Driving this morning I found myself in a left lane merge onto a high speed interstate highway. Upon entry I saw a warning sign flashing about 500 yards ahead, warning drivers to merge to the right. I signaled with my turn indicator and checked my right side rear view mirror. The nearest car appeared to be 3 or 4 car lengths behind, so I began slowly to change lanes. The driver of that car accelerated hard, preventing me from changing lanes. I moved back to my left lane, applied the brakes and slowed so I could change lanes behind that driver. Minor annoyance arose, but I’m so accustomed to the aggressiveness manifest in people’s driving habits that it passed nearly unnoticed, and certainly was not taken for anything worth remembering.
Then something interesting happened. The aggressive driver suddenly changed lanes, moving into the left lane that I knew was blocked a short distance ahead. Greed emerged in my body and mind; the thought of not allowing him back into the lane arose quickly and strongly. Righteous anger triggered pleasure centers in my brain, and I could literally see the pathway of revenge ahead: accelerate hard, give him a taste of his own medicine! But in that same moment a voice of sanity, literally the voice of my mindfulness teaching partner, Shannon, spoke these words she so often quotes from Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to chose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” So in that moment of righteous anger, the residue of the greed, hatred and ignorance that we all seem to struggle with, I found that space and returned to mindful practice. I slowed and then gestured to the aggressive driver to move back over.
And then something wonderful happened: I began to laugh. I laughed at myself. All that meditation practice, and still so much dukkha, so much attachment to my desires. I laughed at the human species: how we crave to be first on the highway, and how foolish our impatience and aggressiveness are. I laughed about how wonderful life actually is, if only we can recognize our own contributions to our suffering, and just let go. I laughed because I felt happy: happy that my day would have no residue from my old habits.
This practice is a wonderful practice, truly a pathway to freedom. This is such a small and petty and simple event, but doesn’t it capture the type of experiences that we all have? Have you ever felt yourself descend into a bad mood, and wonder why you were so irritable? Could it be that in an ordinary day small, petty events that are not met mindfully may have added up to an irritable state?
Here’s another way to look at it. In an exchange with a contemporary named Pasenadi, who was the king of a nearby land, the historical Buddha was asked by the king “What, in the dharma, constitutes the highest good?” Gotama answered “Things fall apart; tread the path with care.”
Care. Care is a word that has more than one meaning. Without going too deeply into scholarship concerning the derivation of the word attributed to Gotama, we can take “care” in this context to mean the opposite of being careless. One must live with great care, which can be done when one brings a deep sense of caring to all sentient beings, beginning with the self. When one has deep caring for all existence, one lives with great care. Another way to see this is to think of “care” as the opposite of “squander.” Each moment in each person’s life deserves great care; one must not squander the opportunity to live each moment fully.
In the moment of taking a mindful breath and allowing the wisdom of my colleague, friend, and teacher to fill my mind, I remembered that space between stimulus and response, and could exercise care in the moment. As a result I did not do harm to another being, both the aggressive driver and myself. As a result there was less opportunity to spread suffering further, by driving aggressively and, perhaps, recklessly, myself. As a result I came away from this minor event with no painful emotional residue, only the joy from not taking myself and the world too seriously. And as a result there was a moment of care brought to a world that is starving for care.
And all because of the wisdom of a skillful teacher, and the space in a single breath!