Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Hammer of Insight

We all have those days sometimes when nothing seems to go the way we want it to, and everything gets under our skin. They seem to happen disproportionately on Mondays, when most people are returning to their jobs from the relaxation of a weekend.

One recent Monday I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. My mind was foggy, and I felt psychologically oppressed by the pressures of work that were looming ahead of me. A complex matter in my personal life was also weighing heavily on my mind. And my foot was hurting. On the subway, someone had vomited. I sat on the bench across from it, at the far end, to distance myself. Everyone who entered the subway car saw the pool of vomit and turned in another direction, except for one oblivious woman who stepped right in it and then realized her mistake. She came across and sat right next to me, tracking the vomit on her shoe. I felt a wave of irritation and revulsion, but breathed through it. Then the person on the other side of me sneezed without covering his mouth. My irritation surged again, and I started holding my breath.

Once off the subway, the streets were barricaded and filled with jeeps, police cars, and uniformed infantry. I suddenly remembered it was Veterans Day, and the epicenter of the Veterans Day parade is directly beneath my office window. I zig-zagged my way through the barricades, negotiating with police officers to reach my office building and weaving through squadrons of soldiers, firemen and former PoWs on Harley Davidsons. All morning long, the noise of drums and bagpipes filled my ears, distracting me from my work. Despite my English and Scottish ancestry, the sound of bagpipes has always been to me like nails on a chalkboard.

A Toolbox for Coping with What Life Throws at You
So what do you do when you're having a seriously bad hair day? A day filled with stressful pressures, vomit on the subway, people sneezing at you, and bagpipes grating on your nerves? What tools do you draw upon to keep yourself from completely losing it?

One good place to start is to remember to breathe. When stress gets the upper hand on us, our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and breathing becomes shallow. The sympathetic nervous system becomes over-stimulated. Just pausing for a moment and breathing slowly and deeply into the belly can help us insert space into a cramped situation. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which counters the physiological effects of stress and promotes relaxation.

Another useful tool is to laugh at yourself. Take a step back and look at how seriously you take everything, and see the humor in it. Laugh at yourself. Are you saving babies or performing brain surgery? If not, ask yourself: do I really need to be taking all of this so seriously?

Big Teachings Come in Small Packages
I remember meeting with my spiritual teacher once when I was having a day like this. He was only in town for a weekend program, and I went to see him with a small group of people on a Friday night, coming straight from work. My mind was buzzing like a beehive of stresses and irritations. He looked at me and asked me how I was doing. I beat around the bush, not really wanting to bother him with what I knew were mostly petty, mundane concerns. I said I was okay.

"Why just okay?" he asked.

Again, I beat around the bush, not really forming a clear answer. I mumbled something about life in New York City being like a roller coaster.

Suddenly, in the middle of my mumbling, he grabbed me by the shoulder, looked directly into my eyes, and said quietly, so only I could hear him: "You died two months ago."

I was stunned into silence, not sure at first what to make of this bizarre and ominous-sounding statement. "Just imagine," he repeated: "You died two months ago."

In that moment, the hammer of insight struck me upside the head. I saw that it wasn't the external circumstances that were putting me in that stressed-out state of mind: it was me. I saw how silly and unnecessary it was to do that to myself. What a waste of time and energy. I was putting myself at the center of a huge emotional drama, and making such a fuss over it all — and for what purpose? Soon enough, death will come for me, as it comes for everyone. What if I had died two months ago, and I hadn't even been there to experience all this drama? Would it still carry the same importance to me?

Even more importantly, what if death comes for me two months from now? Is *this* how I will want to have spent those months? Life is short for us humans even in the luckiest of circumstances. Do I want to fritter away whatever precious time I have left wallowing in emotional dramas and stressing out over external circumstances that I cannot control? If I were on my deathbed right now, how much would I really and truly care about the pressures at work, the vomit on the subway, the bagpipes in the street? All the plans and ambitions, the hopes and fears, the unfinished projects, the worries and concerns, the grudges and attachments — do they really amount to a hill of beans in the end?

Sometimes the most profound teachings come in the smallest packages.

Whenever I have one of those days now — and I do still have them, more often than I care to admit — I try to remember that teaching. I look at whatever it is that I'm getting so worked up over, and I ask myself: would this really matter to me in the end? How would the situation be different if I had died two months ago? How would it look different to me if I knew I was going to die two months from now?

That's what a good spiritual teacher does. It's not about the books they write, or the talks and workshops they give. It's about the tools they give you for cutting through your own trip and getting a better view of reality. It might be five simple words whispered in your ear, but those five words might contain the one message that pops your bubble and brings you back down to earth, and reminds you of what's really important.


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