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Many people have stories like this. They put someone through something and then they experience it themselves, and somehow they know that they are paying back a debt. It has nothing whatsoever to do with punishment. It’s more like a law of physics. There’s no one punishing you. There is no master planner making sure you get it. There is no vengeance. It is just a principle that you sooner or later start to feel in your bones.
Always at a crossroads
This approach to settling the score is that whenever something bad comes your way, it is always an opportunity for further healing. When things happen to you that you don’t like, you can either open the wound further or you can heal the wound. Instead of getting strongly hooked into thoughts like “I don’t like,” “I don’t want,” “It isn’t fair,” “How could they do this to me?,” “I don’t deserve this,” or “They should know better,” it’s possible that you could train yourself so that the natural intelligence becomes stronger than your reactivity.
For most of us most of the time, our emotional reactivity obscures our natural intelligence. But if we become motivated to start contemplating the approach of seeing pain and discomfort as opportunities for healing—for becoming “one-with” and bringing people closer rather than splitting—our intelligence actually will get stronger than our emotional reactivity. If we take those opportunities for healing, the momentum of the intelligence will gradually start to outweigh the momentum of the reactivity.
In my experience, the emotional reactivity does not stop. We’re not talking about getting rid of the experience of getting hooked. We’re talking about when you get hooked, what do you do next? There’s a choice. The Buddha teaches us that we are always at a crossroads, moment by moment. We have the intelligence to make a choice, so let’s educate ourselves about what the implications of our choices are. Let’s break it down. We could choose to open the wound further, creating more suffering for ourselves and others, or we could choose to heal the wound.
The question we usually ask ourselves at this crossroads is, What will soothe me in this moment? The habitual response is that what will soothe me is to get what I want, to have my needs met, to get even, to straighten this all out so I come out with what I need. But we have seen what this choice leads to. We need to cultivate that other choice.
The choice I have been talking about doesn’t preclude resolving conflicts where parties have been in the wrong. If someone breaks a contract with you, for example, that all have entered into consciously and in good faith, I’m not saying you wouldn’t address that breach. Leaving it unaddressed would not be soothing the waters. The precedent would be set, and the irritation would just grow and grow. So there are things that definitely have to be addressed, which is where non-violent communication comes in. You don’t just bite the hook. You don’t just fly off the handle. You somehow interrupt the momentum.
There is something you can do before you speak and act. Sometimes that before might have to take a long time. I’ve given the advice many times to students, advice I use myself, that if you’re really outraged, type out the e-mail or write the letter, then don’t send it. Fold it up, put it in a certain place, then look at it a day or two later. Chances are you won’t send that letter. Nobody ever sends that letter. You could rewrite it, but even then you might not send the second letter either, and if you wait long enough the natural intelligence will come in. The knee-jerk reaction is not based on intelligence. It’s based on obscured intelligence. The results of this reaction are all too obvious.
As you’re acting, you could ask, “Have I ever responded in this way before?” If the answer is, “Yes, I always respond this way. This movie is a rerun,” then you’re acting unconsciously. You aren’t even acknowledging that you’re doing it again and getting the same result. It’s so strange, really, when you think about it. I don’t think we needed the Buddha to come along and point this out to us, but somehow 2,500 years later, here we are. It’s crazy.
Nowadays, we have instant access to news and sounds and images of all the wars and violence happening all over the world. We can see all around us vivid public demonstrations of how biting the hook and getting swept away does not yield good results. It is not adding up to happiness or peace. If you need an example of how the usual approach to settling the score doesn’t work, just look around.
Unfortunately, when we see all this suffering, we want fast results. Once again we might act on impulse and out of emotional reactivity, but if we look at the many examples of people trying to heal and settle the score in the intelligent way, we see that it takes time. The results are slow in coming, but from the larger perspective of natural intelligence and openness and warmth, the process is as important as the result. You are creating the future of the planet by how you work with injustice. You may not see it before your eyes immediately, but you are repaying a debt.
Settling the score in the Buddhist sense is letting the buck stop here, because the pain you are feeling allows you to pay back some karmic debt. For what? You don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is that the future is wide open and you are about to create it by what you do. You are either going to create more debt or get out of debt. You could start to pay off the cosmic credit card.
Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun whose root teacher was the renowned meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Since his death in 1987, she has studied with Sakyong Mipham and with her current principal teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. Her many popular books include The Places that Scare You, When Things Fall Apart, and Start Where You Are.
Originally published in the November 2007 Shambhala Sun magazine.
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