What in the world could I have in common with a Buddhist monk? I am as far from Zen Buddhism as a person could be. But the things that connect us are no larger than the things that separate us; the human condition does not discriminate.
In his essay, “A Zen Zealot Comes Home,” Shozan Jack Haubner struggles just as fiercely with relationships as I do. You would think his spiritual knowledge and transcendental practice would elevate him above interpersonal chaos. But knowledge and determination are not enough to overcome the automatic defensive reflexes that undermine our attempts at inner peace and acceptance.
Haubner’s story, published in the September 2011 issue of The Sun, describes his experience of returning to the nest, older and supposedly wiser, but still a child at heart:
A Zen Buddhist monk … gets exactly one week off a year. This time is specifically designated for a “family visit.” I always take my week at Thanksgiving and every year I prove right that old Zen adage: Think you’re getting closer to enlightenment? Try spending a week with your parents.” … We hugged, and I smelled the rifle-barrel business all over him: metallic, rusty, and wet. Instantly I was transported back to my scrawny, scowling youth. The combination of my father’s machine-shop musk and coffee breath retarded any and all spiritual progress I had made over the past year, and I was, like the hero of some Hollywood time-traveling comedy, fourteen years old again.
I can not count the times I have been “instantly transported back to my scrawny, scowling youth.” Friends and acquaintances would be surprised to witness how quickly the even-tempered, logical, serenity for which I am known, shatters like a thin film of ice over a mud puddle.
My job provided a wonderful training ground for self-control and moderation. At work I was the odd one out. I saw the world differently than my colleagues and my approach to work was different from most of those with whom I worked. I did not share the Christian values—two words that send the shivering willies right up my spine—or the political affiliations of my co-workers. Early in my career I was outraged by what I considered illogical or uninformed comments and perspectives. Like an annoying little rat terrier, I self-righteously defended my values. Through the years, I came to realize that my hot-headed tirades changed no one’s mind and served no purpose other than to raise my own blood pressure and create stress in the office. I began to clamp my overactive jaws shut. This was not easy for a young woman who’d been taught to speak her mind and defend the underdog. But it made my relationships at work much easier. I learned to breath deeply and simply listen to the conversations around me. I interacted with my colleagues on a surface level and turned away from baited topics. Life at work was boring, but a lot less emotionally stressful.
Similarly, with my mother, I learned how to avoid certain topics and when she launched into a rant of her own I let her ramble unaccosted. This, off course, was easy to do from a distance. We communicated through brief phone conversations and exchanged frequent chatty letters. It was a lovely relationship—by mail. Our face-to-face visits were another story. Without a 700-mile buffer zone, mother’s comments frequently awakened the sleepy child inside. Suddenly, I’d be responding like the nasty, fourteen-year-old I was so ashamed of.
I was mortified by my knee-jerk reactions and continued susceptibility to hot buttons. After each outburst, I counseled myself that next time I would take several deep breaths rather than allowing the adrenaline to hit the gas. But invariably, I failed. Even after deep breathing I was prone to explosive and nasty quips.
My poor abused mother is gone now, no longer a victim of my childish impetuousness. Yet skeletons still rattle the hangers in my closet of inner peace. I can count on two people, in particular, to quite unconsciously press my hot buttons. My wild reactions evidence a childhood not quite resolved. Certain word patterns and inflections trigger a psychological threat to my intelligence. Once tripped, the trigger sets off the fight or flight adrenaline rush that is preprogrammed into homo-sapien’s survival code. Even if I hold back the angry words, my body bubbles with anger and tension. If Shozan Haubner’s spiritual enlightenment is not enough to hold defensiveness at bay, how in the world can I ever hope to master the child inside? Is enlightenment simply unattainable in certain situations? How can I defuse the automatic response to what my inner child perceives as a threat? I know I’m reasonably intelligent and I’ve lived my life happily and successfully so what do I have to fear? Why does that inner brat still emerge to question my competence?