It is fair to say that we are all, from time to time, get upset by things that go on around us. Sometimes we get upset more and sometimes we get upset less – sometimes something that really would annoy me a lot won’t annoy me at all. If I am feeling good enough inside I will be able just to let it go. The other side of the coin from this is that if I am not feeling so good inside, then things that really oughtn’t to bother me at all, bother me a lot. Little things, in other words, loom much larger than they should and – although normally I would let them go without thinking any more about it – I simply can’t get over them. Each new little unfortunate event that happens upsets me more and more, even though I know they aren’t really worth losing my peace of mind over.
EVENTS CAN REPRESENT SOMETHING ‘OUTSIDE’ OF THEMSELVES…
Nothing we have so far said is in the least bit revolutionary – we all know all this very well indeed, we know it so well that it hardly seems worth commenting upon. Yet even though we are all very familiar with this basic idea, the idea that when things don’t go right this can upset us, and that the degree to which we are upset – if we are upset at all – depends in some way upon our degree of something like ‘a sense of inner well being’, we never (or very, very rarely) put ‘one and one together’, as it were, to make the next vital step of understanding. The ‘next step’ is to work out that the things or events that upset us don’t upset us for what they are, but for what they represent to us. There are many ways in which we could try to explain this. For example, if my life seems to me to be coming apart at the seams, disintegrating, falling to pieces, etc and then I notice a big crack in the ceiling of my bedroom, the discovery of the crack can be far more distressing for me than it ought to be. It could represent something to me that – up to that point – I hadn’t really confronted properly (if at all). Similarly, if some task I am trying to carry out just won’t go right for me, then this may cause me to get extremely angry, possibly because it unconsciously represents for me all the things that didn’t ‘go right for me’ in my life. Or if there is something that I am trying to keep a handle on and it keeps going out of control, this could threaten me far more than it ought to because it taps into my deep-down fear of things in general going out of control.
Clearly we have opened up a whole big can of worms here. This principle – the psychological principle of displacement – can be applied across the board to just about any sort of neurotic disturbance or negative emotion that we may care to think of. The application to anger is particularly obvious. Suppose that someone or other – a neighbour, my landlord, whoever – has been unfair to me in some way (possibly seriously unfair, and downright obnoxious into the bargain). Now normally – which is to say, just about all the time – if this causes us to get angry, we think that the reason we get angry with the person in question is because they are so obnoxious or so unfair. But actually if someone is treating us unfairly this in itself is not cause for anger. There has to be something there to stir up in the first place!
BLAMING THE ‘EXTERNAL CAUSE’
We can illustration this important psychological idea by giving the example of a glass of water with a layer of sediment down at the bottom. If someone comes along and gives the glass a stir then it will all go cloudy straightaway and our tendency is to say that the person who came along and stirred up the glass is the one who should be blamed for making it all cloudy! This is so obvious to us that we hardly ever think any deeper – the guy comes along, stirs the glass up, the glass of water straightaway goes totally cloudy, therefore – he did it…
But this simplistic view of things ignores the fact that if there wasn’t any sediment at the bottom of the glass then the glass of water wouldn’t go cloudy no matter how vigorously the guy stirred it. Someone else could have a glass without any sediment and nothing anyone could do would spoil the beautiful transparency of the water in it. What this means then is that the person who comes along to stir the glass is only the trigger. They are only the ‘external cause’; the internal cause – the sediment – is the cause that is inside us already.
So what the hell – we may ask – is the ‘sediment’ that is inside us already? Well, in general terms it could be said that it is some sort of ‘mental pain’ that is there inside us and which is not being acknowledged. Deep down, things are not ‘right’ with us and rather than facing up to this fact we push it to one side, or one way or another manage to ignore it. This policy of ‘mental pain avoidance’ (which almost all of us have) means that we feel as if everything is fine with us, but when something happens to rock our boat our reaction to the event in question is instant and severe. We can cope OK just as long as we live on a strictly superficial sort of a level, a comfortable level where there is no real demand made on our resources, but if we are ‘pushed’ or ‘rocked’ at all then we discover that we are not OK, that we don’t have any inner resources of peace or strength. Only of course we don’t discover this at all – we don’t discover that there is anything wrong with us, we discover that there is something wrong with the person who has triggered our reaction!
