Drama behind the wheel

Every time we get behind the wheel of a car, we have countless opportunities to “get hooked” by other people’s choices while driving. Too slow! Too fast! He’s swerving! She cut me off! Could you possibly turn any slower? He took the parking spot I wanted! Stop tailgating!  What shade of green would you prefer before going? Did you see her run that red light? Why are you stopping all the way back here? Get out of “my” lane! Oh, SURE you have two or more people in the car in that HOV lane! What, are they lying on the floor?

What all these examples have in common, in addition to demonstrating impatience or intolerance, is the unconscious belief that driving should proceed smoothly and optimally at all times for one’s convenience and peace of mind. Sometimes, we have legitimate concerns that our or other drivers’ safety is endangered, but we still may erupt in comments like these, out loud or in our heads. The impatience or fear can cause us to suffer, often unnecessarily.

But if driving provides countless opportunities for us to “get hooked,” it also provides just as many for us to practice patience and remove ourselves from the center of our own world, to not make it personal.

So much of human reactivity boils down to whether we like something or not or how it affects our own agenda in a single moment of time. You’re driving along on a road with little traffic at a speed that is comfortable, things are all right with the world, and then someone pulls out in front of you from a side street and wants to go, say, even just 5-7 mph slower than you do along the same route. Maybe it’s a day when you just don’t want someone going slower in front of you, or you’re in a bit of a hurry, or have a little impatience in you. Hey, I was really enjoying that driving experience until YOU pulled out and died, slow poke! You couldn’t have waited a couple more seconds for me to pass?

But someone pulling out and driving at a much slower pace than I prefer is just the nature of driving. Someone driving recklessly across five lanes of highway traffic really fast is just in the nature of driving. Basically, these experiences entail someone doing something in a car that I don’t like here and now. I can not like that and let it burn awhile, or I can not like it for that inescapable shenpa moment, see that it’s my small self wanting things to be  “perfect” or “my way,” breathe, and release the irritation, knowing it’s all happening because I unconsciously but mistakenly believe driving should unfold the way I want it to. When we accept what happens, the suffering that is caused by resistance to it diminishes or disappears.

On my way to pick up my daughter at the bus stop recently, I pulled up behind a car at a stop sign, and the driver was talking out the passenger window to a couple of boys, asking for directions. It took quite awhile in car years, where 45 seconds seem like eons, but I could see what was obviously going on, and for once I just waited. No tension, no annoyance or impatience. Nothing but blank, peaceful waiting. Then three cars pulled up behind me, and one driver immediately and repeatedly hit the horn, and the driver ahead of me jumped and roared out from the stop. I started driving again, for a change completely calm and kind of bemused. The weird thing was that I didn’t force myself to be patient–it just happened because I recognized the shenpa when it happened, breathed, and released the impatience.

If it happened once, it could happen again. Really. It could.

(Photo credit: http://collisionmax.com/MaxTrax-Auto-Body-Shop-Blog/bid/63420/Here-He-Comes-Here-Comes-Road-Rager-Aggressive-Drivers)

My Shenpa Partner

This spring, my younger daughter had noticed that I often get very impatient behind the wheel of a car. One day during a time when I was thinking a lot about shenpa, someone was driving painfully slowly in front of me, and I was getting myself bent out of shape about it. I exclaimed impatiently, thus providing my daughter with yet another golden opportunity to criticize me from the back seat. Her tone sounded kinda harsh to me, and I reacted defensively by saying something like, “Don’t be so critical of me all the time, K.!” She backed off. After I dropped my other daughter off at an activity, K. climbed into the front seat for the next leg of our errands trip. As I started driving again, I said, “You know, you’re right about me being impatient, K. I know I’m impatient in some situations, like driving.”

She said, surprised, “Well, thank you, Mom, for saying that!”

“I’ve told you before that I think you’re very observant and insightful, and you are,” I said.  “Thank you, Mom!” Smiling.

Then I said, “It’s something that I’ve been trying to work on recently, but I could use some help, and maybe you could help me. There is something in Tibetan Buddhism called shenpa. I love that word. It’s that moment when something happens or someone says something to you, and you get ‘hooked.’ You have an instant reaction of impatience or hurt or anger or deep sadness or whatever emotion, and the next thing you know, your thoughts have taken you racing down the usual path, and you end up feeling furious, upset, depressed, or bad about yourself.”

“Hmm. That’s very interesting. I know what you mean,” K. said.

“This Buddhist teacher I’ve been reading [Pema Chödrön] says that in the moment of getting hooked, you want to be able to recognize it and then allow just enough space to feel whatever emotion you are feeling in your body, but without getting caught up in all the thoughts in your mind that come as a result,” I said. “And then we have a better chance of stopping all that stuff playing out and feeling so bad. This teacher says that if you have a partner who can gently tell you ‘shenpa‘ in a kind way when they notice you getting hooked, you’re better able to break the habit and bad feelings. I would love to have someone to do that for me. Would you be my partner in helping me become more patient?”

She promptly agreed. Wow, permission to point out some undesirable characteristic in your mother, over and over? What’s not to love? So, I’m going to let her see how I wrestle with impatience over time when she tells me I’m hooked so that she will become aware of this very important concept in Life. I really like the idea of this partnership, but it can be challenging, especially coming from a 16-year-old in my face every day!