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July 29, 2019

To Respond or To React? That is the question, or, Don’t Bite the Hook

I recently engaged in a debate with a Buddhist monk friend who was visiting the Thai Forest Buddhist monastery on 250 acres across the road from us here at Treetops, our log cabin home in Southern New Hampshire. My husband and I moved here from Manhattan in 2011 in our late forties, and the monastery took root in November 2014, not long after I’d completed an interfaith seminary program. We’ve enjoyed getting to know the various monks and nuns who visit the monastery. One monk we’ve become friendly with is an upatakh to the most senior Western monk in their tradition—an upatakh is an attendant or caregiver to an older monk. A native Swiss, our 47-year old, six-foot-seven, bald and eyebrows-shaved friend, trained and worked in Switzerland as an osteopathic doctor before he became a monk in Thailand 17 years ago. As a teenager he also worked in an elder care facility, so he’s perfectly equipped to provide care for the nearly 85-year-old luminary spiritual leader with whom he works.

When I told another friend who is a follower of this Theravada Buddhist tradition that these monks came to visit for tea one afternoon he said, “You know that’s a really big deal.” It was fun having someone recognize that it was perhaps the equivalent of the Dalai Lama stopping by for tea, let alone the honor of the actual visit.

The luminary older monk and our upatakh friend are based in Thailand, but, like many monks in their tradition, they travel between their branch monasteries all over the world. For the entire month of June, our friend stayed in the monastery across the road, so we enjoyed an abundance of opportunities to have morning lattes and afternoon teas. One afternoon he brought along another younger Irish monk who had only been in their tradition for just under four years. We sat under the gazebo at our round table covered in an Indian-print red tablecloth, and conversed over lattes, tea and lemonade. A multitude of bright green leafy trees offset the saffron color of our friends’ robes on this delightful summer afternoon. We teased one another and laughed. A lot. Later when I reflected on how our monk neighbors usually seem so happy and jovial, I recalled Douglas Abrams’ remark about his travels with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, “I’m tempted to see laughter and a sense of humor as a universal index of spiritual development. … So often their first response to any subject, no matter how seemingly painful, was to laugh.”

At one point during our conversation our friend asked if he could read us a Buddhist sutta—one of their scriptures. I subscribe to the spiritual principle of sharing the truth of one’s own experience rather than giving advice, and in retrospect, I think part of my reaction to our friend reading to us was because I felt like he was trying to give advice. In any case, at the time, my husband and I both said yes. He pulled out his cell phone and found the story he wanted to read. I sat listening politely for a few minutes, when a very cheeky and irreverent thought came to me: next time you ask if you can read something to us, I’ll ask you how long it is. I sat there contemplating if I would say this aloud when he finished. I did. I couldn’t resist teasing him. We’d been laughing and teasing all afternoon.

The other young Irish monk was shocked and said, “Do you know how many people would give anything to have a Buddhist monk teacher read to them like that? You’re so spoiled.”

I grinned and agreed, “It’s true, I am unbelievably spoiled.”

I couldn’t deny it, but I’m also deeply grateful for all our blessings. I’ve known my share of darkness and suffering. And what lights me up is learning spiritual principles to help me transform adversity into growth so I can laugh and enjoy my own life. In turn, I offer my efforts and actions in service of the greater good.

Since the monastery was first established across the road here in November 2014, I have observed a lack of female leadership. On some level I was being intentionally provocative, when at this point in the conversation, I referred to the monastery as a boy’s club. I think I hit a nerve. Our teasing and laughing turned into more of a debate. I felt like our monk friend was a boxer coming out from his corner of the ring. And I didn’t back off.

As I sat there debating with three men, albeit all lovely men and two of them fine monks, I was stunned that they were simply not able to understand a female perspective. Nor did they try. In reflection, I thought of the RBG documentary where Ruth Bader Ginsburg first faces the all-white male supreme court justices, “I became a lawyer when women were not wanted by the legal profession,” she says. “I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.” Our debate continued until our friend noticed the time and realized they had to leave as he had an appointment at the monastery at 3:00 pm.

