Hell Is Other People?

I was once the quintessential “angry young man.” Alost everyone pissed me off. I wasn’t the type who screamed and yelled or became violent but when I got angry I would internalize it. I shut down and would stonewall the person I was angry at for days or weeks! Or I would withdrawal into myself and not talk with anyone. A few times a year the pressure would get released when someone did something that really upset me. Then my temper would just let lose. I never hurt another person physically, but anger in all its manifestations can be very damaging to oneself and others emotionally. For various reasons, other people created a kind of hell inside me.

The French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people.” For a long time I believed this was true. But is this really? Yes, other people can be disappointing and difficult but do other people really have the power to create our inner hell? Or are we the ones who we let other people do this to us?

I am sure most people have said things like, “You are really stressing me out,” or “You make me so angry.” I know I have. But is this really true? Is it other people who are stressing us out or are we giving away all of our inner power to other people thus letting them stress us out?

Well, I think the answer is yes and no. It can be very challenging to be the kind of person who just remains unaffected by other people. To be that person who just doesn’t care and is able to remain completely relaxed and grounded in the face of adversity. It is possible to be this way (I thought Barack Obama was a great example of this when he was President) but it often requires a great mastery of the skill known as self-control.

 

The cool thing about mindfulness is that the more we practice, the more self-control we get. It is like an innate, positive side-effect of practicing mindfulness. What this means is that the more we practice mindfulness the better we get at responding to stressors rather than reacting to them. Make no mistake about it, there is a gigantic difference between reacting and responding. Reacting causes stress whereas responding cuts it in half. Reacting is habitual and automatic, responding requires awareness and conscious choice. The mind makes a great servant, but a terrible master, so the saying goes.

When we let other people stress us out or make us angry it is usually because we are reacting to that other person. They do something we don’t like, we get triggered and then instantly go into fight or flight mode. We fire right back or pull away. It is usually all downhill from here. In this situation, it is true that hell can be caused by other people. We tend to live in a culture that supports, reinforces and teaches this way of reactive behavior towards adversity.

But when we are able to be mindful, we gain the ability (or skill) to become more self-aware, to not react to every single trigger that goes off in us. When we are more self-aware we can notice that we have been triggered and then respond to the trigger, rather automatically reacting to it. We can notice that our bodies have become tense, that our mind is creating all kinds of negative thoughts, that our heart rate has gone up and we can also be aware of our impulse to react. But we don’t have to give in to this. We can just smile at it in the same way that we would smile at an old person walking slowly across the street. “I see you, but I am going to exercise compassion and not get all stressed out.”

Instead of reacting, we can focus on our breathing, feel our feet on the ground, notice the wave of heated emotions invading our chest and just let it go in the same way that we would watch a bird fly across the sky. We don’t have to give in to the negative thoughts and heated emotions. When we are able to act from a more grounded, self-aware, less automatic place- hell is no longer other people. We no longer let other people have this kind of control and power over us.

Ultimately we are the ones who determine whether we want hell to be other people or not. We are the ones who let other people get to us. We let other people stress us out more than we need to. Human beings are very resilient creatures. We can get bent out of shape, but we always have the ability to come back into shape quickly. The more we practice mindfulness, the more we gain the ability to come back into shape quickly after being bent out of shape. Gone are the days of hanging onto stress or anger for an entire day or days! Yeah we will get upset or stressed out because of other people. It is only natural for most of us. But we can be aware that this has happened and then let it go as quickly as possible. Return to the present moment and move on with our lives without carrying that heavy, stressful, emotionally damaging load.

There is great freedom (and health) in being able to respond to other people in this way.

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What The World Really Needs Now

It saddens me deeply to see what is going on in the world today. What happened just today in Barcelona is such a sad tragedy. Las Ramblas district in Barcelona is such an old, gothic, literary, multi-cultural and cool part of the world. I had some of the best times of my life in Las Ramblas district. There is so much life, beauty, art, personality and inspiration there. It makes me so sad to see what has happened today in this part of the world.

Much of the time I just don’t fully understand all this senseless violence that is going on. I understand that it is a manifestation of hate, acts of war. I understand that many radicalized people are at war with people, values and countries whom they find fault with. But what I don’t understand is how people could be so deeply identified with certain thoughts, beliefs and emotions that they are willing to kill, injure and traumatize so many people. This kind of obsessive and profound identification with the ego just escapes my ability to comprehend.

I understand that we all have things that outrage us, upset us. I understand that many of us can feel hateful and resentful. But to hurt other people? To run people over with a van, bus or car? Are you kidding me? This is pure madness as far as I am concerned. The fact that someone can get this caught up in their own thoughts and emotions, is one of the real tragedies as far as I am concerned.

All thoughts and emotions are like clouds drifting across the sky. No matter how important we think our beliefs, grievances and problems are- it will all be dust soon enough. A hundred years ago people were equally as caught up in all of their problems and where are they now? Where are all their problems now? Too get so caught up in what we think, believe and feel is such a mistake in logic that the consequences, as we are seeing, can be so tragic.

Logically we know that we are all here on earth for a limited time. Logically we know that the things we stress out over, when placed in a larger context, are really not that big of a deal. Logically we know that thoughts, emotions and beliefs are not really worth getting so stressed out over. It is only when we are being illogical that we get caught up in the smaller picture. We lose perspective and forget that we are all mortal and these things really do not matter as much as we think that they do. Unfortunately, so many people are stuck in illogical ways of being right now.

When we are able to just become present, to relax that tight grip on our identification with all of our thoughts, emotions and beliefs, what we notice is that some semblance of logic begins to return. We get more clarity. We become aware of the bigger picture and as a result our thoughts and emotions and beliefs and problems don’t feel like as big of a deal. Unfortunately, so much of the harm and tragedy being committed in today’s world is a result of people who are lost in an illogical state. They become so illogical that the illogic feels logical, normal. But it is not normal. The consequences of being lost in illogical states of mind sometimes manifests in the form of a willingness to run innocent people over, hurting others. This is not sane.

What the world needs now is more logic. Please, you may feel like there is nothing to be done about the events unfolding in the world today. You may feel fearful and/or helpless. But one thing you can do is not perpetuate illogical ways of being in your own family, relationships, community. If you are someone who is taking all of your problems and emotions and thoughts very seriously see if you can stop doing it. You are not in a logical state. See if you can just return your attention to the present moment and return to a more logical state. A state with some semblance of peace, non-reactivity, perspective and calm. You may think this is no big deal but I assure you- the last thing the world needs now is more people caught in the grip of their egos running around.

I once had a teacher who told me that it was so important that I remain peaceful and loving even though at the time I was teaching high school in the inner city and living in a city I felt was so full of violence and anger. She told me that if even one person could practice being loving and calm in the middle of what was a city filled with anger, busyness, violence and egotism, that this person could have a powerful opposite effect in various ways. This is often called The Butterfly Effect.

So, if possible, please stop attaching so strongly to everything you think, feel and believe. Loosen the grip a bit. Settle more into a place of calm and ease. Relax. Let some degree of logic return. I could be wrong but I feel that this is what the world needs right now, more than anything else.