Reaction Toning: The Alchemy of Reaction

The Alchemy of Reactivity
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Reaction Toning: The Alchemy of Reaction

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As promised, here is the dharma practice that I find most useful for those just starting out. Anyone can do this. The virtue of this particular practice is that it is totally fresh and in the moment. It brings us face-to-face with ourselves every time. In fact, we can’t avoid it, and there is nothing abstract about it. It requires no real effort on our part; in fact, it liberates energy. The technique is based on a variation of the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen, and this variation was presented to (and approved by) my Tibetan Buddhist teacher of thirty-three years as a valid practice. It works really well and teaches us about the nature of our self as we progress with it.

The technique was inspired by Harvard psychologist (and Tibetan translator and practitioner) Daniel P. Brown, when he pointed out that in the classic Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the word “Suffering,” might be better translated as “Reactivity,” thus the first truth would be “The Truth of Reactivity,” “The Cause of Reactivity,” “The Cessation of Reactivity,” and so on.

The point is that our “Reactivity” is important for us to be aware of and the technique I am sharing with you here is called “Reaction Tonglen,” sometimes called reaction-toning. It is all about the lessening and removal of reactivity in our life. And it is so easy to do.


And this dharma practice couldn’t be any simpler. Once we become aware of them, our reactions become obvious to us. There is nothing abstract about them. They are visceral and sharp, right in our face, and are served up with no effort on our part. We don’t have to go looking from them because knee-jerk reactions are involuntary, and each reaction carries with it enough energy to get our attention so, as mentioned, they take no effort on our part whatsoever. It’s all incoming. Something happens and we react. And it is the reaction that we want to be aware of, our own reaction.

And by reaction, I don’t mean just to the sonic-boom outside the house or the phone or doorbell ringing, but every last reaction, from someone calling our name, all the way down to small reactions like that you don’t like the tie I’m wearing or that my nose is too big. Any and all reactions are fuel for this practice.

And when we react, all we have to do is note to ourselves that we have reacted, what we have reacted to, and that the reaction is all ours. It’s 100% our own reaction. No one else is to blame. What made us react, something good, bad, kind or mean, accidental or on-purpose, is not important. We can’t control the cause. But “how” we react to the cause is up to us. And please note: there is a difference between a reaction and a response.

Here we are looking for reactions only, you know, where we knee-jerk or find ourselves reacting without meaning to, while, of course, naturally responding to an event in an appropriate way is not a reaction, at least as defined here. In this practice, we are becoming aware of when we react involuntarily or perhaps voluntarily, but in a negative way. We react, duly note it, and then accept that it is our reaction. Don’t forget to note it!

In summary, we become aware of a reaction, examine it and acknowledge that it is our own reaction (we reacted), and then we just drop it (let it go) and move on. That is all there is to the practice, but the effect of this practice over time on our mindstream can be profound. And it does not take an eagle’s eye to spot a reaction. Catch the ones you can. They happen momentarily all day long, and by the thousands, so our next reaction is due almost any time.

Some of our reactions are to outside events beyond our control, but just as many (or more) reactions come from inside, via our likes, dislikes, prejudice, biases, and on and on. We are full of it. The simple fact is that withstanding all of these reactions each day sucks up an enormous amount of our life energy. We may not be aware of how we twist and turn in the winds of our own negativity, cringing and frowning, wincing (even if only by the millisecond), and we do this (literally) all day long.

By becoming aware of our own reactions, simply noting them (acknowledging them as no other than our own) and letting them go, we gradually begin to neutralize and tone our reactions back. Over time, these involuntary reactions are toned down and gradually replaced with more natural appropriate responses, and we relax in that. The endless wince or cringing (the shock of involuntary reactions) gives way to relaxation and we learn to respond to the natural shocks that life offers more appropriately. And we save an enormous amount of energy in the process, energy that otherwise is expended. Talk about energy conservation; this is it.

Here is this same blog spoken:

An added benefit of this practice is that by being more able to respond to life, rather than just always react, the ring of exclusion (our likes and dislikes) that separates us from others (and the world) gradually dissolves and becomes increasingly more inclusive until we can embrace life just as it is. Here is more reading on Reaction Tonglen. ... dition.pdf
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