I regularly use the steam sauna at my local gym and have come to find the 40 square foot room to be a microcosm of society. Half the time I have the sauna to myself and the other half of the time I'm sharing the small space with at least one other person. When there are others present I try to be particularly mindful of my actions because everything that I do has a direct impact on someone else. I've noticed that not everyone may be holding the space the same way that I do...
Last week I'd been alone, meditating, in the sauna for about 10 minutes when another guy entered. Without warning, he threw a few cups of water on the coals, creating a blast of steam and immediately increasing the temperature by 10-15 degrees. I like a hot sauna, but when I'm sharing the space I always ask the others if they are ok with putting some water on the coals. The newcomer didn't offer such a courtesy. Luckily, I moved past this quickly. It is a steam sauna, after all.
What he did next knocked me off my metaphorical cushion.
I could hear him taking the seat next to me as I tried to settle back into my meditation. Once again, my attention wandered off, this time chasing the sound of Tom Petty's voice emanating from my neighbor's iPhone. He was playing music through his external speakers. Now I appreciate Tom Petty as much as anyone, but he's not my favorite. He's definitely not what I normally choose if I'm opting for some background music to support my meditation. I found myself getting annoyed at this intrusion into my personal head-space.
When I say that "I found myself getting annoyed" I mean this precisely. I wasn't just becoming annoyed, I noticed myself becoming annoyed. This awareness gave me a wonderful opportunity to interrupt the pattern and thus reduce my suffering. In that moment I made a different choice. Instead of annoyance I decided to try curiosity. The primary benefit of replacing a negative emotion, such as annoyance, with curiosity is that it reduces suffering, almost immediately!
Becoming curious is not as easy as one might think, particularly when you're already on the path to annoyance. To help structure my curiosity, I used what I call the SPY method. SPY stands for:
- Situation - What are the facts about the scenario?
- People - What is going on for the other people in the scenario?
- Yourself - What is going on within me that is contributing to the scenario?
Whenever I want to get curious, I run through the different elements of SPY. The Situation element is particularly useful in complex situations where you might not have all of the facts. For example, if you were not present when the events occurred. In this case, there wasn't much to consider with regards to the "Situation", as it was a pretty simple situation and it was happening right in front of me. As such, I turned my attention to the other two elements of SPY.
First...People. I tried to get curious about my new neighbor. What might explain his decision to turn on the music? Had he just suffered a break-up and Tom Petty was a source of emotional comfort? Was he lonely and hoping that I might comment about the music, opening the door to a conversation and a human connection? Was he some kind of Crazy Wisdom teacher using Tom Petty as a way to teach me a lesson about meditation? Maybe it just didn't occur to him that his actions would have an impact on me. Maybe he did realize this and simply didn't care. If that was the case, what would it be like to go through life like this?
As my curiosity explored the possibilities, my tension loosened.
Next...Myself. Why was I so charged up about his behavior?
Whenever I'm getting curious about my own motivations, I find it useful to examine my fears. I find that emotions such as anger and annoyance are almost always grounded in fear.
What were my fears in this situation? For one, I value the Golden Rule and I was afraid this guy represented a fundamental opposition to my world-view. In a sense, he represented a threat to society. That realization felt very reassuring to my ego…I am a good person and this guy next to me was something else. My annoyance had been justified. Mystery solved. Right? Maybe not. Let's go a little deeper…
What other fears might be at work for me? In the interest of time, I'll spare you the full exploration and cut to the punchline. My curiosity revealed that I have a fear that people will take advantage of me. I concluded this was the most powerful fear triggering my annoyance.
Once I realized this was my fear, I was able to move past it more easily than I could have if I hadn't brought the fear into my awareness. The power of curiosity is that it allowed me to hold my fear instead of my fear holding me.
The next time you find yourself becoming frustrated or slightly annoyed, try using the SPY method to get curious. It might feel like you're compromising your integrity at first, but in the end you'll reduce the half-life of your suffering.
What do you think? Feel free to post your thoughts below. Or, if you’d like feedback on a personal scenario, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll reply to you directly.