I was talking with a woman I knew marginally, our interactions connected to our non-profit work. As we finished up, she caught site of a ring I was wearing. I don’t wear rings often. This one gets more use than others because I’m particularly fond of it.
“That’s beautiful!” she said, and asked if she could try it on. I handed it to her. She put it on her right finger, commenting that it fit perfectly.
I did something out of character: I looked at her and said “keep it.”
“What?” she said, startled.
“Keep it,” I responded, “it’s yours.”
She was surprised and clearly grateful, commenting that it went perfectly with the outfit she had on that day. She accepted it.
We said our good-byes; I waited for the elevator. As I stood there, I could feel my inner judges stirring, prowling about, examining the crime scene and quickly coming to a conclusion that something “bad” had just happened.
The first judge looked at me and asked, “did you give any thought to this impromptu idea before acting upon it or was this simply a harebrained, hasty and reckless act?”
Clearly the judge had already ruled on this and the ruling was that a “stupid, irresponsible action” had just occurred. Which left me concluding I was stupid and irresponsible.
At that moment the ground critters arrived and burrowed through my equanimity; they clawed away at my sense of self. A cord tightened its hold around my chest and anxiety rose up. I suddenly missed the ring and felt like an idiot for so casually giving it away. I wanted a character to step forward and commend me for not clinging to the ring; for giving it so freely and generously. But that character was not present.
I took a breath and tried to draw upon tools learned from meditation.
“That’s a feeling; that’s a thought,” I said to myself. “An unpleasant feeling; an unpleasant thought.” I hoped that by noting them I could establish space in which I could find stillness; a space in which I’d be able to “see” the characters; see the thoughts and feelings as clouds skittering across an otherwise blue sky, visible but temporary.
The thoughts and feelings persisted, less individual feelings and more waves of feelings swooping down on me. It’s easy to get swept up by those kinds of feelings; to believe they’re always going to be there and never go away. To see them as dark storm clouds that completely obliterate the sun and blue sky and feel threateningly permanent.
Despite my meditation tools, I continued to have feelings of distress, self-criticism and regret. I continued to have thoughts and feelings I did not want to have; thoughts and feelings I was resisting.
Which invited another judge to show up; this one’s job was to disapprove of me for both having feelings of distress and for resisting those feelings. “Wrong!” it berated.
It’s amazing how deep and dark we can go when we get caught in negative downward spirals. How quickly we can be sucked in. And how the “cause” of the dark spiral can seem so small and appear benign. This was, on the outside, about a ring. Had I lost the ring, I would’ve been disappointed, but I would not have had this response.
Even writing about it now I feel a degree of embarrassment. “Really?” I can imagine some folks thinking, “getting all worked up about a ring?”
That’s basically what the Chief Judge does: shows up and finds my initial response—distress over making the decision to give the ring away—to be inappropriate.
The Chief Judge essentially says the equivalent of, “there are people starving in [fill-in-the-blank] and you’re getting upset about a ring? Pick yourself up and get on with it.”
I’ve tended to believe the Chief Judge when they’ve said that; I’ve agreed with them that my initial upset was unnecessary and therefore “bad.” I’ve concluded I need to try and eliminate my distress.
But the message I’m getting from Andy Puddicombe, creator of the Headspace meditation app, is that thoughts and feelings are just clouds in the sky; they aren’t good or bad. The first wave of thoughts are…just thoughts. The judges who appear are…more thoughts. The Chief Judge who shows up delivers…more thoughts.
All just clouds in the sky.
By staying present to that idea and not identifying with the thoughts or feelings or characters, I remove judgment. I allow space for stillness. And in that stillness, my response can be less a reaction being driven by the thought or feeling and more an action I consciously choose. An action that comes from stillness, rather than an activated character.
My characters continue to appear, despite using the app for three years. I continue to see thoughts as clouds capable of obliterating the sun. I really shouldn’t be surprised. What’s three years compared to a lifetime? My characters have been part of the show for decades; they’ve had lots of practice.
And, I see progress; the meditation tools are useful. They’re helping me recognize thoughts as thoughts—what I describe as “characters”—and by doing that, I’ve started to identify less with some of the characters. I have moments when I catch them.
“Oh, that’s a character,” I can say to myself. When I do that, I can observe them with a bit of space and distance and feel less connected to them and less connected to the story they’re trying to tell. Those moments—when I can observe a character rather than be subsumed by them—are moments of grace.
- If How You React is Up to You, How Do You Actually React Better? Danit Kaya, Headspace blog