We can transform holiday drama into holiday dharma.
If we want to be good people in the world — and I truly believe most of us do — it won’t happen by itself. We have to practice. We have to practice every day. And just like we practice any skill we want to master, we must start with the little stuff. Ironically, though, the little stuff is less appealing. We want to go for the hard, showier stuff.
Being good during catastrophes
It’s easier to be a very good person during an earthquake, for instance. I lived on a street in Burbank, California, while I was attending Cal-Arts in its first year of existence. Down one side of the street? Old people. Mean, old people who hated us. Down the other side? Pot-smoking, draft-dodging, good-for-nothing, long-haired hippies.
On February 9th, 1971, the apartment I shared with three other girls — all of us CalArts students — started shaking like a squirrel in the mouth of a wolf. The walls wobbles like they were made of rubber, and the roar of it was (still, almost 50 years later) indescribable. It lasted 60 seconds. Run your stopwatch for that long and imagine the world ending for that whole minute. It’s a really long time.
It only took that one minute for all the animosity that had existed between the mean old people and the crazy-assed hippies to disappear. It vanished. They baked us cookies. We made sure they had enough water and medicine. We checked in on each other. It was beautiful.
So that’s what I mean by, “It’s easier to be a very good person during an earthquake.”
Being good during smaller events
What are the smaller events? Well, there are a million of them, but an astounding number of them can reliably show up during travel from Point A to Point B.
* You have to wait in line. * You’re subjected to some random stranger on their cellphone, yelling. * Your flight is cancelled. * You’re trying to connect with whoever’s picking you up and your phone dies. * You have a migraine, and the kid sitting behind you is kicking your seat. The parents say nothing.
So in anticipation for these possible difficulties, it might be useful to suggest ways of seeing these smaller events as gateways to awakening. For real. I’m saying, travel-related stress can be ‘rebranded,’ if you will, as an invitation to compassion and kindness. As a way of turning holiday drama into…holiday dharma.
It helps to know ahead of time that there will likely be some kind of drama. Some say this is negative thinking, but I say it’s more like having a map. Here is where the trail veers off to the right. Over there, it’s a marsh so watch your step. The rocky part is further up. Then there’s this forested area over to the left, past the rocks.
See? Without all the judgment and sighing and cussing, that’s all it is. Just a well-drawn map. So. What are the topographical symbols on your map as you fly to your in-laws for the holidays? The unexpected traffic on the way to the airport? The carping from your spouse about how late you’re going to be? The security line?
For me this week, it was the Uber driver who was “13 minutes away” for twenty minutes, and who wouldn’t respond to my calls or texts. It was 5:00am. I’d been waiting since 4:40am. My flight wasn’t until 7:00am, so I wasn’t worried, because I budgeted extra time for mess-ups.
I tried Lyft. This driver was only eight minutes away. Then five. Then three. Then one. I went outside with my luggage and waited…for another ten minutes. We texted back and forth. He was stuck at the train crossing and couldn’t turn around. Lots of police action. Not his fault. Good thing I started early, I thought. Still okay.
The guy called another Lyft to come get me. He arrived fairly soon, but it was 5:45am when we got to the airport. Flight isn’t till 7:00am. I think I’m okay.
Then saw the extremely long line. It was so long it took me forever just to find the end of it. The line was even slower than usual, because they were everyone over with a dog. This was before the taking off of shoes, and checking your pockets, and putting your laptop in a separate bin, etc. Okay, now it looks a little tight. It’s 6:00am and I’m headed for a 7:00am flight, and I’m at the end of a never-ending line, and it’s moving like molasses.
Now the stress builds. I'm not getting what I want. When I start to feel that sense of doom and panic, it’s my temple bell reminding me to start practicing.
Practice Session #1:
a) Is there anything I can do to change this? I think about this. Any action I can take right now that will make a difference? No? Okay, then —
b) I pick up my head, place it back up on top of my body, I press my feet into the ground, and I lengthen my spine. I consciously let my arms and the back of my neck relax. I try to stand in line like this, erect, relaxed, calm.
About twelve minutes goes by, and an official looks at my boarding pass and says, “You’re not allowed to bring carry ons on this flight.” What? The whole idea of packing the way I did was to not have to check luggage. But, no. I have to go check my bags. And then get back in this line, at the back!
I catch myself thinking, I will never ever make it.
Practice Session #2, 3, 4, and 5...and so on.
a) Is there anything I can do to change this? No. b) Does the world end if I miss this plane? No. So, once again — c) I pick up my head, place it back up on top of my body, I pressed my feet into the ground, and I lengthened my spine. I consciously let my arms and the back of my neck relax. The back part of my lungs, the back of my eyeballs.
I try to move through the steps between me and my flight like this, erect, relaxed, calm. The ticket agent who helped me check my bag also gave me a place in line that bought me a lot of time. I stayed calm. I kept asking myself the magic questions (Is there anything I can do to change this? And Does the world end if I don’t get my way?), and I kept standing up a little straighter within myself each time.
Bottom line: I made my flight. I was the last one on…but I made it. But the much bigger point is, I had practiced enough to finally be fine either way. I make my plane, I don’t make my plane, either way, I’m good. I’m whole.
As this holiday season approaches, vast crowds of people with different degrees of political persuasion, race, vax status, religion, class, & education will be thrown together in transport stations of all kinds — planes, trains and automobiles. This doesn't have to be a problem.
Ask yourself quite sincerely, Is there anything I can do to change this? Try to honestly identify whether you’re in control of the situation or not, whether it’s yours to change or not. If it is, then be my guest. Do something about it. But if it isn't, then quit knotting up your neck muscles trying to change something that’s way out of your purview.
Once you’ve identified that you might be trying to change your fate and that, for some reason, it’s not working — return to your own body by placing your head back up on top of your body, pressing your feet into the ground, and lengthening your spine.
You’ll find that even just putting your head back on top of your body, your spine automatically realigns along with the rest of it in an almost miraculous way. Energy flows more easily. And neck muscles stop being overtaxed by having to do things they really weren’t meant to do.
Try these two important steps at any moment when stress is about to creep in a steal your joy. You’ll be shocked at how simple this solution is, and how sweetly it works.
Blessings to you and all yours.