Embodying Mindfulness in Challenging Times

Every year I make time for a silent meditation retreat. This retreat week is a time to gain perspective on my life, recommit to how I want to be in the world, to move inside, be silent and tune in to my deeper yearnings. This year, one thing that came up for me is that I think it’s up to each of us what our future world will look like and it’s my fondest wish to create a world focused on well-being for all. All this seemed especially necessary and even urgent this year given the deep unrest in the US, the political divides, the pandemic and even the specter of climate change wreaking havoc on our world.

In recent years, I’ve been sharing this retreat week with my friend and colleague Jane Mayers. To our dismay, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) retreat center in Barre Mass, where we usually go, was closed this year due to the Corona virus.  We realized this was tiny in the vast realm of things that have been disrupted on the entire planet, yet we still mourned the loss.

So we put our heads together and came up with a plan. We rented an AirBnb, a beautiful little cabin in the woods near Ithaca NY, and headed off to do a virtual retreat, isolated in our cabin yet sharing the week with teachers and a hundred other participants virtually.

I finished the week feeling calm, renewed, and hopeful; yet I was still grappling with lots of questions. How can I bring my best intentions out into the world? How can I care about the well being of all even in a deeply polarized world?

On the way home, we got off the expressway for a short break. I was sitting at a stop sign trying to make a left turn, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a large pick-up truck came barreling up behind me. I heard a great crushing sound as the truck side-swiped my car on the right, made a right turn, and drove off down this busy 4-lane road.

I had no time to think. Outrage, fear, and hurt bubbled up. I tore out after them, going faster and faster. Jane, in the passenger seat, was able to get a picture of the license plate. But still emotion overtook us. It wasn’t enough to get their license plate. “How could they just take off like that?”  In a fit of angst I flashed my lights and kept flashing my lights. I could see the driver raising a fist to me, yet I kept pursuing and flashing my lights. At last they did pull into a parking lot but then they tore out of the lot again. Apparently, they had no intention of taking responsibility.

Finally, there was a moment to catch my breath. It all happened so fast. We took stock. Neither of us was hurt and despite what it had sounded like, the car actually had minimal damage. We called the police and gave a report.

Just a little delay. Back on the expressway. Back to home, life, normal day-to-day activities. Yet the emotion stayed with me. Anger, frustration. All I could think about was how quickly my mindfulness practice had deserted me. Instead of steadiness, I thought to myself, I tore off down the road. I totally realize anger was a normal reaction in that situation, and I have no desire to squelch my anger. I just wasn’t so sure I had used that energy in a skillful way. How quickly the realities of the world had intruded on my aspiration of well-being for all.

Then Jane pointed out what had happened after we stopped and before we called the police. We took a breath and took time to get in touch with our intention in calling the police. We didn’t call the police with a desire for revenge. We called out of concern and care for other people on the road because the driver was obviously driving erratically, and she was a hazard and a risk. Once I was clearly connected with my intention, then I had acted with thoughtfulness. It wasn’t just a knee-jerk, emotional reaction.

Later, at home, I challenged myself to go one step further. Could I tune into the driver’s actions from a place of compassion? Maybe she had just broken up with her boyfriend or had some other deep loss. Maybe she had been a victim of abuse herself. None of this is an excuse for her actions or makes me any less insistent that the police pursue finding her and taking her off the road if she continues to be a hazard.

The lesson for me was a recognition that I’m human and I can’t always listen in the moment or be compassionate in the face of strong emotions. I may need to rage and process in my own time. Yet tuning into the hurt, care, and concern under the anger and letting actions come from that place of deeper awareness is practicing mindfulness. Bringing compassion to myself allowed me to find compassion for others and align more deeply with my intention to create a world focused on well-being for all.


Join Jean and Jane for our free, virtual drop-in classes starting on Monday September 14th.

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