A few weeks ago, my husband was driving home from work when he was hit from behind, totaling his Honda Fit. The woman driving the car had been smoking a cigarette, dropped it in her lap, and bent over to pick it up instead of watching the world of cars around her. The impact caused my husband to drive right into the car in front of him.
As a result of one person’s lack of awareness, my husband and I now share one car between the two of us. In many countries around the world, this would be considered a luxury, but it does present some logistical challenges. I also find myself paying even closer attention to the many cars with which I share the road at any given moment I leave the house in our compact Toyota.
It can take an event such as the one mentioned above to lurch one into a state of heightened awareness. It can also take practice and intention. For the past several years, I have been working in the latter realm of awareness, that of determined and dedicated practice.
I have spent hours upon hours studying my own behavioral responses to events beyond my control—events of the past and imaginations of those that may come to pass.
How do I respond when a person sends aggressive, verbally abusive energy my way?
What do I do when I find my car beaten and battered where I left it parked and not so much as a note of apology?
Do I say anything?
What does it mean if I am silent? How does it feel?
How does it feel if I give in to my desire to retaliate and retort with equally aggressive, mean-spirited words?
I know that I walk around with a great deal of built up tension that has little to do with the people around me. If I am living and breathing in such a heightened state of stress, I imagine that the people I meet on the road, on the sidewalk, etc. are equally struggling to get through their day with some sense of grace and poise.
Despite what some people may claim, I do have a choice, and I can pause prior to any action and be aware, cognizant, and intentional in my response.
I can choose to allow my own personal stress to determine my reactions to the world, or I can simply notice that there is nastiness happening without engaging in it or interpreting it as a personal attack.
Yesterday, for example, I purchased a pool pass, which meant that my name would not yet be in the computer when I would go to swim a few minutes later. I left the receipt in my locker because I know all of the lifeguards, and they never require me to prove myself as honorable and ethical by offering proof that I am not sneaking into the pool without paying.
So, I walked into the pool and greeted the lifeguard, a fellow I did not recognize.
I won’t be in the computer yet because I just bought a pass, I told him.
I need to see your receipt, he responded gruffly, not making eye contact and instead flitting his hand at me and toward the locker room door.
It wasn’t exactly friendly, let’s say that much, and I found that I had two choices.
I could simply go and get my receipt and give it to him and then swim OR I could demonstrate that I was not happy with his flippant, gruff behavior and speak my mind.
My meditation and yogic study of the Yamas and Nyamas told me not to engage. Here was a person whose attitude was clearly not going to improve with confrontation.
I stomped back into the locker room, rifled through my bag for the receipt, and brought it back out to him.
He studied it, responding that sometimes they didn’t have a name on them.
Was he now accusing me of somehow pilfering another person’s pool pass receipt?
Do you want my id? I said in a tone that read, You have GOT to be kidding me.
I could have left it there and been done with it, moved as far as possible away from Mr. Cranky pants who was clearly unhappy and perhaps always had been. Some people choose the path of the cranky wardrobe, and there really is nothing you can do if/when you engage with them on any front.
But I engaged anyway. I mean, seriously, who was this guy to be such a jerk? Why couldn’t he just be friendly and say, I’m sorry, but there are lots of people trying to sneak into the pool without paying, so we need to see proof. I would have bent over backwards to please him. Ok, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration, but I would have totally understood and been happy to bounce back and grab my receipt.
You must be new, I snapped at him. I could have said, I haven’t seen you before. Are you new? A question that would have had a very different tone and meaning behind it.
You must be new had tones of disapproval and judgment written all over it. And let’s face it, I was totally judging him for having such a bad attitude, and I was calling him on it by responding in kind, which really only served to make me appear as having an equally bad attitude by lowering myself to his level.
I’m not new, he snapped back in an equally haughty tone.
He handed me my receipt, and I went off fuming toward the farthest lane of the pool.
As I swam, I reflected on the path I had chosen in this most recent interaction with another human being. Why had I let him get to me? Why was I so nasty? It certainly didn’t make me feel good phsyicaly or psychologically. I paid attention to this feeling, and I mused over possible courses of action I might follow to help me feel better. I certainly did not want to apologize, but I knew that I could redeem my character somewhat if I did.
When I finally lifted myself one step at a time up the ladder and out of the pool, I walked by, smiled, and said I was sorry to thinking he was new.
I have been here six months, he spat back in a nasty tone.
Ohhhhh, six whole months, I thought. Do you want a cookie?
Instead, I tried to be nice.
Well, I laughed, six months isn’t very long geologically. Have a nice day! And I pushed the door of the locker room open and separated myself from him altogether.
What a dick! I couldn’t believe I had bothered to apologize. He hadn’t smiled or laughed or apologized for being such an ass. But then, what was I really expecting? There was a chip on this guy’s shoulder that had been building for who knows how long. It was his choice how to wanted to present himself and said chip to the world. I did not need to engage with him in any way. I could be kind when I saw him or simply ignore his presence altogether. Either way, it likely wouldn’t alter his behavioral pattern, which seemed very well set after potentially years of practice. And who knew what kind of events took place to cause him to choose to live such a rigid, unfriendly existence? Maybe being friendly was dangerous where he came from? There was no way for me to really know without asking, and I just don’t think I am going to cross that boundary any time soon. I just want to swim and feel good about my body. No more, no less.
Later that day, I picked my husband up from work. As we drove home, I said to him, Everything and everyone is driving me crazy! Maybe, I am just destined to be annoyed my whole life.
You are on the meditation path, and meditating will teach you to move beyond feeling annoyed.
Well, I don’t think it’s working, I responded.
He laughed. The path of meditating is one of awareness. The irony is that the more aware you become, the more you realize what jerks most people are.
Great! I said, as I slumped back in the passenger seat.
According to the Buddhists, life is suffering, he continued. The further along the path and deeper into understanding you travel, the more you will become aware of the actions of others but without feeling personally attacked. You will simply notice.
So, I will learn not to take it so personally? I asked.
I have a long way to go, I sighed.
Well, one can expect meditating to make life a bit more difficult before it actually gets better.
Double sigh, but I know from experience that it is well worth going through the storm to get to the lighter life on the other side!