Standing at the crowded coffee bar, I waited patiently to catch the attention of the server frantically busy filling orders. A tall German woman strode up next to me and, with no hesitation, called out her order for two cappuccinos. I looked at her, incredulous, feeling the urge to slap her arm and say: “Are you serious?! Do you not see the rest of us waiting here?”
The thing is, I wasn’t in New York, where a moment of indignant rage might make sense in a relentless “survival of the fittest” kind of environment. I was at a hotel in a sleepy resort town in Verona, Italy, two days into a four-day meditation retreat where we had been meditating for hours starting at 6:00 am. In fact, we were just coming out of a meditation session — and yet, I was still immediately triggered.
“If you can’t stop that emotional reaction, then you’re addicted to that emotion,” Dr. Joe Dispenza, the neuroscientist leading the retreat, had told us. (Because, as I’ve mentioned before, emotions are simply chemical reactions in our body and we can become as addicted to them as an external substance like nicotine or caffeine.)
So, with newfound clarity (probably from all that meditation!), I saw how interactions like the one at the bar — where not only am I quick to feel slighted, judgmental and self-righteous, but I think my reactions are totally justifiable — were simply insidious ways to feed my addiction to those emotions.
If you’re human, you, too, probably have hundreds of seemingly justifiable emotional reactions to what happens every day: Colleagues [spouses, children, friends, strangers] take credit for your ideas, call in sick (again!), dismiss your suggestions, talk over you in a conversation, criticize your work, make annoying sounds when they eat, fight with their siblings, invade your privacy…
It’s these emotional patterns that keep us tethered to the past. So if we want to create a new future for ourselves, we have to get beyond them — to recognize our typical reactions and choose different ones. Which isn’t easy because: 1) we are in autopilot for most of our waking day, our reactions driven by our unconscious thoughts and beliefs; and 2) we associate those reactions with our identity — “I am someone who gets upset when others don’t follow the rules” — and no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable they may be, we don’t know who we are without them.
But, with practice, it is possible (and you don’t need four days of meditation). Just start by identifying one of your signature emotional reactions — you know, the usual suspects like frustration, guilt, anger, regret, overwhelm. What are the situations that typically trigger them? Now, what’s one small way you could change your reaction?
Me, I’m learning to recognize the first signs of an emotional charge, like the first rise of a wave, catching it before it gathers momentum and — hard as it is — instead of giving someone the death stare, saying, “Let it go, just let it go.”