Saturday, December 13, 2008

Keeping Your Seat

The idea of "keeping your seat" -- an image from the Shambhala teachings on enlightened warriorship -- is about meeting whatever situations arise in our lives with total confidence and equanimity. Even in the face of danger or unpleasantness, we have a choice about whether to spin out into reactivity (which often only makes the situation worse), or to hold our seat and stay present with an open mind and see what happens.

A few years ago, I had a chance to put this teaching to the test in a very literal way. I was attending a meditation retreat in upstate New York. Walking in the woods nearby, I had been delighted to discover an idyllic, private meditation spot. Nestled in the forest was a creek fed by natural springs, and on a little island where the creek split into two streams was a wedge of rock that made a perfect seat for meditation. I loved to visit that spot whenever I could sneak away by myself for an hour or two.

So there I was, meditating alone in the woods, listening to the peaceful trickle of the water flowing past on either side of me, basking in the glory of nature, resting my attention peacefully on my breath. And that's when I saw, out of the corner of my eyes, a shadowy figure move in the woods.

Looking up the trail, I saw two large, vicious-looking wild pack dogs -- like wolves, only bigger. Although they were still some distance away -- maybe 200 yards -- they had spotted me immediately, and began to bark aggressively and run towards me at full speed.

My heart jumped into my throat. In an instant, my peaceful, idyllic meditation in the woods had been shattered, transformed into a fearful situation in which I might be maimed or killed by wild dogs.

Because of the distance, I had about ten seconds to think before reacting. My mind raced through the options. Option A: I could try to run, but that would only fuel the dogs' aggression, and I was sure I couldn't outrun them anyway. Option B: I could climb a nearby tree, but then I'd be stuck up there and the dogs could hold me captive. Option C: I could stand and fight, using the walking stick I'd picked up in the woods.

Or, it occurred to me, I could simply choose not to react from fear in any of these rather predictable ways, but go for Option D: remain seated and let the dogs come to me and see what happens. I could have the courage to hold my seat, literally, on this rock in the middle of the woods, and let the dogs of aggression come charging at me and simply not buy into their storyline.

So I did.

And sure enough, when the dogs got close to me and saw that I was not going to jump up and react to them, they got spooked and froze in their tracks, about ten feet away. By holding my seat, radiating confidence and equanimity rather than mirroring the dogs' fear-based aggression through my own display of fear-based aggression, I had gained the upper hand. Since the dogs didn't know what to make of my non-reactivity, the whole momentum of their forward charge was short-circuited.

This experience demonstrated for me the truth of the Buddhist teachings about non-aggression. In a world where aggression is often the norm, non-aggression is outrageous. Whatever life throws at us, whatever wild dogs come charging at us, we always have a choice about how to respond. Sometimes, in an effort to protect ourselves, we react in predictable ways that add fuel to the fire and only intensify the negativity of others. But sometimes, if the circumstances allow, we could experiment with simply holding our seat and not reacting to protect ourselves, and see what happens. We might find that doing this opens up a whole new way of relating to the situation.


Nick Vail said...

Incredible story, Dennis.
Thank you for sharing.
It truly is inspiring to hear...I wish we all heard more of this kind of thing!
At the same time, I just wonder how many similar situations occur when the participants are unable to relate the outcome (for whatever reason).

Anonymous said...

Inspiring story... Reminds me of my own encounters with perceived wolves crossing my path any given day in NYC... and how subtle my inner dialogue/judgements and unconscious actions can be, based solely on the form of others.