To have a decent shot at developing our personal character, we must bring the mind itself under control. For this . . . We should prepare for a lifetime of challenge, as there is no more difficult task in life.  One test of progress is how calm we remain under provocation. On what does our ability to do that depend and how might we enhance it?
Mountaineering over a molehill
I offered to support a colleague, but during the exchange he offloaded irritation in my direction. It was a simple conflict – a difference between my preference and my perception of reality. Normally this wouldn’t upset my easy-going disposition. Someone’s else’s issue, not mine. But I made his mood the basis of my own and became upset because he was upset. Whatever he’d intended, I’d seen provocation and was no longer calm. Insane, really.
In the wider context of my life and this relationship, the issue was of no consequence. But at that moment it seemed like a Very Big Deal – as all personal adversity can appear at the time we encounter it.
Although I consider myself to be interpersonally adept, I sometimes find certain kinds of interpersonal conflict difficult to deal with – as many people do – because of the historical emotional chain reactions they can trigger. This is what had happened here. I was not really in that moment. I was time-travelling.
I awfulised my reaction to the event by recalling previous unwarranted and unjust reactions from others where I’d intended goodwill. Reaching back decades at a time I remembered, as an absolute truth, that This always happens to me. I predicted with absolute certainty, It’s going to ruin things – again!
Within nanoseconds of the original event, my knee-jerk reaction transformed someone’s unremarkable grumpy mood into their careless and unfair disregard for my feelings and possibly, probably, deliberate malice. Now a victim, I was hurt. I’d dug myself a deep drain, jumped in and couldn’t find my way out.
The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell. John Milton
The part of me able to retain some objectivity about my misery, knew I’d chosen that view and was responsible for creating every step in the process of perception: my belief (this always happens . . . ), my thoughts (it’s happened again and it’s not fair . . . ) and feelings (sadness, hurt and annoyance). I also knew I could choose a different view by following some simple steps to change my attitude. But my subjective self, deeply involved in the drama I’d created, wrestled with that knowledge.
My parade has been rained on and I was determined to be unhappy. It seemed important to polish the sides of the drain I was in, to make escape more difficult. Half an hour after the initial incident I was still gloomy and by then, feeling guilty about my mood.
My ego was preoccupied with circular thinking, like a dog chasing its own tail. I was dwelling on my mistaken choice of attitude, then feeling guilty for the new mistake of dwelling, then dwelling on my new mistake and so on . . . desperate to offload my guilt to certain long-deceased members of my family-of-origin for having modeled this particular emotional habit. Their fault, not mine!
I’d brought the past into the present to complicate my attitude-management processes and worsen my mood. It’s a tedious and toxic cycle that used to take me days, or longer, to disrupt.
Fears and memories from the past are a constant inhibition to free action in the present, while projections on to an imaginary future prevent us from truly experiencing the realities of the day. John Krishnamurti
Disrupting the process
We can’t intentionally change what we don’t notice, so I’ve taught myself to pay close attention to my own processes of consciousness – my perception-forming habits – as they happen (or at times when I forget, shortly afterwards). This involves part meta-cognition, part emotional agility and part mindfulness to disrupt subjectivity and regain objectivity. I recovered my equilibrium by remembering and engaging these practices.
To make the mood shift, I initiated a two-minute practice I’d designed and rehearsed as “first aid” for any internally- or externally-imposed adversity I encounter. [This is among many techniques for containing stress and cultivating personal resilience, described in my new book, Even Under Pressure.]
I repeated the process until my perception of the original incident returned to a more benign view: a colleague had been rather grumpy. No Big Deal. An opportunity for me to listen and extend helpfulness. My calm outlook was restored.
Simple, not effortless
Developing and regaining emotional buoyancy for difficult times is often that simple. But simplicity is not necessarily easy or effortless. Disciplined practice is what makes it easy to swim against the powerful current of our past conditioning – a skill most called-for in the most difficult situations of our lives. [Even Under Pressure is designed to provide simple guidance and support for developing it.]
Every step we take towards intentionally countering our outmoded reactive tendencies (towards anger, guilt or despondency for example) strengthens our personal character It’s definitely a life-long process, but a very satisfying one. Portia Nelson has described amusingly and accurately what seem to be inevitable stages of the process, in her brief poem, often known as Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. [If that link is broken, see here.]
You can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your desires. But you can master your desires and habits of thought. Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
 Eknath Easwaran