Monday, 10 July 2017

Losing the remote - and keeping your cool

The other evening I was looking forward to sitting down in front of the TV. The problem was however that I couldn’t find the remote. I’m sure you know how it is: every device has its own remote, and the smaller the box, the smaller the remote that goes with it. And our box is pretty small. Having hunted in and under the sofas and even in the shoe drawer for good measure, I found myself getting increasingly exasperated, even slightly panicky. What if it never turned up? How would we watch TV? Would I have to spend money replacing it? It was a very unpleasant state to be in. Happily, my partner was unruffled and pointed out that we could just plug the aerial into the back of the TV the old fashioned way and watch it like that.

Sound familiar? And the point is this wasn’t a new response on my part. It’s actually pretty much the response I have every time we mislay a remote. Which is where one of the Buddha’s core teachings comes in: that actions have consequences, and that actions committed when we’re in mental states characterized by anger, frustration and the like cause us to suffer. Worse still, repeatedly acting in that way is habit-forming. Just as rivulets of water gradually carve a path out of the rock over which they flow, causing them to follow the same path with less and less possibility of diversion, repeatedly giving way to anger and resentment in the same circumstances makes it all the more likely that we will do so again next time around. In fact, much of human behaviour operates in this kind of reactive mode, simply repeating actions that we have done many times before, with all the unpleasantness that follows.

This is the Buddhist principle of karma. It has nothing to do with fate or some preordained path in life. What it means is exactly what I’ve described above: that acting in a particular way has the effect of shaping our character for the future. Giving into anger, frustration and resentment makes us more likely to do so again in the future, to the point where we run the risk of becoming angry, frustrated and resentful people.

But fortunately it works the other way too. The more we act with patience, out of love, concern for others and generosity, the more our hearts will open, and the more likely it is that our behaviour will in general be characterized by those qualities. We all act in these ways some of the time – they aren’t the preserve of the enlightened! But what we need to do is consciously apply ourselves to acting out of these positive states more and more often – and not giving in to their negative counterparts. In this way we’ll set up positive habits for the future.

The best way to go about this might be to start small. In my case, it might simply be to accept that TV remotes sometimes get lost, realise it’s not the end of the world, count to ten and let go. I’m sure you have your equivalent little unhelpful habit too. So next time you find yourself getting wound up about the same old little thing, take a breath, pause and try and let go of it. You’ll find, as I do when I manage it, that it’s a real relief. On the other hand, try not to miss opportunities to show kindness and generosity when they present themselves. I’ve no doubt this is the beginning of the path to greater happiness and contentment, and I’m sure you’ll find it is too.