In the hope that clarity comes with reflection, I gave time, space and thought to what unfolded that afternoon. Perhaps my being provocative comes from a tendency to want to shine light into darkness with the hope of healing unresolved issues—this tendency arises in me for both my own darkness and the darkness I see around me. I believe if we can tease and laugh about an issue, then we’re shining light onto it which opens it up for healing. But perhaps, it takes time for the wound to be cleaned first.

I also find it ironic to note that one of the Buddhist principles, is the training to not be reactive. One time in 2015, not long after the monastery first took root, I sat in one of their Sunday meditation workshops. Part of the instructions given by the Ajahn (teacher) was that if you felt a need to move a foot with pins and needles, or a hand to scratch an itch—to pause and simply notice that desire. The objective was to notice and observe an impulse. To not to react immediately. Then after observing the desire and pausing, giving some time before one reacted, one could eventually move whatever was needed. The important aspect was to create a space between noticing the desire, and acting on that desire. That is to train in responding gently after taking some time, versus reacting in haste.

While sometimes I find it fun and exciting to debate and react in the moment, my experience has shown me that responding versus reacting often creates a more harmonious experience. But then again, I also enjoy the creative abrasion factor that occurs when the oyster and a grain of sand sometimes create a pearl.

Perhaps it comes down to choice—what type of experience do I want to participate in creating? Perhaps our monk friend and I both need more practice with this non-reactive principle so that we will have free choice about when to engage or not. As the Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron says, “Don’t bite the hook.”

I also reflected on how human beings are culturally conditioned to cow-tow to those in authority positions, particularly men within patriarchal hierarchies—teachers, doctors, lawyers, ministers, bosses, etc. At this point in my life, I happen to be in a privileged position where I don’t have to do this. I’ve cultivated the capacity to trust my own inner authority, which is so often conditioned out of us, particularly women. I also practice respect and keeping aware of my own ego as much as possible, but I don’t pander to ego—not to my own ego or to another’s.

Perhaps this comes in part from the conditioning from my father to be comfortable in my own anger. I have a vivid memory of standing on a chair one time when I was six years old and yelling back at Dad when he was yelling at me. I climbed up onto the chair so I could be the same height as him as I yelled back. This was welcomed, not admonished by my parents. Perhaps this early conditioning instilled a lack of fear of my own anger.

Growing up, my older sister and I were encouraged to feel whatever feeling may arise and to know we had a choice in how we acted on that feeling. If we wanted to express our anger physically, we were encouraged to maybe hit a bed with a tennis racket or go for a run. Over time I’ve noticed that by giving my anger the space to be, not suppressing, denying, or acting on the feeling, simply observing it and how it feels in my body, with time and space, it transforms into strength.

While growing up, I thought that everyone’s parents encouraged them to feel what they’re feeling. When you’re a kid you don’t know any different. It’s only been through conversations with friends over the years, that I’ve learned how unusual it is to be brought up to honor all of one’s feelings and emotions.

A few days later after spending his own time in reflection, our monk friend told me that he felt two things: one was that he was frustrated as he didn’t feel he was able to get his point across as I kept interrupting. (It’s true, interrupting is a challenging habit of mine – challenging for me to control, and frustrating to others when trying to get their point across.) And to his credit, his second reflection was that he wanted to hear how the woman’s experience is. “Hallelujah,” I replied. “I feel like I’m participating in a beautiful evolution of consciousness.”

Perhaps the monks’ practices of reflection and cultivating response versus reaction could serve us all in these times of polarization. I also have an intention to continue shining a light into the structure of patriarchal hierarchies that may serve a man’s experience, but so often does very little to serve a woman’s experience.

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Camilla Sanderson  |  Contribution: 11,360