Welcome the smacks
Andy was kneeling in a meditation posture with his eyes closed in a Japanese Buddhist temple. As an American college student, he had come here to learn more about Japanese religion.
He had a hard time thinking of anything other than his knees, which were beginning to feel numb. There were no walls in the temple and he was cold.
As he squirmed to get comfortable, he kept hearing something that sounded like a slap, about every three minutes. He could hear it getting closer.
Then he felt a soft touch on his shoulder from one of the monks. This was followed by a smack across his back. The sound he had been hearing was a “Keisaku,” a wooden stick used to keep meditators awake and focused.
A young Zen Buddhist monk brought two potted plants into the monastery’s garden while the Zen master looked on.
“Drop it,” instructed the master.
The young monk gently let down one pot.
“Drop it,” again ordered the master.
The monk let go of the second pot.
“DROP IT!” roared the master.
The young monk stammered, “But…I have nothing more to drop.”
“Then take it away,” said the old master, smiling.
When Tesshu, the famous Japanese samurai master of the sword, was young and headstrong, he visited one Zen master after another.
Once he went to visit Master Dokuon and triumphantly announced to him the classic Buddhist teaching that all that exists is empty, there is really no you or me, and so on.
The master listened to all this in silence. Suddenly, he snatched up his pipe and wacked Tesshu across the head with it. The young swordsman was infuriated. He grabbed the hilt of his sword, prepared to kill the master.
But Dokuon said calmly, “Emptiness is sure quick to show anger, is it not?”
Tesshu left the room, realizing he still had much to learn about Zen. He later became fully enlightened and founded the art of “no-sword.”
In each of these stories we see wise gurus using startling tricks to awaken their students.
You and I also have wise gurus in our lives who do the same for us. Only we don’t view them as gurus, nor do we appreciate them. In fact, we can’t stand them and we complain about them constantly.
Our greatest gurus in life are the people who trigger us the most:
- Rude drivers who cut us off.
- Close-minded people who judge us unfairly.
- The idiots on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
- Intrusive parents who routinely tell us everything we’re doing wrong with parenting our own children.
- Disrespectful people who belittle our most cherished beliefs.
When we get triggered by people, we instinctively and immediately react in anger. We draw battle lines and see them as enemies. We want to fight back and defend ourselves. Or we retreat into ourselves and close our hearts to protect ourselves.
To escape the pain they trigger in us, we do anything and everything — except the one thing that would benefit us the most: learn from them.
There’s a simple trick to learn from our greatest enemies: Instead of viewing them as “jerks” out to get us, instead, view them as loving slaps on the back to startle us into awakening.
Instead of seeing our enemies as evil devils trying to bring us down, we can see them as wizened old sages trying to lift us up.
Every emotional trigger is life slapping us across the back with a Keisaku stick. We can get pissed off, or we can pause, grin, and find the lesson. We can grasp for something to fight against outside of us, or we can surrender to something to love in us.
Every time we feel triggered by other people, it’s never about them and always about something inside of us. No exceptions. And what it reveals about ourselves isn’t something to be angry about or ashamed of, but rather something we must learn to accept and love.
The frequency of our emotional triggers reveals the extent to which we haven’t learned to love and accept ourselves.
You’re scrolling through Facebook and see an inflammatory political post that upsets you deeply. SMACK!
You’ve been standing in line for a half hour and someone cuts in front of you. SMACK!
A friend betrays a trust. SMACK!
You don’t get invited to a party and feel rejected. SMACK!
Someone twists your words and you feel judged and misunderstood. SMACK!
We get smacked around by life every day. And the painful smacks keep raining down on us until we learn to turn inward and surrender to the lessons each time they come.
As we do so, our emotional triggers become less frequent, because we see more truth and learn to surrender, accept, and love more fully. We learn to befriend our enemies because we befriend the painful truths they reveal about ourselves.
Welcome the external “smacks” of life, because, like wise gurus, they show you the internal work you have left to do.