26 May Responding
Over the last couple of years, I have focused a lot of energy on learning to respond to situations rather than react to them. Our reactions are seemingly “automatic,” but they are based on programming; on our learned experience and our genetic pre-disposition. For example, if there’s a loud sound, one person might react with fright while another might respond by carefully scanning the scene for the source of the sound. I believe that on some level, all reaction has a connection to fear and when we can become aware of this we have much more agency over how we respond.
We have two cats. One’s a nervous wreck around new people and immediately reacts to their presence by panicking and running to hide. The other one checks them out and then approaches to get pet. I would refer to the nervous cat as reacting to the new people while the more confident one responds to their presence.
“The Presence Process,” by Michael Brown, is a 10-week meditation practice that involves reading a chapter each week and meditating in the morning and night using a mantra associated with each week’s story. The mantra for week 3 is “I respond consciously to all my experiences.” When reading the chapter before starting the week’s practice, the reader is given a series of questions that lead us toward being able to observe our reactions in a situation, and then focus on what might be triggering them. Once we start to break this down, we can learn to respond more consciously. This meditation course had a profound effect on me and increased my ability to do this tenfold.
Earlier this week, as I sat down at my computer to start banging out a heavy load of emails, I got a call from the dentistry school at UNC. I had set an alarm for 8 am in order to make sure my mom was awake in time to make her appointment there. When I answered, a receptionist at the school told me that my mom had fallen and possibly broken her nose and that I needed to come and take her to the emergency room or she’d have to be taken over in an ambulance. My wife was out with the car, so I couldn’t leave immediately. Everyone, including the receptionist, seemed a little bit frantic, so the first thing I tried to do was explain that de-escalating the sense of tension would be key to helping my mom calm down. When I got my mom on the phone, she was clearly more upset about a fear that she was becoming less independent than she was about her pain or injury. It was 9:30, and she was most concerned about dealing with her car which had to be moved by noon. I made a few calls to determine the best course of action – i.e. whether or not to bring her to the doctor at her retirement community or the emergency room (ER in case x-ray was needed), and getting the car home.
By the time I got to the dentist’s, she was calmer, but still upset with herself. As I wheeled her to the ER (the dentistry school is next to the hospital), she did some breathing exercises. For the past few years, she has been going to see a mindfulness coach and it has led to great improvement in her ability to regulate her anxiety and for her communication. She was hungry, thirsty and frustrated, but increasingly calm. We only had to wait a few minutes to see an ER doc who checked for any kind of head trauma that might indicate a need for imaging. Her nose was sore and possibly fractured, but he suggested that we wait a few weeks to do any x-rays because we weren’t going to do any surgery anyway. We were out of there within an hour.
She wanted to drive herself home but agreed to let us get her home. She is a fiercely independent woman, and while we had scheduled a visit to the community triage nurse, she canceled in order to go to her mindfulness coach instead. I heartily endorsed that path. The truth is, though, that she won’t be able to drive forever, and we have to start planning on keeping her mobile without a car. She was able to weather the situation with much more grace than she might have in the past, and I found that I was able to as well. Acceptance is an incredibly valuable tool. When we practice acceptance, it doesn’t mean we acquiesce to the whims of others, but instead that we don’t react to the situations with fear or anxiety but instead that we respond with awareness so that our reactions don’t blind us to the simplest path forward.