In his book, The Art of Joyful Living, Swami Rama tells the reader “The difference between you and an accomplished swami is that you take things into your heart, but a wise person doesn’t take negative things into his heart.” Then he gives an example of what he meant: “You could tell a swami, ‘Hey Swami, you are a fool,’ and he will never take it into his heart. But you take in everything.”
Swami Rama could have been talking to me. Taking in other’s negative assessments was a specialty of mine, to the point that I had a lot of emotional pain from doing so, and I didn’t know how to stop.
Now, it made sense to me to be emotionally open, so I could interact with and learn from others, and be affected in a healthy way by relationships, but this was too much.
Swami Rama explained how to solve my problem, “The day that you build your own personality, you will no longer be moved or influenced so easily by anyone’s suggestions. Learn to build your own personality and start working on yourself.”
Building your own personality? What did that mean?
Over time, I’ve learned.
The human personality is a web of mental and emotional habit patterns. All of us have certain pre-dispositions when we are born, and these, combined haphazardly with all the mental and emotional habits we form throughout our life, result in our personality.
At least this is how it works until we wake up and begin to consciously work on our own personality. Once we wake up, then we can begin to choose what habits to form, and which to extinguish.
We can change habit patterns. It takes effort to do so. So, our personality, being composed of habits, can be changed with effort.
To be able to work with these mental/emotional habits, we first have to be aware of them. The first step in the process is to become self-aware. Yoga awareness practices help us do this. As we learn to meditate, we learn to neutrally observe our thoughts, urges, and emotions.
Then, having accomplished this, in order to truly effect change, we need to take responsibility for our thoughts and emotions.
But, one might reasonably think, don’t thoughts and emotions just happen? How can I take responsibility for them?
It’s true that thoughts and emotions just happen. They do so because of habits. Taking responsibility for them doesn’t mean that we blame ourselves. Rather it means being willing to change harmful habits by cultivating new emotional/mental habits.
Once we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, and are willing to take responsibility for them, the next step is to take volitional action to change the habit, and to practice the new action again and again until it becomes a new habit.
As previously mentioned, I was very sensitive to other’s assessments of me, but didn’t start taking the steps necessary to change this until I had a long series of extremely unpleasant interactions with a person I’ll call Mary*. This gave me the motivation to change my emotional habit patterns.
Mary and I had known each other for decades when she started becoming hostile toward me. I did my best to resolve the matter but Mary’s hostility would not go away. She would call or email and accuse me of having all sorts of evil-minded intentions and actions, and every time it happened, I got sad and felt terrible. The things she said were not true, but I still got upset.
As this happened over and over, I became very motivated to change the situation. Now, as I said, I tried to resolve the conflicts with Mary, but that didn’t work. So the next step was to look at myself, at what, in me, was causing my emotional pain.
Practicing self-observation, it became clear to me that Mary wasn’t the cause of my problem. Rather, my own habitual emotional reactions to Mary’s actions were the cause of my suffering. So I had to learn new emotional habits.
Swami Rama said, “To establish inner strength, decide that whatever others say, you will not accept it blindly. Decide that you will observe the thought or suggestion and let it come…Whatever kind of thought comes, a thought is still only a thought. Why should you allow any thought to affect you? It will affect you only when you accept it; it will not affect you when you do not accept it."
When I tried to look neutrally at the things Mary said to me, my old habit of getting-upset-when-criticized was so strong that I’d get emotional before having a chance to do the assessment.
So, first, I had to let go of the instantaneous reactions and return to a calm, happy feeling place. To do this, I learned how to quickly center myself. Once peaceful and centered, I was able to neutrally assess her actions.
When I’d find myself getting emotionally upset over something Mary said, I would withdraw my awareness from Mary and her accusations, and instead focus attention on the sensations of my body and my breath. This had the effect of bringing my awareness into the here and now, and soon I’d be feeling ok again.
Over weeks and months, as I practiced centering in this way, I got better at it, and started to be able to short-circuit the negative emotional reaction and return to feeling ok fast.
Then, once calm and peaceful, I could assess Mary’s statements. Interestingly, each time I did this, it was clear to me that there was no truth to what she said. After going through this process countless times, I stopped giving credence to the negative things Mary said, and this reduced my tendency to instantly react to her.
But there was a second internal source of my reactivity. Because Mary and I had a close relationship, whenever she would make those false accusations against me, I’d think, “she is a friend and shouldn’t talk to me like that!” Then this thought would give rise to anger and upset.
Looking closely at this second cause of emotional reactions, I realized that my expectations were unreasonable. Although I preferred that Mary act respectfully toward me, it simply was not true that “she shouldn’t be nasty to me.” She was how she was. Realizing this further increased my peacefulness.
Over time, I’ve become far less affected by Mary’s hostility. Sometimes, when I hear something from her, I’ll still have an instantaneous flash of painful emotion, but now I know how to recenter myself and return to a calm and happy state quickly. Once I am centered, I drop the whole matter and don’t give it further attention.
The new emotional habits learned by dealing with Mary enable me to be less concerned about criticisms from others too. What a difference!
To recap, the main ingredients that enabled these changes in my emotional habits were awareness, taking responsibility, volitional action, and practice. It took some doing, but the results are well worth the effort.
* Mary wasn’t the person’s real name, and by using a feminine name, I do not mean to indicate whether that person was male or female.