Car Troubles Make for Good Training Ground
I got into a car accident last week. I was fine, but it shook me up: Physically, I was shaking, and mentally I could feel the pull of anger, blame and shame; old familiar territory that insists that this incident was everyone else's fault or entirely my fault.
The other driver was irate and aggressive: She lashed out before even checking to see if I was okay, yelling that I was in the wrong and then refusing to meet my eyes before storming off, buttressing her defenses and missing all of our shared humanity. In the cortisol and adrenaline provoked stress responses - fight, flight or freeze - hers was classic fight.
My stress response showed up closer to freeze: I moved slowly through the motions of exchanging information, a bit out of my body while watching her face intently for something I couldn't name in the moment. I had the vague sense that I wanted to kiss her, or touch her shoulder, or gaze into her eyeballs, some deep act of intimacy to break her spell of anger, to reminder her we are the same, to let her know we had narrowly missed something that could have been much, much worse. I've been meditating on death for a while now. In Buddhism, we learn early that meditating on death, far from being morbid or depressing, can actually be a key inspiring part of appreciating life, reminding us to take no moment for-granted and to use each difficulty as training ground to prepare to embrace our final moments with a calm and loving mind. No one leaves the house thinking "today will be the last day." And yet, thousands of people die in crashes and of other spontaneous causes each day, suddenly, and without warning. Why not me? Why not today? When I remember at any moment that this could be my last shot, that I'm no more guaranteed a long, pain-free life than the woman who hit me, that this experience is fragile and fleeting and 100% set to expire, I can remember how precious and precarious and delicious it all is, even at the moments that the "undesirable" stuff is going down.
My friend who I met after said the things you hear people say in situations like these: "Oh how awful," she said. "It's definitely her fault. You really didn't need that today." But is it awful? And how do we know I didn't need it today? We get so entitled as soon as things stop going our way. We can be calm, happy and kind one moment, but the moment the external world stops arranging itself neatly according to our wishes, our real natures and the extend of our self-involvement are revealed. My behavior revealed that, of course, I still have work to do. As my initial emotions of anger, shock, humiliation, confusion and blame wore off, I turned my attention to the logistics, resolved to preserve a calm, centered mind as I called the insurance provider, then the tow truck, chatted with the nearby valet and uber drivers, set up a rental car. At each interaction my mood improved, and I realized that there was oodles of kindness and generosity coming my way. As I made a conscious choice to protect a happy, peaceful mind, the tasks got easier, quicker, almost convenient, pleasant. I sent more compassion to myself and to the other driver, imagining her life in detail and touching in with the fear that must be present inside of her, letting myself off the hook while working to lean into a loving space for her. I'm still processing what happened, but already I can feel lucky for what I'm learning. I know that last week was a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of my life, and I know that bigger difficulties (sickness, aging, death, for example) are coming for each of us. So I choose to train with the small stuff, like reps at the gym, keeping a calm and peaceful mind so I can be ready to lead and respond, in real-time, to what's to come. The next time you have a brush with disaster or stress - be it a fender bender, or piece of bad news, or printer jam - let this remind you that you can make a choice about how you want to respond in that moment. That your fragile, ephemeral and fleeting gift of this moment begins now, and that even an unexpected midweek (mis)adventure might be your ticket to practicing showing up as the person you want to be.