As I sat in Kim Dae-Jung Plaza, my eyes closed, my ears tuned into two birds’ argumentative chatter, thoughts fluttered across my mind like headlines underscoring a news report.
“What’s ruffling these bird’ feathers?”
“The weather is beautiful today.”
“I wonder how much time is left.”
One benefit of daily meditation comes from sitting alone with nothing but my own mental chatter. I often remain so busy throughout the day that I never attend to the thoughts in my head. Classes, lesson planning, psychology coursework, my latest reading material, or other obligations occupy my attention.
Rarely do I truly attend to the content of my own thoughts.
One side effect of this neglect of inward concentration is a failed realization. My thoughts and feelings are just mental and physiological representations. They often have little bearing on reality. At the very least, I can never assume the solidity of my thoughts and feelings.
Emotions have little basis in fact. How I feel about a particular sequence of events – joyful, angry, bored, frustrated, often do not stem from hard-set logic or laws of nature. After all, I’ve never been chased by a lion or been to war. So instead, most of my emotions represent ingrained habits of behavior.
When I think deeper, I often realize that my emotions (particularly negative ones) stem from some attachment, longing, or craving.
One foundational precept of Buddhist practice is that suffering comes from our cravings and attachments. We suffer because we attach to people, to images of ourselves, to images of our lives, or to mental models of the world. In other words, we ascribe solidity to an ever-changing impermanent reality.
For example, sometimes I note a rising frustration as I subtly harshen my tone towards chatty class. While my students are generally very respectful and diligent, they are prone to brief bouts of inattention and idle chatter.
This not inherently detrimental. In some ways, their energy can prove beneficial. My class is speaking-based after all. But sometimes students chat at the exact time I require their focus.
Meditation taught me to recognize this rising frustration, take a deep breath, recompose myself, and soldier through my lesson with minimal disturbance. In other words, meditation helps me recognize negative feelings before I get the chance to express them.
My students rarely witness true frustration boil out of me because practice derailing those feelings at the pass.
However, once I finish for the day and find time to reflect, I stumble upon the same question.
“What am I attaching to?”
Often my frustration over students’ chatter or game-cheating is not about them. It’s about me. I attach to the ideal of flawless classroom management and complete student engagement.
“Does your class have to be perfectly disruption free?”
“Well, no. That’s a ridiculous expectation.”
“Have you received any inkling of feedback indicating poor class management?”
“Then what are you worried about? Just do your best. Great job recognizing your frustration before allowing it to spill over. But understand that such frustration is your own making.”
Through consistent practice, I find myself less and less perturbable in class. This growing equanimity seems to rub off on my students.
For example, sometimes simply saying a student’s name is enough to quell a disruption. I need not say more. A brief interruption of the disruption is all that is required. I need not attach to the disruption or pass judgment.
“Why do you always talk when I am trying to address the class?”
“Learn some respect.”
“Why are you so disrespectful?”
That is not necessary. That is an attachment. Whether it is an attachment to the students’ pattern of disruptive behavior or to the goal of a disruption-free classroom is irrelevant. Stopping a disruption with minimal effective force is sufficient.
We all have disruptions in our life. We all have “chatty students” or metaphorical thorns in our sides that cause us frustration. We all suffer sometimes. The best response to these feelings can be a simple acknowledgment.
“I am frustrated right now.”
“This feels unpleasant.”
We don’t need to speculate the cause. We don’t need to pass judgment or cast blame. A simple acknowledgment is often all that is necessary. When we can identify these feelings without attaching some significant value to it, we see it for what it is – a passing emotion or thought. Many emotions will dissipate in a few minutes if we starve them of our thoughts.
Once we can acknowledge our feelings without judgment, a new question could prove fruitful.
“What am I attaching to?”
We must realize that our emotions are not objective. Our emotions often stem from attaching to a particular feeling – feeling respected, acknowledged, or approved. They could stem from attachment to particular circumstances – silence when speaking to the class, applause following a presentation, positive feedback after sharing a piece of work. In other words, our emotions stem from our own expectations, not necessarily from objective reality.
When we can honestly and non-judgmentally recognize our emotions, our problems will not magically vanish. We may still struggle with frustration, alienation, or fear. However, when we uncover the attachments that drive these emotional responses, then we can address our problems with a clear mind, open heart, and empathic spirit.