Interrupting the Cause of Our Suffering

One of the things that inspires me to grow and learn more is one of the most fundamental of Buddhist teachings — the investigation into what causes our suffering.

Most of what I’ve learned so far drives home the point of staying in the inquiry of what “hooks” me, or what causes my discomfort or my anger.

In most of the teachings, I’m encouraged to first notice when I’ve been “hooked” and then see how I can refrain, reframe, or relax from allowing that discomfort or anger to grow into a hot ember ready to burst into flames.

The teachings go on to suggest that there are two levels of coverings that keep most of us from being able to examine our behaviors and reactions: One is our misperception of reality. And the other comes into play when we’ve been hooked by our misperceptions, don’t notice that we’ve been hooked, and allow the flame of reaction to grow into a virtual wildfire.

The Mindful Gap

Buddha primarily worked with the space between the misperception and the actual intensity of getting worked up about whatever triggered our emotion. This is when we insert a little “mindful gap.” If in the moment of recognizing we’ve been triggered or noticing the neurotic mind, we give ourselves some space prior to taking any action, then we have the chance to allow for an insight.

Here’s an example. Say one of your kids says something unkind to you. In that very moment, you immediately get hooked into thinking how rude and disrespectful she is, how unappreciative of all that you do for her. Your mind begins to reel and you can feel the energy of your agitation rising. At this moment, instead of allowing your neurotic mind to jump in and take over, you have the opportunity to tap into your wisdom mind.

The wisdom mind understands that maybe she’s had a tough day, maybe she didn’t do as well on that test she studied so hard for, maybe she’s having trouble with a friend and nothing she just said has anything whatsoever to do with you. That is the moment where inserting a little mindful gap may make all the difference in your interaction with your child.

The Practice

Practice the habit of asking yourself: Where can I start interrupting my habitual internal process?

At the very beginning would certainly be the easiest, right? Before the storyline begins and our thinking gets a little more heated. The eighth-century monastic scholar Śāntideva suggested that this is the very moment when we, “Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!

But the beginning is often hard for us to spot. That’s why the idea of a mindful gap is so important.

If we can take that pause and allow our wisdom mind to see our neurotic mind, we can become conscious of being on the verge of losing control. Again, do not act, do not speak. Instead, insert the mindful gap, the pause.

But hey, even if you miss it at the beginning and then the storyline is really going, you can still interrupt that internal process with a mindful gap. It’s a practice, which means, if you don’t get it the first time (or even the tenth time), you can still keep practicing!