September 10, 2016

How to Keep People from Harshin’ your Mellow (Yes, Even on the Road).


On a recent journey along Interstate 65, a route I travel fairly often, I had the unexpected pleasure of finding myself two cars behind an orange cone-laden truck—traveling 15 miles an hour—in the left lane.

Now you might think, no big deal. Just pull around the guy and pass him. But, I thought pulling into the grassy median was a bad idea. You see, the truck was being paced by an Alabama State Trooper in the right hand lane, effectively slowing traffic for miles behind me. In my frustration, I began to focus on my breathing a bit and was grateful for the preparation my meditation traffic has given me for this type of situation.

Despite the fact I had left early to make a nine a.m. meeting, the Alabama Department of Transportation and the State Troopers had other plans and, surprisingly, hadn’t chosen to check with me before making their road improvement plans. The fact I had chosen a different route to reach the interstate was what put me in this potentially frustrating situation.

So I picked up my phone, carefully, and called someone to say I would be late. It was all I could do.

I made peace with it fairly quickly—though I will admit to some irritation.

Why had I chosen this morning, of all mornings, not to follow my normal path?

The fellow in red CRV just ahead of me in the right-hand lane seemed to be having a little more trouble with his choices, and those of the State of Alabama, that morning. He wove left a bit, then right, clearly trying to determine whatever issue was causing this logjam of traffic. I could see his gesticulations, bouncing his hands on and off the steering wheel, apparently trying to cast a spell that would open the highway ahead of him.

Now, maybe he’s a brain surgeon and was headed to save someone’s life and was worried about his patient. Or maybe he was headed for a job interview that meant the difference between providing for his having a roof over his head and homelessness.

Or maybe he was just cranky and had too much coffee.

In truth, his conduct irritated me. He was harshin’ my mellow. So when he realized he needed to get into the left lane, he slowed and swerved into the left left lane behind me, much to the irritation of the driver he had cut off. This lead to a horn honking by the driver behind the CRV and more hand gestures, and him shouting and waving to the driver behind him. At that point, I felt compelled to express my own displeasure by whispering something unflattering about the man. It might have rhymed with “grass mole,” but I can’t say for sure.

What I can say is that my hands did not fly into the air. I kept them firmly affixed to the steering wheel, trying to be mindful of what was going on ahead of me rather than what was happening behind me.

Almost immediately, I realized my reference to the man’s conduct was going to have little impact on his conduct. Yet, somehow, I had let his actions have an impact on my thoughts—if not not my conduct—and I apologized to him and the universe in the same whispered tones with which I had labeled him. I reminded myself that just a 10 years ago—or maybe even three years ago—I might have been just as frustrated, even though I generally reserved hand gestures and lectures for drivers in Metro Atlanta.

Whatever was going on inside the man was far more important than what was happening to him, he just didn’t know it.

And for a moment, neither did I.

On reflection over this bit of highway drama, I’ve found myself remembering that sometimes the choices I make, like which road to choose, can be met with unexpected consequences. Things don’t always turn out the way I plan. I’ve also been reminded that what is going on ahead of you is far more important than what is happening behind you. If I hadn’t been paying attention to the truck of ahead of me—well, mostly—I wouldn’t have seen the truck slowing and could well have ended up plowing into the car just ahead of me. Which would have made matters all the worse for me and everyone around me.

So what are the lessons here, for me, and maybe for you?

First, I think its that not all our choices turn out the way we expect them to—and that’s okay. It’s what happens inside you when you encounter the unexpected that matters most. What goes on inside of us is far more important than what is happening around us.

By learning to recognize my frustration early, I can head it off before it grows into something worse.

Second, I think paying attention to what’s ahead of us, deliberately, not unmindfully, is far more important than focusing on what’s behind us. Sure, we should learn from our mistakes, our unskillful behaviors, but just like with driving, if we are too focused on what’s behind us, we run the risk of making our present and our futures more chaotic, more frustrating, and more dangerous.

Third, I’d say realizing that the temptation to judge someone else’s conduct without knowing what’s happening inside of them is dangerous to our peace of mind. We all go through the day facing the potential to judge how people should behave without really knowing what drives their behavior. Like I said, maybe the guy had an important job interview—or needed to prep for brain surgery.

I know those are unlikely, but giving him the benefit of the doubt leaves me the space to remain mindful.

There are probably a few more lessons about the mindful journey many of us are on. But I will leave it at this: Sometimes, I wonder if my meditation practice really matters. I argue with myself about being too busy to sit. But quieting my mind when there are few distractions pays its dividend when I’m in the middle of a busy airport or in traffic or some other part of life’s chaos. I suppose that’s the greatest lesson for me in all of this—preparing my heart and mind is essential to skillful living.

Maybe it’s true for you too.

By the way, I was only 15 minutes late to my meeting and nobody really seemed to care—but that’s another lesson.




Author: Jim Owens

Image:  utsi at Imgur

Editor: Renée Picard

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