reactivity

It’s not what’s happening … it’s how you respond

Monkey waving

One of my favorite stories took place a number of decades ago when the English had colonized India and they wanted to set up a golf course in Calcutta. Besides the fact that the English shouldn’t have been there in the first place, the golf course was not a particularly good idea. The biggest challenge was that the area was populated with monkeys.

The monkeys apparently were interested in golf too, and their way of joining the game was to go onto the course and take the balls that the golfers were hitting and toss them around in all directions. Of course the golfers didn’t like this at all, so they tried to control the monkeys. First they built high fences around the fairway; they went to a lot of trouble to do this. Now, monkeys climb…so, they would climb over the fences and onto the course…that solution just didn’t work at all. The next thing they tried was to lure them away from the course. I don’t know how they tried to lure them—maybe waving bananas or something—but for every monkey that would go for the bananas, all their relatives would come into the golf course to join the fun. In desperation, they started trapping them and relocating them, but that didn’t work, either. The monkeys just had too many relatives who liked to play with golf balls! Finally, they established a novel rule for this particular golf course: the golfers in Calcutta had to play the ball wherever the monkey dropped it. Those golfers were onto something!

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We all want life to be a certain way. We want the conditions to be just so, and life doesn’t always cooperate. Maybe it does for a while, which makes us want to hold on tight to how things are, but then things change. So sometimes it’s like the monkeys are dropping the balls where we don’t want them, and what can we do?

Often we react by blaming…ourselves, or others or the situation. We might become aggressive. Or perhaps we feel victimized and resign. Or sometimes we soothe ourselves with extra food or drink. But clearly, none of these reactions are helpful.

If we are to find any peace, if we are to find freedom, what we need to do is learn to pause and say, “Okay. This is where the monkeys dropped the ball. I’ll play it from here, as well as I’m able.”

So how do we do that?

What if you pause right now, and take a moment to be quiet. Can you think of a place in your life where things are not cooperating with how you would like them to be? Whatever unfortunate place the monkeys have dropped a ball in your life, bring your focus to that. It could be something that happens in a relationship with another person, where you get reactive. What would it mean to “play the ball” here? If you could tap into your deepest wisdom, your true compassion, how would you like to respond to these circumstances?

One of the great teachings in spiritual life is this: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we respond. How we respond is what determines our happiness and peace of mind.

So how might you respond with presence, when you find the monkeys have dropped the ball in a difficult spot?

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Flag down that rage (Business Line – Chennai, India)

Agitated responses cause everyday accidents – from dropping things to job-related errors and auto mishaps.

Bharat Savur, Business Line, Chennai, India: You’re striding down the street… you’re tense, preoccupied, and you trip on a curb and sprain your ankle. If it happens once too often, watch out. To untangle the mysteries of the twisting muscles, safety researchers tried to profile the `accident-prone personality’ as `someone who gets out of the wrong side of the bed, and falls out’. But surprise… they found the `accident-prone personality’ does not exist! Rather, anyone under stress can have an accident.

What kind of stress?

One of these comes “from life-changes,” says Dr Abraham Bergman, researcher, University of Washington, Seattle. Life-changes include moving to a new location (residence, school, office), illness in the family or divorce. The other comes from life-pressures; problems with parents, in-laws, school, job or finances.

The research elicited an interesting insight — four kinds of stress-responses predict accidents — smoking, insomnia, headaches and acidity. These agitated responses caused everyday accidents — dropping things, errors in judgement, job-related errors, tripping, nicking oneself while shaving or auto mishaps. At such times, “pay attention to your body’s ups and downs to avoid accidents,” stresses Dr Gay Luce, author of Body Time.

When we pay attention to our body we automatically alert our fuzzy mind. We become aware of what we are capable of at that moment and what we are not. Apparently, a large part of our stress settles in our unconscious. So, often, we may be more stressed than we think we are. For example, you’re the boss. You’ve just given your subordinate a thorough dressing down. You may think it hasn’t affected you. You’re not aware that you’re breathing a little faster and your head is buzzing. You get into your car. As you try to insert the key into the ignition, it slips from your fingers and falls down. Warning! That’s how stress steals over us.

In this state, it would be wiser to hail a cab. Or to sit quietly, breathe deeply, meditate or stroll around the campus until you feel different. Safety-researchers say it takes 90 minutes for the brain to switch from one mode to another. So, call your family and say you’ll be one-and-half-hour late. It’s worth it. Having a realistic sense of personal prowess — neither over nor under — prevents accidents.

Self-safety tip: Don’t light up a cigarette after an upsetting incident. Nicotine further unnerves frazzled nerves and moves your body into fifth gear. Instead, chew gum or mint. It refreshes and removes the bad taste in your mouth. Speaking of bad taste, safety researchers say our self-destructive attitudes leave a lingering unpleasantness in the body. This reduces concentration and interferes with our reflexes and… we set the stage for an accident to happen.

We can’t reverse an accident, but we can recognise and reverse our self-destructive attitudes. For example, you encounter a rude bank clerk. You can take the affront personally and rage, “How dare you?” This self-destructive attitude escalates your anger and, turning on your heel, you can walk straight into a door. Or you can good-humouredly shrug, “Having a bad day, huh?” and stroll serenely through the exit because you’ve chosen a self-constructive attitude.

Unfortunately, a destructive response occurs automatically. So, a constructive response has to be consciously and purposefully evoked mentally and physically as “a protective mechanism against overreaction to stress that leads to accidents,” say safety-researchers. Transcendental meditation de-escalates the sympathetic side of the nervous system. The pupils relax, blood pressure balances, heart and respiration rates decrease, blood-circulation moves towards the muscles and vital organs. All these physiological changes bring on “a state of profound rest and heightened awareness.”

Five months of daily meditation erases the knee-jerk need to mentally kick out at situations and people. Calm confidence replaces nervous aggression. Alongside, it is important to become conscious of our physicality — unexplained aches, discomforts, stiffness in the body suggest pent-up tensions flaring up. Likewise do changes in behaviour-patterns — drinking more coffee, eating or sleeping more/less, watching more TV. Unattended to, the body suddenly unleashes these tensions where we flail out clumsily and… ouch!

The waist-stretch exercise combined with meditation releases physical and mental tensions. Stand straight with your feet spread. Raise your left arm and point to the ceiling, palm facing the right side. Curve your right arm straight across your front waist. Now, bend from the waist to your right side as far as you can, extending your left arm parallel to the side of your head, and bend your right knee while straightening out your left leg. In this position, become aware of your breath. Now, along with the natural rhythm of your breathing, repeat `om’, `home’ or `calm’ in an undertone 10 times. Then, repeat the entire process on the other side. Five months later, you’ll be marvelling, “Boy! I didn’t sprain my ankle even once!”

The writer is co-author of the book `Fitness for Life’.

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