So I was talking to somebody about some drama she’s been having in her life. A person from her past had re-emerged and together they were digging out memories of things that had transpired between them, many of them quite unpleasant.
Before I go on, dear readers, I should note that if you’re inclined to assume this is about you, you may want to take a number and get in line. I spend a lot of my life talking to people about their life drama and about other people they know who like to dredge it up. The story of the suddenly re-emerging person from the past is a familiar pattern too.
There are two questions that always seems to come up when I have these conversations. These are 1) Why does s/he want to bring all this stuff up again? and 2) Why do I feel so compelled to play along even when this stuff hurts so much?
When you do loads and loads of Zen practice, you start to see that even more often than friends from the past re-emerging and bringing this stuff up, you do it to yourself. When you sit quietly and watch your own thought process, you see this happens with sickening regularity.
But why? Why do we get so involved in this garbage?
It’s because the more drama you have in your life the more real you seem to feel. But that’s not you.
Your ego structure demands drama. That’s what makes it appear to be more real, more alive. That’s what makes you identify more strongly with it.
It doesn’t have to be good drama. In fact, bad, painful, negative drama works far better. This is why some of us work so hard to create as much ugly drama in our lives as we possibly can.
What was scary, at least for me, was seeing clearly how I do this to myself quite deliberately even when there are far easier alternatives. Even when it was much easier to let shit go, I would hold on anyway. Even when there was nothing at all to be gained from reigniting some conflict from the past, I reignited it anyway. Even when it hurt me to bring things up that didn’t need to be revisited, I brought them up anyway.
Oh yes, and every single time I did this, I could justify it. I could always come up with some reason I had to dredge this crap up once again – often very solid reasons, at that. We all seem to become experts at justifications like this.
But what happens when you don’t? What happens when you let it go?
I’ll tell you what happened to me. I felt that, by letting this drama go, I was endangering myself. I felt like, if I didn’t keep it up, something valuable might be lost. It was frightening. I felt like I might vanish without it.
Even so, I started making some tentative steps in that direction. Little bitty baby steps. I recounted one of these baby steps in one of my books (I think it was Sit Down and Shut Up, but it might have been Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate – buy them both just to be safe!).
I was with my then-wife Yuka in our car and we were arguing. I don’t know what it was about. But she said something and immediately I thought of the perfect zinger of an answer. It was one of those things you wait a lifetime for if you’re an argumentative person. The most perfect answer ever was right there. It was just like the episode of Seinfeld where George comes up with the perfect comeback to an insult, but he doesn’t come up with it until it’s too late. Only this time I had it right there, ready to go!
Something clicked just then though and I realized that, if I used my perfect comeback, the conflict between us would just continue. In fact, it would get even worse because my comeback was so perfect it would hurt her feelings. It would tend to highlight the fact that I was more clever in my use of the English language than she was (since I’d spoken it all my life and she only started when she was in junior high – she was far more clever in Japanese than I’ll ever be). In short, it might provide a momentary ego boost because I would, at least for a few seconds, “win.” But in the long run it would not be a good thing.
So I swallowed my perfect comeback. And that hurt. It was weird how it hurt. It felt like I had just given up my self. Yet I kept quiet anyway. And a few minutes later we were talking civilly to each other again.
There are times when a bit of drama – or even a lot of drama – is unavoidable, even necessary. But when you start looking at your life honestly, you’ll notice that those occasions happen very rarely. More often than that we deliberately manufacture our drama moments.
If you find yourself entangled in the life of someone who likes to manufacture a whole lot of drama, that can be very difficult. I’ve found it best to avoid engaging with people like that whenever possible. If I must engage with them, I try to keep the interactions brief. When I have to contradict someone with a flair for drama-creation, I do so carefully.
Dogen once said that when you’re in an argument and you are certain you are correct but the other person refuses to concede, there is no need to falsely admit you’re wrong. He said you should let the argument drop. So that’s what I try to do.
I have not perfected this. Our habits die hard. We tend to follow previously established patterns in our interactions. It’s very difficult to change these patterns. Even when we know the results will always be unpleasant, we’ll keep doing it because the familiar is somehow less scary than the unknown, even when what is familiar is also miserable.
So I watch myself as honestly as I am able to. And I do my zazen routine every day even when I don’t feel like it.
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