One of the things I want to do more of this year is practice mettā. For those of you who might not know, mettā is a Buddhist concept of loving kindness. It is most often expressed through meditation focused on good will toward others and visualizations and hopes that others will find joy and live in abundance. I see mettā as something that is deeply lacking in our society at the moment, and something that could turn the tide on a lot of social ills. It is also critical for me. While stress is physically toxic for all of us, for me it’s a different beast. MS is much more readily activated in states of high stress. Mettā, taking time to offer good will towards others, is dramatically impactful on personal stress levels. I’ve found that a good amount of my personal stress comes from feeling disconnected and at odds with the world around me. The practice of mettā unravels those feelings as we shift from the victim of social disconnection to the creator of connection.
Now is an important moment to discuss the reticular activating system RAS in the brain. This is a self-help buzzword at the moment; however, it still has great importance. The RAS filters out most of our world. Without it we’d be overwhelmed with every sensation we’re exposed to. The RAS distills down the most important elements of the world, so we can focus on what we must to survive. This might include a semi encroaching in our lane or a patch of ice on a sidewalk. The thing is, if we get up in the morning with thoughts of how much people suck and that the world is going to hell, our RAS says, “Okay, that’s what we’re looking for today,” and it finds jerks with great efficiency. Instead of focusing on the guy who let us in in traffic, we see the kid who cut us off. Side note: this is at the core of confirmation bias. So, by practicing mettā, we bend our RAS to show us more of the good in the world, and trust me friends, there is a LOT of good in the world. This is not toxic positivity. Your RAS will still point out the pricks to you, but it’s not good to let the things going wrong blind you to the good. Today was a great example of that.
I made sure to spend some time this morning in mettā. I visualized everyone in my close circle having a good day and wishing them well, then I visualized the Tri-Cities with full hearts. Then I visualized Washington State, then the U.S. and then the world all feeling connected and at peace. It took me all of three minutes to do it, and I am so glad I did, because, as I was going to work, an aggressively driven Subary WRX went to turn right into the grocery store. Me, wanting the second entrance, changed lanes to the outside lane to go around him and the two cars ahead of him pulling into the first entrance, and he pulled in front of me, right turn signal still on to block me from going around as he waited to turn right. I went into the center lane to get around him and honked. As I pulled into the second entrance, I looked in my rearview mirror to find him a few feet off my bumper. “This should be interesting” I thought as I pulled into a space. As expected of the insecure, the driver, simply passed by and punched a middle finger at me before going over to the cellular store I assume he works at and backing into a spot. Clearly one of our best citizens.
As I walked into the store, I did, of course, entertain thoughts of how much of a round house, he could take to his thigh and what might his reaction be to being thrown to the ground and cross faced with my whole bodyweight. I’m no saint mind you. After getting my things, I left the store and looked at his car, still running with the lights on in his parking spot. At that moment, mettā came to mind. Now, blindly wishing well to someone who’s an asshole IS toxic positivity. He’s a prick. However, mettā offered me something beyond wishing an insecure man-child who can’t put his ballcap on straight best wishes. It disconnects me from his energy. It’s not a simple thing to shift from wishing those around you well to hate and anger, so as I got in my car, I found myself distant from the conflict, which allowed me to consider this man-child with empathy.
He had blocked me intentionally in traffic. Why? Likely because he wants control. Why me? If he’s insecure, and he has a tuned up WRX, he likely doesn’t like cars he knows, no matter what he does, can ‘beat’ him, so he doesn’t like my Tesla. My Tesla threatens him. To deal with the perceived threat, he has to make a show of force, to prove that he’s in control, so he couldn’t let me go around him. Then, when I honked at him, I hadn’t quietly let him be dominant, so the fight was on. Now he has to keep the pretense that he’s stronger and dominant, so he rolls by and boldly flips me off. In my partial disconnection from his anger and threat though, I had no need to be stronger or in control of him. My center was full. In that disconnection, and with my mind leaning toward empathetic kindness, I could see this kid for who he likely is… someone who has no center, someone who isn’t in control of his life or emotions. He’s not happy. Now whether he’s creating his own misery or not through toxic thinking and toxic behaviors isn’t my concern. What is my concern is seeing this angry young man for who he truly is, and who he TRULY is was a great surprise to me. He’s a mirror. As I remember him driving by with his window down to flip me off, I see it now clearly. He is me 30 years ago. There I am, an angry, unloved young man lost in the world and scrabbling on the cliff face of my self-doubt for importance.
Don’t misunderstand me. This WRX punk is still wrong. He’s still acting like a little bitch, but instead of being stressed out and angry about it myself. I feel sorry for him, and in that way mettā set me free. You see, he’s miserable, and he’s venting that misery out into the world, and when we’re treated as he treated me and we become angry, we take up that toxic energy, and we carry it with us the rest of the day. But by beginning my day with envisioned empathy, I put in a safety fuse that protected me from his anger and frustration, and when he focused that toxic stream of self-hatred on me, it boiled for a minute in my heart and then the deeper waters I’d instilled in myself that morning, stilled it. I was left free to continue to notice what’s right in the world.
In closing, this moment, as these moments always do, inspired me to redouble my efforts in Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve got to get back to class to make sure my cross faces are crazy uncomfortable should this man-child or another like him ever feel the need to go beyond single-digit express of his need for control. You see, I’m perfectly able and willing to wish kindness on a man while ripping his shoulder out of its socket should self-defense require it. ;)