You know how it begins: someone says something that triggers you; you hear a certain inflection in the tone of someone’s voice; a car speeds up to prevent you from changing lanes so you can turn; someone’s child is throwing a tantrum and handling it differently than you’d prefer; your partner is pushing that very particular button of yours, and you feel it coming on. You can almost smell it, taste it, and if you’re not able to slow your roll and get in front of it, your emotional output will escalate in degrees ranging anywhere between mild irritation to outright rage. You’ve been hooked, and it’s going to manifest as a slow burning anger, self-criticism, jealousy, envy or a slew of other unhelpful emotions.
Most people spend their entire lives as an expression of reaction – reaction to what they see, what they hear, what they feel, what they go through and so on. Reaction so saturates one’s experience that, rather than original thought, the majority of one’s life content is an appendage to some external stimuli. Reaction is, of course, necessary at times, such as pulling your hand back from touching a hot surface, or hitting the brakes when a vehicle pulls in front of you unexpectedly. These examples are obviously necessary, but what I am referring to here is that low-grade angst associated with the next outrage-of-the-moment; be it from a look, a tone of voice, a social media post, a news story, or the words and actions of another.
Looking for reasons to be offended
Some folks move through their daily lives looking for reasons to be offended, and they will always be successful at finding them. Imaginary conversations will be planned and rehearsed in the mental continuum on how one will respond if triggered: “Why, if she does this, I’m gonna give her a piece of my mind,” or “if he says (this), I’m going to say (that),” and the end result is time well-spent creating and entertaining an imaginary conflict that destroys your ability to remain at peace in the present moment. Look to your own experience to know this is true, and that if or when such a situation does arise, it never goes as you have mentally rehearsed it, making that wasted time all the more unnecessary. This behavior is so common that it may be hard for some to identify it and recognize how they get hooked into this disruption of their innate stream of joy.
Offense takes place when something that is either observed by us or inflicted upon us is out of alignment with our expectations. As an example from my own experience, I used to become quite irritated when I would hold the door open for someone and they would not acknowledge my consideration with a “thank you.” I would also get incensed if I would greet someone and they would just look at me without response. “Good morning,” I would offer with a smile and nod as my words trailed into the ether. I would stew for minutes, sometimes hours over that petty nonsense. One day I took my power back when, as I held open the door for a young woman with several kids and hands full of bags, she said to me, “No thanks, I don’t need a man to open a door for me.” My response was, “Oh no ma’am, I’m not holding the door open for you, I’m holding the door open for me, because that is what I do and that is who I am. You just happen to be the beneficiary of this particular demonstration of my own self-respect.” She was dumbfounded. (Always wanted to use that word in a sentence.)
Another common way people get hooked is while driving. A driver may be so distracted that they cannot see that you have had your turn-indicator blinking for almost a mile, trying to get over and they haven’t let you in. Finally in desperation you squeeze in, and in your rearview mirror you witness a less than elegant performance by the driver, the face all contorted, arms waving violently through the air, choice words clearly pouring out of a gnarled mouth, horn-honking and dangerous tailgating, all because they were distracted and/or would not let you in. Now you get hooked and begin your own performance, maybe even dangerously tapping your brakes – and now both of you are engaged in a display of behaviors that exemplify the height of emotional immaturity and human mental dysfunction. You have reacted.
Reactions such as these rob us of our ability to accept the moment and its elements as they are, with all their perfections and flaws. Unconscious reactivity can rob us of our joy. So how does one make any progress, any forward momentum, if we just simply allow things to happen? By taking action, reframing and rerouting, rather than reacting. Here are a few ideas of what that might look like, and you’ll undoubtedly come up with a few of your own:
- Rather than say “good morning” as an invitation for an interaction, I reframe my expectation by offering it as a statement. Good morning! If I get a response, I will be pleasantly surprised. If I do not get a response, I have reminded myself that, yes, it is indeed a good morning!
- If a vehicle is refusing to allow me to change lanes, I slow down and reroute my plan. If I miss my turn or exit, I take the next one, and will better plan my lane choice next time. If I have to squeeze in, I do it with the mentality of a peacemaker, giving an authentic smile and thank you wave, regardless of the emotional display of the other driver.
- When I hold the door open for a stranger, I no longer wait for their recognition, but instead assert my own: “Good afternoon!” I’ll say, “I wish you a fantastic day.” Then I move on.
Joy can be a self-initiated experience, independent of the presence and thoughtfulness of another. Joy is so often associated with a preferred experience that it is assumed that the absence of a preferred experience will not result in joy. But what if joy can be reframed and rerouted to be included in all the elements of the human experience?
Take the word JOY and turn it into an acronym: JOY: Just Observe Yourself. Through self-observation we learn to honor what is taking place in the moment by first accepting, and then acting. We do whatever must be done once we have reached acceptance, but we allow our actions to be informed by our acceptance of whatever the reality of the moment happens to be. In order to get to this place, we must first be able to observe how our emotional reactivity is triggered. Not many people are able to do this, but chances are if you’re reading this article and you’ve read this far, you are a person who is capable of doing it, or desiring to acquire the skill.
Conflict cannot survive without your participation.
Joy can take place when one of those situations I described in the first paragraph begins to unfold. Notice how reactive mental patterns begin to arise in the mind, and witness how you have a choice by either pursuing the storyline in the mindstream, or by remaining curious as to why you might avail yourself of that option. It is not an easy thing to do, and you may experience a few rough starts along the way, but with a commitment to this practice, you will eventually be able to catch yourself as the dysfunctional patterns arise, and bring them to silence by refusing to participate. Conflict cannot survive without your participation.
From this reframing of joy, we can begin to cultivate the ability to maintain a sense of peace no matter what life throws at us. Whether we are in a pleasing situation such as receiving good news, or in an upsetting situation such as learning of a loved one’s illness, joy can be present: Just Observe Yourself. Through observation of what is taking place in the mental continuum, we can consciously participate in the elements of the human experience to which we bear witness. Without becoming identified with every situation and getting lost in our own emotional content, we tap into a greater level of wisdom-intelligence that empower us with a skillful means we never imagined possible.
Joy is not the absence of unwelcome events, joy is living life in the moment with all its ups and downs. Yes, we still experience emotions – we can laugh, we can cry, we can hurt, we can become angry – but without getting lost in the emotions. We remain at peace within while allowing ourselves to fully experience life as it is. By empowering ourselves to fully and authentically experience each moment, we up-level our ability to respond (our response-ability), and we begin to create inner and outer environments of choice. By choosing to participate in the evolution of our own emotional intelligence, we grant ourselves access to the innate intuitive wisdom within, and we begin to experience the ease of a life of emotional stability.
May this new year, and all the richness of opportunity a new beginning has to offer, inspire you to cultivate joy as a life practice, and may you experience the enrichment of wisdom-intelligence and the amplification of emotional stability. Happy New Year.
Parrot-loving student of existential phenomenology and its psychological implications upon the human experience.