I was reading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron a couple of weeks ago, and in one of the essays she writes about the story of the Buddha transforming arrows shot at him into flowers – neutralizing their threat. Chodron offers the insight that we can all do this. That in our lives we have things or people we perceive as threats, but that by changing your perceptions we can melt the threat, because usually it is not actually real. I have had this experience myself, and when it happens it is freeing and transformational. But it is much easier said than done. When we see someone or something as a threat, it triggers our ancient survival instincts. We see it as real, in part because our brains are wired that way. Evolutionarily, social threats were just as real as physical threats. Our chances of survival greatly increased to the extent that we collaborated with others and were secure in our group membership. Being in community protected us from lions in the grass. This well-established neural-pathway means that people we perceive to disrespect or dislike us are sometimes viewed as a serious risk to our well-being. In response, we become more reactive, defensive, and outwardly focused – trying to either dominate to maintain status, or placate in order to avoid conflict, or any number of other behaviors.
These types of reactions to group membership threats served us well when we actually lived on the savanna where there were real lions. Now, not so much. I know that when I see someone as a threat, it is difficult to shift my perspective and recognize that my survival is not actually at stake. One of my preferred methods for changing arrows into flowers is the work of Byron Katie. Her method of deep inquiry helps me realize that the threats I react to as real may not actually be so. But to be effective, I can’t have it be a purely intellectual exercise. It has to be deeper than that, operating down at the level of my body, my physical reality – the same level where things are perceived as threats in the first place. And it usually is not a once and done experience, but has to be repeated over and over. Every time I slow down and examine the true nature of something or someone that triggers my threat response, I learn something new about myself, and perhaps am remapping my neural-pathways. Turning arrows into flowers, one petal, one neuron at a time.