A great deal of emphasis in spiritual development is focused on being less reactive. This is a crucial spiritual achievement around which swirls a lot of misunderstanding, mythology and even puritanical demands for immediate achievement.
In this posting I will make several comments about the awareness that underlies decreasing reactivity and then discuss two strategies.
Decreasing reactivity permits us to move through life in a state of calmness and helps keep the ego in check. Reactivity is a child of the ego and often arises from attachments to thoughts, ideas, emotions or expectations. When we detach our Soul from these products of the ego we are able to live more freely.
My take on this involves these six points about awareness.
1. DISCLAIMER. I make reference to my own experience not because I have all this under control or worked out and am never reactive. I write from my experience because I travel these roads often and have been focusing on reactivity over the last several years. In fact I am often quite reactive and this is how I work to contain the reactivity.
2. Our feelings and reactions say very little about the external world but they speak volumes about us as people. For example, when we are angry about something or someone all the anger means is we are stirred up. And the first thing we need to do is to investigate what has stirred us up and what it means about who we are. Our anger means very little about the ‘external’ object, person or situation. This is so even if we are ‘right’ about the other.
3. Living from the Soul means we stay in the place of calm and when something disrupts the calm we explore the internal disruption. “Isn’t it interesting that I’m so stirred up. What is that about?” but we do not engage at the level of affective reaction. The first and most important step is going inside and inquiring about our own self. It is absolutely clear to me that we cannot let go of what we haven’t held. Thus we go inside not to suppress or express what we find but to fully and totally experience and accept this part of us.
4. I used to believe that when we felt something we should share it and dialogue with the other person about it. Now I see that the first step is to step back and engage in deep self-inquiry until the heat is cooled down. Then perhaps approach the other person.
5. One of the things I know about me is that I am often initially reactive in situations and as I have traveled on a spiritual path I’ve come to see that my reaction means nothing about anyone or anything around me. It is just another opinion that floats in and out. Opinions flow in and out like the breath. Ninety-five percent of the time my reactions mean that I need to deal with myself. The other person is simply being him or herself and my liking or not liking is irrelevant. Recently a driver cut me off in a dangerous way in traffic. I immediately cussed him out. Then my Soul spoke, “Graham, you are a bit edgy today.” I could do nothing about the other driver who was already out of sight but seeing my own edginess was very helpful in returning to a place of centered calmness.
6. As I engage in self-inquiry I may see I don’t want to be in this situation and should either leave or speak up. Or perhaps I no longer wish to relate to this person and need to end the relationship. I do this in the most gentle caring way possible.
As I work on this there are two specific strategies I find helpful.
1. It is clear to me that my first thoughts are not necessarily my deepest or most authentic. There is great value in SECOND THOUGHTS. If I am activated my first thought is often filled with some form of fear. If I breathe deeply, take my time and not rest in the thoughts I get a chance to reboot. It is not so much that I don’t have those thoughts as I see they are not authentic. The more authentic thoughts come after several deep breaths or a night’s sleep. By the time the second thoughts come I know I do not have to live in fear or reaction. I make a very rigid practice to never send a fiery letter or email on the day I write it. I always sleep on it. This has saved me several times from saying unfortunate things. I know that if I am picking up the phone with thoughts of “telling off” the person on the other end of the line it smart to hang up.
2. The next step is to ask my higher self or Soul to open up and guide me in this. I meditatively ask this part of me to help me respond in the most loving way possible. While recognizing the depth of my reaction, I also see that this does not define me, that there is more to me than any one state or any initial thoughts. Usually what this does for me is that I calm down and equally importantly find compassion for the person or issue with which I’m struggling.
I used to like my reactivity. It helped me feel alive and vibrant. I mistook my ideas, opinions and theories for the essence of me. The problem was that they also often helped me be wrong and kept me imprisoned in responses that were of a lower vibrational level. Seeing through the reactions liberates me up to live a much freer life.