working with reactivity to reduce suffering

Here is a talk by Donald Rothberg called “Ten Ways of Practicing with Reactivity”, which helped me with something like an insight about a false belief I suffer from. He says that if a child’s parents get divorced, that child may believe it was their fault and because they don’t have the capacity to reframe this false belief, they may experience the cognitive distortion that any future relationship trouble is their fault. I can certainly vouch for this, and I hope I can remember this in future to prevent myself from berating myself endlessly when even the most minor disturbance occurs in my family of choice.

At that link you’ll be able to download a resource listing the ten ways of practising with reactivity, the first of which is to cultivate wisdom. Easier said than done, but Donald provides the teaching of the Two Arrows to help us get started. If someone hurts us, or if we hurt another, that is the First Arrow – if we then begin berating ourselves or ruminating on the hurt, that is the Second Arrow. If we lash out, that’s another Second Arrow, et cetera et cetera, ad nauseum. We may not be able to prevent another from hurting us, and we often are not able to refrain from acting with reactivity, but we can be skillful about how we respond after the fact.

Something we can do after the fact is cultivate the heart practices. I have been starting to do this more recently, and it really helps – if we flood our minds with compassion or forgiveness, there is less room for resentment and anger. I also use this emotional first-aid resource that I developed for myself and have shared here before.

Donald also encourages us to use relatively mundane instances of unpleasantness to practise becoming aware of reactivity. When something vaguely unpleasant happens, something manageable and not too triggering, stay with it. This way we’ll be able to start noticing when reactivity is happening and how it feels – it’s an easy-to-remember way of practising mindfulness throughout the day.

I found it interesting that he talks about reactivity in the context of dukkha, that classically unpleasant experience of suffering or dissatisfaction in the Buddhist conception of our deluded interface with reality – that first one in the Four Noble truths, that suffering exists. He says that reactivity generally manifests as either grasping or aversion, and it seems to hold water for me.

Reactivity is a thing I’ve been trying to understand and move away from, so having it placed in the context of the Four Noble truths helps me feel like the experience is held in a container I trust and have faith in. I understand that grasping and aversion cause suffering because they fuel the wish for reality to be other than it is, and now reactivity is just another way of describing an experience that falls in the attachment basket.

The above are just the bits of Donald’s talk that landed with me – check out the rest of the talk and the accompanying document if you’re interested in learning how to be less reactive and more responsive in life.

reaching out ~ what to do with a truant teen

Zane buggered off again today ~ skipped school and bailed on meeting us to drop his uniform to him. We found him, but boy has it brought up a lot of stuff!

My conditioning dictates that I should be angry, but I’m trying to be positive and bring a compassionate perspective.

This is all in the context of me trying to rediscover my place in the dynamics of the family, so I’m feeling very unsure about what my part should be in responding to this truancy again.

I’m a step-dad who has minimal-to-no relationship with Zane, and therefore limited agency for either discipline or influence. The only part I know is supporting Nikki, but she insisted I stay at the library while she drove around looking for him.

At least if I’m not there for the potential confrontation when Zane decides to show up and face the consequences of breaking our trust again, maybe I’ll have the chance to calm down a bit and play the part of compassionate supporter ~ I do want to understand why he’s making these decisions, but in which parallel universe is a 13-year-old boy going to share this with his step-dad?

In which parallel universe does a 13-year-old boy know himself why he behaves one way or another?

We need the skills of introspection and emotional intelligence to know the nuances of our internal motivations ~ skills that are not taught in our sausage-factory schools.

This gap in our education culture is a huge part of why I’m doing Kokoro 心 Heart: we need to learn how to manage our own psychospiritual wellbeing enough to stop perpetuating a culture that results in 13-year-old kids wagging class to smoke bongs down the creek. (That’s just one specific symptom of the cultural malaise I hope to address in the posts here and in the work I’m doing in the business around Kokoro 心 Heart.)

