When a habit is made of observing internal experiences, we may begin to notice that certain people, situations or things appear to provoke us. Perhaps a tightening in the belly is detected, an explosion of thoughts take flight, or a rush of unpleasant emotions arises when we are exposed to particular conditions. It may appear that the universe is serving up a buffet of annoyances just for us.
Noticing a pattern of afflictive emotions does not necessarily mean we are failing or backsliding in our practice. Rather, this might be a function of increased awareness. These disturbances were likely happening all along, its just that persistent practice allows us to observe them as they happen rather than merely acting blindly on them.
When something gets under our skin, it can be tempting to look outside ourselves for the source of disturbance. Like a behavior lab rat, we try to identify what caused the electric shock so we can avoid it or fight it in order to be rid of it. But these “provocateurs” are actually offering us a gift – an opportunity for promotion from lab rat to lead scientist. They offer us a laboratory in which we may conduct important research on ourselves, collecting data in order to gain greater understanding. They become our teachers.
Provocateurs alert us to ever subtler gaps in equanimity, which is the emotional balance and imperturbability that is cultivated with mindfulness practice. In Buddhism, equanimity is one of the seven factors of enlightenment and might be defined as awareness without grasping or aversion. Mindfulness practices have been compared to polishing a mirror – removing obscurations so that we can reflect the light of our true nature. These obscurations, which include afflictive emotions like annoyance and defensiveness, can cloud or bias our view, lead to unskillful responding, and cause suffering for ourselves and others.
“…the way people treat us is their karma. The way we react is our own.” – Trulshik Rinpoche
When we notice a disturbance in equanimity, rather than blaming self or others, we might open to it and become curious about what is happening inside. These gentle investigations require us to exercise the attitudes of mindfulness such as beginner’s mind, patience and compassion. Over time, the data we gather may bear fruit – clearer seeing and more skillful responding. In effect, the goad becomes the guru.
If you are new to mindfulness and interested in learning more about how the practices can help cultivate equanimity amid difficulty, consider participating in our introductory mindfulness classes or signing up for mindfulness coaching sessions.