Updated: Jul 2, 2022
Last night, my son snuck into my room, grabbed my laptop from the desk by the door and slipped out. I checked my watch. It was 2:47 a.m. I spent the day gutting the bathroom and was exhausted. "I'll deal with this in the morning," I told myself and returned to sleep.
"Who took my laptop?" I asked my sons when they woke up.
They both said they hadn't. I felt anger rising. Gaming, scrolling YouTube videos or connecting with friends at 2 in the morning was concerning but not a major offense. Maybe they couldn't sleep and were bored.
I didn't condone lying or dishonesty, however.
"One of you is lying to me."
Both again denied taking it.
I had just returned from a 10 day meditation retreat, but felt like the old me was about to erupt like a dormant volcano. I felt tension rising. Both swore they did not take it which made me madder. I had just enough sense to remove myself. I went searching for the laptop. I needed time and space to settle down. I would get to the truth later.
When I checked the basement, I saw sheets on the floor, Ritz crackers on my workbench and a protein shake on one of my conga drums.
"Boys, get down here!" I yelled.
"Who did this?"
Again, they denied everything and started pointing fingers. The old me was wound up and coiling to strike. The guy who facilitates meditation retreats and blogs on compassion was terrifying his sons. My daughter started crying.
"Whose shoes are these?"
"Not mine," said one.
"Those aren't ours," said the other.
Then I paused, took a breath, and surveyed the room. My camping gear was on the floor. The back door was slightly opened.
If those weren't their shoes...
My tone softened.
"Somebody was here."
"Dad, the mountain bike is gone."
It wasn't my son who entered my room at 2:47 in the morning, but an intruder.
"I'm so sorry," I said and started investigating. I saw a boys sized t-shirt with vomit stains and vomit on the floor. The sheets were stained with feces. I noticed a pair of boots, pants, and another shirt on the floor. There was half a bottle of prune juice on the work table. Too much prune juice? I wondered.
The upstairs bedrooms were dark. Whoever navigated to the room knew where they were going.
I thought I knew who the suspect was.
I provide a safe space for kids in the neighborhood. Some are troubled. I let them use the gym, the bicycles, the instruments. I feed them, and look out for them. They would often drop by the house unannounced and were warmly welcomed like family.
This morning, it appeared that two entered the house.
I called the police to file a report. I told the officer I had my suspects, but wanted to approach them first. He thought this would be best.
The boys denied it. Now, law enforcement will take next steps.
I approach most setbacks with equanimity, but this hurt.
First, I lost my head with those I love most. My father would have beaten me if he suspected I was lying. That conditioning and intergenerational trauma was still there. That I did not assault my children did not seem like much of a victory, however. Moments like these show me just how far I've come and how much work I have yet to do.
I embrace the regret; it edifies. We can use these experiences to strengthen our resolve to do better, to communicate with greater care and skill.
Someone on retreat asked me what I had gained after so many years of meditation. Had I attained enlightenment? Had I experienced jhanas? Was I blissful? Was I happy?
"I'm less stupid," I replied- less volatile, less impatient, less impulsive, less reckless, less judgmental, less critical, less selfish. Incremental gains.
Second, my faith in my work was undermined.
"That's why I don't get involved with kids like that," several friends said. I was disappointed to hear that. If more people invested in the well-being of others in their communities, I thought, perhaps there would be less delinquency, less isolation, less hopelessness. Now, I was reconsidering my position.
On retreat, a teacher said it was unwise to keep company with fools. In the Mangala Sutta, fools are people who are unable to tell right from wrong. As a result, they cause harm to others through their actions. The Bible lists similar injunctions: "Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm." (Proverbs 13:20)
These injunctions have merit.
Many of the people I love roam dark places- some struggle with addiction, some have records or checkered pasts. I do not keep company with them in their transgression, but stand in solidarity with them in their suffering.
Compassion is the altruistic motivation to relive others of their suffering. The attempt to save or fix those in desperate need of help, however, can become problematic if the "help" releases others of personal responsibility. In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz writes: “Humans are addicted to suffering at different levels and to different degrees." Often, we inadvertently enable others and support them in maintaining their brokenness or victimization.
My faith in my work would be undermined if I worked with attachment. To continue, I must work without expecting anything in return (including gratitude, appreciation, or transformation). In many traditions, working with detachment is the ideal.
Those who hurt need correction and guidance, but those who hurt may also need a good ass whoopin. What we call Life or Karma or natural consequences can be as impartial, unmoving, unforgiving and as merciless as any correction one might render.
