In our family it was almost considered a sign of intelligence: the lightning-quick flare of temper, the instant reaction to a perceived slight or irritation, followed by a gush of eloquence recapitulating the offender’s past misdeeds and setting out principles of moral philosophy for her future improvement. The quick-temper gene came from my mother’s father, a usually mild-mannered man who would unpredictably erupt at minor annoyances and who passed the gift on to my mother, at whose knees I learned the art of venting wrath promptly and with panache.
I am talking here about strictly verbal expressions of anger, as at our house even the slamming of doors was forbidden. Still, anger is anger, however it is expressed, and though manifesting it feels as good as scratching a mosquito bite, to its recipient it feels like an attack by a horsefly.
My meditation practice is outstanding in its sloppiness. I go through periods when I meditate occasionally, and periods when I meditate every day. But sloppy or rigorous, in some thirty years of sitting, the twenty minutes on my cushion have hardly changed at all. Unlike me, the monkeys in my mind have neither aged nor slowed down, but continue to leap and race through the forest of my neurons until the bell dings and the session is over.
This so discouraged me that at one point I was ready to give up. Didn’t Einstein (or somebody) say that doing the same thing over and over in hopes of obtaining different results is the definition of insanity? But then I learned that one should not expect to enjoy the fruits of meditation while meditating. Rather, they are most likely to make themselves felt during the times when we are simply going about our daily life. If we notice that we are less quick to anger, if we pause before we jump to slap away an irritant, that is a sign that meditation is working.
Here is what Viktor Frankl, whose wisdom was forged in the terror and suffering of Auschwitz, says about that pause: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” (Man’s Search for Meaning).
That space is what I am looking for, the blessed nanosecond in which on good days the effect of my sloppy meditations comes into play, and I choose to forego belting out an angry aria in favor of a more moderate response, or simply silence. True, that tiny pause doesn’t feel nearly as good as letting fly a tirade, but at the same time I can say that, although I often regret the tirade, I have never regretted the pause.
The pause does not feel especially difficult or unpleasant. It feels like a little nudge, something inside gently reminding me to please just wait a second before I react. But it does feel strange. It doesn’t feel quite like the real me, the me that is quick to put things into words, especially if they are angry things.
Sometimes the urge to scratch the itch is too strong. It drowns out the soft inner voice, and I lash out in the old way. But that’s o.k., because the universe is sure to send me lots more chances to practice the pause, to dive beneath the current and sink to where there is stillness and, for this one moment, peace.