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Jul 13
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Meeting Your Mind Head On

photo by David Brown

photo by David Brown

by Kathy Kaiser, Boulder, CO

I’ve come to realize that the act of driving is where I crash into all my attempts to be compassionate and full of equanimity toward my fellow humans. It’s where I drive head on into society’s speediness and aggression, its indifference to others, as well as my own impatience and judgmental nature.

It’s when I put the pedal to the metal that I silently steam at the big SUV sitting on my bumper, this anonymous creature that seems to be threatening me to driver faster or else, or at the drivers who won’t let me merge into highway traffic. I feel anger and helplessness at the same time.

We’re all anonymous behind several hundred pounds of metal and tinted windows, isolated in our cocoons of tailored music, leather seats and controlled temperatures, alienated from our fellow human beings. It’s easy to be judgmental: the rich pushy guy in the Lexus, the burly, beer-drinking construction worker in the SUV, the too-slow driver in front of me who, I just know, is texting rather than paying attention to the road.

Face to face, we would never treat each other this way: cut someone off in traffic, yell obscenities, aggressively sit on someone’s bumper. Hidden behind our tinted windows, we imagine the worst and stereotype each other. So I have to remind myself that these are fellow human beings subject to the same daily stresses and push of society that I feel: too much to do and not enough time, too much daily pressure coming from all directions, heavy traffic that’s constantly slowing us down when we’re just trying to get to our jobs or homes.

When I’m in a hurry, late for a meeting, have twenty-seven things to accomplish in an afternoon, I’m impatient myself, angrily wondering why the driver in front of me is going 10 miles under the speed limit or silently mouthing off at the driver who is not reacting fast enough to the green light. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve given the finger more than once to the SUV driver who has sat on my tail for the last 10 miles, their intimidating grills almost hitting my back bumper, or that I silently mouth off against the driver who pulls right in front of me, forcing me to brake.

Last winter I did a one-week retreat in the Colorado mountains, a time when my brain slowed down and started noticing water melting from the roof and the way the dried grasses angled out of the snow, a time when I felt my heart opening, not just to myself, but to all those around me. When I finally had to leave, I drove slowly along a gravel country road, entranced by everything I saw: the citadels of rounded granite boulders, the white breath of horses standing in a snowy field, a red farmhouse standing alone in a field of white snow.

As I approached the next county road, one that was paved, I was horrified to see trucks roaring down the road, as if the drivers were fleeing a fire. But when I got on the road, I discovered the speed limit was 40, only fast to a mind that had slowed down to a walking pace for a week.

As I made my way onto larger roads and then into the congestion of a city, I had to wonder why everyone was in such a hurry. Although most of the time, I’m as fast as everyone else — in a rush to get where I’m going so I can then hurry back and speed through another chore — coming back from this retreat, I wanted to maintain my sense of wonder at the world, and my tender-heartedness. I tried to imagine a world where everyone was polite and kind, where we all slowed down to see a spectacular sunset or a line of flying geese or felt protective of the frail elderly couple driving too slowly for the rest of the world.

I once had a teacher who said that whenever she got an aggressive driver on her bumper, she did tonglen for him (or her), extending a sense of peace and compassion to someone overheated with impatience and aggression, caught up in uncomfortable thoughts and sensations.

In that spirit, I’d like to extend a sense of compassion to other drivers as well as myself — all of us caught up in a world we didn’t necessarily create. I  want to wave to other drivers, acknowledge our shared humanity; smile at drivers who try to cut me off; stop for every pedestrian who wants to cross the street and for every driver who needs to pull into heavy traffic. I want to try my best to feel compassion toward the man in the SUV behind me. I want to invite the world to slow down and enjoy this very precious moment.

Kathy Kaiser is a writer, editor and Buddhist practitioner in Boulder, Colorado, who writes a blog about nature and spirituality: cabinjournal.typepad.com.

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3 responses to “ Meeting Your Mind Head On ”
  1. Driving. I am reminded of what brought me to Shambhala in the first place, anger management.
    Our naturopathic doctor had Shambhala Magazine in her waiting room, later we spoke about anger managment, so she recommended Ani Pema Chodron’s audio “Don’t Bite the Hook”.
    I began to listen in the car, now I use many of her audio recordings as I drive. The car is an exoskeleton, an extension of the ego, we identify its’ shiny metal skin with the limits of our driving persona, our cocoon selves. Anyone who comes to close, brakes too fast or tailgates is percieved as an agressor. Driving is a method to find where we are “Stuck”. In French they say “frustration routiere” or “frustration on the road”, which is appropriate. So I practice patience, and Pema’s Traffic Tonglen and recommend it to all who drive! Be Safe!

  2. Judith Smith
    Jul 18, 2013

    Thank you, Kathy! I totally enjoyed reading your article! Solitary retreats have been the second most special part of my life — second only to having Trungpa Rinpoche as my teacher. Rinpoche sent me on my first retreat in January 1974 (2+ weeks after arriving to live in Boulder, and 2+ weeks after receiving meditation instruction!!). Those 10 days of a cold, snowy winter retreat at “the Northern Land” (a.k.a RMDC, RMSC, SMC) were spectacular and life changing — powerful experiences of not hearing my own voice (or anybody else’s) for the first half of retreat; being smoked out of “Jonathan’s [tiny] A-Frame” because of not understanding wood stoves; hearing total silence for the first time since being a camper in the woods of New Hampshire in the late 1940s; being be-friended by a sled-dog husky-type-dog who came every day just as I finished the morning session to pick me up for a walk up the road in the snow while he chased (sort of) rabbits and I simply grokked the high-altitude Colorado sky and space. So many other memories of that first retreat and many many others over the next 39 years. The need to slow down wasn’t as noticeable in 1974 as it is today. Plus total silence and no light pollution certainly aren’t easily available.

    Thank you also for the tonglen and general compassion attitude suggestions for other drivers (and myself). This is really helpful! And thanks to Jennifer for her last paragraph, “… [W]hen there’s an accident holding up traffic, instead of fretting about the delay we could think of the person or people injured—or at least far more seriously inconvenienced than ourselves. Your article reminds me that there are other, more subtle injuries and inconveniences being suffered at every moment by every other driver on the road.”

  3. Jennifer Woodhull
    Jul 15, 2013

    Thanks for this great article, Kathy. I know you’re far from alone in finding yourself suddenly one with aggression when you get behind the wheel. I hadn’t put together what a cocoon my car is until you pointed it out; it’s helpful to recognize how that comfortable isolation contributes to cocoon-like behavior.

    I once worked with Sylvia Boorstein on an audio set called Road Sage. What stuck in my mind from that experience was her remark that when there’s an accident holding up traffic, instead of fretting about the delay we could think of the person or people injured—or at least far more seriously inconvenienced than ourselves. Your article reminds me that there are other, more subtle injuries and inconveniences being suffered at every moment by every other driver on the road.

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