Who am I without my reactivity?

My friend Suzanne was at the very beginning of her recovery process when we met. She had a great sponsor and worked the program diligently. We didn’t talk about it much but I’ll never forget something she shared with me. She said, “I’m a funny, creative, outgoing person. But I’ve been drinking since I was a kid, who am I without alcohol?”

I’ve been thinking about Suzanne’s fear of the loss of self a lot lately as I’ve worked on self-acceptance. On the one hand, it’s a very positive, affirming process, one that allows me to see and cultivate my essential self. But just as Suzanne feared that giving up alcohol and drugs might leave her without a personality, I’ve wondered who I am, who I am becoming as I let go of reactivity.

Reactivity is our ego at work, when I identify with my ego and react against what is, against the present moment. Eckhart Tolle writes that when we do this, we treat the present moment, “as a means, an obstacle, or an enemy” and strengthen the ego. For me, this often takes the form of spotting another’s hypocrisy in the midst of interpersonal conflict; it’s also about using my quick, sharp tongue. When I’m playing defense, caught off guard by someone’s criticism (or my assumption that I’m being criticized), in other words, when my ego feels threatened, I’m a formidable verbal opponent.

“What,” Tolle asks, “is reactivity? Becoming addicted to reaction.” And addictions are addictions because they can produce the illusion of pleasure. Beyond my gift for snarkiness, when I think of situations where I’m reactive I picture times when I’ve been able to make quick decisions, address challenges, head off problems. I can be a good person to have around in a stressful situation. And besides, a lot of people laugh at my smart-ass remarks. Of course, if I draw the complete picture, I have to admit that I’ve jumped to a few inaccurate conclusions, stepped in when others were perfectly capable of managing a situation, and added to a general state of negativity. I’ve also hurt others with my clever words. Turns out, I can make a stressful situation more stressful.

Today’s photo is of my friend, FFF. That stands for Fight, Flight, Freeze. I put a holiday bow on FFF because in this season, FFF’s on really high alert. Like many of you, I will spend more time than usual with family and friends, coworkers and neighbors, in crowded stores and on busy streets. Each encounter, each present moment will provide my ego with an opportunity to react—to fight, to flee, or to freeze. I’ll keep FFF in my pocket, a present to myself that reminds me to stay in the present. I don’t know who I am without my reactivity, but in the spirit of my brave friend Suzanne, I’m willing to take the risk finding out.

You are that light

I’ve recently worked up to thirty minutes on a pillow on the floor for meditation. And even more recently, I’ve stopped spending the first ten minutes thinking about my physical discomfort. So one morning last week, I was eager to start and didn’t notice that the lamp behind me was still on.

Well on my way to a quiet mind I heard a small click and noticed a barely perceptible change in the light beyond my closed eyelids. Happily my initial impulse was to ignore both the sound and the changing light but my curious mind got the best of me. I opened my eyes, looked around, and saw the lamp was off. Had I left it on? I flipped the switch. Nothing. I was on my feet flipping light switches. Nothing. Questions filled my mind. Is it the whole neighborhood or just our house? Was it caused by the construction project down the street or is there something wrong with our electricity?

Thinking I would return to the pillow once I had answers, I tried to access the electric company’s website. The site asks for account information. Ours is in my partner’s name but her phone number wasn’t in their system and I couldn’t remember her previous number. Their public site shows an outage map but the information was too general to satisfy me.

By now all thoughts of meditation were gone as I became immersed in busy-ness and counting grievances. I manage the household bills but I didn’t have a job when we moved here so that’s why the utilities are in Laura’s name. That still pisses me off. We’ve got to get that changed but we only think of it when something goes wrong. Like the time I sent the electric bill in almost 10 days late and they turned off the power and I had to wire money to pay it. Had that happened this time? I didn’t think so but the shame of that incident washed over me nevertheless. I went back into the online system and tried to change the password by generating an email to Laura. I sent her a text asking her to check her account. A few minutes later she called to say no email. What address had she used to set up the account? Neither of us remembered. My mind was churning through questions and causes as my frustrations grew.

Fortunately, Laura was done at work and said she was headed home. That information brought me, mercifully, back to the present. I knew I would ruin the rest of my day and hers in my current state of distress. I took a deep breath and continued to focus on my breathing, I reminded myself that we were in no danger, that there was nothing I could do to get the electricity turned on, and that I’m always looking for an excuse to go out to lunch.

This incident returned to me as I was reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. He writes, “You cannot fight against the ego and win just as you cannot fight against darkness. The light of consciousness is all that is necessary. You are that light.”