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The Appropriate Response

I’m up early today because I am going to a “One Day Sit” – a day of meditation through Vipassana Illinois. This is the same organization that I did my first 10 day meditation retreat with this summer, and once you complete that experience, you are eligible to do shorter meditation retreats. (yay!) I’ve been thinking about how I want to deepen my practice, how much it has helped me, and habits of mind, emotional reactions, etc that I still want to work with in myself in preparation for today. In my own therapy yesterday I was discussing this, and my therapist (who is also a Soto Zen priest) shared this Zen anecdote with me:

Zen master Yunmen was once asked, “What is the most important teaching of the Buddha’s entire lifetime?”

Yunmen answered, “An appropriate response.”

I love the clear simplicity of this answer. Of course, responding to each situation we encounter in an appropriate way – or in a way that is effective and skillful – is what we all want and is exactly why people meditate! Generally without practice and a deep understanding of ourselves, we respond to situations, particularly situations involving other people, in ways that are automatic, or ways that have a “knee jerk” quality. Even when reacting like this results in negative consequences…..over and over…’s tough to change these habits!

This week I was dealing with two situations where I was paying for a service, and was unhappy with what I was receiving. I HATE giving people feedback that I think they will not want to hear, or feedback that might hurt someone’s feelings. Yet, if you are paying for a service and are unhappy with it, the appropriate response may involve giving feedback, giving the person a chance to respond and change something about the service, and if not possible, then discontinue the relationship. So, I did take an appropriate course of action involving giving feedback followed by essentially firing someone. At the same time in my head I started defending myself against what I imagined their defensive response would be! (Even though their was no defensive response, and even though the deed had been done!) Then I talked it over with my husband but also in this defensive way, “Look, I have the right to this and this, and can you believe that and this other thing?” My husband pointed out that I was doing this (part of me was also aware, but kinda wanted that “I know! You totally had the right and I can’t believe that either!” validation from him) and so began practicing compassion for the true need underneath my own defensiveness. Fear of disconnection; the desire for connection – these needs that are present even when I am in a service relationship. Often, this too, is part of an appropriate response, to slow down, look at the soft underbelly of our reaction, and practice compassion for ourselves when we are struggling with an unmet need. So, I did that, and let go of rehearsing this protective response which S.N. Goenka (the late Vipassana teacher) described as “boiling yourself”. Boiling ourselves is just unnecessary suffering!

As you go through your week, try asking yourself these questions: “How can I stay open to the reality of what is happening?” and “What would be an appropriate response?” If you have any experiences to share with practicing this, please do! I will be practicing along with you!

Thanks for reading!

For more information on Vipassana meditation, click here:

I am currently reading Pema Choldron’s book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, and it’s great! For more information, click here:

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