I found myself spending the better part of my Monday in the waiting room of the Indian Embassy in DC surrounded by frustrated people who were there to voice their grievances. On the other side of the glass wall was a bored looking bureaucrat who appeared to be cold and indifferent to all human suffering.
I am frantically trying to cultivate “mindfulness” – which literally means “to remember.” It’s like the mental note to yourself to hold onto the discipline – how I want to act in my life – so I don’t forget it. The teaching is that we need to be awake – to avoid problems, be concentrated all the time – aware of what’s going on internally – the bodily sensation of the conversion of thoughts to feelings.
Since I made sure I packed enough patience for this visit, every time I felt an irritation or anger beginning to arise I made it a point to check-in t0 see how I was feeling it in the body, especially for sensations in my chest, throat and the abdomen. Whenever I heard someone complain, I felt a heaviness in my chest – I re-assured myself its going to be stressful but I just have to be calm – breathe in peace, breathe out love.
Then I received a nudging from husband who texted me “you just got a new teacher” referring to my “tormentors”. I began thinking about them, those who were supposedly causing so much obfuscation to all of us out there in the waiting area – how bad do they have it? They have to deal with all these angry people every single day. So I found myself softening a bit. I remembered the story of the dog who had caught its leg in a trap.
As you are walking in the woods you see a small dog by a tree. Wondering what a poor dog is doing all alone you approach it and suddenly it lunges at you aggressively. Your opinion changes from poor dog to bad dog. But then you notice that one of its legs is caught in a trap. You feel awful and are filled with concern for the helpless creature realising that the dog’s aggression is coming from its own vulnerability and pain.
When my name was called, I was escorted back to a tiny office. My interviewer motioned me to sit down without eye-contact, and continued to focus on his phone. I took in the surroundings – the noisy window-unit air-conditioner, the dirty corner, the bin, chai-splashed and stained wall, the cob-webs. I thought the wet and unkept entrance to the basement, the unwelcoming receiving room, but this topped even those! Something shifted in me. How does it feel to be working here? I remembered the many expressionless faces and dingy offices I had just walked past. This is where they spend all day serving unhappy people. I began to feel a tiny bit of compassion toward my host. I was brought back to reality by my interviewer berating me for letting my passport lapse for so many years. I felt a real tightness in my chest – an urge to defend myself, “why do you care – I had no plans to travel until now, so I didn’t need a passport”. Instead I gently expressed my reasons and began to focus on the physical sensations. I comforted myself, okay this is going to be unpleasant but I just have to be calm. I noticed that as long as I kept my attention on the sensations in the body, the feelings slowly begin to disperse. By the time I had to deal with the next official, I was definitely calmer, and he was noticeably more civil and helpful.
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” ― Seneca