My wife, Eve, has been staying with me for three weeks, and will be here through the month of November. Those of you who’ve been keeping track will know that we haven’t lived together for three years, although we’re best friends.
History: I found after two years of retirement that I wanted a much simpler life, and have been living in an apartment ever since. Eve preferred living in our house, but has been exploring the West by RV for about a year and a half, and decided to rent the house for a few months. When she discovered that she needed to return to Oakland to renew her driver’s license, she decided it would be a good time to get some oral surgery done, too. Then there’s Thanksgiving and her grandchild’s birthday—two years old this year—so she decided on a somewhat extended stay. With the house unavailable, I volunteered my apartment, so here we are, with her in the bedroom and me on the living room futon, quite cozy.
You may imagine that we both had to make some adjustments, and the first indication for me was noticing some annoyance with her at minor inconveniences. Since my primary form of meditation is simply to pay attention to the contents of consciousness from moment to moment, I became aware of this annoyance—which has become a rare emotional experience for me—fairly quickly.
It used to be much more frequent, and when it arose, my response in those days had been to identify with and reinforce it, recalling other similar occasions and “building a case” against the person associated with the annoyance. Howie calls this kind of identification, “Taking birth as an annoyed person.” Marvin Minsky might call it switching to a different sub-personality. Whatever you call it, I find the state of being annoyed unpleasant, and would like to switch to a more enjoyable state as soon as possible.
I have written before about smiling as a mood-altering technique, and fortunately, it soon occurred to me to apply it to this situation. I started smiling at the first blush of annoyance, and wonderfully, it worked. As I’ve mentioned before, there seems to be a connection between emotions and the neurons that produce the muscle contractions of smiling.
In some circles, this kind of mood-manipulation would be considered repression, an avoidance of some underlying psychological problem that needs to be “worked through.” I agree that understanding one’s emotional reactions is well worth exploring, but there is a kind of general understanding that can be applied to specific reactions that doesn’t require minutely examining each one—which often results in nothing more than rationalization, justification, and identification with the reaction.
The general understanding is this: whatever I’m feeling, it is a result of my biological propensities as modified by my personal history. With different propensities and a different history, my reactions would be different, sometimes in radical ways. All such reactions are accidents—chance associations of circumstances—and viewing them in this way lets me identify much less with these reactions as “who I am.”
This perspective allows me to ask of any emotion that sweeps through my brain, “Does this feeling enhance my well-being? Does it increase my enjoyment of life? Does it prepare me to better handle some future circumstance?” If the answer is no, then why should I be controlled by an accident of history if I can replace unpleasant emotions with joy, simply by smiling?
Eliminating my annoyance in this way doesn’t alter my preferences. Life is much more complicated with Eve here, and I relish the thought of my future solitude. In the meantime, I can enjoy her presence without annoyance—I’m getting real hugs these days instead of virtual ones. We are best friends, after all—we have many things in common—and we know, understand, and accept each other more than any other human being we’ve ever known. There’s something to be said for that.
A Happy Accident