There is an ancient tale that takes place in feudal Japan that speaks directly to our ability to get triggered by strong emotions. A samurai warrior named Nobushige came to visit Hakuin, a Zen monk, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”
“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.
“I am a samurai,” the warrior replied proudly.
“You? A soldier?” sneered Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? You look like a beggar.”
Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword. Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably too dull to cut off my head.”
Nobushige unsheathed his sword in a flash of fury. Hakuin remarked: “Here open the gates of hell!” At these words the samurai, perceiving the monk’s wisdom, put away his sword and bowed. The monk bowed in return and said, “Here open the gates of paradise.”
In the blink of an eye the samurai had realized the crucial difference between being caught up in a feeling and being aware he was swept away by it. His awareness created space that kept him from killing the monk.
We can all sympathize with the samurai. Whether being dressed down by our boss or trying to resolve differences with a loved one, we continually find ourselves triggered by difficult thoughts and feelings. There is nothing wrong with having these thoughts or feelings. What is important is what we do next.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) calls this moment the choice point. Faced with a difficult situation and the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that arise, we can choose to move away or move towards the things that matter to us or the type of person we want to be. Our default setting is to get hooked by whatever triggered us and to draw our swords. But we always have a choice to unhook from difficult thoughts and feelings and move towards the type of life we want to build. At any time, we can bring awareness to our habitual reactions and reconnect with our basic goodness. Without shame or guilt, we simply notice when we are choosing to open the gates of “paradise” or “hell.” In this moment, which gate will you choose?