Third, rethinking kindness. Kindness is sometimes equated with foolishness and weakness. I have a more expansive view of kindness, however, which Shakespeare expressed well: "I must be cruel in order to be kind." A stern rebuke, strict discipline, a punishment, or a stint in prison can wake others up from their stupor and delusions.
If I had suspected an intruder, the old me- the boxer, the soldier, the fighter- would have sprung up and attacked... and the new me would have bandaged him up with loving kindness.
In May 2001, the Dalai Lama gave a talk to high school students at a summit in Oregon. One girl wanted to know how he, a pacifist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, would react to a shooter who took aim at a classmate if he had a gun. If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, he said, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun. Not at the head where the wound could be fatal, but some other part like a leg. He said forgiveness should then be extended to the perpetrators. This is a less stupid approach. It honors the principles of pacifism, and spares the lamb from slaughter for the salvation of the damned.
Fourth, my misplaced kindness and trust in the fundamental goodness of others put my children at risk. I dropped them off with their mother as they would likely not have slept comfortably here. Despite that, she texted that they did not sleep well. I tried to provide a safe space for kids in the neighborhood. Now, my children feel unsafe in my own home. A father is a protector. My lapse in judgment compromised their sense of safety.
In the Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad advises a Bedouin to: "Trust in God, but tie your camel." I called an alarm company to set up surveillance cameras and an alarm system. Less stupid.
Concerns aside, I've not wasted the experience. There is learning to be mined. Unexpected events trigger the release of noradrenaline, a neuromodulator which helps the brain focus attention and learn from events. Noradrenaline is produced by a structure deep in the brain called the locus coeruleus.
The authors of a recent MIT study showed that “the locus coeruleus encodes unexpected events, and paying attention to those surprising events is crucial for the brain to take stock of its environment." (Breton-Provencher et al., 2022)
Noradrenaline is one of several neuromodulators that influence the brain, along with dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine. Neuromodulators affect large swathes of the brain and exert brain-wide functions. Noradrenaline reinforces learning, or learning by trial and error.
Noradrenaline has been linked to arousal. Noradrenaline boosts alertness. Too much can lead to anxiety. Coupled with dopamine it can heighten motivation and learning. I leverage this heightened awareness to grow.
There were choice points moment to moment throughout the day- decisions to make and actions to take. Years of meditation training, the single pointed focus on one object, the interoceptive awareness of the arising and passing of sensations, the deconstruction of thoughts and emotions, and the daily practice of compassion and forgiveness serve us well when s*** happens.
A very different process could have unfolded. Absent dopamine, noradrenaline promotes fear. Inhibitory neurons in the amygdala generate a repetitive bursting pattern of electrical discharges which changes the frequency of brain wave oscillations in the amygdala from a resting state to an aroused state. This unfolding promotes the formation of fear memories (Fu et al., 2022).
Worrying compromises sleep, especially if you were asleep when the traumatizing event took place. The brain will correct by remaining hyper-vigilant at night. A poor night's sleep undermines the health and optimal functioning of body and mind. In extreme cases, Post Traumatic Stress can take root.
Knowing the science and applying it was beneficial. I gave myself time to dial down the sympathetic response. With deep breathing, relaxation techniques, open awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, as well as self-monitoring, we can regulate the stress response and allow the body to return to homeostasis, allowing the catecholamines, glucocorticoids and other stress related hormones that were secreted to meet the demands of the moment dissolve back into the body. More specifically, 5-30 minutes of deep breathing will slow the heart rate, breath and metabolism. Intentionally, we can induce a relaxation response with a frequency of 6 breaths per minute or less. With each exhalation, we scan the body and release any tension (paying particular attention to the neck, shoulders, muscles of the face, position of the tongue, muscles of the hands and thighs). We give attention to sensations within the body: the throbbing, tingling, pounding, tightness, shaking, etc. We can do this anywhere. The more we practice, the more proficient we get at dialing down the sympathetic (stress) response and maintaining calm.
We let go of storylines. Once the mind and body have settled somewhat, we can apply perspective.
Where there is constriction- self-pity, anger, fear, despair- we can accept and allow it to be. By accepting what is there, we can release it. We release through kindness and compassion- not by rejecting, suppressing or condemning what is alive in us. That energy- the fear, the anxiety, the excitement- simply needs to flow. If adrenaline flooded the body, I sometimes release it through movement. Gradually, I return to a state of equilibrium.
I slept well last night.
Like this, we can weather whatever arises as it arises and keep our balance of mind. If- being human- we temporarily lose our balance of mind, as I did, we can quickly self-correct, mend, and move on. With every challenge we face, we grow in resilience, in equanimity, in patience, in wisdom, in experience. I am not enlightened, but I am a little less stupid.