Facing Crises Mindfully Transforming Reactivity to Responsiveness
by George Pitagorsky
It is far more effective to respond than to react. To respond implies thinking about actions and their outcomes. To react implies action without thought.
People face psychological crises, some large and some small, at various points in their lives. The crises may include things like feeling dissatisfied with personal accomplishments, no matter how many there are and the way others perceive them, or feeling dissatisfied with a current work or life situation, seeking to "remake themselves" while feeling that it is too late or too costly to do so. Other common crises are over relationship issues, for example, whether a partner was the right choice or not even after decades together.
It is easy to get caught in uncertainty angst, the pain of dissatisfaction, aversion, attraction, greed and judgment and to react rather than respond.
Unskillful reactive strategies include withdrawal and depression, often drug enabled, persistent obsessing, and anger or fear driven actions to reach perfection. Divorce, career change, or staying with the current situation may be the right thing to do to achieve personal goals, or any of them can lead to further disappointment.
Opportunity for Growth
Crises are opportunities for self improvement.
"There's a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in" (Leonard Cohen)
The crack is any imperfection. The light represents the opportunity presented by the imperfection to explore root causes and transform reactivity into responsiveness. With responsiveness comes adaptability and a greater chance of success in whatever you choose to do.
What are the underlying dynamics that feed the emotions and lead to unnecessary pain? They center on the desire to have things be different than the way they are. These desires include wanting to be perfect in everything we do, meeting the often unstated and imaginary expectations of significant others. We want our relationship to be flawless, just the way it was when it was young. We want our partner to know what our needs are without being told. We want the job to be fulfilling and without the boring and hard to manage parts.
Desires like these are the underlying cause of our dissatisfaction. As soon as we see the gap between sensing the desire and acting out driven by it. Desire seems a natural part of life. Directing it towards beneficial goals, cultivate the desire for clarity, peace, kindness and compassion
Equanimity is accepting things as they are, without the knee jerk reactions to reject what we don't like and run after the things we like. It is bringing evenhandedness to life's situations, particularly the more complex and difficult ones. Equanimity is a skillful desire.
Equanimity arises out of wisdom and mindfully observing the full range of emotions; the content of the melodrama with its likes and dislikes, goals, plans; physical condition and psychological and spiritual process.
Wisdom is a catalyst for a strong motivation to keep on with the work of the transformation from reactivity to responsiveness. Wisdom combines an accurate understanding of the nature of our lives and the intention to liberate ourselves from the reactivity that leads to pain and suffering for ourselves and others. Wisdom gives rise to the conviction that we do not have to react in the same old way. We can decide what to do and do it skillfully, adapting to our situation. Wisdom recognizes that our desire to have things different than they can be is the root cause of our dissatisfaction.
The Dynamics of Reactive Behavior
There are many things that trigger reactive behavior. Regardless of the trigger, reactive behavior seems to have common dynamic -- physical-emotional sensations in the body that seem unsustainable.
The ability to accept those sensations is the key to responsiveness. The ability to "sit with" these sensations and get behind them in the sense that they can be objectively observed and accepted enables choice.
Sometimes the sensations aren't consciously recognized. The mind becomes filled with obsessive thinking as an unconscious tactic to obscure the physical sensations. Angry speech or action or withdrawal are other tactics.
Whenever there is discord internally or externally, that is a sign that you are faced with a "crack". What are the physical sensations that are being felt? Are those sensations and your relationship to them driving your behavior?
What to Do
When a crisis is at hand, look for the physical signs of emotional stress. Step back and investigate. See how it feels. Where in the body is it occurring? Is it sharp or dull? Is it familiar?
Then, take a few calming breaths and let go of any thoughts of eliminating the sensations you can't take. Allow the feeling to be present.
This is the hard part. It means unlearning your normal strategies for managing things you find unpleasant. Instead of running away or throwing the feelings out in angry words or physical actions you allow the feelings to be present. You accept them with equanimity.
This is a fierce practice. Can you just be with a feeling that seems unacceptable? Can you make the unacceptable acceptable? Can you apply equanimity? Can you commit to just being with the feelings even if you burst into a million pieces and disappear forever?
If you can, then you will find yourself in a calm place that is a solid platform for taking the next step. From this space, you can begin to plan and act.
What do you do if you are not ready for the fierce practice of equanimity and acceptance? You react and probably make things worse than they are. It is like a person in a Bardo, the space that is experienced in the dying process according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, who leaps into a new life to escape from a horrible image. The trick is to realize that the image, like the feelings that drive reactive behavior, is an illusion manufactured by your own mind. Then it will dissolve and pass away, freeing you to choose.
© 2013 Pitagorsky Consulting