The ox has eaten enough

A few years ago, I made the conscious decision to begin sharing positive things I noticed and felt about the people in my life, whether they were passing through or in it for a longer haul. I made this shift in part because it began to dawn on me that I tended to communicate the negative stuff far more often. In other words, I had become very good at complaining, paying close attention to the things I did not like in the world, and as a result, I was perpetuating the spread of negative energy out into the ethos.

My practice for my own wellbeing had become to try not to respond in kind to behavior that, when directed my way, brought out my defensive side. I thought of it as a Tai Chi kind of response. I did not want to throw the energy back at my counterpart, nor did I wish to send it out anywhere else. I just wanted to let it drop between us, thereby losing its life force and finding peace. I did not always succeed, particularly while driving on the highways and byways of Eastern Massachusetts, but I was getting better at recognizing each of these situations as they arose.

I also started noticing how good it made me feel when someone told me something nice about myself, be it a personality trait or the sweater I happened to be wearing. It occurred to me that those individuals might enjoy hearing something nice about their own selves.

That was the lightbulb moment. From then on, as often as I can, I try to share the positive “out loud.” I thank people in my life for their kindness and guidance. I tell strangers if I think they look beautiful.

People seem to really like hearing nice things, and I don’t think there is any harm or shallowness in being the one to tell them. I have sparked some hilarious conversations as well. I will often ask if there is a story or particular meaning behind the unique adornments I notice. I find that many folks LOVE telling me about the stories behind. They also seem to find enjoyment in sharing the bargain they have discovered in their shopping ventures.

“You will never believe how much this cost!”

“You will never believe where I found this!”

Intentionally spreading joy is all well and good, but I do not want you to get the wrong idea about me. In my mind, I can be a pretty merciless, judgmental person. I am not proud of it, but there it is.

Just the other day, it was really noticeable. It began with my drive into town to go to the local pool where I swim at a community college nearby. On the road in front of me was a person driving really slow (this drives me bonkers) and with an advertisement on their back windshield that I found incredibly inane:

The words “Get Healthy” were written across the middle. Beneath it was some product that was sure to get you healthy. And above it was the message I found the most misleading: “GMO free; Gluten-free; Soy free.”

Now, keep in mind I was already prepared to detest this individual because of their choice to drive unreasonably slow. But the fact that they were advertising false information just added to the rippling of judgment that was spiraling around in my mind.

The more I pondered how one could attain health, the more I felt certain that excluding these items from your diet was not the perfect solution. For one, there is nothing unhealthy about Gluten. It has been around for thousands of years. Unless you have an allergy, gluten is fine. Yes, there is a huge business, marketing scheme going on to encourage folks to spend insane amounts of money on gluten-free items, but it seems a bit much.

Also, since when has soy been deemed unhealthy? Just yesterday (and by yesterday, I mean the popular trend just before the onset of gluten-free hit the American population) soy was a superfood.

Finally, I have not done my research, so I may just be full of something, but I do not think that a food that has been genetically-modified is bad for you. If pesticides were poured on the field then yes, this would be true. Do GMOs hurt farmers and ecosystems with the spread of super seeds? I believe there is well-founded research to support this claim. But humans have been experimenting with combining seeds (and breeds of domestic animals) for a long time, and we are still kicking.

Do I wish that our educational system taught people to do research and critically assess the information presented to them online and in the media? Yes. Is it cause to despise someone who holds a different belief than me? No.

Anyway, those were the hideous and altogether unnecessary thoughts that were leading me to get angry and irritated for absolutely no good reason.

Think I’m a good person now?

Well, it gets even worse.

At the pool, I began swimming in my lane. The water was cold, but I knew I would warm up quickly with the movement of my body. After several minutes and laps had gone by, I noticed a woman walking out fromt he locker room. Her body had an odd shape to it, her lower back curving in toward her stomach and her stomach protruding out as if her back was pushing it forward. I thought this and instantly reprimanded myself for having such a thought in the first place. For someone who has struggled with eating and body image since I was a child, this was a true violation.

“What is wrong with you?” a voice in my head admonished. “Every body is beautiful and different. How dare you think such an awful thing?”

So I kept swimming, moving my arms and legs and telling myself I would not pass such shallow judgment again. No sooner had I convinced myself that I was cured, I noticed the same person was swimming in the lane to my left.

“That is some weird swimming pattern,” I thought. She was doing a version of the crawl that looked relatively benign from above. But instead of keeping her legs straight and close together and flapping her feet for forward motion, she was doing this weird side to side and up to down scissor kick.

Again, I heard the voice in a shrill, commanding tone.

“Are you freaking serious?” it hissed.

“Stop this incessant judgment right now. She might not have a perfect gait, but she has found a way of swimming that brings her joy. Let her be and focus on your own strokes.”

So I tried.

Until I noticed the way she was doing the butterfly while lying on her back.

I am sure you can imagine the repartee that ensued.

So, why share this pattern with you now? It is definitely not something I like about myself. If anything, I feel shamed by it. Plus, I risk losing your trust and love and support in the process.

For one, why not tell you? I gain nothing by keeping this information inside and ignoring its presence. I will not overcome my demons until I accept them and meet them head on. If you are horrified by my confession and have never fallen victim to the negative, judging voices in your head, feel free to judge me (though I will note that this response would be a perpetuation of the exact behavior I am attempting to overcome).

