When was the last time a perfect stranger swore at you?
I’m talking heavy duty “I hate you and I’d like to hurt you” kind of swearing from someone you’ve never seen before in your life?
It happened to me a few days ago. I was pulling into our local post office’s parking lot, which was totally congested with cars backing out of spaces, cars waiting to get in to spaces, and simply too many cars squeezed onto one confined patch of asphalt. There was nothing to do but be patient.
A woman pulled up behind me and started honking. Not those polite little “please stop texting–the light is green” honks, but really laying on the horn with caricature road rage.
I laughed out loud, and turned to look at the driver. She was attractive, with long dark hair framing big sunglasses, probably in her late thirties or early forties. Maybe she couldn’t see far enough ahead to know that what she was demanding was impossible. Nope…she had a perfectly clear view. I laughed at her again, just to be sure she saw me.
Once we waited the two excruciatingly long minutes it took to park, we got out of our cars at the same time. I had a vague notion of thinking I should handle the situation with presence, and maybe even compassion. I said in a light tone, “Do you really think that helps?”
“Fuck you!” she said.
“Excuse me?” said I.
She replied louder this time, “FUCK YOU!”
Again, a little voice was calling out from the distance, very much like Cindy Lou Who trying to get Horton’s attention: “Stay conscious, Martha, be compassionate!”
In a half-assed attempt to comply, I said to the woman, “Wow, I am so sorry…for you.”
It had been years since I had exchanged that kind of energy with someone. I didn’t know how to handle it. In my youth–or even ten years ago–I would have jumped at the chance for a slash and burn verbal exchange. I used to excel at it. My witty ego loved taking an opponent down.
But I’d like to think I’ve moved a little higher up the personal development curve by now.
I told myself I was choosing my words carefully, but my response was clearly not coming from a place of compassion. I was trying to embarrass her. If the Universe passed out report cards, I would have gotten a “D” at best for how I reacted to that situation.
The woman’s difficulties continued inside the post office, where there was a long line of customers waiting. “How is she going to handle this?” I asked myself (not out loud this time).
Sure enough, instead of waiting the usual few feet behind the counter until it was her turn, she walked right up to the elderly woman still being helped and set her purse on the counter next to the customer’s elbow. The post office employee just stared neutrally at our angry lady, sensing, perhaps, her short fuse. (Postal workers are no-doubt trained to disarm disgruntled colleagues and customers alike.)
The thing was, I really did feel sorry for her. It’s got to be an awful existence walking around that angry all the time. But I didn’t react in a way that diffused her anger or her pain. Quite the opposite. I reacted to her negativity with my own negative, belittling response, and in doing so brought us both further down. I felt slimy and stinky the rest of the day.
Just Going Through the Motions of Mindfulness
A day or two later, I checked in with Eckhart Tolle’s online talk series. It had been a few months since I had taken the time for an Eckhart refresher. I had replaced my spiritual training with a very practical, secular form of mindfulness and meditation training.
To be honest, the spiritual stuff still scares me a little, at least in terms of being public about it. I haven’t fully embraced a spiritual identity, which for me evokes either church ladies or the spacey Luna Lovegood (who actually is my favorite Harry Potter character).
In the greater scheme of things, listening to the Universe (or Source, or Spirit, or God…whatever you choose to call it) is still very new to me. Most of my family and long-time friends aren’t of the same mindset.
So when I came across mindfulness thought leaders who were approaching the topic using non-spiritual language, I jumped on that bandwagon. Don’t get me wrong–you can practice mindfulness without being spiritual. Successful mindfulness-based stress reduction programs are being implemented in more and more settings, from the military to schools to private sector companies to prisons. And they’re keeping it secular. The research shows these techniques effectively instill a greater sense of calm, clarity, and resiliency in practitioners (click here for more about that).
But the power of mindfulness and meditation, and the potential for it to change our collective consciousness, rests in our ability to tap in to something deeper, that scary power that’s hard to pin down with one name.
By setting aside the spiritual component of my own mindfulness practice, I haven’t been getting the full bang for my buck. Taking the safer, non-spiritual route hasn’t been enough to overcome my deeper karmic patterns, as evidenced by my bitchy response to the angry lady.
Warning: Presence Power Tank on Empty
What I was lacking in the post office parking lot was what Eckhart referred to in his talk as “Presence Power.” I didn’t have a stored reserve of Presence to draw from in that difficult moment.
“Presence Power,” as Eckart explained it, is generated during conscious, mindful moments when things are going smoothly:
“Alertness is there more and more when you take a mindful moment, a conscious moment, a meditative moment. The person subsides, the Presence arises. Something shines through the person. Your personal history doesn’t give you your sense of who you are. It’s the Presence that defines you. … [When you respond to a difficult person with Presence and without judgment] you have transcended the karmic limitations in the other because you have transcended the karmic limitations in yourself.”
(Note: capitalizing “Presence” still scares me a little and makes me think people will laugh at me; I’m trying to get over that.)
Through my meditation practice, I have been trying to expand my number of mindful moments each day. But I realize I’ve only been going through the motions, keeping it on the surface. It’s not like it hasn’t helped. I am undoubtedly less stressed, more clear-headed, and more creative compared to my pre-meditation self.
But the F-bomb altercation showed me that I need to shift to a higher gear to bust my old karmic patterns when the going gets tough. I need to fill up my Presence Power tank. I need to step out of the way so that Life (or the Universe, or Spirit, or whatever you want to call it) can steer the situation in a more compassionate direction when my white-knuckled ego is clutching the wheel.
Baby Steps to Fill Up on Presence Power
Here are just a few opportunities to soak in Presence Power throughout your day:
- Instead of checking your phone at traffic lights, spend 30 mindful seconds generating Presence Power.
- Instead of scanning tabloid headlines in grocery store lines, use that time to open up to Presence Power.
- Instead of turning on the car ignition as soon as you sit down, take a brief moment to invite a little Presence Power.
- Instead of looping your to-do list tape in your head while showering, scrub in some Presence Power.
- Instead of checking email right up to when your next meeting starts, take a few seconds to breathe in some Presence Power.
I’ll be working on this myself going forward. Hopefully I’ll be better prepared the next time I’m faced with a situation that threatens to kick my booty back to my bitchy karmic state.
What about you? Have you been sucked into a less-than-enlightened response to a life event recently? Or better yet, have you overcome a difficult situation with a skilled response?
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