Last week I had an argument with my partner, to whom I’ve been married for 26 years. I was showing him around my new office space, and he made a joke about it. Something to the effect that he was going to use it when he needed to get away from his office. You wouldn’t think that would be a big problem, but by the time we got home, I could feel the anger rising in me.
When he made another comment about one of my co-workers taking a nap in my new space, I lost it. I told him that I was really angry, and I stomped around for a bit before gathering myself together and asking him if we could have a calm discussion about this. I asked him to mirror me, which basically is a request for active listening, in which the other person listens well enough to be able to repeat back what he or she has heard. Although he did an excellent job listening to me, he didn’t seem to be really getting the magnitude of my upset, and I felt myself getting tight in the chest and an explosive anger building up in me.
I knew that it wasn’t going to end well, so I shouted something like, “You just don’t understand what I’m saying!” and dashed off to hide in the laundry room to do some clothes-folding meditation. Kneeling on the floor, pulling clothes out of the dryer, I allowed myself to feel the depth of my inner turmoil and I cried. I remembered, as a child, feeling like I always had to fiercely defend whatever small mental or physical privacy I could find. This being my first real private office space, I felt like I had to defend it in the same way.
The observer in me was seeing this all play out, and I noticed that the reaction I was having was too big for the seemingly minor comments by my husband. When that awareness opened, I knew that I was reacting to something that wasn’t really happening in that moment. I was feeling very small and powerless, which I recognized was based on childhood conditioning rather than what was really happening in the laundry room.
This was a surprise to me. I wanted so badly to blame my husband for my suffering. But once I had seen that it wasn’t what he had done that caused my reaction, it was too late to pretend it was. It was difficult to admit to myself, and even more difficult to admit to him that he hadn’t caused my anger and sadness. Through my tears and behind a closed door, I yelled, “This isn’t about you!” This may have been the hardest thing I have ever admitted to myself and to my partner. And it may have been the most honest and helpful thing I have ever done for our relationship.
Once, in a conversation with my young adult son, I wondered out loud whether my mindfulness practice, which I began when my kids were all in elementary school, was overall a benefit to our family. I wondered whether having an anti-establishment personal practice created difficulties that wouldn’t have been there if I had continued along a more traditional path. There were definitely some things– like being dragged on retreats with a Zen teacher, mom doing slow walking meditation around the neighborhood, and ringing a bell at the dinner table– that were awkward and made the kids feel like our family wasn’t the norm. But when I thought about how I would have behaved without this practice, I realized that I wouldn’t have been able to take as much responsibility for my own baggage if I hadn’t found this practice. I would have continued to blame everyone around me for my unhappiness (of which I had plenty to go around.) Just like I had been trying to do with my husband last week.
A wonderful therapist once described these personal trigger points as our “sore toes.” It’s not our fault that we have these particular sore toes, they are passed down to us from our ancestors, families, and culture. Our sore toes are our conditioning, the painful spots that we may or may not even know are there, but cause us to howl in pain when they are stepped on. When a loved ones steps on our sore toe, as my husband did by making jokes about my new space, we think that our pain is coming from what they did. While they may have triggered our pain by watering a seed of anger or sadness in us, they did not create the sore toe and so can hardly be blamed for the magnitude of our response.
Knowing our sore toes well is part of the practice of mindfulness. Seeing our conditioning allows us to quickly recognize it as ancient history and not carry it into the present moment where it can continue to wreck havoc in our lives. We might still feel the pain of the sore toe, but if we know what it is and where it comes from, we are less likely to blame the person closest to us and so stop transmitting old suffering into new relationships.
“DARLING, IF YOU REALLY CARE FOR ME, PLEASE WATER THE GOOD SEEDS IN ME EVERY DAY. I AM CAPABLE OF LOVING, UNDERSTANDING, AND FORGIVING AND I NEED YOUR HELP TO PRACTICE THESE IN MY DAILY LIFE. I PROMISE TO RECOGNIZE THE POSITIVE SEEDS IN YOU, AS WELL, AND TO DO MY BEST TO WATER THEM EVERY DAY.” THIS IS TRUE LOVE. –THICH NHAT HANH
Once I saw that my sore toe was about feeling I had to defend myself all the time, like some tough little street urchin, I could empathize with that feeling rather than continuing to act it out. My sore toe is still there, of course. If my personal space feels threatened again, it could flare up. But each time that I see what it really is and take care of it with compassion, it will loose its power to spoil my life the present moment.
When I came out of the laundry room, rather than being angry at my husband, I felt very tender. I asked him if I could have a hug, and I cried in his arms, letting the feeling-memory of needing to be tough and independent be held by the two of us. I then told him about my sore toe, and how it got triggered, and he made a mental note of how he might avoid that trigger next time. What in the past would have ended with an angry silence had transformed into a compassionate connection, thanks to a moment of awareness and a willingness to take responsibility for my own toes.