It goes almost without saying that there are psychological reasons why we should be so keen to locate the problem outside of ourselves, which is to say, to locate it in the external trigger rather that in the feelings that the external trigger sets off in us. If the problem is outside of me then it is not my responsibility – if the problem was in me then I would have to own it, and face up to it, but if it is not in me then I can self-righteously denounce and blame the external cause of my feelings, and ‘self-righteously reacting’ in this way gives an instant feeling of relief. The relief comes because it feels as if, however momentarily, I have been freed from the burden of the mental pain that I am in. The instant I become convinced that the pain does not belong to me, but to someone else, then I experience what is in effect temporary release from the painful feelings, along with a powerful surge of vindication. Even though the pain I am in doesn’t necessarily vanish, the perception that it belongs to someone else and not me gives me a tremendous feeling of release and self-justification. This feeling is addictive in pretty much the same way that heroin is addictive – it simultaneously takes away the pain and rewards us with a comforting warm glow. All forms of pain avoidance or pain displacement are addictive, and in the absence of any awareness it is a dead certainty that we will end up the helpless slave of whatever pain-avoiding mechanism we have bought into.
The biggest problem in seeing through this clever little pain-displacing mechanism is this intense feeling of being justified and vindicated. After all, can’t everybody plainly see just how scurrilous and reprehensible and down-right rotten the person was to have done whatever it is that they have done to us? Of course it can be perfectly and abundantly true that the person in question has acted very badly but as we have said, this does not really excuse or justify our angry reaction. It does excuse it in most people’s minds because in our culture it seems acceptable but from a psychological point of view it can plainly be seen that the triggering event itself is no more than a pretext for discharging pain. It’s an opportunity to do what I secretly want to do.
Actually therefore – from the point of view of my unconscious desire to pass on my pain – it suits me down to the ground that someone came along and did something aggravating! This, after all, provides me with the justification that I need to get angry. If they didn’t give me the justification that I need, then I wouldn’t be able to pass the pain on and so I would be stuck with it all inside me. Just suppose that someone did behave badly towards me and I didn’t have any ‘unacknowledged inner pain’ festering away inside me. Suppose that I was actually feeling quite good and strong in myself. In this case it is much less likely that my immediate reaction would be an overpowering surge of anger, and an urge to strike out, either physically or verbally at the person. Instead I would look at the person with some degree of curiosity and as a result I would undoubtedly gain insight into the fact that something is going on for them to make them behave in that way. Their behaviour would of course still cause me pain, but the difference would be that my instant response would not be to give that pain right back to them with interest. Instead of immediately moving down the road of self-concern – which necessarily involves blaming or judging the other person and then becoming overwhelmingly concerned with myself and my pain (as if I am ‘the centre of the universe’) – I am likely to be concerned with the person who is acting so badly.
This is how consciousness naturally operates in the absence of repressed pain – with a healthy tendency towards compassion and insight rather than blame and self-justification. The idea that we are within our rights to ‘lose it’ if someone acts badly towards us is a symptom of our profoundly non-psychological society, which does not predispose us towards having any motivation in the direction of gaining insight into the ‘secret motivations’ that lie behind our behaviour. We are not psychologically aware, and so we think it is okay to get angry, even though getting angry doesn’t usually do that much harm – if any – to the person we are getting angry with, but does a lot of harm to us. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, getting angry with someone is like eating poison ourselves with the intention of hurting the person we’re angry with, which is obviously pretty absurd. Absurd or not however, it doesn’t stop us doing it time and time again!
THANKING THE TRIGGER
From a more aware point of view it could be said that a person (or event) which makes us aware of unacknowledged pain or fear or unhappiness within us is doing us a big favour. After all, if the trigger hadn’t come along to make us aware of whatever it is in us it wouldn’t have got to know about it. For anyone who is genuinely interested in becoming aware of themselves, a good, ongoing supply of triggers is essential! Without them, I might all too easily fall into the trap of thinking that I am perfectly alright, and that it is the rest of the world who is at fault, which is a trap anyone can fall into very easily. If I do fall into this way of thinking however it rebounds on me, even though it might superficially look like I’m ‘getting away with stuff’. Actually, I’m only hurting myself – I’m blocking my own growth, blocking my own insight.
If I see the fault as always existing outside myself, and always blame the trigger rather than my own tendency to react, then I am missing out on the chance to become self-aware. I am missing out on the chance to become free from the invisible shackles that are enslaving me without me knowing it, and causing me as a result to go around in frustrating circles the whole time rather than growing as a person. Anything that helps me grow is a blessing, and once I see this then I no longer get caught up in this rather absurd business of ‘blaming the trigger’. And when I do not get caught up in this tiresome process of trying to displace the pain all the time, the very pain that I want so badly to get rid of is transmuted into freedom and growth, just as in the Buddhist stories the peacock is said to be able to eat poison and transmute it into the dazzlingly iridescent colours of its tail feathers…