Maybe some people aren't assholes . . .

My Buddhist life is starting to come together again. I had let the practice slide, then began to feel I missed it, but struggled to get it back. Out on the road, its hard to maintain anything, but recently, thankfully, I've been able to quietly sustain. It feels like I'm in tune with the world again.

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self,
To study the self is to forget the self,
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas”
- Master Dogen Zenji

Our teacher at the Grand Rapids Zen Center and BuddhistTemple reminded us in a recent dharma talk, that many people forget Dogen's first “study the self” part and try to jump right to the “forget the self” part without doing the necessary work. With my meditation practice back on track, I'm learning things about myself again. So much nonsense gets cooked up inside the human head; mine especially.

There are very few people in my life that get under my skin. I've always taken some thin comfort in that there were so few people who bothered me. I must be an alright guy; I get along with almost everybody. The first stage of my learning came a couple years ago when somehow I realized that 50% of my issues with these people were my reaction to the situation. A time came that I was going to be stuck spending a weekend with one of those people. Luckily there were to be plenty of other people around. I decided to just let them be and not react, even if I thought they were being an ass. It actually worked and the weekend went more smoothly than expected. I was kind of proud of myself. However, I never did the hard work to think about my half of the issues.

Now it may be that some people really are assholes. I might even be right that you can change your own reaction to that kind of person, but I needed to dig a little deeper. These bothersome people are a small group, but they have occupied an inordinate amount of my time – my brain time. These people are so bad [uh huh …] that I would dream up scenarios about future confrontation. Because I knew what they were going to say [ridiculous] and I wanted to be prepared with my rebuttal [sad, and ridiculous]. I was preparing for battle. Given the right prep work, I would smash them into submission with my powerful words [sad, really damn sad].

Sitting on my cushion and peaking into my life, I've been amazed to find anger. Hey wait, I'm a happy guy, right? A joker. What's up with this? The anger usually showed up around these particular people, but it was coming from somewhere else. It was coming from inside me. I stayed with that, teasing at it like a kid poking at a campfire with a stick – watching it burn down.

My perception of this stuff finally settled to the bottom, like that last big log settling into the embers. The situation presented itself that I was going to see one of those people again. My mind started to build the scenarios and the rebuttals … and then, with a clunk, it was right in front of me. My mind was creating these ridiculous “issues” that would surely lead to difficult situations where I could swing my hammer! [such crap] These situations never actually came up, by the way. I was never right. 

Deep in the cob webs, there was another, totally different issue. This other issue had come up before around this person, likely without malice, but it was something that I didn't want to talk about. It was something that was embarrassing or difficult for me to square. Turns out the issue was mine and mine alone. My pea brain was making lots of smoke to cover this other thing; to keep it hid. I've discovered that nearly all my reactions to similar people in my life have involved something else; something deeper.

It is so good to learn. My brain knows now too, so it doesn't race so easily. I still have work to do, but even if not all the assholes are covered by this new loophole, its really just my work on my issues. Now I don't have to worry about how to react to the other person -- it was me all along.


Plaza Rage

It had been a hell of a week; bitter cold, snow and ice, and a highway job. Add to that I had wrangle an empty trailer to be able to pick up the load that would get me back home. Along the way I had to cut across mountainous Pennsylvania backroads to get there, when all I wanted to do was pull off the road somewhere and have a stiff drink … beside a roaring fire.

After the pick up, I battled my way across Pennsylvania and Ohio and got to Detroit on time to deliver. Detroit was my first city after college and I have a soft spot in my heart for her. My load was recycled metal. Recycling industry facilities are not located in swanky business parks. Scrap dealers and reprocessors are where the rent is cheap and the neighbors scarce. Driving up Van Dyke Avenue – a street that I had once lived on in another Detroit neighborhood – was excruciating. The burned out and abandoned buildings crowd out almost any other potential. I wept for my city and got unloaded in a yard surrounded by 12 foot chain link fence topped with razor wire. 

The next challenge was to drive from Detroit to Zeeland in a stiff crosswind with an empty trailer. I made it across owing to my unique combination of stubborn and stupid. I dropped my trailer as the snow plow guy in the lot tried to find new places to put more snow. After bobtailing to the terminal, sorting and turning in my paperwork, unpacking the big truck and stuffing it into my little truck, I was ready to go home, but I needed to stop at the grocery store on the way.

I approached the intersection of organically shaped plaza streets gingerly as the cab of my Ranger was precariously stuffed. A father and son in a big SUV approached from the opposite direction. Without so much as slowing down, the dad cranked his wheel and turned left right in front of me! I outstretched my arms in the International New Jersey Sign for “WTF!!??!!” The dad just looked at me like he didn't understand. This only stoked my anger. As they made a big curve right across my path, the son looked at me dumbfounded. Through their salt crusted windows I imagined that I could see the spittle about to drool from the kid's ridiculous looking lazy mouth. I had the urge to just ram them. Alone in my truck, I disparaged their family, their politics, their religion, their sisters and mothers. They didn't seem to have any idea how they were making my stupid week worse! In my final triumph, I flipped them the bird just before they disappeared around the corner.

I gave my Ranger some gas. The backend dipped slightly to the right; more a saunter than a spin out. Patiently, and feeling oh-so-superior, I waited for the tires to gain some traction. The plow polished snow gradually gave way and as I moved through the intersection, it hit me – brighter than the blinding afternoon sun blasting off the white on white ice and snow – in order to facilitate traffic exiting the plaza, there.is.no.stop.sign.in.the.opposite.direction. Father and son were flabbergasted simply because they were right and I was wrong. I had lost my way – in many more ways than one. How could I have felt so self righteously violated over 4 more seconds at a stop sign? Who have I become?

I've struggled recently to make time, or take the time to continue my meditation practice out here on the road. After sitting all day, driving a semi and concentrating strongly on my driving, it is hard to convince myself to sit, on purpose, to concentrate some more. Other times, I'm running so hard if feels like I don't have the time. The result is I haven't been sitting.

Rolling slowly through the plaza, I realized – re-learned – that meditation is not just sitting and concentrating. It's not doing time. Meditation is about reflecting on and absorbing the wisdom I have been offered. It is not an escape from life, meditation is practicing how to live. To just do the time is to miss the point. To feel self righteous while driving through a plaza is to miss the point. Rather than worry about how much time I meditate, I just need to sneak a few minutes here and there to reflect on who I want to be. Making a complete ass of myself helped me find my way again.