Sunday, August 9, 2009
slings and arrows
"...Buddhism teaches that it is not how much you know about yourself, it's how you relate to what you do know that makes a difference.... The common tendency, Buddhism teaches, is to use whatever is happening to reinforce a distinct feeling of self: to take everything very personally. The alternative, as discerned by the Buddha, is to hold that very feeling of self up for critical examination whenever it arises. How real is this feeling that drives us, which we ordinarily take so much for granted?"
- Mark Epstein, Psychotherapy Without the Self
I needed to call in all my fledgling Buddhist resources a couple weeks back, when I got pummeled by various commenters for a blog post that I never imagined would offend so. In my short but sweet blogging career (three months and counting), I've had a pretty charmed life; I'm perfectly aware that there are all sorts of people who love leaving nasty comments, or hyper-critical comments, or way-too-personal comments all over the web, yet I suppose it didn't occur to me that any of those comments would come my way. After all, it's not as if I'm writing about wise Latinas, or Skip Gates, or what I think should be done to Bill O'Reilly, or gay marriage (yay, Connecticut!), or any of those hot-button topics that get people so riled up.
At any rate, my (admittedly minor) brush with the Dark Side of the Internet turned out to be a (how you say?) teachable moment. As laughable as it might seem, I was stunned when the negative comments started rolling in, and my first instinct (as always, when faced with any sort of conflict) was "Retreat." In this case, I considered hiding the comments, or deleting the post, or shutting down the whole damn blog.
And from the very first criticism, I was plunged into self-doubt about the merits of the post. "I knew that post wasn't any good," I thought. "That was so stupid of me to put it up, just because I couldn't think of anything else. Stupid stupid STUPID. This whole blog is stupid. I'm totally making a fool of myself. I'm not doing this any more. I quit." Round and round it goes.
Back on Planet Earth... One of the aspects of my attempts to figure out who I am has been to examine how I react in difficult situations. As you can see, I tend to react very emotionally, right off the bat - typically with either self-righteous anger or panicky self-doubt, in each case usually followed by a definitive shutting down and shutting out. For the most part, I spend my life coasting along, fairly happy and stable, but it feels as if there's a black hole of panic and rage and fear right below me, into which I can plunge at any moment with only the tiniest of pushes.
It's helpful for me to remember that "emotional" is pretty much the opposite of "rational," so if I'm swamped by an intense and overwhelming emotional reaction, chances are I'm not going to be making the sharpest of decisions. So the goal is to try to step back in these situations, not do the first thing that pops into my mind (usually along the lines of "I'm going to kill him!" or "Get me out of here!"), and give myself a little space to observe and note and breathe. To practice mindfulness, as they say. Since I'm relatively new at this, it does sometimes take a while for me to find the zone - in the case of the blog attack, it took a couple days to get to any kind of rational territory, where I could think, "Shockingly, not everyone is going to like everything I write," or "It's possible that the post wasn't so great, but I imagine I'll survive," or "Well, not bad: I wrote something that actually provoked a bit of a debate." (I'm omitting the stage between the panic and the calm - the seething-with-rage stage - in which I came up with all sorts of snarky responses to the commenters, most based on the observation that I was being slammed for being mean and judgmental and not-funny, by a series of commenters who were really mean and judgmental and not-funny. Fortunately, some tiny voice of sanity told me to hold off on reacting until I had calmed down, at which point I left it alone. I admit that I did toss one comment into the trash, but, honestly, it was just so crass and ugly, and I did leave all the other ones up, and, after all, it's my blog. Mine.)
It's all a tempest in a teapot, I know, but the hope is that, by practicing mindfulness in these everyday contretemps, I'll be better prepared to handle the big stuff when it comes. As it so inevitably does.