It's not what's's how you respond - Tara Brach

It’s not what’s happening…it’s how you respond

One of my favorite stories took place a number of decades ago when the English had colonized India and they wanted to set up a golf course in Calcutta. Besides the fact that the English shouldn’t have been there in the first place, the golf course was not a particularly good idea. The biggest challenge was that the area was populated with monkeys.

The monkeys apparently were interested in golf too, and their way of joining the game was to go onto the course and take the balls that the golfers were hitting and toss them around in all directions. Of course the golfers didn’t like this at all, so they tried to control the monkeys. First they built high fences around the fairway; they went to a lot of trouble to do this. Now, monkeys climb…so, they would climb over the fences and onto the course . . . that solution just didn’t work at all.

The next thing they tried was to lure them away from the course. I don’t know how they tried to lure them—maybe waving bananas or something—but for every monkey that would go for the bananas, all their relatives would come into the golf course to join the fun. In desperation, they started trapping them and relocating them, but that didn’t work, either. The monkeys just had too many relatives who liked to play with golf balls! Finally, they established a novel rule for this particular golf course: the golfers in Calcutta had to play the ball wherever the monkey dropped it. Those golfers were onto something!

We all want life to be a certain way. We want the conditions to be just so, and life doesn’t always cooperate. Maybe it does for awhile, which makes us want to hold on tight to how things are, but then things change. So sometimes it’s like the monkeys are dropping the balls where we don’t want them, and what can we do?

Often we react by blaming…ourselves, or others or the situation. We might become aggressive. Or perhaps we feel victimized and resign. Or sometimes we soothe ourselves with extra food or drink. But clearly, none of these reactions are helpful.

If we are to find any peace, if we are to find freedom, what we need to do is learn to pause and say, “Okay. This is where the monkeys dropped the ball. I’ll play it from here, as well as I’m able.” So, how do we do that?

What if you pause right now, and take a moment to be quiet. Can you think of a place in your life where things are not cooperating with how you would like them to be? Whatever unfortunate place the monkeys have dropped a ball in your life, bring your focus to that. It could be something that happens in a relationship with another person, where you get reactive. What would it mean to “play the ball” here? If you could tap into your deepest wisdom, your true compassion, how would you like to respond to these circumstances?

One of the great teachings in spiritual life is this: It doesn’t matter what is happening.  What matters is how we respond. How we respond is what determines our happiness and peace of mind.
So how might you respond with presence, when you find the monkeys have dropped the ball in a difficult spot?

Enjoy this talk on Surrender to the Monkeys:

Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information visit:

9 thoughts on “It’s not what’s happening…it’s how you respond”

  1. perspectiveaboutchoice

    I used to believe in some version of this spiritual nonsense, however, some beings on this planet are born into and experience tremendously greater painful situations than you can even fathom. Sometimes people ARE truly victimized in appalling, incomprehensible ways. If your situation and pain feels difficult to you, image if your pain was multiplied by thousands. When you are in such excruciating pain — far beyond what you could previously have imagined — whatever support system you had collapses. In my case, I was maimed in surgery. A surgeon invasively removed portions of my body that I needed. I feel like my body is ON FIRE. My ability to work, my business, all savings, any material resource is gone, (save for the $600 or so a month I now get from disability for having been maimed). I worry about dying in pain on the street in this pain, or being put into some horrible convalescent institution. I can’t sit, walk, sleep, work or function because my body has been ripped apart. Radical acceptance might be possible when you have a cushy home, and support, and people that ‘validate’ how wonderful and brave you are… I was maimed by a surgeon (with horrible online reviews by other patients that only turned up AFTER your disabling surgery) who is still operating on unsuspecting patients, but I can’t get lawyers or legislators or Medical Associations to step in and help. Doctors now look at me and say, “Wow, you were butchered and made an invalid, and there’s no way to help.” The surgeon who did this to me has been trying to cover up what he did in a most heinous, injurious way to me. Most lifelong friends, and people I helped to emotionally support, have dropped off of the radar because they are busy with their own lives, and don’t want to put themselves out to help past a certain point. I was the caregiver for someone when this happened, and now I’m dependent, but there’s not much to depend on. I was born into bad circumstances, and I worked my whole life to help others and myself. I prayed, meditated, and observed every good, balanced habit I could once I got old enough to learn about these things for myself. I faced every lifelong tragic challenge with every ounce of fortitude and faith I could. Oh, be certain that I meditated daily for decades. Time and again, one huge challenge after another happened in life. Then I was butchered. I can’t meditate anymore because I it feels like I’m on a torture rack – physically, I was maimed that badly. Do you think that to a baby born emotionally abandoned, abused, addicted to substances the mother was on, and without proper nutrition, that the philosophy ‘it doesn’t matter what is happening, but it’s how you respond’ makes any sense whatsoever? It’s absolute and total nonsense. People do not understand why life is as it is – who gets born into comfort and who gets born into abuse. No one knows. At that point in the thinking, the New Age spirituality reverts to the idea of ‘karma, but that doesn’t make sense either. Babies who are born into tragedy (or adults that have tragic things happen that are well beyond their control) cannot function in the same way as everyone else. They just cannot. It is not a level playing field. Then the ‘spiritual’ folks come along and blame the victims by saying, ‘you’re just not thinking about it the right way’. There ARE victims – from birth and onward throughout life. If you don’t understand that, then you have never TRULY been a victim. People do terrible things to others, and tragic circumstances happen also happen without malice or reason. If a person has been hit by a train and their guts are splattered all over, standing over them and telling them this philosophy is just nonsense.

