Thursday, May 24, 2007

i-TFTD #14: The Upside of Irritation

i-TFTD #14: The Upside of Irritation

There are many stories of spiritual masters embracing the presence of an annoying student in their community. There is even one story that documents a teacher paying an irritating person to live among his students. From an everyday perspective, this is difficult to comprehend. We generally work hard to avoid people and things that we find annoying so they don't bother us.

From a deeper spiritual perspective, however, irritation can be an important teacher and indicator that we are making progress on our path. Being able to remain centered and awake even when we feel uncomfortable is much more impressive than doing so in an environment where everything is to our liking. No matter how good we are at controlling our circumstances, there will always be factors and people that we cannot control. How we respond to these experiences to a great degree determines the quality of our lives. The goal of spiritual development is not to learn to control our environment -- which is more of an ego-driven desire. And while having some measure of control over our external reality is important, it is when we are confronted with a person or situation that irritates us and we can choose not to react that we know have made progress spiritually. It is when we have mastered our internal reality that we will have become the masters of our lives.

The more we try to eliminate annoyances, instead of learning to handle them gracefully, the further we get from developing the qualities that come with spiritual growth, such as patience, tolerance, and acceptance. It is often in the presence of people and experiences we find annoying that we have an opportunity to develop these qualities. Fortunately for most of us, our lives offer an abundance of opportunities to practice and cultivate these traits.

Many times over the years, I have pondered on this theme and tried to observe my reactions. I wondered if "putting up" with something is the same as choosing not to react; whether inability to confront, some kind of fear is motivating me not to act. There is also the worry that suppression of anger will cause other side effects in the long run. However, the following has helped me:

1. Try to remember always that every human being is doing what they think is "a good thing". If at all I wish to influence their behaviour I have to aim at their logic or their heart, not their ego.

2. Interacting with and trying to understand different kinds of people helps enlarge my perspectives, leading to fewer things that really annoy. A little humility helps.

3. In certain situations I could display anger or passionately debate something but the important thing is not to seethe inside. Keep your inner focus on issues, results and not on individuals. After all, anger and dissatisfaction, when channelized into the world of ideas, are what have led to many innovations.

Finally, my getting irritated is useful if it induces me to act on improving myself and the situation, it is useless if all it does is affect my balance and  my relationships.

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