Originally published November 2017 on AppliedMindfulnessTraining.org
Two cashiers were working the front of the store. It wasn’t an organized “wait here for the next available” situation, but people were standing back queued up just the same, waiting for whichever cashier finished first. Taking my place at the end of the line, I waited and finally made it to the front. Eagerly eyeing the customer who’d finished paying as she put her change away, I was edging forward when a man strode up and plopped his six-pack on the counter in front of “my” clerk.
“Excuse me,” I said to him. “I was waiting here for the next cashier.”
“I know,” he said. Turning his back to me, he took out his wallet. The flood of feelings and thoughts that arose in me at that moment are probably best left undescribed, but I assure you they weren’t ignored. Irritation is excellent grist for insight’s mill.
This is good to remember now that the holiday season is upon us again. Last week across America people gathered and gave thanks. Before you know it we’ll be ringing in another new year. In between, tasty food, lively libations, congenial companionship, and general goodwill are the kind of things it’s easy to be grateful for, and being grateful is good for us. Science shows that an attitude of gratitude confers all sort of benefits.
But what about all that other stuff? The holiday hubbub, mandatory celebrations, traffic, rude people, and other aggravations can get under our skin and our first reaction isn’t usually gratitude. It takes work to learn how to appreciate things that trigger us, but it’s work worth the trouble. Because if you dismiss the idea of appreciating life’s aggravations as nuts, you miss out on a real source of wisdom, as well as a chance to leave future generations a saner world.
When we were children, Thanksgiving seemed uncomplicated. But if we pay attention, eventually we notice that what counts as a blessing depends on one’s perspective. There are more than seven billion unique perspectives on earth these days, and while these differing perspectives can create conflict, they can also create rich situations.
Consider the holidays: when family and friends congregate, conversations and competitions follow. Intertwined personal histories and expectations generate dramas. Then, as they say about movies, hilarity ensues. Except when it doesn’t. Because, whether we’re talking about relatives or nations, there’s nothing like history and expectations to create awkward situations, or worse.
Our reaction to conflict around the table may be to flee. Or to stick around and try to fix other people, like the uncle holding forth on politics we can’t stand, or the sister who won’t discipline her children. Giving thanks for the food on the table is easy; what’s harder to appreciate is the chronic complainer, or the chaos of competing chatter, or the person who manages always to be elsewhere at clean-up time.
But those challenges help make us aware of what we’re carrying within. Each of us has a kind of inner baggage consisting of tendencies of all sorts. Some of them help bring blessings into this world, and some of them…well, let’s just say that while they may generate heat, they rarely shed much light. But if we pay attention to our feelings instead of trying to get rid of whatever triggers them, it invites insight.
Trying to get rid of things that bother us is like wanting to cover the earth with leather because the ground hurts our feet. Staying present with irritation instead of jumping to react creates the space that allows a more nuanced perspective to arise. Then we can make a conscious choice about how to respond. It’s more like covering the soles of our feet with leather. What a great idea! And these metaphorical shoes, unlike ruby slippers that might transport us elsewhere, instead help keep our feet firmly on the ground, even when it’s rocky.
When we’re caught up in the heat of the moment and burning to do something – maybe even something we already know we’ll regret later – the attention we’ve cultivated makes it more likely that we’ll notice we’re on fire. Then we can apply a subtler version of the instructions kids are taught for what to do if they’re on fire: we can stop, drop, and roll. And we’re the only ones who’ll even know we’re doing it.
Stop. Instead of firing back at the object of our irritation, we can stop and pay attention. Just remembering to notice will cut reactivity’s momentum.
Drop. Then we can drop into the present and discern tendencies that recur when we’re triggered: how we feel in our bodies, what our thought patterns are, whether we’re remembering to breathe. Creating this momentary gap allows us to remember that we have a choice about how to inhabit this particular moment in time and space. The process, which may take only seconds, ideally ends with our asking ourselves “What will bring benefit now?”
Roll. Then we roll. And roll with it.
Because let’s face it: life – meaning circumstances and other people – will inevitably offer up everything from minor annoyances to heartbreaking tragedies. The times that try our souls are the ones that determine whether we’re what Thomas Paine called “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.” And at such times we can ask ourselves, Am I running around spreading flames of conflict? Am I trying to smooth out the road of life, one patch at a time? Or am I willing to take responsibility for unpacking my own inner baggage?
C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.” When we pay attention to our inner experience, we don’t need to do so much shouting in the world around us. The things that push our buttons can launch us into the space of insight in which, with our minds clear and our hearts open, we can see what the situation needs.
Then, instead of reacting with annoyance, we can respond with whatever will help. Which is nice not only during the holidays, but in all seasons. And that’s something everyone can be grateful for. Even people who cut in the checkout line.