Letting the Impulse Pass

The “Bliss of Blamelessness” is mentioned in early Buddhist teachings, and it’s a wonderful feeling to be free from remorse.  Of course, we can’t undo the past, but we can avoid the nagging discomfort of most future regrets by resisting impulsive actions.  

Sure, but how?  If it were easy, life as animals who depend on social interaction for survival would be so much more pleasant.  We can’t intervene in the impulsive reactions of others, but we can curb our own, thus reducing the amount of unpleasantness that others react to.  It’s a net gain for all humanity and other species, too.  All we have to do is set the intention to let impulses pass, and then practice doing it.  And practice some more.

Sudden strong impulses are usually triggered by forms of suffering like anger, frustration, fear and craving, or other feelings that events in our lives have made us especially vulnerable to.  Because they’re often so sudden and urgent, strong impulses can slip right past our better judgment. 

In a conversation with my Monday evening group, we shared methods for letting  impulses pass.  One man said his best defense against acting rashly was to meditate regularly.  It helped keep his head clear enough to think in that tiny bit of time between a provocative event and his reaction.  He found it saved him a lot of time either apologizing, or the hassle of future dealings with still-angry people.

Frustration often triggered one woman’s habitual impulse to snack.  The pleasure of eating calmed her down, and made whatever was frustrating her more tolerable.  But it came with a cost to her physical wellbeing.  It was a big step in the direction of freedom to know about this link.  Bringing compassion to herself for feeling frustrated further weakens the compulsion.

I try to avoid acting impulsively by staying in tune with the way emotions affect my body, so I know when I’m upset.  Sensations of burning and tension put me on notice that my emotions are intense, and that I need to double check any notions that pop into my head of how to react.  Often it takes a while before I can respond with wisdom.

The old advice of counting to three or taking a deep breath before reacting has a decidedly Buddhist version.  Mark Badger shared a 5-breath method adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh:  1) Breathing in I feel this emotion; breathing out I feel this emotion.  2)  Breathing in and out, I feel the reactions to this emotion.  3)  Breathing in and out, I feel calm in this emotion.  4)  Breathing in and out, I feel at ease in this emotion.  5)  Breathing in and out I understand/know how this emotion arises. 

In Mark’s experience, it’s important to hold these feelings gently, opening to them as much as you can each time.  The emotions will unfold in their own way.  As with most people, the insight of 5) usually doesn’t arise for Mark, “until I’m driving somewhere or doing something totally different and then wammo, insight actually hits.”

There are probably many more devices for letting the impulse pass, and it doesn’t hurt to try a lot of them till we find what works for us now.  Once we recognize the suffering that impulsive action causes us and others, and decide to do what we can to avoid it, we’re well on our way.  From there, it’s like how you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

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