On a recent Saturday morning, shortly after I began teaching meditation, I was on my way to teach a daylong retreat outside of Nashville. While driving on Granny White Pike, a busy two-lane street, I signaled and merged into the turn lane. Just as I did, someone in a white car sped up and honked at me multiple times.
The blasts startled me. I was driving at least the speed limit, I signaled and moved into the turn lane correctly, and, to my knowledge, I did everything completely normal. But the sudden blasts penetrated my body to the core and shook up my nervous system. I felt upset as I waited for the turn light. “What’s up with that guy, I did nothing wrong. What a jerk!”
We’ve all seen the headlines of road rage incidents that then escalate into dangerous, even fatal, encounters. This episode was harmless overall; the driver was gone, yet the lingering anger I felt remained. Then the voice of wisdom piped in, “you’re on your way to teach a retreat, you don’t want to carry this frustration in your nervous system a minute more.”
I then remembered a practice I can do while driving or at other times when an encounter throws me off. I center in on the place where I still feel the response—starting with my awareness of the angry thoughts, then bringing my attention to my body, feeling the agitation and contraction in my gut area. I take a few breaths and gradually let go of the narrative of “that driver was a jerk.” I often find, when bringing my attention to the physical sensation of agitation in the body and the breath, that the sense of self that often solidifies amid feeling wronged or hurt just melts away, especially when there is no recourse or further action needed. This act of going back to bodily awareness often supports a return to equanimity when the mind and heart are feeling agitated.
I didn’t want the driver to leave me with a second arrow; the first arrow being the horn, the second arrow being the anger and sense of being wronged one carries with them. As I remained present without proliferating thoughts, the anger and frustration began to dissipate. Nothing was left but the breath and my body, sitting at a traffic light. All was well, my nervous system had reset to ease. The light changed, and I drove the rest of the way to the retreat feeling at peace.
While teaching that morning, I used this encounter as an example of how to let go of feeling wronged in a situation where there is no external control or recourse. I explained how I unwound the tension and anger, all the way to a sense of self, and then let it go.
Compassion naturally arises when we get a glimpse into another person’s suffering.
During a break, a young man asked if we could meet privately. We went into a room at the back of the house, and he confided, “that story you told of the man who aggressively honked at you—I’m that guy.” I was stunned. How likely was that? He continued, “I’m not literally that guy, but that’s just like me, I can’t control my anger. My wife and child are leaving me. I’m losing everything that matters to me. I don’t want to live like this any longer, can meditation help me?”
My heart softened. The proverbial jerk on the road sat right in front of me, exposing his suffering and the real consequences that arose from his hostility. How often do we see behind the hardened surface to the actual human who we think is a jerk? Compassion naturally arises when we get a glimpse into another person’s suffering.
This angry man was willing to reveal his vulnerability. That’s rare. Because I had already unwound my own reaction from the encounter with an aggressive driver, I could more fully listen to and receive this man’s tenderness and feel connected to his suffering. While a different flavor from my own, I knew that in the deepest place, this man was another reflection of the ways I too was not fully awake.
Ahead of everyone’s busy holiday season of bustling and commuting, here is a step-by-step guide for how to unwind a reactive response:
- Begin by recognizing and bringing awareness to the reaction at the thought level, just noting without judgment the narrative itself. Don’t try to stop it, let it run for a minute through the spotlight of your awareness.
- Now find the place in your body where you find a corresponding felt sense of the reaction. Perhaps a tightness in your gut or chest, or a constriction at your throat.
- Begin to explore the way these sensations feel in your body. Notice if your mind returns quickly to the thought. Gently bring it back to the bodily sensations.
- Start to let go of the narrative as you stay with the physical sensations.
- Don’t demand anything, trust the wisdom of the body, and let go of trying to figure it out or change it.
- Now investigate if you can find a “me” or “mine” in these sensations. Chances are, you can’t.
- Just continue to rest your attention at the sensations for a few more minutes. As you disidentify from these thoughts and the sense of self that felt wronged, you’ll likely begin to relax and return to equilibrium.
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