It Doesn’t Get Better, It Gets Different

Yesterday was a bit of a struggle for me, but I’m thankful for that. On the days when it’s hard I get a little more opportunity to practice.

A year and a half ago I went into recovery and therapy; Buddhism followed quickly behind. My goal at the time was simple: eradicate all my negative traits. Remove my anger, end my fear, conquer sadness, erase jealousy. 17 months later I have made absolutely zero progress on any of that… and it’s totally ok. Because what I’ve learned is that it isn’t about getting rid of those negative emotions, it’s about handling those negative emotions.

There’s a quote I love:

Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness. *

I have begun exploring that space in the past year and a half. What I have learned is that the negative emotions don’t go away (at least not on my short timetable) but that the way we relate to those emotions change. Emotions that were once powerful, controlling feelings are now slightly more distant. When I feel that anger rise up in my chest, tight and fiery, I now have the space to not immediately act upon it. I don’t have words spilling out of my mouth (or fingers, if we’re  talking about the internet, which is where I usually get mad) without consideration.

The distance is small, but it’s enough to make a difference. I rarely identify with the negative emotions that arise in me. They’re much less all-consuming, and they define me less than they once did. I don’t dance on their strings… at least not as often. Sometimes I do or say something and I recognize that the space between stimulus and response was very, very small, and that maybe I could have handled the whole thing better.

The negative emotions remain, but as I act on them less their power wanes. I also have an understanding of them that I didn’t have previously – they come and go. By maintaining a mindful distance and watching these emotions as they arise and cease I have come to understand that whatever emotion I feel now will soon be gone. Yes, that’s a thing we all know, but only intellectually. On a heart level we tend to get caught up in our emotions – negative or positive, we behave as if we will always feel this way. Why else would we insult someone when we’re white hot with anger? If we realized this anger will abate and pass we would hold our tongues; you don’t build an ark every time it rains, right?

That may be the biggest thing I’ve learned in the past year and a half – the difference between knowing something and internalizing something. I’ve begun to internalize many things that I previously only knew. Now I am beginning to understand them.

Anger and hate and fear and jealousy still arise. Some days they arise more than other days. But when they arise they are manageable. My relationship with them has changed. I recognize that they’re not driving; at their worst they’re like very insistent Grima Wormtongues, whispering treason in my ears. But I don’t ignore them – doing that only makes them want to speak louder and more frequently. I acknowledge them, and as silly as this sounds, I thank them. I acknowledge that I have anger, I explore where in my body I feel that anger, and I examine why I have that anger (am I angry at my dog for barking or am I irritated about something else?), and I say to the anger “Thanks for your input. It’s helpful,” and most of the time the anger, recognized and heard, begins to mellow out. This sounds like hoodoo, but it works. And I think it’s an evolutionary thing – my brain chemistry has evolved to give me these signals that it thinks I need to survive. When I ignore those signals, my brain, believing it is saving my life, gets really intense about it. When I tell my brain that I hear the signals, it understands that I have the situation in hand and no longer needs to throw emotions at me.

None of my negative emotions have gone away. But on most days they’re not as powerful as they once were. And when they arise I don’t argue with them, creating a whole new round of agita. I avoid new bad feelings that snowball up into a big bad feeling.

One last thing, to bring this to Buddhist thought: I recognize that it does not get better because there is no better. There is just the way that I relate to what is happening, and I get to choose if I relate to it in a positive or negative way. “Better” is a judgment word, and it is the kind of word that leads to us clinging to conditions and outcomes. Things do not get better or worse, they get different, and it is how we relate to these differences that make us assign the judgment “better” or “worse.”

* Here’s what’s funny about the inspirational quote game: a lot of people will tell you that Victor Frankl said that. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor and an existential psychologist, and he probably never said that thing. Stephen R. Covey quoted the lines from a book he found in a library in Hawaii… a library that, when he returned to write down the name of the author of the quote, wasn’t there anymore! It’s probably a whole load of horse shit, but the quote is great, and even if its provenance is phony its meaning is powerful.