Lesson #4: You don’t have to take it.

Posted on May 17, 2012


Each evening, in a Vipassana meditation course, the students listen to an hour-long lecture from the teacher, S.N. Goenka. The lectures aren’t like the lectures you sat through in grad school. They are stories and explanations, and most are usually pretty funny because they point out our universally irrational habits.

One of my favorites reminds us that, as always, we have a choice in what we decide to receive.

S.N. Goenka uses the following analogy to illustrate how crazy we act sometimes: Let’s say, for example, that you someone comes to you and they are on fire. They are obviously not too comfortable or happy as it is, because well, they’re on fire. If they asked you to join them, if they asked you to also set yourself on fire by igniting your clothes, would you?

Of course not. If someone came to you and they were on fire, you’d run for the nearest fire extinguisher or water source and try to put them out.

However, Goenka explains, when people come to us with their fires, with their anger, many times we add fuel to the fire and set ourselves ablaze as well. It’s true, isn’t it? Think about the last time someone came to you really pissed off.

Even if you handled it calmly in the moment because you had to (as in, you would lose your job if you didn’t), you probably walked away from the interaction pretty pissed off as well. 

It happens all of the time. Remember the last argument you got into with someone? Someone came to you with their anger and, instead of trying to calm them down, you probably added some fuel  to the fire and got yourself pretty angry as well. Or you told yourself a story about someone else and set yourself on fire and went to the other person trying to ignite them as well. This, Goenka teaches, is purely irrational.   

Goenka tells another story with a similar analogy, probably because many people need to hear things a few times before they sink it. Let’s say someone offers you something really unpleasant, like spoiled milk or rotten meat. Just by looking at the offering, you know it’s not good for you to consume. If someone offered you some food that had gone bad, you would probably decline the offering.

But, Goenka points out, many times when people come to us with their rotten moods and attitudes, we forget that we don’t have to take what they give us. We can always say, “No, thanks. Not my thing.” Of course, if you’re like me, this lesson is often forgotten in the moment. Someone comes to you with a nasty attitude or does something rude and all of the sudden, you’re being nasty and rude right back. 

Which, of course, doesn’t really solve anything. Once again, this is irrational.

Everything is a choice. No matter what someone brings to us, we always have a choice in what we accept.  Anger is not bad, per se, but anger that does nothing but burn ourselves and others isn’t productive.

So the next time someone brings to you their irrational anger or their rotten attitude or whatever, remember that you have a choice in whether or not you decide to participate in irrationality.