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
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
I 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
“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.
Daniel 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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