On Tolerance and Containment

What is it that makes us react to a person when we have never looked into their eyes or spoken to them? Our sense of self is often organized in terms of our thoughts and feelings. But other people’s sense of who we are is often in terms of how they perceive our energy, the quality of our vitality and intensity. Facial expression is important but people can have a feel for us even if they can’t see our face. Have you ever had the experience of noticing the way some one is sitting or standing and had a strong feeling of attraction or repulsion toward them even if you couldn’t see their face? Somehow we relate or react to people on an energetic level. We are picking up information without words or facial expression. What is it that we are responding to? How is it that we communicate a specific message by just standing, sitting or acting in a way that we consider to be normal? If we can become aware of what our energy is communicating perhaps we might be able to be more effective in how we manage the quality of our energy and recognize how we increase discomfort or create a peaceful, pleasant feeling in a situation by just sitting or standing, just being where we are.

Certain attitudes seem to affect how we communicate without saying anything. I have noticed that in our cultural we have a tendency to swing between over expression and repression and thus we miss the important element of containment that allows us to be skillful in a social environment.

When a person is caught up in over expression they tend to increase or add to the intensity level of the situation. One way this happens is by bringing a story and the energy of past experience to the situation. In repression the tendency is to suck the energy in and doing so suck the energy present in the environment in as well as creating a sort to black hole. This actually creates the opposite to the desired effect. When we repress some feeling what we are trying to achieve is less intensity coming toward us not more. The black hole created by the sucking quality of repression increases the intensity thus adding to the anxiety or resentment. The discomfort is from restraining the natural response to what is occurring in the moment. Clearly neither over expression nor repression achieves the desired result.

The missing element is the capacity for containment. Containment is based on the ability to accept and open to the situation that presents itself. The real challenge is to do this without trying to change what is taking place. Tolerance is needed to begin to create the capacity for containment. The ability to tolerate intensity is the foundation of our ability to be present and relaxed in the face of what is. Tolerance allows us to hold or contain feelings of intensity and energy and is the basis of genuine compassion under pressure.

Energy has been described as vitality, intensity, or the capacity for action. In a more fundamental view, it is the innate activity of particles vibrating within atoms and molecules. It is vibration. Ask yourself, on a scale of 1–100, how much energy does this situation represent? If we can equalize the amount we experience that is coming to us from the outside with the same amount in our own system, then the situation will be balanced and neutralized rather than seem overwhelming.

I live in the town of San Rafael California. It is one of two places in the United States where guide dogs for the blind are trained. It is amazing and truly inspiring to watch how carefully the trainers work with the dogs in and around town. They seem to exude discipline and infinite patience. Throughout the entire year you can see them working with the dogs teaching them to navigate crosswalks, crowds and the craziness of city life. In the earlier stages of working with the harness the trainers stop and praise the dog each time it navigates a crosswalk or reads a light signal correctly. This seems to build the dog’s confidence and tolerance, two qualities it will need for staying focused in the complex and sometimes chaotic moments of city life. As in all development the training is a continuation of refinement and repetition. These dogs are a beautiful example of containment. They have to be able to function in an intense situation without adding to it or shrinking away from it.

Our confidence and tolerance can be strengthened by our own kindness and patience and by continually renewing our commitment to our spiritual path. We need to recognize that some days more intensity is coming toward us than we are comfortable with, and perhaps we may shut down or over react. Every one loses it from time to time; the important thing is not to stay lost but to recover our confidence and compassion. The experience of losing our center can serve as a reminder that we need to train and develop ourselves to be able to tolerate more intensity coming into our space. It is important to be patient, kind and firm with ourselves. We must develop the habit of coming back to center. Practice is not about staying centered, it is all about the recovery of center.

Ajhan Chah, a master in the Tai forest monk tradition, in his book The Clarity of Insight has a good metaphor for working with ourselves. He says, “You could also compare training the mind with teaching a child. It would be impossible to force a child, who still hadn’t learnt to speak, to accumulate knowledge at an unnaturally fast rate that was beyond its capability. You couldn’t get too tough with it or try teaching it more language than it could take in at any one time, because the child would simply be unable to hold its attention on what you were saying for long enough.

Your mind is similar. Sometimes it’s appropriate to give yourself some praise and encouragement; sometimes it’s more appropriate to be critical. It’s like the child: if you scold it too often and are too intense in the way you deal with it, the child won’t progress in the right way, even though it might be determined to do well. Because a child still lacks knowledge and experience and as a result will naturally lose track of the right way to go. If you force it too much, the child will be adversely affected….

