Meditating in my office a week or so ago, suddenly my heart leapt out of my chest at the sound of an airhorn. My friend was in one of his more incorrigible moods and decided to play around with our new coworker. I, of course, was not amused. However, afterwards, I did find a lot of things to be grateful for about that irritating experience. Firstly, there were many lessons to be learned through my reaction and subsequent internal dialogue. Because I was in the process of meditating, I was in an especially good position to be able to observe these thoughts and reactions.
The first thing I noticed was my unwillingness to let my anger and annoyance subside. I kept replaying all the reasons why that was so rude and aggravating, instead of just being in the current, once again peaceful, moment. The other thing I noticed was the tension I continued to hold within my body. It was as if I was trying to brace myself for yet another piercing sound to impinge upon my quietude. This I found particularly interesting to witness. What good was this state of tension and anticipation doing me? How was it serving me?
It wasn’t serving me at all, actually. I’ve often heard and believed in the idea that anxiously anticipating suffering in the future does not lessen that future suffering, it merely brings it into the present as well. But for some reason, this incident made a particularly strong impression on me as a metaphor to emphasize that truth. I think despite ourselves, a lot of us still fret about possible displeasure in our futures in an effort to somehow prevent it from happening. Yet a lot of the most painful things that happen in life are not things that we can plan for or prevent. It may behoove you to feel stress about losing your job, if you’re not performing your responsibilities. That may be something you can take actionable steps to prevent. However, I think more often we worry about things like death, aging, accidents, or other such sudden and inevitable things.
One of the most striking parts of my air horn meditation was the realization that no matter how tense or focused I was on being ready for another sudden sound, I would undoubtedly still jump and be surprised if and when it occurred. It would still be jarring and angering, despite having expected it. Although some part of me felt like I needed to be prepared, I knew logically that I simply couldn’t be. In these situations it is best for us to just accept that we may or may not encounter this experience, then let it go and return to the present moment. What good does it do us to discard the peace of the present in order to make futile efforts to deflect the effects of something in the future?
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst” is a turn of phrase that at first seems like sage advice. And as I said, in specific situations, it is. The tricky part is determining when there is a benefit in this strategy and when there’s not. I think the only way to determine this is to ask yourself: what practical steps can I take right now to mitigate this future event? In my scenario, there was obviously nothing I could do. I suppose I could have paused my meditation and kindly asked that he be silent for the next few minutes. But I don’t think that would have necessarily brought me any peace of mind, because knowing what a goof this man is, I wouldn’t have been confident he would respect my request.
So say you’ve determined that there is nothing you can do to prevent this future suffering. What now? Logic doesn’t seem to have the ability to diffuse emotion or the response of our physical bodies. What we can do is make an attempt to refocus our minds, despite our anxiety, on what is happening in the current moment. We can work to remind our bodies and minds that despite what may happen, right now we are safe and content. This is the perfect time to practice grounding exercises that can bring us back to the here and now. Pay attention to the sensations of your physical body. Notice any tension that you are holding in preparation for your fears. See if you can release that tension and instead center your mind on your breath, or perhaps the weight of your body on the earth and the points of connection to the ground below you.
This is definitely a practice and something that I still need a lot of work on myself. However, with this in mind, I think it’s a great place to start to view these minor incidents as excellent opportunities to do so. That’s one of the beautiful things that my yoga and meditation practice have given me. Now I am able to view even distasteful or outright painful experiences as gifts and opportunities for growth. Rather than focusing on my own pain and suffering and feeling like a victim in life, I can ask myself, what can I learn from this? What is this experience teaching me about myself? How can I use this misfortune to improve myself and my life in the future? It’s never easy, but it’s always worth it.