Do you ever wake up on the wrong side of the bed and things go from bad to worse as the day progresses? Fortunately, there’s a fix! And it does a lot more than just sweeten up a bad mood.
One morning, having overslept, I woke up groggy and grumpy. Then I realized I was thinking about someone who upset me long ago, a distant friend of my parents who for some reason kept calling me after their deaths, not with words of solace but gossip, venom, and vindictiveness. Charming!
Why was she waking up with me all these decades later? And why could she still upset me? Simple. I had “unresolved issues”. I was still holding a grudge against her. I’m not proud of that, but I had fewer resources back then to help me work through my tight tangle of thoughts about anything, including her.
Over the past decades, with the help of Insight meditation and a willingness to investigate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings with compassion, I have discovered lots of old grudges and I have made it my mission to keep an eye out for them, and upon discovery to spend skillful time with them. It has lightened me up and softened my agitated reactivity to the world around me into something less prickly and more responsive.
So here was yet another opportunity. If I ignored it, I would miss the chance to process a disruptive mental pattern that had come to my attention.
“A disruptive mental pattern.” See how I switched from telling myself the story about the woman to seeing it as brain activity? Back in the day I would have stuck with the story, dug deeper into it, or switched to another story about me and how unforgiving I am.
But labeling myself is just another electro-chemical mental pattern that causes suffering. To strengthen that view, I can picture the brain, that amazing network of neurons sending signals. What a relief to recognize that what I am experiencing is a naturally arising part of life in this human body.
Picturing the brain is an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s teachings, a part of a larger meditation of all parts of the body. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha instructed his followers to cultivate awareness of such physical attributes as “…the hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, fibrous threads (veins, nerves, sinews, tendons), bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, contents of the stomach, intestines, mesentery, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tears, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovial fluid, urine.”
Now, I didn’t need to go through the whole list in that moment to arrive at an understanding that my experience is not unique, that this is just one of many conditions of living as a homo sapien primate member of the animal kingdom.
Reminding myself of my “place in the family of things” to quote Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese, is very settling in itself. Think of all the baggage that can be let go of more easily if only we see through the illusion of believing this “I, me” self is separate from all life, and that my thoughts are unique identifiers of that self.
Thoughts are just synaptic brain activity. Sure, there are variations, given causes and conditions, interests and inclinations, etc. But seen from any perspective in the universe, that stream of thoughts would be easily recognized as human brain activity, just the way we know monkeys climb trees, gophers dig holes, and beavers build dams. Thinking is what humans do. We don’t need to get entangled in some hierarchical story about that patterns of behavior of different species based on physiology. This busy brain creates both benefit and detriment to ourselves and all life, depending on whether we are rooted in fear and isolation or in an understanding of our inseparable nature.
Taking the personal out of thought and emotion can shift things on the spot. But for me, in that grumpy moment, it didn’t. I was clinging to my mood like I’d been clinging to that grudge.
So I went to the next step. I brought the person to mind. I recognized that she also inhabited a human body and had complex emotional content to deal with. She too had grudges and memories that plagued her, perhaps ones more problematic than mine. Her words and deeds that caused me anguish were the overflowing detritus of complex mental workings, just like mine.
Yes, she was unskillful to speak them just as I have been unskillful at times. She had not learned to pause and consider the ramifications of her words and how they would be received. People often don’t consider that. It doesn’t make them bad so much as unaware of the nature of suffering, in themselves and others. She was caught up in the tangle of fear-based ideas about herself and the world, so she was full of judgments and the need to express them.
Here, years later, I could more easily recognize how she must have suffered. Both of us were under the stress of the loss of a loved one. Neither of us accounted for the vulnerability of the other at that moment. No doubt I also said things that were unskillful that exacerbated her unskillfulness. How much easier it is for me to take some responsibility in retrospect.
Once the mental pattern is identified and understood, I switched from investigation to the Buddhist practice of cultivating loving-kindness and sharing it without exception. Metta is not just being nice. It has an infinite quality, beyond space and time. And it is only effective if we give it to ourselves first. May I be well. May I be peaceful. These kinds of blessings, felt wholeheartedly, create a sense of easeful balance and connection to all life. When shared, metta has the capacity to cause a powerful and positive shift in our relationships.
Assuming that my antagonist died many years ago, I phrased my metta for her May you rest in peace. Such simple words, and yet as I repeated them in my dharma talk in my Zoom class Thursday morning, the power of them resonated once again, and I reached an even deeper stage of forgiveness and understanding. You can never do too much metta!
Just minutes after I woke up so grumpy, a bit of gentle investigation and well-wishing had stopped that bad mood in its tracks. It freed me from the toxicity of tangled thoughts and emotions, and it put me back in touch with my wisest loving intentions, and my mood shifted completely.
So the next time you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or just feel a little moody, try this technique. If you can take even a few minutes to sit and quiet the mind, this will make all the difference. But if you can’t do that, then at least do this:
Whatever you are doing, practice mindfulness, even as you groom and eat breakfast. As part of that, notice the nature of the thoughts that arise. Recognize the story you are telling yourself. “Story” does not mean that it is not true, only that it is a repetitive pattern of thought that shows up uninvited and seems to have a life of its own. There’s rarely anything new in it. It’s just a mental pattern that’s been activated. If it brings up emotions, that’s a clue that it’s time to investigate.
If a person comes to mind, notice any unresolved feelings that arise: guilt, anger, frustration, or other challenging emotions. Notice any tendency to judge these emotions.
Attend all that arises with compassion and know that you are safe. None of this is a threat to you. But it is worth looking at because it has ramifications.*
Question judgments and opinions that you have accepted as statements of fact. You can use Byron Katie’s core questions: Is it true? How do I know it’s true? or find others that work for you.
Embrace the ‘I don’t know’ mind. It’s a cause for celebration to recognize that we can’t know everything, that the world is a wondrously complex network of causes and conditions beyond any human mind’s ability to fathom completely. How freeing is that?
Acknowledge that the other person is fallible, befuddled and doing the best they can, though it may not look like it from your perspective. We are all just temporal manifestations of life. Is it any wonder our decisions are less than perfect?
Wish yourself well with heartfelt sincerity, empowered to access that wellness, not begging for it. Then, when you are ready, extend that sense of well-wishing to the other person, and then to all beings. Remember that metta is not a reward meted out to the deserving, but infinite and all-pervasive. You are not a judge but a conduit of loving-kindness, once you have fully received it and feel it growing within yourself. If you have difficulty with this, here are links to more about metta.
Taking a few minutes to notice, investigate, question and send metta, may not only lift your mood, but bring benefits that ripple out in all directions.
*If looking is difficult and makes you feel worse, perhaps you are dealing with a more significant challenge than just turning around a bit of grumpiness. The process is the same, but you might need to give it more dedicated time and consider journaling, so you can process it more consciously. You might also consider working with a therapist who is skilled in this kind of Buddhist Insight investigation.