Buddha within the green
Creative Commons License photo credit: magical-world

We each are confronted daily with stress and anger that is projected outwards by others. Beginning in the morning with road rage on the way to work, taken up by a stressed snappy boss, followed by another dose of traffic gridlock on the way back home and topped off by our grouchy, stressed and exhausted partners who come home from work after soaking up this sort of thing all day long.


A few years ago I decided to try an experiment. I had been reading about the secret of the inner smile and wanted to test it under the pressure of modern life. Whenever I drove in traffic I would maintain a small smile, just a little uplifting of the corners of my mouth. I would smile quite literally to myself. The energy of my smile directed towards myself. It works as a feed back loop. If some other person smiles at you this feels good and there is a tendency to smile back. So smiling at myself made me feel good which made me smile even more which made me feel even better, and so on.

My aim was to notice whenever my smile slipped, as quickly as possible, and return to smiling. Simply maintaining the inner smile for the duration of a drive lasting three quarters of an hour was not an easy task. Add being cut off in traffic and slow drivers at fast changing traffic lights and the task was rather difficult to begin with. Over time though it became easy and now, generally speaking, it takes quite a lot for anything to even begin to irritate me. This applies both while driving and in life in general. There are still days when things will finally get to me but such days have become fewer and farther between.

Since that time I have been confronted with a rather ironic twist. Once the usual daily pressures of life did not impact so easily upon my state of being the angst of others became highly noticeable. The ease by which other people would fly into a rage over the smallest unimportant thing or get upset over a change in plans really stood out. Having developed past that sort of behavior I ironically started to become more and more irritated by what I considered the infantile behavior of others. That is I noticed I became irritated by other people who tended to be singularly incapable of handling the simple pressures of daily life without unnecessary drama. It struck me that I had rooted out what apparently was a gross level of some sort of issue within myself only to emerge into a subtler incarnation of the exact same issue.

At that point I was reminded of what, Chang San-Feng, the legendary creator of Tai Chi, said:

“If you see other people doing evil and conceive aversion to them, that is like seeing people destroy themselves, stretching out their necks to the sword to kill themselves. They are doing evil on their own, and it is no business of yours. So why detest them? This is one’s own mental illness.”

I think the reason why the angst of others got to me to such an extent is because of what I call “entrainment”. After working so diligently at developing equanimity. After eliminating much of the power of external factors over my internal state of being, the power of the law of entrainment really caught me by surprise. Entrainment is an important law of this world that I like to keep in the back of my mind. I’ve written about entrainment in previous articles such as How to Skillfully Deal with Suffering in the World and The Only Way to Truly Help Others.

In the context of this article the implication of entrainment is simple. If someone projects their stress or their anger through their body language and tone of voice, even if they are not angry with you specifically, you will start to take on and reflect that stress and anger back to that person. You entrain to their level of energy to the extent where you take on and project what they themselves are projecting. This ties in very deeply with my belief that we get back what we give out instantaneously and also over time.

We all experience this when someone comes up to us in an angry manner and really gets stuck into us. They get their anger right back as we can’t help but begin to feel physical tension and anger ourselves. Conversely if someone smiles at us it is only natural that we smile back in return.

You may be wondering why I would want to achieve such a thing as the disconnecting of the state of my inner being from the influence of the outer world. Consider this. Our universe is in a constant state of flux. Not one thing ever remains the same. All that was, is no more, and all that currently is will go the same way. Everything is in a constant state of transformation. There is birth, followed by death. Which provides the impetus for birth, and so on. Buddhists call this principle of our universe Impermanence.

On the one hand impermanence is beautiful. It allows for the wondrous transforming multiplicity of our world. On the other hand, because we often behave as if impermanence does not exist, it is the source of great suffering. For example, many of us pursue wealth, relationships and many other things besides with the idea that the object of our pursuit will, once ours, bring us happiness.

Unfortunately due to the fact of impermanence anything we posses today is bound to someday slip through our fingers like so much sand. If you depend upon external factors for you happiness, when that time comes, so to will suffering. Even before then many of us willingly take on great suffering in the process of acquiring that which we desire. We ruin our health, our relationships and ultimately our chance for happiness. Then once we have our hands on what we have worked so hard to acquire we tend to worry day and night about ensuring it stays ours.

Thus you can see, by having an inner state of being that is happy and joyous in and of itself and by looking upon the external world in an equanimous manner, it is my reasoning that one can live a truly happy life.

So how to skillfully handle the projected stress and anger of others without entraining to their energy? I am reminded by a story of the Buddha. There was a man named Akkosina, whose name means “not getting angry.” However, this man was exactly the opposite. He was always getting angry. When he heard that the Buddha never got angry with anyone, he decided to visit him. He went up to the Buddha and scolded him for all sorts of things, insulting him and calling him awful names. At the end of his tirade, the Buddha asked his man if he had any friends and relatives:

“Yes,” he replied.
“When you visit them, do you take them gifts?” The Buddha asked.
“Of course,” said the man. “I always bring them gifts.”
“What happens if they don’t accept your gifts,” the Buddha asked.
“Well I just take them home and enjoy them with my own family.”
“And likewise,” said the Buddha, “You have bought me a gift today that I do not accept. You may take that gift home to your family.”

With mindfulness we can watch how our mind responds to others. Just as one does sitting in insight meditation one can watch the arising of attachment and aversion. In this sense mindfulness is like a safety net that cushions us against unskillful actions. Mindfulness gives us time; time gives us choices. We don’t have to be swept away by our feelings. We can respond with wisdom rather then delusion.


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