Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Action, Reaction, or Ego Traction?


One of my favorite television shows is You’re on Candid Camera. This show captures the reactions of ordinary people to extraordinary and even bizarre situations. I love it when people are literally caught being themselves! A show with similar undertones that plays on the ABC network, entitled What Would You Do, employs hidden cameras to capture people’s reactions when they’re thrust in real-life ethical scenarios that call out for action. It is times like these that truly test the firmness of our values and the boundaries of our convictions.

I’m a people observer. Seeing a face blossom with joy, eyes widen with curiosity or crinkle with a smile, or eyebrows arch up with surprise enlivens my senses. But when I watch a face fall with dejection, eyes narrow with disapproval, teeth clench with anger, or shoulders shrug with disbelief, my immediate reaction is to rush for the nearest exit. Emotions—which comprise an extraordinary range of behaviors, expressed feelings, and changes in body language—the reactions they trigger, and the role the ego plays is the subject of this post.

Consider common everyday situations and challenges such as marital tension, emotional betrayal, losing a loved one, experiencing a financial loss, being passed up for a promotion, running late, cheating on a test, not meeting a deadline, family conflict, managing difficult employees or unruly children, and tailgating on the freeway. These types of external triggers can evoke a whole host of unconscious actions, reactions, and behaviors in an individual, with an instinctive knee-jerk reaction usually being the first response.

For example, two people are in disagreement with each other. The elated ego feels pinched! In a show of politeness, some might nod, albeit unwillingly. Exhaling loudly to express disapproval, rolling the eyes to convey irritation, and clearing the throat to break the silence are commonly-practiced reactions. What if one party’s expectation doesn’t meet the other’s? Nostrils flare, jaws clench, and lips purse. The ego clearly is experiencing a threat. Continued conversation might elevate the adrenaline rush, pushing the ego to the battle front. When the ego is sufficiently bruised, many lose patience and react by screaming, cursing, cussing, and being physically violent. Anger can quickly cast a negative emotional net of criticism, sarcasm, suspicion, and blame.

Let's say a person spots someone from the past, with whom they have had an unpleasant experience. An awkward sensation arises in the body and a bitter aftertaste lingers in the mouth. The ego is very unforgiving and can’t let go of old wounds. While techniques such as turning around, leaving the room, walking in the opposite direction, or picking up a conversation with a total stranger might be worth employing in certain situations, others demand a long-term, more responsible response. After all, how many times can you give a person a stink-eye or a cold shoulder, especially if you have to be around them all the time, like a spouse or co-worker?

Take another setting: An individual receives unpleasant news. It’s natural to recoil or scream in fear when you come face to face with a dangerous animal or accidentally brush against a hot griddle. But uninvited, unexpected, and unwanted situations make the heart quicken, the muscles tighten, and the ears ring. Fear invades the mind; tears and jangled nerves raid the body. If left unchecked, fear has the power to assault and conquer the mind, not unlike a corrupt leader who uses his power to overthrow his opponents and emerge victorious. What follows is an avalanche of guilt, worry, anxiety, restlessness, depression, even paranoia.

Consider this scenario: An individual knows they have done something wrong. A sick dread begins to grow in the pit of the stomach. An emotionally-balanced person would admit wrongdoing and express remorse. However, for many, the ego throws a wrench in the argument, triggering one of two distinct reactions: denial and defense. In a vain attempt to protect the ego, many use pathological denial, hoping the problem will go away. Denial can rapidly precipitate to lying, ridicule, and rejection. Ignoring reality, refuting its seriousness, and abjuring responsibility arise from fear, and people clutch to it when faced with facts that are too uncomfortable to accept.

Likewise, when a person is too overwhelmed, natural defense mechanisms kick in that help the individual cope with the situation, and that in itself is not unhealthy. However, a prolonged justification of illogical actions and rationalization of mal-behaviors is an indication of the ego taking refuge from the situation. An appropriate present-day example here would be using the law and law loopholes as a crutch to engage in unethical business.

Whether it’s the compulsive negative thinking, the tone of the voice, the choice of words, the expression of emotions, or the body language employed— it's downright scary for people to acknowledge paralyzing thoughts and feelings, which keeps them locked up in unhealthy patterns. Over time, the repetition of these choreographed behaviors reinforces emotional dysfunction, despair, discontent, and emptiness. Some of these situations are intense enough to cause an individual to lose perspective, quickly sliding into a downward spiral of fear, anger, blame, disappointment, hatred, jealousy, guilt, depression, self-recrimination, or a sense of unworthiness. Is it surprising then that frivolous litigation has exploded, businesses and corporations are increasingly filing for bankruptcy, the divorce rate is at an all time high, and addictions and obsessions are on an upward trend? 

People don’t usually stop to think as reactions happen on an unconscious level. Vipassana meditation can help uncover blind reactions by teaching the individual to become aware of the mind, body, and emotions—a conscious engagement that reduces stresses, helps slow down and anchor in the present, and helps contemplate the consequences of actions. Vipassana helps transition from constantly running in the reaction wheel to responding in a responsible manner.

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