When I'm attacked, my impulse is to attack back.
I know it's my legal training, and maybe it's also my nature. At the very least it's a lifelong habit.
Can you relate, or are you in the "flight" more than "fight" camp?
Either way, what if the more effective thing to do is to learn to endure the attack? Not to give anything up or fail to be zealous, but also not to go straight for the jugular, or the exit door, at the first sign of trouble?
Training the mind to be less reactive: that's today's topic. See you soon.
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 346. Last week was about how we can create very difficult states of mind all by ourselves, getting into aversive states and then perpetuating them into what are sometimes called “hell realms” in mindfulness parlance. The topic was from Chapter 22 of the Dhammapada, which is called Hell.
Chapter 23, which is called The Elephant, is about the virtues of taming the mind so that we don’t fall into hell realms, or at least not too often, or even react in the first place. It begins with the verse, as an elephant in battle endures an arrow shot from a bow, so will I endure verbal abuse; many people, indeed, lack virtue.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to the importance of cultivating that virtue: the virtue of a tamed mind – tamed to be nonreactive, like an elephant who can endure being shot by an arrow and not attack back. The point is, how useful, on the battlefield of life.
This seems perfect for us, on the battlefield of life and also of the law. But it raises the question, what is an attack? Sometimes someone says or does something obvious like shouting at us in a conference room or making it personal in the courtroom. Sometimes it’s smaller and less easy to point at, like a refusal to grant an extension, a snide remarks, or some other slight. Most, though, are what my friend Charity Scott calls “paper” tigers. They not like a live tiger on the savannah but millions of years of conditioning to fight or flee when we feel attacked, make these constant aggressions feel like they, too, threaten our lives, or at least our livelihoods. Even the most flimsy of paper tigers – bad news - can do this.
I got bad news yesterday. In my small family business we received a report that means some work, a big expense, and putting a deal at risk. When I heard, to my body it might as well have been an outright attack. It wasn’t the news itself but rather the threat that the client (my family) would shoot the messenger – me. I felt attacked anticipating blame, disappointment, possibly even losing the client (not really in this case – but that was stored somewhere in there). A kind of foreshadowing of an attack. Is this familiar to anyone else?
Anyway, to the attacks on our brave elephant.
When the attack comes, we lawyers are highly trained to attack back. Think about our early beginnings: sparring in the classroom, intellectual jockeying in study groups, attacking from both sides in moot court, orienting our writing to win. It’s a mark of the law and maybe it has to be (or does it?), since our system is an adversary system that says, when two or more sides each have their say in the most vigorous way possible, the truth will out. It’s a whole profession, even in transactional realms, played by attack and counter-attack.
I wanted to see how an attack played out for me, to see if I could track some solutions, and then voila!, I got my chance yesterday with that bad news. Of course I didn’t recognize it as a “chance” right away: the first thing that happened, looking back at the moment, was that my whole body tightened up, my breath got shorter, and I felt like I’d been pounced on by a tiger. I’m guessing my amygdala bypassed my prefrontal cortex and any modicum of judgment it might have had to offer, and signaled to pounce back, because right away I could feel adrenalin and before I knew it I’d reached for my phone to text the person who sent the bad news.
I got as far as asking if they could talk, when I looked up. That was my first moment of mindfulness, and maybe a good beginning in terms of starting a mindfulness tools “progression” to help us avoid attacking back. So I looked up and guess what? I was at Berkeley, about to teach a class on emptiness. Pretty funny.
I sort of saw the irony, but it wasn’t like a huge moment of awareness. My body was still wrapped tightly around the bad news. So then I thought, “oh, breathe.” Look up, breathe…but that still only helped a little. Next, frustration showed up, in the form of, “why isn’t this practice working??” So I took a moment to be self-compassionate, which was not easy – I was kind of forcing myself but a lot of teachers say you do have to fake it till you make it. So it was helpful but I was still super activated. I was still thinking, attack.
Next, I did a very quick body scan, noticing the places that were tight, which were pretty much most places. Look up, breathe, self-compassion, body scan, and still in attack mode. I recognized anger and RAIN’ed it, allowing, investigating, not taking it personally, but I still felt activated.
Ten minutes till class! I considered the idea of doing some mindfulness out loud in the classroom but abandoned that as too self-indulgent. Finally I pulled out my copy of the Dhammapada, which I happened to have with me, which was unusual and lucky, and skepticism immediately arose: how was that going to help? Wouldn’t my eyes just slide across the pages? But it’s one of those small books with a ribbon bookmark, and the ribbon opened to today’s Chapter 23: As an elephant in battle endures an arrow shot from a bow, so will I endure verbal abuse; many people, indeed, lack virtue. And I was back in my body. It was such a relief. So: look up, breathe, self-compassion, body scan, mindfulness out loud if appropriate, and then study.
I can’t say whether or not the decision to turn to the Dhammapada was what re-grounded me, but “study” is one of the three pillars of mindfulness: study, reflection, and practice. I can say that reading the chapter made the difference for me between attacking back and enduring that arrow.
It made me wonder. With all the studying we do – studying cases, statutes, treatises – if we added some mindfulness study into that, might it support us? We’re already giving our students and one another the gifts of our own practice, and probably our reflections on our practice. What if we also offered one another the opportunity to study? Maybe we would be even better able to endure those arrows, that verbal abuse, without attacking back. And be more likely to be, as the Dhammapada says, people of virtue.
At least it would give us one more tool beside the attack, and our practice and reflection – which are already powerful tools. Abraham Maslow didn’t just create that familiar hierarchy of needs. He also famously said, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”