Thursday, August 27, 2009

Healthy Conversations about Health Care

A violent samurai who was known for picking fights for no reason arrived at the door of a Zen monastery and asked to speak to the master. The Zen master, Ryokan, who was known for his creative teaching style came out to meet him. The samurai immediately shouted at the master, trying to provoke a fight, “You say that intelligence is more powerful than strength. Prove it. Explain to me the meaning of heaven and hell.”

Ryokan remained silent. “You see?” roared the samurai. “I could explain that very easily: to show what hell is, all I need to do is beat someone up. To show what heaven is, I just let a person go free after scaring him.”

The Zen master then replied, “I don’t argue with stupid people like you.”

This made the samurai’s blood boil. His mind was filled with anger and his face became red.
“Now, that is hell,” said Ryokan, smiling. “Allowing other people to unsettle you, and responding to anger with more anger.”
The master’s courage and insight shifted the samurai warrior, his mind relaxed and the red color left his face.
“And that is heaven,” added Ryokan, inviting him in. “Not reacting to silly provocations.”

Last week a woman went to a town hall meeting looking to pick a fight, carrying a picture of President Obama with a Hitler moustache and comparing health care reform with Nazi policies. The congressman replied by calling her names. He basically replied, “I don’t talk to stupid people like you.” Only he wasn’t involved in a teaching moment like the Zen master. He took the bait, bit the hook dangled by the protestor and became genuinely angry and impatient with the woman. Unlike the Zen story, this town hall conversation spiraled out of control. I was just as unimpressed with the congressman’s anger as I was with the woman’s offensive protest.

Fighting anger with anger doesn’t work; and what’s worse, it’s bad for your health. Some anger is appropriate and needs to be expressed. Many of the world’s gravest injustices have been changed by appropriate and creative expressions of mindful anger. However, when anger is expressed inappropriately and when aggression is unchecked, it damages the very systems that keep you healthy - like your immune system and your heart.

Anger that is mindless often manifests as aggression. In his book Taming the Tiger Within, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a way to be mindfully angry. He suggests that you see your anger as a child that needs to be taken care of. Notice when you’re feeling aggressive; take time out to care for that struggling emotion, and then return to the situation in a calmer state. This is more likely to manifest as appropriate anger.

Seek ways to shift the anger of others as the Zen master managed to do, and try not to buy into the cycle of aggression. I heard a great example of this. It’s apparently a true story! A woman was driving through traffic in Washington DC. She cut in front of a guy who had to brake sharply. He was seething with anger, cursing the woman and blowing his horn. When they got to the next red light, he pulled up close behind her and stopped his car. He got out and strode towards her car, still simmering with rage. The woman saw what was happening. She got out of her car with a huge smile on her face and walked up to the angry man with her arms outstretched. Right in the middle of the street; she gave him a huge bear hug, whispered an apology in his ear, kissed him on the cheek, got back in her car and drove off. The guy was left in the street: dumbfounded, confused and a little embarrassed - but no longer angry.

Last year, in the lead up to the presidential election, health care was discussed many times. Barack Obama seemed to be able to lead the conversation in such a way that all were respected and emotions were kept in check. He responded to hateful protestors with gentleness and compassion. Some of those he has assigned to lead the current conversations seem to lack his peace of mind. The overall conversation seems to be spiraling in unhealthy directions.

This is a body, mind and spirit challenge for all of us. Aggression is bad for the health of your body. It begins in the mind; filling your thoughts, and then spreading through your body, like poison, infecting your spirit. The antidote to aggression is mindfulness - and a calm spirit. Peace of mind is good for your health, and it’s good for the health of the nation. Rid your conversations of venom and fill your thoughts, words and deeds with gentleness and compassion.