Why is it that even after years of meditation practice and deep spiritual insight, people can still be reactive, petty, and driven by their emotional reactions, instead of able to choose compassionate responses?
In short, why are so-called spiritual people by and large still as narcissistic as the rest of us?
This is an excerpt from The Heart of Zen.
Keith Martin-Smith (KMS): You claim that meditation can’t really help with negative emotions like anger, depression, anxiety, and jealousy. Why?
Jun Po Roshi (JP): Got time for a story?
JP: So I manifest the signs of hyper-vigilant tension in my occipital band, temples, and my eyes; they used to squint much of the time because my brain was conditioned to be ready for an unexpected blow from dad.
KMS: I see those narrowed eyes on you from time to time. So this still affects you?
JP: To a degree, yes. It arises in my body, manifests in my brain, and then comes into my consciousness. At that point, I have freedom to choose my response.
KMS: That’s fascinating. How does it happen? What does it look like, to you?
JP: I now recognize and feel the contraction for what it is. The eyes are narrow, and my body and brain are on high alert. When this arises, I choose to look deeper at what’s happening. Usually, something outside of me has really gotten my attention. Someone has raised their voice in a violent way, for instance. But it actually makes me smile now. The contraction still arises, but that old reaction to it, my, hysterical-historical, has been transformed.
KMS: The hysterical-historical — you mentioned this term before. It seems like it’s most relevant there, around conditioning. For you, this is the story behind your hyper-vigilance? All the complications that it caused?
JP: It’s the conditioned story that arises around my physical trauma, in this case, yes. The story of victim, or rebel, outlaw, numbed-out guy, or all the other sub-personalities created by that reality, that I lived over my youth and young adulthood. Those were the stories that came alive in reaction to the trauma. My hysterical-historical.
So when the energy of contraction would arise in my body and my brain, it might lead to an argument with my beloved, or me shutting down emotionally because I would get afraid that I was going to blow my top like dad used to do. Or I might go off to be by myself, or have some other reaction that wasn’t true to what I was really feeling and what I really wanted. Let me say that again. I would have some reaction to what I was feeling, and to a deeper need, but that reaction always happened so fast that I wouldn’t notice until too late.
KMS: Such as?
JP: Well, when you get all pissed off at your beloved, and storm out of the house, or numb out to protect yourself, is that what you really want? To be contracted and upset, and separate from him or her? Of course not. You want closeness and connection; you feel deep caring for this person — which is why you’re so upset to begin with — yet you’re driven to do something that has the opposite effect.
KMS: So, hysterical-historical is the way we react to certain life events, certain “triggers”, if you will? That’s the conditioned response to, well, a conditioned reaction?
JP: (nods) We all have our hysterical-historicals within us, and an emotional trigger sets the story in motion (snaps fingers) so quickly we don’t see that we actually have a choice in the matter.
KMS: And you’ve learned that you —that we — actually have an ability to choose a reaction instead of have a reaction?
JP: Yes. For me, I had all kinds of problems in relationships when I was younger, because I had no real idea how to trust love or how one was supposed to act in a normal relationship. My familial models — my conditioning — were very confused. Hysterical-historical.
KMS: Did your spiritual practice help to expose this and help you to have more freedom and choice?
JP: (pauses) Only partially. And this gets to your original question. What an intensive concentration practice and meditation can give you is a tremendous amount of space in your mind. Your reactive patterns can be seen much more easily, because you’ve trained your mind to be non-reactive. Thousands of hours of meditation creates tremendous spaciousness in your mind.
KMS: But it’s not enough?
JP: It wasn’t enough for me. (pauses) It’s not enough for many of the people who come to me to train. I spent 6 years in a Zen monastery. They're wonderful places, but you may just find as much psychological shadow there, or more, than you do in the secular world.
KMS: Because meditation alone isn't enough. Why isn't it enough?
JP: Because the conditioning is still in place. In long-term meditation,you learn to be non-reactive, you see, to witness what arises in your mind, including your personal hysterical-historical. But you haven’t understood and transformed that conditioning; you’re like a sober drunk who has learned to stop drinking by force of will, but never looked at the causes of what led him to begin drinking in the first place.
As I’ve said before, feelings are information. That’s all. Concentration and meditation can slow down our reactive patterns, and give us genuine spiritual insight. But it takes emotional koans to transform our habitual negative patterns into enlightened action.
KMS: And there aren’t emotional koans in traditional Zen?
JP: (shakes head)
KMS: Let’s focus on an example that everyone has experienced: “fight, flight, or freeze”. This causes almost instant physiological reactions — breathing gets faster and shallower, blood moves from the stomach and brain to the muscles, pupils dilate, awareness becomes laser-sharp, and our ability to perceive pain and have empathy greatly diminishes. I feel it if someone pulls out in front of me in traffic without warning, or if a friend jumps out of a closet and scares me, or —
JP: Or if someone puts your intolerable situation in your face. The problem is when we have small fight/flight/freeze responses, just enough to put us into a reactive pattern. We don’t always recognize when that pattern gets partially triggered with us, say in a fight with our partner, some “jerk” cuts us off in traffic, or our mother calls and manages to “make us angry” or “shame us” in only the way that she seems to know how to do.
People will say that someone "pushed their buttons" — well, those buttons usually are tied directly into fight, flight, or freeze responses, and they have nothing to do with physical survival, but a hell of a lot to do with our perceived emotional survival. That’s why they led to an emotional “acting out”, which is fight, flight, or freeze; or denial leading to passive-aggressive behaviors later, like withholding love or connection with the person who caused the trigger to arise.
KMS: So these adaptive and marvelous physical survival strategies — fight and flight, which are great when tigers leap out of the jungle but not so great when my girlfriend raises her voice at me — can create obstacles to emotional awareness when they become ‘high jacked’ by our conditioning. That what you’re saying?
KMS: You maintain that we choose our reactive patterns. I imagine a lot of people argue with you about this.
JP: (laughs). Yes, until they see if for themselves. There is absolutely a choice point. I didn’t say that it was a conscious choice point, at least in the beginning. The reason is because it’s almost impossible to track fight, flight, or freeze getting triggered within us at first, because the process itself shuts down our thinking brain and our empathy. It’s hard for us to “witness”this happening.
This is where concentration meditation training is essential; we need to develop the ability to stay intelligently awake, present in the face of anything. Usually, we just react without thought, yelling at the driver who cut us off, hanging up on mom,or by going emotionally “flat” when our kid acts out in public. Only later, if at all, do we see that a reaction occurred; that we were, in fact, moving a ton of emotional energy through our bodies.
KMS: This is what the emotional koans address? This is what your spiritual training was unable to touch?
JP: Yes. (pauses) And yes. Feeling is information, no different in form and function than our other five senses. All our emotions are telling us to do is pay attention and get the information in the feeling.
If you're interested in how these principles and ideas can be applied to your own life, let's set up a free Discovery Call for a coaching conversation today.
Keith Martin-Smith is a published author of fiction and non-fiction, a Shaolin Kung Fu lineage holder and teacher, and an ordained Zen priest. He helps leaders, creative visionaries, and entrepreneurs clarify their goals and overcome obstacles.
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