You come home after a day out. Maybe your partner had organised a little no-fuss meal as it is your birthday. You open the door into the living room which is all dark and suddenly the lights go on; people burst out from behind chairs, curtains and doors, all blowing party screamers, letting off poppers, showering you with confetti and singing Happy Birthday. What a great unexpected surprise… if you like that sort of thing.
But not every unexpected happening is so pleasant. In fact most unexpected things fit within the range of mildly inconveniencing to down right awful. As human beings we are programmed to look for pattern and order in our lives and we are happiest planning and structuring our futures. Very few of us actually thrive on the unexpected. We say, ‘It came out of the blue.’ whether it is an unexpected letter from the tax man asking for money back because of an administrative error or the sudden death of a close relative.
I think that it could be said that there are two main sorts of unexpected unpleasant events. The first I will call natural catastrophes. They tend to involve things rather than people and I’m thinking of things like roofs blowing off, car accidents or, on a larger scale, earthquakes and the like. The other I would describe as involving, or being caused by people. They take many forms from a sudden death like I mentioned above through to situations created by the actions, thoughts and feelings of others. I have in mind here the sort of situation where a work colleague suddenly tells you that you really irritate them in some way, or management suddenly announce that redundancies are on the way and you are in the front line. More personal and far more devastating is something coming from someone you love and live with. Someone I knew suddenly found themselves sitting across the table from their husband whilst he quietly and decidedly told her that he was no longer in love with her and he was leaving. Nothing that had happened up to that point had given her any idea that this was coming.
So- the bolt comes out of the blue and from my own reactions I would suggest that we react at that moment in one of two main ways.
We may be swept away by the need to react to events or by the emotions that it generates; or may be by a mixture of both. When, for instance, it is a life threatening situations we may respond almost by instinct and a rush of actions occurs as we try to cope. There is no gap between the arising of the situation and the response and it is only later when the immediate crisis is passing that we start to reflect on what has happened and start to plan a way forward. Often when it is a situation generated by another person, or people, a huge rush of emotion is generated, which may be anger, shame, embarrassment or one of many strong feeling depending on the situation and your particular mental patterns but, in any case, you are overwhelmed by the feelings and it may be some time before you come to consciousness of yourself and can reflect on what is happening.
The other common reaction to the unexpected is to feel disassociated from what is happening. This is often expressed in the phrase, ‘This can’t be happening to me.’ and for a while it seems as if there is a huge glass wall between yourself and the event. It’s almost as if you are in a dream watching events and even your reactions.
In the case of either reaction that I have described to the unexpected, or indeed to any other reaction that you may have, there is a moment, before your uncontrolled response kicks in, when you can meet the situation with real consciousness. That is to say not swept away, not totally alienated, but aware in the moment and accepting and acknowledging what is happening. You know that stuff is happening, it is happening to you but that ‘you’ is just an expression of the Universal Consciousness that we are all part of. I have talked about this awareness behind phenomena that has no intrinsic qualities in itself and it is an important part of Buddhist thought. It is often called Shunyata.
But this ‘seizing the moment’, although it makes the situation manageable when it happens is not easy to grasp. That is why the Lojong texts on which these articles are based talks about ‘joining the unexpected with meditation’. Only some considerable meditation practice and practice of insightful awareness will create the mind set where this joining the situation in the right way has a chance to occur- and if my experience is anything to go by, even then not always!
But this being one with the moment and with all creation is true compassion. Compassion is not about wanting to be kind to animals and old ladies and doing good deeds. It is about knowing to your core that you are one with all creation so that compassionate action for others, yourself and things is not a choice, not an act of will, it is just what you do.