It's a fitting day to be writing about reactivity, given that at the moment the fate of five people in a submersible craft that was on its way to view the wreck of the Titanic, some two and a half miles down in the ocean, is unaccounted for.
Meaning, the craft hasn't been located after it lost communication with the mother ship about an hour and a half into its descent. By this time, it's estimated that if the five people are still alive, they're about to run out of air.
That's a truly horrendous situation.
It'd be extremely easy to panic, which would cause their air to run out sooner since panic causes rapid breathing. So hopefully they're finding ways to respond to their predicament in a skillful fashion, such as by making sounds that could be picked up by sonar, than reacting in unhelpful ways.
Reactivity comes up in many of the books about Buddhism that I've read. It's a really practical subject, since everybody, I'd say, has moments where we react to somebody or something with little or no consideration, and then regret our reaction later.
Snap/quick reactions, of course, often are entirely appropriate. I've been watching the NCAA men's baseball championship series on TV. Good hitters can react to a 95 mph pitch with amazing speed and grace. Pitchers can react to a baseball hit like a rocket right at them by catching the ball with their fast reaction time.
If someone attacks us in a dark parking lot, we need to be able to react quickly to that aggression. If a car is going to hit us, we have to react instinctively without thought. But...
Mostly in our civilized world we're reacting to people and things that don't really threaten us, neither physically nor mentally. They may bother us, like someone saying something disparaging, but typically there's no need to react with the energy and drive we'd need if a lion was chasing us.
Stephen Bachelor has some good observations about reactivity in his book After Buddhism: Rethinking the dharma for a secular age. Here's some quotes that ring true to me.
To go against the stream is to find yourself going against the force of innate reactivity. Mythically, this force is described as the "army of Mara," which is composed of "sensual desire; discontent; hunger and thirst; craving, sloth and torpor; fear; doubt; hypocrisy and obstinacy; renown, honor and ill-gotten fame; and the extolling of oneself and disparaging of others."
Today we would understand these forces as part of the legacy of biological evolution, the embedded instincts and drives that enabled our ancestors to succeed in the competition for scarce resources and survive.
...But if such instincts are neurobiological functions of our organism, it is difficult to understand how they can be systematically overcome -- "cut off like a palm stump," as many discourses claim, "never to arise again."
Although Buddhist orthodoxy insists that these forces and drives have been eliminated in arahants and buddhas, another, less prominent thread in the canon offers a more intelligible account of the ceasing of reactivity.
...By learning how to stabilize attention and dwell in a lucid space of non-reactive awareness, we gain the freedom to see the forces of Mara as thoughts, feelings, emotions, beliefs, and stories that naturally arise because of the impact of the environment on the senses of a conscious creature.
From that perspective, we see a cascading array of transient, impersonal events that -- provided we do not energize them by identifying with them -- will fade away as soon as their charge is exhausted. They are not overcome by destruction; rather, we must understand how they arise and play themselves out.
The dharma, therefore, involves bringing one's wayward thoughts under control, establishing mindfulness and concentration, then setting out to realize one's goals in the world.
Mara, the personification of reactivity, is conquered not by eliminating every last reaction from one's mind but by finding a way to become impervious to his attacks. We acquire freedom from reactivity yet without the reactivity ceasing to occur. If we observe these impulses and do not feed them, they will die down over time and diminish in frequency.
...As long as we are embodied in flesh, nerves, and blood, reactivity will be part and parcel of what it entails to be human.
...The challenge presented by the fourfold task is to learn how to differentiate between reactivity, in which one blindly follows a familiar impulse, and responsiveness, in which one chooses to act in a way that is not conditioned by the impulses of greed, hatred, and confusion.
...Anyone who experiences something that "is immediate and clearly visible" must be alive in a human body and as subject to sickness, aging, and death as everybody else. Thus here what is called "ceasing of suffering" is not actually the ceasing of suffering, but the ceasing of reactivity.
The Buddha's dictum "I teach suffering and the end of suffering" could thus be rephrased as "I teach suffering and the end of reactivity."
...The Buddha himself complains of physical ailments, the frustration of having to run an organization, the discomforts of old age, and the pain of dying. As long as we have a physical body, we will experience suffering.
...What Buddhists trumpet as the "end of suffering" cannot therefore mean what it says. Not only does it make little sense, the discourses themselves clearly state that it means the end of reactivity. To let go of reactivity and behold its ceasing is certainly no easy task, but at least it is something to which we can aspire, whereas the end of the suffering will remain a pipe dream for as long as we are pulsating, breathing, ingesting, digesting, defecating bodies.