the focus on this self-focused love in the past two months has been on my Inner Child. Bringing gentle loving kindness to my True Self (do I need another blog to talk about this?) is really quite a big deal, and does not come easily. I am much more inclined to show kindness to others and happily denote myself as the resident “dip stick”. I am learning that even Dukes of Hazzard inspired self-deprecation is not good for the soul.
One more thing about Metta as prayer. Metta is a shaping of intention. It is not an appeal for cosmic realignment. In offering metta I am inclining my heart, mind and will toward another (or myself) with a spirit of gentleness and care. I may secretly hope to change people and circumstances with my intentions, but really know that the inclining of my heart is the dynamic at work.
Prayer, as I have known it, is a confusing and comforting thing for the pray-er. While there is debate on whether prayer changes God or not there is no question that prayer changes and is shaped by the spirit of the person praying. A greedy heart might turn prayer into a Santa list demand. A gracious heart is longing with faith and hope for the good of another, or a peaceful resolution to a conflict. C.S. Lewis insisted that prayer was entirely about changing the pray-er. I tend in his direction.
Metta can bring with it some of the same furtive longing for actuating change. But in its heart metta is about intention, the inclining of the heart.
Which brings us back to reactivity, a powerful response that springs unconsciously from a heart inclined to fear, shame, isolation, self-doubt and anger. My experience over the past few years of developing a regular practice of metta is that reactivity seems to fade in the face of metta. I intend to keep working at it. Pause. Metta.