In the years I have spent trying to make sense of life’s mysteries through writing, I have discovered that there are other people out there struggling to answer similar questions. In addition, after going through a divorce, I began to realize just how unskilled I was at communicating. I had grown very good at keeping things inside, far from the people I loved, and often in such deep places that they are even hidden from me. I have found that coming clean to my self, and being honest is the best way to begin healing.

I tell you all of this because I think I have learned to behave this way from experience, and it does not bring me joy. And if I could learn it, then I believe I can unlearn it. So many of the microcultural climates within which I have lived and worked have revolved around focusing on the negative and looking for the negative. What’s not working, what are people doing wrong, etc. etc.

I also tell you this because I have a feeling that I am not alone. In fact, I am certain that there is at least one other person who has struggled with these kind of thoughts. I can tell you this with certainty because he told me.

A friend of mine asked me how I was doing.

“Well,” I said. “I have been reading a book called Let go: A Buddhist guide to breaking free of habits.”

I proceeded to tell him about my day of judging people and how often it seemed to happen.

“In this book, the author tells me that by becoming aware of the behavior, I can begin to decrease its power over me. With time and practice, I can get to the point where I can stop my tendency to pass judgment before I even start.”

My friend proceeded to tell me about the ways he had been engaging in a similar struggle to overcome this propensity over the past year, along with his desire to be in control.

I told my friend about the author’s metaphor of the “taming of the unruly ox of the mind” as a way of “understanding and taming our destructive patterns” (pp. 5-6).

“Maybe, you should just feed the ox less?” he suggested.

With time and intention, I hope I can. I have a big heart, and I wish to stretch it to its fullest potential and beyond.

Martine Batchelor. (2007). Let go: A Buddhist guide to breaking free of habits. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

4 thoughts on “The ox has eaten enough

  1. I could identify with the experience you described in this posting – especially the part about hostility toward a person whose bumperstickers I read and judge harshly.

    You are far from alone. One time I parked my car my car at Alewife T station with a bumper sticker saying “Property is Theft”. When I came back at the end of the day, there was an angry note tucked under my windshield wiper that included the phrase “Taxation is Theft”. I remembered I had gone into an angry internal monologue the previous week when I saw that bumper sticker, and I suddenly found myself identifying with the feeleings of the person who wrote the note rather than starting up the internal argument again. Truth may matter to us, but not nearly as much as our identification with our own pet “truths”.

    I assume you have studied the “Ox-herding Pictures” (e.g. ). The ox gets loose from time to time ad wreaks havoc, and I’m not sure the process of taming is as smooth as the pictures say it is. The real point is to get into a calm relationship with the ox, not to starve it or make it more angry, to feel the emotion rising and just recognize it.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comments, James! In fact, a big thank you just for sharing 🙂 I will definitely look into the “Ox-herding Pictures.” I would like to make peace with the Ox.

  2. “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” C.G. Jung

    My ex once said that my driving reminded her of Paul Simon’s “The Cool, Cool River:”

    “Moves like a fist through traffic
    Anger and no one can heal it
    Shoves a little bump into the momentum
    It’s just a little lump
    But you feel it
    In the creases and the shadows
    With a rattling, deep emotion
    The cool, cool river
    Sweeps the wild, white ocean”

    I didn’t listen to Paul Simon at the time, really only discovering him after my divorce, and I was somehow brought back around to this same song at a time when I was learning how to feel my emotions – or maybe I was unlearning how to suppress them – and the last verse had a profound impact for me, as music had always been a tool to drive away those things I didn’t want to reflect on:

    “Who says, “Hard times?
    I’m used to them
    The speeding planet burns
    I’m used to that
    My life’s so common it disappears”
    And sometimes even music
    Cannot substitute for tears”

    I still rage behind the wheel, but only on occasions where I am tired and not conscious of my response until it happens or where my well being was immediately threatened by someones inattention. Mostly, driving has become the place where I confront my ego on a daily basis. Where I remind myself that none of the other drivers around me are doing anything to me directly, they are not even aware of me as a person. Nor am I so important, or where I need to be so critical, that random intrusions can’t be tolerated. My expectations of a perfect drive – 30 years of experience to the contrary – are the root cause of my anger, not the behavior of other drivers.

    I don’t suppress my emotions anymore either. I unlearned one of those things and am slowly unlearning the other, along with a bunch of other stuff I’m letting go of, all of which pushes or pulls me closer to a place where I can respond instead of react. Coupled with that is an increased sense of empathy and I find myself accepting things as they are instead of judging. I trust people to do what’s best for themselves instead of what I think is best to do.

    That last bit is really beneficial too, it makes it so much easier to move through the world and connect with people when one’s first reaction is not to try and put them into a category of right or wrong, good or bad, us or them. So keep looking at and exploring that darkness; the way out is through.

    * I have also learned to copy my comment, so that the inevitable “WordPress could not post this comment” error doesn’t nuke my overly long comments. 🙂

    1. Beautifully written, as usual! I love your insights. Lines that I was particularly drawn to in this moment: “driving has become the place where I confront my ego on a daily basis” and “I trust people to do what’s best for themselves instead of what I think is best to do.” I have learned to listen and challenge people to go deep but rarely offer my own opinion of what I think they should do. Wise words, friend!

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