With Thanksgiving and family holiday car trips right around the corner, we’re pulling this lesson in mindfulness out of the vault from 2012. May it serve you well!
My family just spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my in-laws in New York. We live in the DC area, so getting both hither and yon involves an approximately five-hour car ride (and the way home always seems to take longer). We roll with three young kids, a dog, two portable DVD players, two iPhones with game apps and music, and an ancient iPad, which contained both movies and music. Each child is equipped with headphones, which they are instructed to use at all times. The boys are actually pretty good about helping their 4-year-old sister change movies, put her headphones back on, etc. It’s a well-oiled machine.
Long about Exit 5 on the New Jersey Turnpike, all small people are quiet and have fallen blissfully into their respective media-induced car-trip comas. It’s dark outside, and I’m concentrating on driving because I don’t see that well at night. At this point, my husband decides he’d like to listen, out loud through the front speakers, to a TED talk, which sounds great to me because who doesn’t like TED talks? So he chooses this one by Eddie Obeng, also known as the world’s most enthusiastic public speaker. About three or four minutes into this guy’s spiel (which I sense is interesting, but which I have a hard time following because of the bright lights shining in my eyes), my daughter’s headphones come unplugged and Ethiopian children’s music begins blaring through the car at a decibel that can be heard on Mars. This disrupts my seven-year-old son, who tries to plug her headphones back in, to no avail, at which point the repeated strains of “Mommy, he”… “and Mommy, she” begin mixing with the Amharic rendition of Old McDonald and Eddie Obeng. Then, through some cruel twist of fate, Child #3’s headphones also come unplugged, and the 70’s version of the Superfriends cartoon joins the cacophonous mix. Now Aquaman is trying to summon a seahorse with his telepathic powers while Eddie Obeng waxes excitedly about smart failure for a fast-changing world. The dog begins to make that low whining noise that heralds the beginning of baying, as she is, unfortunately, part Beagle. My husband is himself one of five children, so he just turns the TED talk up louder.
It’s situations like these when being a meditation teacher is both a blessing and a curse. My particular brain is programmed through a lifetime of conditioning (and likely a lot of genetics) to respond to chaotic situations with a mixture of anger and tyrannical outbursts in order to regain control. So it’s with a great deal of effort that I remember I have another choice. When I choose to pay attention mindfully, without judging anything, the first thing I notice is that my body is in turmoil. Clenched jaw, throbbing temples, white knuckles, stomach in a knot. I know from experience that sensations like these are reactions to my thoughts, not my circumstances, so my next job is to investigate what I’ve been thinking.
In that moment I notice I’m telling myself a lot of scary stories. Among them: loud noises are bad, my children are out of control, they need me to fix it and I can’t, my dog is part Beagle, I need to get out of this car or I will die, and my husband is clueless.
Now, any one of these thoughts would be really stressful to believe. But mindfulness invites us to investigate every stressful thought by asking the simple question, “Is it true?” This exercise is really interesting because it stimulates a conversation between two completely different parts of the brain. Our amygdala, or fight/flight control room, will certainly be shouting “HELL YES!” while our prefrontal cortex, where our rational problem solving takes place, will most likely say calmly, “Hmmm, not really.” Now, listening to the calm, rational part of the brain takes practice, but thankfully I have that in my favor. I know instantly that none of what I’m believing about this situation is true.
Though the noise and fighting doesn’t stop and my body is still extremely uncomfortable, a small shift happens right away. In this space, I decide to do an experiment. If my beliefs aren’t true, what is true? I relax my grip on the steering wheel and feel my hands, my body in the seat. Sound waves. Different voices. The sound of Eddie Obeng is a completely different tone than my daughter, who is at this point crying. The Amharic music is cheerful, an interesting juxtaposition to the rest of the scene. My body relaxes, though I’m still unable to move. Then, surprisingly, I feel tenderness in my heart at the sound of crying. Still not able to respond. Sounds and feelings of movement as my husband leans into the back seat to adjust headphones, wipe tears and hit the reset button on all three kids. Quiet.
I marvel at the power of mindful awareness to bring an end to suffering. My body feels peaceful and I have new resolve to practice what I preach. The TED talk on smart failure for a fast-changing world ends, and my husband turns to me and says “Wasn’t that fascinating?”