    1. Cat

      It’s galling to see this kind of blatant advertising pushing the Byron Katie cult after such an honest and heartfelt post. Why don’t you push the kool-aid somewhere else Lauren. Preying on those you perceive to be vulnerable is morally wrong. The presumption and arrogance of your post is the hallmark of creepy new age hard sell that lacks any sense of boundaries or decency.

    2. Peppikins

      I so agree with you. There is a point where positive thinking doesn’t work anymore. And there are so many people out there, looking for a way to escape the pain. This is why the self-help sector is a billion-dollar industry. Byron Katie? Ka-ching!

  2. Carrie Hensley

    Thank you for taking such deep concepts and breaking them down on a level that is digestible. Thank you for infusing your humor, compassion, and wisdom. You have made a difference in my life and in the life of so many of my students. Thank you

  3. Cat

    Byron Katie is a dangerous money making cult who’s impact on survivors of trauma has often had devastating consequences.
    The above post by Lauren is classic paid posting advertising for BK, standard behaviour wherever there are distressed folks. Sometimes it’s important to call it as you see it and the inclusion of this kind of material on a Tara Brach thread is a major red flag. The fact that Brach name dropped her in a dharma talk really disappointed me.
    Tara’s work had real value for it’s pithy, wry, humorous and compassionate approach but this wishy washy stuff is very disappointing.
    Diluting Buddhism for the masses and combining it with new age mumbo jumbo does everyone a disservice.
    Perspectiveaboutchoice’s post has much truth in it. It does matter what’s happening and what has happened, it’s not simply about how you respond. To suggest so is invalidating, hurtful nonsense.

    1. Spirit Wiseman

      I have known Byron Katie since her early days and she is one of the most amazing beings on the planet. The level of suffering she has undone for SO many is off the charts .I have personally observed it over and over again. Read your own post and ask ….”Is this true? Can I really know it is true? How do I react when I have this thought? Honestly you should go to her school and undo the mind and then see what truly is !!!

  4. Shari Calibre

    I haven’t read Byron Katie’s book, and I am concerned about what I have read of her philosophy, but in Perspectiveaboutchoice’s case, I can see where she’s right. Perspectiveaboutchoice is hurting every day. She was brutalized. Her life is never going to be the same. That’s fact. Nothing and no one can change that. So the question becomes, NOW WHAT? Now what is she going to do? Right now, she’s physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually brutalized but the only part she has to live with is the physical. She doesn’t have to stay emotionally, mentally, or spiritually brutalized. She has a choice at this point. Her life is not better because she’s angry, hurt, and a victim. She’s not better. Her blame – as righteous as it is – is hurting her over and above the physical. If she wants her life to get better, if she wants some chance at happiness, she has to let it go. That hatred and darkness isn’t hurting her doctor – like she said, he’s went on with his practice – but it’s killing her. I don’t even know her and I can tell it’s eating her up inside. I don’t care if she uses The Work, Buddhism, or freaking therapy, but she needs help to get out of the darkness that’s only adding to her pain. Being a victim won’t make your life better but being a survivor can. I’m praying for her.