Don’t react. Respond. (Part 1 of 2)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
— Walt Whitman
You’re never alone with a schizophrenic.
— Ian Hunter
You’d like my friend and colleague, Alex. He’s a super smart entrepreneur, an almost prototypical young startup founder, contagiously energetic about tech and business but also warm and optimistically committed to modern liberal values. One way or another — or multiple ways — he wants to make the world better.
Which was most of why I made an angel investment in his nascent company. Whether the business works in the long run only time will tell, but regardless, he’s him. And I’ll bet on that.
But one day he surprised me. We were chatting about a philanthropy he was supporting and I suggested it sounded like a real-world version of metta, the Buddhist concept of using meditative thinking to send loving-kindness to others. I thought it was a compliment. But Alex’s face clouded over.
“Sorry, Steve, no.” he said. “I know what metta is. And it’s nothing like that. Definitely not.”
I was taken aback by his intensity.
Alex sighed. “Look,” he said. “Buddhism’s really interesting intellectually. And the people I know who are into it, I really like. But I just can’t go there. Not in my heart. Buddhism’s about detachment. About being dispassionate. That’s just not me. I’m passionate! I want to be part of a wave! A movement of people actively working to better the world! I don’t want to be detached. I want to be engaged. Very, very, very engaged.”
That struck a chord with me.
Me, too, Alex.
But Alex’s words also unsettled me. I really enjoy meditation. I practice daily. And I’m very into metta. And the idea of being mindful, of being, yes, a bit detached. I think it’s changing me and my life in real, helpful ways.
But was Alex right? Was my newfound dispassion suffocating my passion? Disconnecting me from my high-revving inner motor? Because I really, really don’t want that.
That inner motor is me. For my whole life I’ve thought so.
And Alex isn’t wrong — Buddhism generally, and meditation specifically, focus a lot on trying to achieve what practitioners often call equanimity. Calm. Comfort, even with discomfort. Perspective. On everything. Even just on… being alive. Breathing. Thinking.
In other words, yes: Detachment.
But can we be both passionate and dispassionate? Or do we have to choose?
All my life I’d believed: Choose. And I chose passion. I dropped out of an Ivy league college to follow my heart to film school. Later I became a startup entrepreneur. Passion’s been my rocket fuel. Some launches blew up. Some reached the stars. But I always assumed my high-revving inner motor was an essential component, the root of who I am. So much that in the past I erected a wall around it. I’ve gone to therapy several times and benefited greatly working with caregivers and coaches. But every time I started with a new therapist (four and counting) I commenced by saying:
“Please, help me. But please. Don’t change me.”
Meaning: Don’t disconnect me from my high-revving inner motor. Sometimes it gets me in trouble. But… it’s me.
So Alex’s words shook me. Was I violating my own rule? Meditation is relatively new for me. I started less than a year ago. Maybe I screwed up. Maybe before embarking on that path, I should have said to my caregiver (me):
Please. Don’t change me.
But I recalled a conversation I’d had years earlier with my friend and (then) life coach, Jerry Colonna.
“My problem is, I get too emotional about things,” I told Jerry, “I need to stop feeling everything so much. What should I do?”
I was worried I was too raw, open and vulnerable, and that that was holding me back, professionally and personally. That messy emotions were making me less effective at work, a lesser husband and father. Shouldn’t I just squelch that mess? Become unemotional. Not serious anger management. Just… the everyday rollercoaster. Yes, some anger. But also anxiety. Fear. Clinginess. Disappointment. Euphoria. Paranoia. The works.
Jerry didn’t buy it. “You should do nothing.” he told me. “You’re human. An emotional being. That’s what being human is. Turning off emotions is to be less human. Is that what you want? We all know people who’ve done that. Do you really want to be more like them?”
No, I didn’t. I wanted to live as a full-blown human. So I want to feel. All of it. The fabulous and the awful. That’s what being human is — an emotional mess.
That hasn’t changed: I still want that. So, I decided Alex offered a false choice. Mindfulness doesn’t conflict with energy and activism. I’m not using it to stifle passions and it’s not a side effect, either. Rather, I’m working to utilize, amplify and enjoy feelings more, by learning to perceive and be comfortable with them. Yes, with some detachment. But to embrace the essential me. And have enough distance to not let passions yank me around, make life feel like a flimsy boat on rough seas.
Years ago I hung a sign in my office:
“Don’t react. Respond.”
It’s taking me a lifetime to take my own advice, I guess. But now I have a useful tool to help.
In Don’t React. Respond (Part 2 ) I explore how the mindful approach helps me as an investor and entrepreneur — and how it could have made me much better in my past.