The Buddha taught that training the mind involves knowing how to teach yourself and go against the grain of your desires. You have to use different skillful means to teach your mind because it constantly gets caught into moods of depression and elation. This is the nature of the unenlightened mind– it’s just like a child. Like with the child that hasn’t yet learnt to speak, its parents are in a position to teach it because they know how to speak and their knowledge of the language is greater. The parents are constantly in a position to see where their child is lacking in it’s understanding, because they know more. Training the mind is like this. “

We must learn to parent ourselves. This is a big challenge because the seduction of our culture toward the accumulation of more things has a very strong hold over us. Our lives are permeated with the message to have more, do more, be more, accomplish more – we live in a very materialistic situation. Parenting means reminding ourselves to go against the grain of these desires. Instead of succumbing to our wanting we can encourage the timeless virtues of tolerance, courage, compassion, wisdom and forgiveness. When we are surrounded by the energy of these virtues it is easy to remember that all the things in the world don’t bring us happiness and satisfaction. But when we become over stimulated through anticipation or reaction to a situation we can lose sight of the importance of those virtues and become caught up in the story of what someone is doing or what might happen.

If a person behaves in a way that makes us uncomfortable, energy begins building inside of us. Our desire for things to be different clashes with the situation as it is. The result of this conflict, of wanting something to be different and the building of energy causes us tremendous discomfort. This is the crucial point, the place where we tend to over express or repress and so a vicious cycle begins.

In order to break this cycle we need the capacity for containment. This is where the practice of tolerance and the ability to equalize the intensity can shift the entire experience. Containment is a softening of our hardness. It is an opening of our hearts and an allowing of the situation to unfold exactly as it is. If we can tolerate the intensity we may be able to discover the beginnings of our reaction. It may be the words that we notice first: our internal dialogue, something like, “I can’t believe he/she just said that. That was such an inappropriate thing to say.” If we observe carefully at some point before the words formed in our minds there was a tightening somewhere in our body. Perhaps it was the chest or jaw or the belly. Once that tightness begins it triggers the memory of previous tightness that was connected to a frustration over someone behaving in an inappropriate way. The chain of frustrations can be impressively long and very repetitive, each repetition brings energy from the past to impact the frustration in the present.

To break the cycle the sensation of the tightness in the body must be acknowledged and tolerated. As we expand making room for the energy underneath the tightness, the sore spot or wounded place begins to emerge. Now even more expansion is needed to allow this layer of energy to be exposed and accepted.

A container is that which can hold something. As we become a container for ourselves we expand to make room for all the parts that we usually either suppress or over express through story and gestures. Holding and containing these parts and exposing them to the sunlight of awareness begins to effect the quality and intensity of these emotions. And so the message that we are projecting out into the world is that of seeing what is and accepting the way things are. This means that we are not adding to or trying to subtract away from the situation. As we are balanced through the process of containment a natural presence of virtue begins to manifest. This way of being is not a big statement that says, “ Look I am full of virtues.” Rather the statement is one of quiet wisdom and support.

The maturity of containment allows us to see the big picture of our lives. We can ease up on ourselves and other people. Life is full of ups and downs, successes and failures, pain and pleasure. These moments are not bad or good in themselves. They are part of the rich and varied stream of events we refer to as ‘our life’. When we are able to contain each of these experiences without reacting they become ground, the confidence from which our wisdom and compassion grow. We must learn to tend to our seeds, pull the weeds of grasping and neediness, and shine the sunlight of awareness on every reaction. Learning to parent ourselves skillfully as Ajhan Chah suggests, is not an easy task. There are many deep and unskillful habits that must be seen and accepted. We have to make room for – without indulging in – our frustration, sadness and anxiety. Habits and patterns that originate in the body need to be exposed. For it is the energy of these habits, which lie latent in our system, that other people are responding to when they react to our presence.

We all have access to an ally of divine love. A benevolent presence is always just a breath away. It is like the Russian dolls. As we learn to contain and hold the space first for ourselves and then for others, we may recognize that there is something larger that holds space for us. The universe is a wonderful parent. As we learn to respond to the world without the weight of the past or anxiety about the future we become a mirror for the universe. The message that radiates out from us becomes that of tolerance and compassion. When we learn to tolerate our own energy we can begin to feel the loving support, the luminous presence of the divine. It holds us all.

One Comment

  1. James Cowan

    I found this a fascinating and helpful article, thank you Wendy and Tiphani.

    The practical insight I got here is our emotions of frustration (or resentment or anger), sadness and anxiety show up as “sign-posts” that unskillful habits and patterns are coming into play.

    So I can see… cultivating moment by moment awareness of when such emotions arise in our body serves the opportunity to practice Tolerance, Containment and a return to Centered presence. Brilliant!

    The implication of recognizing “that there is something larger that holds space for us” is compelling and I will definitely be exploring and practicing this quality.

    Warm wishes,

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