Friday, September 22nd 2017

Screaming at me? My Buddhist comeback

Daniel Woo is a Seattle lawyer who deals with screaming people. . . in litigation, in road rage, in any time and place. Here he reveals his personal method for not taking it personally.

GUEST COLUMN: DANIEL D. WOO — When my own mind is in turmoil, or when another person is literally screaming at me, I wonder: “What is the source of this emotional tsunami?”

Over the years I have learned that “screaming,” and “at me,” are concepts — not empirical reflections of reality. Just look at the video here.

These thought-forms in my mind are “conclusions” that reflect my projections about reality. The feeling that someone is “screaming” changes, completely, when I recognize that the person in front of, or within me, is suffering.

In this process I begin to taste patience and acceptance. On too many occasions in the past, I have been ignorant of skills in relating and responding in present time in “screaming” scenarios.  But those work-a-day shockers invite me to discovery: the skillful means of mind and action can be cultivated through daily practice with everyone — friends, family, clients, acquaintances and strangers.


When we accept things as they are, right now and here, our hearts comprehend that we are complete and perfect in this moment.  When we forgive what we think we are, we understand that incompleteness is perfection.  Neither do we have to escape nor fight.

Time ceases. We return to a natural state of spaciousness, and from such, our intuition will guide us for the right response — whether of action or restraint, with what is within or before us.  This is the moment of liberation — acceptance and patience.  Happiness and joy will follow.

Such spaciousness changes the perceptions and judgments that we project.

Today, I have learned to sit until I hear the rustling of leaves and grasses, the rain, the beating of wings and hearts, the heat rising from sun-baked stones, claws, pads and footsteps on pavement, the sounds of lives, and the movement of everything.

A vinyl-music analogy: skipping and starting over

vinyl As a boy I grew up with vinyl records. Often my record player needle would hit a scratch in a track, bounce back and start over again. The only solution was to lift the needle and skip the scratch to continue playing the recording.

Today, the moment has come when the sounds of my thoughts fade, and then the needle lifts, the player dissolves, and the music that is always here can be heard.

Then I understand that what I have been holding onto were the scratches, the stuck needles, the distorted sounds, the players and the recordings, and that they are not real.

Learnings from Shantideva

The Indian monk Shantideva explained how to cultivate and expand compassion and wisdom in The Way of the Bodhisattva (translation by the Padmakara Translation Group — Shambhala 2008). Chapter 6 is about patience — following a few of the verses:

1.  All the good works gathered in a thousand ages, such as deeds of generosity, and offerings to the Blissful Ones – a single flash of anger shatters them.

2.  No evil is there similar to anger, no austerity to be compared with patience.  Steep yourself, therefore, in patience,  In various ways, insistently.

3.  Those tormented by the pain of anger, never know tranquility of mind – strangers they will be to every pleasure, they will neither sleep nor feel secure.

Metta and Tibetan tonglen practices

mettaI also use the Mettā bhāvanā practices — the cultivation of loving-kindness, and Tibetan tonglen.  Tonglen (sending and receiving) is the practice of accepting wholeheartedly (1) on the in-breath, whatever unease, anger, fear or other difficult emotion or condition that I may be experiencing in the moment and also the same emotions and conditions that everyone may be having.

And (2) on the out-breath, wishing that all beings be free of that emotion or condition.

This was a difficult practice when I began, which I find not so difficult today.

Incorporating such teachings and practices into my life taught me that my formerly “normal” reactions were at the very least misguided, often not sane — and too often, harmful.

Real life applications

Many years ago a businessman and I met for lunch to go over a business agenda. He was wound-up, curt, distracted and rude. Rather than contracting or reacting to such energies, I asked him whether something had happened. At that question, the lunch veered off the business agenda. Instead, I listened to him describe his brother’s death a few days earlier and the impact on his parents and the grief and anger he was feeling. So none of his behavior was “screaming” nor was any of it about or at me. I listened as he poured out his uncertainties and grief. The business matters were tabled for another day.

One of my former colleagues is an intense workaholic, possessed with his own thoughts about projects, distant, strongly opinionated (not unlike me in the past during times of high tension) and otherwise focused only on what he needs. On occasion over the years, he has contacted me to help out on some projects, and last year I did so again.

When I saw him, he was angry, swearing, clenched about something going on with another project. Rather than saying anything to him, I just waited until he got whatever he needed to say or do off his chest and then went to the project we were discussing. It was interesting because in the past, that kind of behavior would have bothered me. I knew that he wasn’t doing any of this because of me — instead it was streaming off him without much consciousness.

During this meeting, I also silently practiced some metta (loving-kindness) and tonglen meditations for him — allowing some space to open up within him.  When we focused on our project, he quieted down and as we continued to work together, he became quieter.

A reminder from the Buddha

buddhaA little over seven years ago, I tore off a page from a daily calendar and put it in an unobtrusive spot on my desk in the office where I then worked. The quote from the Buddha was:

“People with opinions go around bothering other people.”

I kept the quote when I left to start my own business. Its purpose for me was not to reject or struggle with what other people were saying around me, or in emails or phone calls, in media or in phantom conversations and thoughts in my brain.  Instead I was to reflect on what I was adding to any conversation and whether I may be subtracting by what I may say.

The quote was also a reminder that it is a false identity to identify with opinions, rather than to become aware with wisdom and compassion (a continuous learning experience) and then to act accordingly.  I continue to try to do in every situation wherever I am.

Today I would say that when I have “opinions” that I want to project into my life, I suffer. I don’t see what this moment already has.

