Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on June 2, 2014

Something I often write about is responsibility, literally: the ability to respond. We all have it in us somewhere, but not always at the ready. It is one of the byproducts of successful dharma practice to bring out our ability to respond. And an ability to respond can be contrasted with how we react to life. In fact, there is a case to be made that the difference between enlightened or skillful action and unenlightened or unskillful action is the difference between involuntarily reacting to an event and appropriately responding to it.

It was the Harvard psychologist and excellent Mahamudra teacher Daniel P. Brown (author of "Pointing Out the Great Way") who first made it clear to me how recognizing our reactions is the key to Tong-Len practice, a Tibetan Buddhist practice that helps us to be more accepting of our self and inclusive of others. And this is something that we can check out easily in our own lives. Are we responding or just reacting?

To me, a reaction is pretty-much involuntary on my part. I react, without thinking, either outwardly, inwardly, or both. I can't help myself. But just as physical pain in the body (like when we burn ourselves) is an early warning system that something needs attention, our reactions to life and its events (involuntary or learned) point out clearly where we have drawn a line between what our self is comfortable with and what is not comfortable. Do we really want to draw lines?

Reactions come in all sizes, from self-shattering events to micro-reactions so small that their only indication is increased tension. All of these reactive wrinkles in our life can be ironed out with a little bit of dharma practice. In general, the practice of Tong-Len (sending and receiving) is the recommended remedy for over-reacting. And reactivity is so easy for us to check out.

All that is required is to become more aware of our reactions, whatever gives us pause or startles us. In fact, our reactions are a pretty good thermometer, not only of our reactivity, but also a passable guide to our future practice – where we need to learn.

Take a look! Are you reacting or responding? If we find we are reacting, then perhaps some adjustment of our attitude would be useful, just as we would adjust the sails on a boat to take a different tack. If, instead, we are responding to whatever erupts in an appropriate manner, then we are on track, so is it a reaction or a response?

If our response amounts to a knee-jerk reaction, then it probably is not an appropriate response. We can temper it with a little Tong-Len practice. I personally have found that examining my mindstream for reactions, coming to terms with why I am being reactionary, and then finding a more appropriate response is one of the most beneficial dharma practices I have found. And we can easily do it all day long, gradually converting reactions to responses.

Since I don't often make enough time for sitting meditation practice, I appreciate practices that I can do on-the-go, so to speak, methods to accumulate real practice time.

For those who would like to learn more about toning reactivity, please see the free book "Tong-Len: The Alchemy of Reactions" at this link:


[Photo: I know. This is overkill, but I just wanted to make it clear what I mean by reaction.]