We can be especially sympathetic and affectionate with someone who persecutes us with abusive language. That very abuse conveys boundless loving-kindness. It is a compassionate device to liberate us entirely.
-Torei Zenji, 18th century Japanese Zen Master
I was expecting Dr. X’s call. I’d left a message that the Medical Ethics Committee would like to speak with him. When the surgeon phoned my office, I picked up:
‘Thanks for getting back to me, Dr. X. A concern has arisen, and as the Medical Ethics Committee Chair, I’d like to invite you to speak with the Committee about it. A nurse came before the Committee to describe a situation in which she felt that her patient hadn’t gotten the best care and, since this was one of your patients, we wanted to hear your recollection of the events.’
‘Stop right there!’ Dr. X said angrily. ‘Who are you to question me? I don’t have to answer to you or anyone else. Stop wasting my time!’
He hung up.
I sat with the empty phone in my hand, humiliated. My face flushed, my heart pounded, anger swelled. I knew this surgeon was difficult, but his dominance display caught me completely off guard. Fight or flight instincts took control and, not being the fighting type, I wanted to slink away from the hospital and never see him again.
I offer this story not because it’s unusual, but because it’s common. Incivility occurs frequently within our professional and private lives – we endure rude words from a patient’s daughter, get tailgated on the way to the library, or find ourselves criticized by our supervisor. How do we cope with these events so that they don’t shut down our hearts? How do we allow them without accumulating resentments?
Contemplative wisdom suggests that first, we stop. When something difficult happens, instinctual reactions often take over. We lash out physically or say something we regret because that’s what our animal bodies do. But we are capable of more than just instinctual reaction. We can pause and allow emotions and feelings to exist without immediately reacting. Stopping is powerful because it gives us time to transform reaction into response. It gives us the opportunity to chose wisely rather than react habitually.
When Dr. X hung up, I stopped. I could have called him back, or stormed into his office, or left the hospital in a huff. But I didn’t. I sat in my office chair and stopped. I watched reactionary urges arise one by one, but I didn’t act. I stopped.
As I settled into that stopping, I took the second step recommended by contemplative wisdom – I placed my attention on my body. I felt my skin flush and heart pound, my gut twist and legs ache. I sat with the internal storm and watched it rage. After a few minutes, I remembered to settle my attention into the flow of my breath as it moved in and out, in and out, in and out, until once again, calmness returned.
In the days and weeks following, I practiced stopping and returning to my body each time feelings of anger and humiliation arose. When I saw Dr. X in the hallways and felt resentful, I quietly brought attention to my body and breath. Sometimes I remembered to do this right away, but other times I got lost in fantasies of revenge and only remembered to stop and breathe after being lost for minutes or hours or days.
Eventually, while breathing in and out on the meditation cushion one dark morning, I saw that these uncomfortable feelings were not about Dr. X at all. His words just brought wounds to the surface I’d carried since childhood; wounds left over from unkind authority figures who left a 3-year-old feeling powerless and unheard. Once I saw this, I knew that the only response necessary was to care for that little boy inside. Dr. X didn’t need me to set him straight. Who knows what stress he carried the day of our conversation? If anything, he needed my kindness and compassion.
Resentment is a mindfulness bell that invites us to take responsibility for ourselves. My resentment of Dr. X wasn’t about Dr. X. It was about me. It was about unhealed wounds I was carrying. Dr. X just reminded me that I had some work to do.
This realization is one of the gifts of contemplative practice: We don’t find freedom by conquering the outer world. We find freedom by tending our inner world. We learn to love what’s ‘out there’ by learning to love what’s ‘in here.’ So when we find ourselves carrying anger and resentment towards others, we can recall the guidance of Torei Zenji and see that those feelings are the voice of compassion. Our job is to simply stop, return to the body and breath, and allow our hearts to open.