These and other experiences reinforce the continuance of practice with everything — on the mat or in a meeting, in a grocery waiting line, in traffic, with family, friends, strangers, difficult people and easy people, washing dishes, emptying the trash, writing bills, walking, on the phone, even sleeping.

It also helps me to try to observe the precepts, including not ingesting or getting caught up with intoxicants or intoxicating ideas — in other words, not to be caught up in myself.

Be aware of how I act before the act and discern whether it is in accord with right views and intentions — this takes practice. Jack Kornfield uses the phase the “Sacred Pause” for that spaciousness between thoughts and actions — this takes practice too in pausing between the impulse and the act.

Along the way I am dropping conventional notions of sanity.  In a sense a tremendous volume of “noise” just stops with practice. The screaming ends and spaciousness is limitless.

danwoo1Daniel D. Woo woke up to an understanding that suffering is not ended until view, intention and action are changed.  He continues learning how little he knows, and experiencing how kindness changes the universe.  Dan also practices law in Seattle, Washington.  You can reached him via Facebook or Linkedin.

Read Daniel’s previous columns on Soul’s Code: A West Coast lawyer’s tale of race and reconciliation,  and Making peace with childhood ghosts.

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11 Comments on “Screaming at me? My Buddhist comeback”

  1. To not take everything personally is a huge lesson to learn Dan. Thanks for being my teacher today on Soul's Code!

    The video shows beautifully how incidents can escalate in a matter of minutes into violence. What I found interesting was the women sitting there while the whole thing went on, listening to her headset...totally oblivious.

    Thanks for another great article Dan!

  2. I remember my meditation teacher Shinzen Young saying that a Zen Master once said to him "No self. No problem." I thought that was brilliant.

    In a similar vein Ajahn Chah once said that if people are saying something and you find it difficult - ask yourself the question - "Is it accurate?" If it is and it is something you can do something about then do it. If the answer is "no". Then why would you ever get disturbed by it!

    I remind myself of those comments when I feel that someone else is "difficult".

  3. Sacred breaths make for progress

  4. I live in NYC. Sometimes I drive and sometimes I take public transportation and I am grateful I never had to experience an extreme scenario like the one depicted in the video you posted. I agree with you. When we are calm centered and present we have access to our intuition to guide us in life.

    I would like to share an experience I had on a bus that reminds me of the power of silence.

    I was sitting on a public bus filled that was filled with teen age children who were being loud, vulgar and rude. I normally try to avoid public transportation at the time when school lets out, since this type of behavior has become commonplace in NYC.

    On this particular day, I noticed the behavior and decided to go within and meditate and become absolutely as still, silent and calm as possible, while still remain present with the goings on around me. I did not say a word. My eyes were wide open.

    Some time elapsed, I would say about ten minutes, I cannot remember exactly at the moment. There was a boy on the bus who was the leader and the loudest in reciting vulgarities. He was standing most of the time. Many were cheering him on and joining in.

    I was very pleased when he came over to approach me in my silence to apologize for his behavior. As he apologized, the whole bus became silent. You could literally hear a pin drop. All the children looked at me, as if to say sorry, mam, as he did.

    Thank you for listening.

  5. I saw the video,

    It is evident that when two became judgmental with each other, they will trigger their anger and their rage that they will end up emotionally and physically fighting. This is another sign how primitive human beings solve problems with violence rather than solving problems with peaceful resolution. All attacks are signs for help or they are fear announced. In our society we have learned to live in fear.

    All our suffering has nothing to do with events, but our reaction and interpretation of our mind about them, or our reactions have nothing to do with our reality only how we perceive reality. In fact all reactions come from our past experiences stored in our subconscious. Therefore, for these people in the bus are not the first time they went though this. This is a repetitious behavior. If we take things too personal we are also going to react violent. Remember who we really are :)

  6. Hi There,

    I find it helps me in dealing with 'difficult' people to remain inquisitive and genuine interested. This gives me ways to keep asking questions which in turn invites the 'difficult' person to be responsive and forthcoming.

    Hope this helps.

  7. May I also suggest Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication. And, the other thing that has *not* been discussed here is physiology. Both of these men were in sympathetic arousal. The older man tried to flee, but the younger one pursued him. Feeling trapped, the older man went into fight until he could got off the bus and complete his flee impulse. We fight when we are trapped and can't get away. Both of these men lacked the concrete body skills for containing their high level of activation so ended up fighting with each other. I imagine both of these men have significant traumatic histories and both would need a lot of practice in developing skills to not take "the low road" as Daniel Siegel, MD would call it. We really need our pre-frontal cortexes to be engaged. And unfortunately, these men ended up acting out another event that likely dug their patterns deeper, creating more unresolved shock energy needing to be discharged from their systems in a healthy and safe way.

  8. Thank you for your wisdom Daniel.

  9. Thank you so much for this timely article Cyndi and Daniel. It is a perfect reminder for me right now of a different way to respond to events and people in my life. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

  10. Thank you everybody for your comments and also for Elaine's story. Elaine, you should share that story to a wider audience.

    I will briefly share another experience, this time with metta & tonglen practice.

    During a period of illness I had to take naps and I could hear a neighbor raging at her boyfriend. This had been going on for several days. I decided then to first practice metta and then in tonglen to take my illness and her rage on each inbreath and send out a wish that she and her boyfriend would find peace within themselves.

    Within just a short while, the raging voices ended, and a little after that I fell asleep. This was just one in many experiences of being where I was and not wishing to escape and transmitting a different signal than I would have many years earlier. I am convinced that when one enters anyplace with a peaceful heart, something is transmitted.

  11. Thank you, Daniel. I have taken you advice and did share my story in my LI group and on my wall on FB as you know.

    Your story was empowering and hopeful as well.

    All my best,

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