I spent my whole high-school career smoking bongs down the creek, and my decades-long drug and alcohol dependency left me in my late 20s with the emotional development of the teenager I was when I started using drugs, because I didn’t have the mentors to help me learn how to deal with my emotions any other way.

We are letting down our children and our future by allowing these gaps to remain in the upbringing of the emerging generations.

Nikki and I are doing all that we can to access services that will make up for the deficits in our own and Zane’s development.

If you’re going through or have been through this, let me know in the comments. We need all the guidance we can get, lest our son become like Trent from Punchy.

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the importance of connection in parenting

connection in parenting — obviously important, difficult to achieve

We spoke to a parenting coach today through an organisation called ReachOut, and it was very helpful — she validated and confirmed a lot of what we’ve been learning about some changes we’d like to make in our approach to parenting, as well as gently challenging some of those ideas.

For example, I had started to understand and experiment with using “I” statements if I want to intervene with Zane’s behaviour. Say, “I don’t like it when you swing the cat by her tail,” instead of “Don’t do that!” This is more of a boundary statement than a disciplinary action or a criticism.

We were advised recently by our counsellor that discipline is not my role: I am not his bio-father, Zane is therefore not individuating from me but from Nikki, his bio-mother; and my attempts at discipline without much of a relationship through other interactions were mostly just contributing to conflict.

The coach agreed that using “I” statements is a healthy way to assert a boundary without crossing … well, the boundary between discipline and boundary-setting. But after talking about where my relationship is at with Zane, the coach encouraged me to pull back even from making “I” statements at this stage, until Zane and I have got our relationship into a condition where boundaries will be respected.

Continue reading “the importance of connection in parenting”

takes guts [microfiction]

“great now he’s off walking to school”

The sms comes as a surprise because you just sent a link to your friend and you’re expecting it to be from him but no, it’s your wife, from the driveway.

You step back from the phone thinking Why the dramatics?, but the phone comes with you because it’s in your hands and at the same time you remember all the times you did this as a kid. A glance out the window to see your wife has stopped the car and the passenger door is dangling open. You don’t remember remember – it’s more like a flood of melancholy that feels achingly familiar but somehow distant, connecting you at a spooky distance with your son, who could be anywhere by now, you catastrophise.

But wasn’t it only minutes ago that he answered you?, in the surly manner he takes to your gruff admonishments. He doesn’t walk to school because … thinking, frowning … wondering why you were even asking … realising, perhaps, that actually he’s never even considered this, just assuming that you or Mum would always take him … and finally, saying, “I don’t know the way?”

And that unsure inflection, stabbing you because the boy is eleven and doesn’t understand that rhetorical questions are even a thing.

“Exactly!” was the last thing you said to him and now you’re looking at your phone again because maybe you misread the message but no, your son has decided to exercise a mixture of spite and confused remorse by threatening to walk himself to school.

He knows the way, but doesn’t know that. All he knows is that Dad is annoyed with him again because he said something stupid and spiteful. He doesn’t know the word for spite, and he only knows that what he said was stupid because Dad got annoyed and raised his voice out the loungeroom window.

That was you who raised your voice and whose stomach is falling out from under you onto the porch in your dressing gown because what if he runs off or something stupid but no, he’s getting back in the car. He hasn’t bolted off into traffic.

You pick your guts up off the porch and walk back inside without a second wave, surly and frowning and annoyed by all the catastrophising and dramatics. Your stomach flutters as you remember again all the times you ran off as a kid, determined to hide out down the creek and hold your breath until no one cared anymore.

It’s a good thing you picked your guts up off the porch, because you’re going to need them later when you apologise and explain to him: your cheap shot about walking himself to school … that was meant to inspire gratitude for all the lifts, not fear and loathing and spiteful remorse … about all the times anyone said something stupid, or used a rhetorical question with a kid.


This draft was produced for the EWF20 Swinburne Microfiction Challenge.