Recently I was involved in a negotiation surrounding a new business relationship. It began, as most new relationships do, with a friendly back and forth and all the customary getting to know each other and courting. We laughed, connected, and shared ideas and dreams for what could be accomplished together. And then it came time to discuss money and … I almost don’t need to write any more, right? So many of us have found ourselves in this situation — everything is going great and then it comes time for the money conversation and WHAM! All of a sudden the talks go from great to god-awful in the time it takes to click open the email containing the financial terms.
I’ve been there many, many times in my life. This time, though, was unique because it actually occurred for me as two distinct experiences: one, the experience of the Jason who has spent the last several years studying with wise teachers and developing tools to remain centered in a place of self-love and innate goodness; and the second from the perspective of my ego, which is, apparently, still most comfortable dealing with these situations much the way I did when I was five — like a little boy who takes his toys and storms out of the sandbox when he doesn’t get his way. What resulted was an internal sensation that felt a bit like having my large intestine pulled apart in a giant game of tug o’ war.
The Buddhist nun Ani Pema Chödrön has a quote about moments like these. It goes like this: Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, “Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?”
My ego, as egos are programmed to do, chose to answer that question with a resounding cry of WAR! The experience was really no different from the many times I’ve confronted similar experiences, which I’m sure is similar to the way your ego reacts too. I took one look at what they had offered me and decided right then and there … on the spot … that it was insulting, disrespectful, and tantamount to a slap in the face. I stepped up on my soap box, pulled out my mental resume, and began to recite all of the unparalleled accomplishments and achievements of my illustrious life that justified the deep indignation I was feeling. Before long my ego, like Mel Gibson’s character in Braveheart, had mounted its high horse and, with blue war paint smeared all over its face, prepared to ride off to do battle with the other side.
The other voice — the one that sounds a bit more like Ani, the one I began to listen to as my mom lay dying in my arms, the voice that’s been honed by the compassion of my teachers, the one I’ve grown to trust through hours and hours of silent meditation, the one that always chooses peace — that voice leaned into my ego, gave it a knowing wink and a patient “I know … I know … shhh … it’s all gunna be okay …” The voice then took my ego, Mel Gibson, and me to the meditation cushion to, as my teacher Guru Singh likes to say, “bolt my butt to the ground and ride the stallion” — not to battle, but to peace.
There’s a tendency to believe (or perhaps hope) that meditation and yoga turn us into floating saints that never have bull-in-china-shop moments. But it’s not true, at least not in my experience. The truth, I’ve discovered, is a much more vulnerable and honest reality: that is, that we are all human. Inside we are all facing the same fear and insecurities. We all want to be loved, and valued … and we want to feel safe. When someone in the course of a negotiation — or during one of the many normal, everyday interactions we have with others — says or does something that threatens our sense of well-being, our egos pop out to defend us. This is a normal and natural response. In spiritual study and practice we aren’t learning how to turn off our emotions: that’s not real. Instead we’re learning the skills to be okay while we feel them. Meditation and yoga aren’t some magic potion that we take to make every situation perfect, they’re tools that help us to feel okay amidst the difficult situations that come up in life. We’re not learning how to eliminate the ego, just to keep it from busting up all the expensive china when it shows up. That’s why Guru Singh calls it riding the stallion. Because any true sense of well-being must be inclusive of all of life’s experiences, every thought, fear, insecurity, hope, and dream. The practice is to be okay with it all. We are learning to embrace life by riding the stallion, by feeling it all, and in the process we develop the skills of peace and calm so we can have them at our disposal when challenging situations arise. (Sorry to everyone who thought they were signing up for a magic carpet ride.)
I’ve recently been doing some remodeling to my house. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a handful of craftsmen — men and women skilled in woodwork, paint, tile, etc. I’ve observed that each of them has a unique practice. They don’t just show up and cut the wood or randomly put tile on the floor. Instead they have a process, a routine, and all the necessary tools to get the job done skillfully. They’ve been there, done that, and through that experience are prepared when the unexpected arrives … as it always does. Their practice converts daily challenges into an opportunity to exhibit their skill. This analogy feels true for our experience of real-life as well.
For much of my life I lacked the skills to achieve what I said I wanted. I talked about ideals like fulfillment, happiness, peace, and love but I rarely practiced them. Instead my days were spent working hard, warring with my adversaries, and (often) wishing I was somewhere I wasn’t. Those activities became my habits … my routine, my practice, and I developed tools to support them. Soon it was all I knew how to do. When something arrived in life that required a little patience, serenity, or presence, I would turn to my toolbox but all I could find were tools of struggle, fighting, and wishing it wasn’t so. This is true for most of us: lacking the proper tools, we often make things worse for ourselves and others. Just as a man laying tile would if he tried to tile a floor with a hammer and nails, we smash up each other’s feelings and make a mess of our lives.
That day, as I sat on the meditation cushion listening to the two voices of my indignant ego and my compassionate heart, I experienced something different. I opened my toolbox and looked inside to see what might help. I began with a series of deep, controlled breaths to calm the sensations of fight or flight I was experiencing and open the door for a third option — patience. When the physical sensations had calmed a bit, I grabbed a new tool and began a loving-kindness meditation. First for myself: may I be loved, may I be safe, may I be understood. After a few minutes of self-soothing words, I shared the same desire with those I was negotiating with: may they be loved, may they be safe, may they be understood. Before long the lines between us began to blur. As I experienced more balance and calm, I released my thoughts and just sat there quietly. With the stallion safely resting, my heart opened and I felt a sense of deep well-being. I breathed and allowed myself to experience the innate peace and inner joy that is our birthright.
The next day I got on the phone and had a discussion with my friends, no longer the other side, but humans to whom I’d sent wishes of love, safety, and understanding the day prior. We talked openly about our needs in making a deal. A few times, for both them and me, the stallion lowered its head and began to beat the ground with its hoofs. In those moments I breathed deeply, held a space of calm, and remembered that we were there to try to make a deal, not a war. In the end we were all seen and heard, and we all felt understood. While we didn’t come to an agreement — like I said our spiritual tools don’t make every situation perfect — we did all hang up as friends, with the understanding that we valued each other but had differing needs right now. By opening our hearts, we parted with a sense of wellness and left the door wide open for the future.
This week I invite you to open some doors in your life by opening your heart to the voice beyond your ego. Have compassion for your ego while taking the time to listen to the message of your heart. Discover the beauty of connecting around the human desires for love, safety, and comprehension in yourself and in those you encounter in work and life. Explore your toolbox, see what’s in there, be grateful for what you’ve developed, and begin a practice of developing the tools you find are lacking. View the many moments of your day as an invitation to practice choosing: peace over war, love over fear, and understanding over delusion. May you be loved, may you be safe, may you be understood.
I invite you to join me for a deeper discussion of this writing below: