Mice live in our walls but do not trouble our kitchen. We are pleased but cannot understand why they do not come into our kitchen where we have traps set, as they come into the kitchens of our neighbors. Although we are pleased, we are also upset, because the mice behave as though there were something wrong with our kitchen. What makes this even more puzzling is that our house is much less tidy than the houses of our neighbors. There is more food lying about in our kitchen, more crumbs on the counters and filthy scraps of onion kicked against the base of the cabinets. In fact, there is so much loose food in the kitchen I can only think the mice themselves are defeated by it. In a tidy kitchen, it is a challenge for them to find enough food night after night to survive until spring. They patiently hunt and nibble hour after hour until they are satisfied. In our kitchen, however, they are faced with something so out of proportion to their experience that they cannot deal with it. They might venture out a few steps, but soon the overwhelming sights and smells drive them back into their holes, uncomfortable and embarrassed at not being able to scavenge as they should.
A well-meaning teacher, inspired by a text he had been reading, once sent all the other teachers in his school a message about negative emotions. The message consisted entirely of advice quoted from a Vietnamese Buddhist monk:
Emotion, said the monk, is like a storm: it stays for a while and then it goes. Upon perceiving the emotion (like a coming storm), one should put oneself in a stable position. One should sit or lie down. One should focus on one’s abdomen. One should focus, specifically, on the area just below one’s navel, and practice mindful breathing. If one can identify the emotion as an emotion, it may then be easier to handle.
The other teachers were puzzled. They did not understand why their colleague had sent a message to them about negative emotions. They resented the message, and they resented their colleague. They thought he was accusing them of having negative emotions and needing advice about how to handle them. Some of them were, in fact, angry.
The teachers did not choose to regard their anger as a coming storm. They did not focus on their abdomens. They did not focus on the area just below their navels. Instead, they wrote back immediately, declaring that because they did not understand why he had sent it, his message had filled them with negative emotions. They told him that it would take a lot of practice for them to get over the negative emotions caused by his message. But, they went on, they did not intend to do this practice. Far from being troubled by their negative emotions, they said, they in fact liked having negative emotions, particularly about him and his message.
For years my mother said I was selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc. She was often annoyed. If I argued, she held her hands over her ears. She did what she could to change me but for years I did not change, or if I changed, I could not be sure I had, because a moment never came when my mother said, “You are no longer selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc.” Now I’m the one who says to myself, “Why can’t you think of others first, why don’t you pay attention to what you’re doing, why don’t you remember what has to be done?” I am annoyed. I sympathize with my mother. How difficult I am! But I can’t say this to her, because at the same time that I want to say it, I am also here on the phone coming between us, listening and prepared to defend myself.