If you can practice patience in the traffic jam with a sense of humor
approach or whatever approach you want to use, you are training for really major difficulties in your life. So, it sounds silly, but actually, it’s true. If you’re sowing seeds of aggression in the
traffic jam, then you’re actually perfecting the aggression habit.
And if you’re using your sense of humor and your loving-kindness or whatever it is you do, then you’re sowing those kinds of seeds and strengthening those kinds of mental habits; you’re imprinting those kind of things in your unconscious. So, the choice is really ours every time we’re in a traffic jam.
– from Pema Chodron
Last week I was on my way to work when I encountered a train blocking my way. I wasn’t running late per se but I also didn’t have a bunch of time to spare either. As I approached the train crossing there were two cars there idling waiting for it to pass and a host of other cars deciding to veer off in another direction in order to avoid the wait (there was another way to go that would allow one to bypass the tracks but it was rather a long ways around depending on where you were trying to get to). Since I could see that the end of the long freight train was right there in view I decided to wait. But it was moving….really….slowly. It was pulling into our local train yard and while I don’t pretend to understand all of what happens in such a place it’s very common for the freight trains that pull in to have to do some kind of synchronized train dance in the process: slowly moving in, backing up, pulling forward, stopping, reversing, and then finally resting with a large train sigh signifying that it too, along with the pile of vehicles waiting at the nearby crossroads, is glad to have finally arrived.
So there I was waiting for the train – ya know, the one moving as slowly as an 80+ car freight train can go and still actually be classified as still moving. I started smiling to myself almost right away after I came to a stop at the crossroads behind the two other cars. Once it seemed that the train was somehow actually starting to go even slower I began laughing to myself. I contemplated going around but as the train was almost through the intersection I figured it couldn’t be that much longer that we’d be able to pass over the tracks. And then it started really slowly….going backwards. Slowly but surely the train was moving back through the intersection (doing it’s train yard dance). In response to this new development I started laughing rather heartily to myself. This was funny stuff!
Of course, while I was finding this whole train experience funny I was also very aware that I didn’t want to be late to work. So once the train started reversing back into our path of travel I too decided to go around another way. I mean, who knows how many curtain calls that particular train dance performance would’ve made.
I share this little moment encounter I had in relation to Pema Chodron’s teaching on traffic jams because this was really no little moment in the grand scheme of things. I’m not sure I even believe in the existence of little moments in the sense that there are times/experiences that are so small and fleeting that they somehow become insignificant, without causing impact or affect. Life exists because of the collection of little moments accrued. I think a large stumbling block that many of us face in being able to live more mindfully and joyfully is actually the belief that the little moments don’t mean anything.
The fact that I was able to smile and laugh in the face of a train blocking my way to work is no small feat. And the ability to have a genuine sense of humor about it didn’t unfold overnight. I’ve been working on this for a long while and continue to put time and energy into gladdening my state of mind in times of tension and difficulty. When I encounter opportunities to practice (aka the train) I put the work in because I see the benefits that result. Now, in this case I had another option to take. I was able to go around the train and not continue waiting there. It’s important to understand that developing the capacity to have a sense of humor about unexpected and inconvenient occurrences doesn’t mean we have to sit next to the crawling train in our path in order to be a “good” practitioner. Having a sense of humor in this case means to see life just as it is knowing that there’s only so much within our control in any given moment and acting from that place of acceptance and understanding. I’ve found that life is pretty darn funny when I stop taking things so seriously and trying to control everything.
While I didn’t have sway over the train dance I did have sway over my response. It doesn’t matter what’s happening – it really doesn’t – we always have a choice in how we respond and interact. It’s all of the little moments that are of the utmost importance to our quality of life. When we take responsibility for the little moments we’re taking back ownership of setting the course for our own way of being. If we’re waiting for there to be a day with no unexpected events that happen we’ll spend our whole lives in misery. We’re the only ones who can steer our lives in the direction we really want to be going.