Charlie: A while back, Linda and I attended a weekend meditation retreat led by Pema Chodron, a long-time practitioner of Buddhist meditation and the principal teacher at the Buddhist center, Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. The retreat was based upon the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan teacher of Buddhism and author of many books, including Smile At Fear, which happened to be the theme of the retreat. Both Linda and I have been long-time fans of Pema’s work and her books, especially the best-seller, When Things Fall Apart, which seems to have been written precisely for these times.
So naturally, when we heard about the retreat, which was held at a huge pavilion in the city of Richmond, California, we signed up for it. We just barely made it in before it sold out. Unfortunately, the hotel that the sponsoring organization had contracted with for the special room rate however had sold out of rooms and we had to scramble at the last minute to find another place to stay. After many phone calls and emails, we finally managed to reserve a room at a hotel about four miles away from the retreat.
After the first evening’s meeting, we drove to our hotel and because it was dark and there was a detour on the road, I found it difficult to follow our directions and because of a number of wrong turns that I made, it took us about an hour longer to find our way to the hotel than it should have. I made a verbal note to Linda to get an early start the next morning to make sure that even if we got lost again, we would make it in plenty of time for the opening meditation.
The next morning after breakfast, we got on the road, with plenty of time to spare and I proceeded to get us even more lost than we had been the night before. Still, I wasn’t worried since we had left early enough to deal with any unplanned meanderings and still make it in time.
When after about fifteen minutes going in what turned out to be the wrong direction, it became obvious to us both when we ended up at a dead end, that my instincts, which are not always 100% reliable, had unfortunately failed me and it was time for another game plan.
Although I was totally unfamiliar with the terrain, I declined Linda’s suggestion that we might consider asking someone for directions. No need to do that. I did what any other man would do in a similar situation, one in which he had absolutely no idea of where he was or how to get to where he wanted to go. I was without a cell phone or navigational system.
There was of course no need to ask anyone for directions. Yes, my instincts had just failed me, but that was all the more reason to trust that they would not fail me again. After all how often does lightning strike twice in the same place? Besides I was really sure this time that I knew the way. Linda was beginning to have her doubts, but bless her heart, she gave me another chance.
You’ll be shocked to hear this, but believe it or not, it soon became apparent that I was wrong again. Linda once again asked me with great patience and non-judgment if I might want to reconsider my decision to not ask anyone for directions. By now it was getting late and there was a serious possibility that we might be late for the morning meditation, and come straggling in after it had begun, interrupting the sacred silence in the room and destroying the stillness and conscious breathing of the 3000 punctual yogis who would be sitting in perfect posture being perfectly mindful, immersed in the joy of perfect consciousness. No doubt, all of them would open their eyes just long enough to see who it was that was interrupting their blissful state.
With all this going through my mind, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that it would probably be a good idea to take Linda’s advice and pop the question to someone who might know more than I did about the local terrain. A clerk in a nearby convenience store gave me precise directions and it turned out that we were pretty close to our destination. I got back in the car, no longer feeling anxious or distressed, and headed for the pavilion. We were going to make it on time after all.
When we began to see signs directing cars to the pavilion, I knew that we were home free, or so it seemed. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. Four blocks from our destination a flashing red light appeared up ahead accompanied by a clanging bell. The two cars in front of me stopped at the railroad crossing that was literally less than twenty-five feet in front of me.
My mood immediately got dark again with all kinds of very unenlightened thoughts and urges coming into my mind. In an instant, I went from perfect peace to perfect frustration.
I checked the time. We still had nearly ten minutes before the first session was scheduled to begin. And we were so close to the pavilion that I could now see it. Even if the train took five minutes to pass we would still have enough time to get to the parking lot and make it inside before the meditation began. No problem, except for one thing: The train turned out to be by the longest train that I had ever seen in my life, maybe the longest train in the world. It took more than five minutes, more than ten minutes. It took almost fifteen minutes for that train to pass and for the crossing bars to finally lift to let the drivers in what had now become an incredibly long line of cars to restart their engines and resume their travels.
By this time, I was possessed by an overwhelming feeling of impotent outrage. In the midst of my expletive-filled rantings, Linda, gently but in a way that pierced my wall of anger, reminded me of three things that for some unknown reason, I was fortunate enough to be able to actually hear, that stopped me and my rantings cold in my tracks (almost literally!). One: There is nothing that we can do about this situation. Two: It is temporary and at some point it will end. Three: We came to the retreat to experience peace, greater awareness, and acceptance of the experience of the present moment.
At first I felt a strong impulse to turn my anger onto Linda for trying to deprive me of my feelings of righteous outrage. Then in the next moment, I saw the ludicrousness of my reaction. And I saw things from the perspective from which Linda was viewing them.
We had been given an opportunity to practice what Pema had spoken about during the previous evening: to be able to bring a mind of openness, acceptance, and non-judging awareness into all of our experiences, not just those that go in accordance with our plans. Not because this was the right thing for us to do, or because there was some reward that we would get for being mindful, but simply because to do otherwise was a certain prescription for continuing to experience more pain and suffering.
I looked at Linda. She wasn’t distressed at all. She was smiling, not at fear, but at the ridiculous spectacle that I had made of myself in thinking that if I got upset enough, reality might change. My anger melted in that moment and I experienced a feeling of incredible gratitude towards Linda and a release of the frustration that I had been feeling. In what seemed like a moment later, the last train car finally passed, and the gate lifted. I started the car and we drove into the parking lot which was only about 100 yards away. The five minute walk from our parking spot to our seat inside of the pavilion was delicious.
I realized about halfway to the building that I must have been smiling, because nearly everyone that I passed with whom I made eye contact, seemed to be smiling back at me. I smiled through the morning meditation and I’m smiling now as I write this.
As the social scientist and author, John Kabat-Zinn reminds us, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”