June 05, 2007

An Experiment in Equanimity

When I conducted the experiment with anger, two things happened that I wouldn’t have guessed. One was how easy it was to let anger drop. I’d expected to put myself through a series of trials of awareness therapy, paying attention to episodes of anger until they receded and took their place humbly alongside the other emotions, like obstreperous schoolkids finally sitting down in their seats when the teacher stares at them long enough.

Instead, the first time I tried it out, my anger felt so ridiculous -– and so frail, so lacking in the strength it pretended to display -– that my only inclination to repeat the experiment was because it would fulfill a resolution. But what’s the point of a resolution to do something obsolete? The idea of going around cursing people in my mind, or with my voice, had become irrelevant -– not in one stroke, but in one step across a threshold long approached. I tried it out a couple of times in brief isolated minor bursts and it just didn’t convince me. And since the idea was to bring out authentic emotion, not to drum up false emotion, I let it drop. Whether I’ll spontaneously enter the state of mind to run another trial, I don’t know, because everything in the future is “I don’t know.”

The second surprise was that I went beyond restraining my anger, into actively playing the role of the person who projects anger onto others: the passive-aggressive one, using others as containers for the anger he doesn’t admit having, and if possible, overfilling them till they spill all over the place. Instead of being the button, I became the button-pusher; instead of the infuriated, I became the infuriating. I finally learned what I had known intellectually for years but hadn’t yet been able to put into practice: that the one who stays calm wins.

I had been raised with the assumption that anger is a contest to see who can shout loudest and scare the other person more. Perhaps in some cultures it is that. But in the culture I live in now, it’s the opposite: anger is a staring contest, except that instead of the loser being the one who laughs, the loser is the one who shouts. The substance of what is being shouted about doesn’t matter; the mere act of raising the voice rules that evidence out of court.

It’s so comically clear all at once!

If a person who curses a fellow driver is a jackass, it’s not so much because cursing is obnoxious as because the curser doesn’t realize he’s putting himself in the wrong.

If the other driver honks at you and gives you the finger, smile and wave –- blow him a kiss, for God’s sake. You can’t lose. If your friendliness eases his temper, you get good karma back. If your friendliness angers him further and he goes home and kicks the cat, well, he might have done it anyway, the unstable, personality-disordered nut. You’ve proven that he’s dangerous and you’ve preserved your karmic deniability.

From now on I’m unflappable. Look out, anyone who wants to get me steamed. I’ve always been very good at staring contests.