The beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh originated the idea of “mindfulness bells,” things that crop up naturally in our lives that we can set as reminders to bring ourselves back to the present moment, such as the ringing of a phone. In my three-year retreat, I wrote about a potentially deadly mindfulness bell that was hard to avoid within the retreat compound, and thus really got our attention.
Mindfulness is how we develop equanimity, but today we are going straight to equanimity itself, and how we can use specific situations that are not only inevitable but also tend to trigger emotional reactions that disturb our peace of mind. I’m sure you can identify others, but today we’ll just start with two: the weather, and stoplights.
It never fails to amaze me how much emotional energy we invest in hopes and fears about the weather. Some people bask in hot weather, some even move south for it; others dream of New Hampshire or Denmark. Rain is usually unwelcome, unless we can stay indoors, happen to like getting wet, are in a drought, or, heaven forbid, are fighting wildfires, as Californians have done twice in the past few months. Some of us like snow, but only if it’s not too much or too frequent or too heavy or mixed with ice or on the wrong day, e.g., if we’re about to go into labor.
OK, sometimes weather can be a genuine problem. But most of the time we’re talking about preferences. Sometimes we’re talking about really nitpicky preferences: 70-75 degrees, sunny, low pollen, a pleasant breeze — anything else and we find ourselves smack in the middle of the first noble truth.
So what can we do about the weather? NOTHING. That’s the point. That’s what makes it such a great tool for practicing equanimity. However: what we can do is resolve that whatever the weather is at any given moment, we are going to be content with it. (Anyone about to go into labor or who has an important medical appointment is excused from this exercise, though equanimity will still be helpful if you can muster it, and you will likely find that being upset only clouds your mind when you need it to be sharp.)
How to work with the weather: first, make the resolution (above). You could start your day with it, along with setting your intention, as we Buddhists do, to stay in touch with awareness and compassion as much as possible. Second, any time you catch yourself fretting or complaining about the weather: no problem, just stop. Go back to being content. Lather, rinse, repeat. Nothing could be simpler, and it will noticeably increase your peace of mind. It will also point out to you a cumbersome habitual pattern that you can dispense with.
Then there are stoplights. Even if you don’t have a car, perhaps you live in an urban area and encounter them on foot. The only way to avoid stoplights is to stay indoors (c.f., the weather, above) or to live in such a rural area that there aren’t any. If that is the case, just go back to the weather, and/or think of something else that irritates you on a daily basis and work with that.
I find that I tend to tense up ever so slightly when there is a green light ahead, wondering if it will turn yellow on me. If I’m running late, this may turn into active tension — please (whoever you are) don’t make me stop for this light!
Alas, I have found, in over four decades of driving, that wishes, and even commands, have no effect whatsoever on stoplights. (I’ve seen some evidence that beings with much more realization than I have may be able to fiddle with them — and with the weather — but that’s another story. ) So since this is a situation where we are completely powerless to change anything, why not spare ourselves the agitation, and consciously resolve to check in with our mind and choose equanimity when stoplights appear? At the beginning, it may help to have a talk with ourselves (as Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye and Chogyam Trungpa advise us to do when we spot our ego-clinging): “I don’t care what this stoplight does, I will just be receptive and take whatever action, if any, is needed, and let my mind stay at rest, no matter what.” (If someone runs a red light in front of you, or you hear brakes squealing behind you, a little agitation is understandable, but again, it won’t actually help.)
That’s it for today. It’s quite a lot to work with, even a gift. In fact, we could contemplate how fortunate we are to be blessed with potentially irritating things that naturally and unavoidably occur throughout our day to help us tame our disturbing emotions and progress in our development of equanimity and peace of mind. You might almost think someone put them there for our benefit.
18 ways to catch ego-clinging in the act! (last paragraph)
Back to the 37 practices: here