As a student of Buddhist psychology, I found my grasp of the teachings was truly put to the test one evening when I paid $550 for a cheese sandwich. Let me explain.

Driving home from work during a dull drizzle one evening not too long ago, I approached a restaurant where I had once had a really good grilled cheese sandwich. I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s what I want for dinner,” and took a quick right turn into the restaurant’s parking lot. While pulling into a parking spot—already lost in thought thinking about how hungry I was and how good the sandwich I wanted would soon taste—I struck a pole. There was a quick thud, then huge pieces of glass from my headlight flew up through the air and across the parking lot.

My adrenaline raced, and I felt short of breath. In a numb state of stupor, I picked up the glass with my bare hands while rain seeped into my hair and ran down my face, making me sneeze. Clearly, I was not going to enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich tonight. Thankfully, I was only fifteen minutes away from an auto repair shop that had regularly serviced my car, and I wasted no time driving there. With one look, the mechanic confirmed that I’d need my whole headlight replaced. In the end, the whole misadventure would end up costing me $550.

Since he needed to order the headlight, he told me that I could drive the car back home that night. While driving through the rain, I was bombarded with thoughts about my stupidity and how maddening this whole situation was. 

$550 all but torn up! You already spend too much money; now you can’t do anything fun for months. You can’t go on vacation. You can’t even go on vacation next year! You need to earn more money right now. You need to find something to request a refund on. Did you forget you have student loan debt? Why couldn’t you find a job that would get you out of debt sooner? By the way, why do you keep eating out? You’re too old to eat out on a Wednesday like a college kid. You’re so bad at cooking. Why can’t you cook yourself a satisfying meal? You’re so bad at driving. Couldn’t you have parked in a different spot? You waste so much money. Good Lord, $550 for a cheese sandwich!

This cascade of thoughts, or what contemplative psychotherapy terms “unskillful add-ons,” only served to distract me from the road, ironically putting me at risk of hitting someone or something else, yet again.

Moreover, these thoughts weren’t in and of themselves real. While stressful or unpleasant experiences are inevitable, we can either navigate them with confusion and delusion or with mindfulness. Stepping back for a moment, I decided to consider the realities versus the negative hailstorm I had been cooking up. There were the facts: I unintentionally damaged my car while getting dinner, and the cost of that repair was $550. If I could take the effort to rein in my thoughts to this single fact, then I could then make a more conscious and mindful choice on how to best proceed. Did I want to spiral into an uncontrolled cataclysm of self-loathing, or did I want to integrate into this experience in a more gentle and constructive way?

When I arrived home, I resisted the urge to unleash my panic response, which would have been to log into my bank account, with my heart pounding, and frantically scroll through recent purchases, catastrophizing over how I would pay my next bill with this new charge. Instead, I took a pause.

Meditation teacher and writer Sharon Salzberg once said, “The mind is imperialistic.” The mind seeks to exert control wherever it can, especially in places where it doesn’t (and can’t) know the whole story; as a result, we often find ourselves implanted in an imagined reality, so convinced of its truth that we neglect to consider other realities we can inhabit.

Moreover, these thoughts weren’t in and of themselves real.

I knew I had deep-rooted insecurities about where I was in my life and if I was living how I thought I should be. By clinging to these doubts, I was implanting myself in a reality where I was not enough. Since I inadvertently lived in this reality, every experience I had served to reify it. Everything I saw and felt was through the fog of my low self-esteem. As a result, I connected this car accident to my self-image without a second thought. Because I was so stuck on this narrative of you are not good enough, I found evidence for it everywhere I turned.

Many Buddhist teachings propose the idea that there is no one single reality. If I could shift my attention from this painful state of low self-esteem, even for a moment, maybe my mind could take me to a gentler place. For example, it is reasonable for people to get hungry after a long day at work; it’s tricky to drive in rain; it’s taxing to concentrate when you’re hungry; some parking spaces are awkward; it’s only fair to pay auto manufacturers and mechanics for work we can’t do ourselves; and, moreover, nobody is exempt from a run-of-the-mill mistake.

It took conscious effort to view the car accident in this way. But if I applied an observant and curious perspective to the car accident, rather than a perspective rooted in the nebulous reality of my low self-esteem, I could spare myself the ensuant cascade of “unskillful add-ons” disguised as facts. I could cease connecting this incident to me and my self-image, and recognize that I am part of a larger constellation in which some things go right, some things go wrong. Whether or not I can cook is a story for another day.

The more I can develop the skill of viewing situations from a mindful perspective, the more I can simultaneously improve my self-esteem and accept that not everything the universe concocts is a reflection of my own self-worth. At the same time, I need to open myself up to seeing the positive qualities I possess during life’s ups and downs, like the fact that I am responsible enough to have been contributing to an emergency savings account ever since college that could help to bail me out of life’s costly and unpredictable impediments. A mindful, unattached perspective not only woke me up to a balanced view of the incident but also woke me up to the resources I already had in my possession and made me even more aware of the multifaceted person I am.

Through my Buddhist studies, I had amassed jewels of insight. I realized I already had this great wealth of wisdom within me and my challenge was merely to access it when I needed it the most, in my day-to-day ordinary life. I believe this is true for everyone: our mind already possesses the skills and qualities to get us through certain challenges or past obstacles. This facility of the mind can get obscured through judgment and clinging to imagined realities, but by practicing mindfulness and stepping back from our reflexive storytelling, we peel back layers of misconception and invoke our glowing and ever-present inherent buddhanature.

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