11/11/2011 08:44 am ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

Is This the Antidote to Reactivity?

Free at last: Is President Obama's prajna finally trumping his shenpa?

Jesse Ventura might want to take up meditation (or at least a deep breath) before going public next time things don't go his way. The former Minnesota governor displayed the downside of hair-trigger reactivity last week when, after a court rejected his lawsuit against the TSA, he threatened to both apply for Mexican citizenship and run for the American Presidency. (The wrestling icon/conspiracy theorist also vowed never again to stand up for a national anthem, a move that was sure to have an impact on, uh, him.)

I'm not suggesting that Ventura is alone in reacting impulsively. We all do. A hyperbolic boss once told me, in the midst of a heated argument, "Mike, you're the most reactive person I've ever met." I reacted instantly and angrily, giving him further ammunition to blame me for whatever I was upset about in the first place. I retreated to my corner to work on my "reactivity."

My boss was a diabolical manipulator, but he did have a point: My gut reactions to his provocations were counter-productive to my (perfectly righteous!) cause.

With texting, sexting, chatting, Tweeting and blogging perpetually tempting us to press the send key now and regret it later -- Anthony Weiner, anyone? -- mindfulness of our impulsive urges is more crucial than ever.

The great Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron illuminates our reactive tendencies with the help of the Tibetan word "shenpa," which she translates as "the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down." When we feel thwarted, anger arises unbidden, and we're tempted by habit to act out (literally, to re-act). We believe that by controlling external events we can make our bad feelings go away. It never works. If, instead, we can catch that "hooked" sensation as closely as possible to the nanosecond we first perceive it, we have a fighting chance to see it for what it is -- just an impulse -- and refrain from behaving in a way that only makes things worse.

Not surprisingly, Chodron recommends meditation as the best way to fight the power of shenpa. By quieting down, breathing steadily and noticing our thoughts and feelings as they come and go, she says, "Over time, prajna begins to kick in. Prajna is clear seeing. It's our innate intelligence, our wisdom. With prajna, we begin to see the whole chain reaction clearly. As we practice, this wisdom becomes a stronger force than shenpa. That in itself has the power to stop the chain reaction."

Scientific research indicates that meditation practice can actually change our brain structure to ameliorate reactivity. But meditation is just one tool for what, at the extreme, is known as impulse control disorder. Cognitive work, medications, talk therapy and 12-step programs can all be effective. Meditation can complement any of these treatments, of course, and at the very least guarantees this: as long as you're sitting still and watching your urges, you can't act on them.

Don't get me wrong. Passivity in the face of adversity can be as hazardous as leaping off the deep end. President Obama's extraordinary equanimity served him well in winning election in 2008. But during the debt-ceiling debacle last summer, that same habitual unflappability cast him as more ineffectual Mediator-in-Charge than decisive Commander-in-Chief. This gave Republicans running room to outmaneuver him, leaving us, his constituents, to suffer the consequences.

Lately, it's been heartening to see the President exhibit more passion in standing up for his jobs bill and tax proposals. If he's not just being reactive to poor poll numbers, it could be that his prajna is indeed trumping his shenpa.