DHARMA MONDAYS is Shy Sayar’s blog on Elephant Journal, published every Monday
I have a problem. I’m chronically early. And I really really hate being late.
Yes, it’s the opposite problem that afflicts most, and some might even call it a virtue; but the problem is with the way I treat myself when I’m in a hurry. Tensing the body, taking shallow breaths and spinning thoughts are all extremely inefficient ways to try to change my reality – and they are all reflections of a deficit in self-acceptance. So why do I practice them?
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna presents the principle of Abhyasa: that long and devoted practice will make you what you practice. If you are a Hindu practicing love of Krishna, you become the love of Krishna. If you are a meditator practicing mindfulness of breath, you become mindfulness itself – and you might experience a sense of being nothing but breath, or even that everything in existence is only this breath. This is all good and lovely, but Abhyasa also has a dark side. If you practice tensing the body, you become a tense body; and if you practice anger, you become an angry person. The more I look at it, the more Abhyasa appears to be as consistent a natural law as the conservation of matter and energy (as a Buddhist aside, I see no inconsistency between these principles of physics and the impermanence of forms; we can have a raging debate over it in the comment area, below, if you wish); and the more critical every single gesture of my body, breath and mind become to my well-being in both the short and the long term.
What, then, can be our guiding principles for setting good, loving Abhyasa in motion? I’m going to suggest mindfulness, compassion, and right view; let’s look at how this would play out in running late.
Say I’m freaking out about being late in a way that genuinely inconveniences another, and I’m beating myself up over it – consciously or unconsciously. Right view would be helpful here in understanding that, in an ultimate sense, both I and the other are simply a complex set of interactions between molecules (on one level) and karmic consequence patterns (on another), and the whole situation of being late, the agreed time of meeting from which I am deviating (and in fact time itself), the car I’m driving, the road it is on and the rain beating on the hood all appear as they appear due to nothing more than the collective mental convention on the nature of reality. In this ultimate sense, both I and the other are actually one (but not any cohesive one with its own self-hood), and so if I want to do right by the other, I would best be nice to myself and stop freaking out.
HOWEVER, all this doesn’t change the distinct possibility that said other will be (or already is) totally pissed. This is where a more complete understanding of compassion comes in. Yes, compassion would have me be kind to “my own” body and mind, but it would also have me genuinely and fully consider the feelings of the “other”. This is, in a way, how compassion is never “my” compassion, but rather perhaps a fundamental attribute of reality with which we can become fully aligned to the degree that we awaken to it. So, skillfulness in both right view and compassion would have me find the best ways available to minimize the suffering of all beings involved, including this freaked out being in this (in all likelihood, recklessly speeding) vehicle. Of course, the kinder I am to myself in such a situation, and thus the more calmly and peacefully I handle it, the more mental CPU space I have for creativity in ways to alleviate the potential suffering of the others involved. I think of kindness to myself as a form of defragmentation – my system will simply run more efficiently and be of greater use to all. Maybe I make the call to say I’m running late, instead of being so focused on testing the limits of my poor car’s RPM capacity that calling does not even occur to me. Maybe I stop and pick up some flowers and chocolate chip ice cream. There really are no maxims, and right action depends on the particular circumstances, but what matters is the compassion that starts with generosity to myself and spills out to kindness to others.
Nonetheless, sometimes all the flowers, ice cream and apologies in the world can’t change the fact that I have harmed another, and all I can do is remember that beating myself up over it will not make it better, so I still might as well refrain. Yet, rewind a few minutes or hours to my day before I got in this car; could have I anticipated this traffic (of stupid drivers who are all conspiring to make me late, of course) and left the house a little earlier? Did I really have to (insert one of a zillion ways in which I spend my time less efficiently than I could, every single day) before getting on the road? Well, if I really couldn’t have anticipated it, and really did have to (whatever), than there’s no point beating myself up – I tried my best. And if the opposite is true, there’s still no point beating myself up – I might as well appreciate the lessons learned and do better next time.
In short, if you are as neurotically affected by tardiness as I (or have people in your life that are likely to get pissed about your chronic “California Time” habit), I say try your best to be as mindful as possible of time and circumstances, so that you have the greatest chance of sparing yourself and others the grief. If you still end up running late, I say do your best to relax and consider the most compassionate ways to responsibly ameliorate the situation for everyone involved – starting with yourself – but, ultimately, just drop it. It’s all one beautifully meaningless cloud of logic. And chaos. And maybe karma.
So, I (usually) anticipate lots of stupid drivers trying to conspire against me and get on the road far too early, so that I can actually be nice to all of them, just in (the highly unlikely) case that their evil intentions towards me are really only a reflection of my delusional paranoia, instead of the true nature of reality. And so I (often) end up absurdly early and get to sit in my car and listen to Silversun Pickups. I mean meditate, of course. I meant to say meditate. And that’s ok. I actually really like driving slowly and leisurely and surprising other drivers by letting them merge; I genuinely like having unanticipated time to meditate; and I definitely like Silversun Pickups.
Now to just remember to practice mindfulness, compassion and right view when I do all I can to leave early, but my girlfriend is still in the shower.