Looking out, looking in

This week’s quote extols the virtues of looking within rather than looking outside oneself constantly. In Buddhist terms this makes a lot of sense. Our minds are constantly distracted by a whole host of transient things, some of which we grasp onto, others we reject/avoid, meanwhile others we simply drift along with (usually the more pleasant ones!), until something reawakens us from our stupour, if only momentarily.

Looking within with compassion we can begin to learn more about ourselves and the habits of our minds. This is ultimately freeing if not sometimes alarming. It isn’t always pleasant to look inside and see ‘anger’, when the person we think we are is a ‘nice’ person, calm and loving. After all we’re Buddhist so why shouldn’t we be nice – isn’t that the goal? But recognising that anger is there is a good thing. It means we’re developing some awareness. And, if we can begin to ‘see’ anger arising we have the opportunity to observe it play out – to see our habits acted out before our watchful gaze. Those moments provide insight and create the possibilities for change.

By change I mean that just because anger arises does not mean we have to react angrily. We can simply note the anger arising and watch with interest as to the effects it has on us when it plays out. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this, but I can recall vividly a few occasions where I have been aware of anger arising (twice in response to ‘bad’ emails when under a lot of stress at work), and the impact on both my body and mind has been fascinating to observe. The mind reacts out of habit, the entrenched or well-practised responses kick in without awareness (unless you are able to observe them of course), and a well-rehearsed reaction plays out. With the body I’ve observed that anger goes immediately to my chest, it tightens up, heart pounding, pulse increasing. Clearly some physiological triggers are linked to the mind’s habits.

Bringing awareness to this situation then allows for some space, and also provides the opportunity to act rather than to react to those triggers. [nb. the language here is important – look what ‘re-act’ says] This is the point when looking out can actually be beneficial. Bringing some perspective into the situation, perhaps thinking about what triggered the event/person/comment (whatever it is that angered you), and realising that those persons are facing difficulties much in the same way you are too can open us up to developing greater compassion for others. Sometimes what can also really help is a literal looking out, preferrably onto something expansive like the sky, a wide vista or the sea. Bringing our problems – with awareness – to wide open spaces can somehow open up some of those issues that otherwise bring us ‘in’, and which divorce us from compassion for self and for others.

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