One bright summer morning with hundreds of drivers looking for “The Way Life Should Be,” I am headed south when I intend to go north. Why? Because, in Scarborough, I’ve ignored my cousin’s directions.
She said, “From where you are, go north on Route 1 to pick up the turnpike to Westbrook. We can meet there at noon at that Thai Bistro.”
I, southbound, long ago passed the northbound turnpike entrance. Why? Because I’m human. I was singing along to “My Way” and crooned right by the green and white Interstate 95 sign. Now I catch my oops and decide to aim for Saco, then take the pike north. I watch the road, many out-of-state plates, the lights – green, yellow, red – all the lanes, and so many vehicles. In heavy traffic, I miss the Saco entrance.
At this point I’m on my way to Biddeford, farther south, and I want contact with someone besides Frank Sinatra. I call my cousin and say, “I’m going the opposite way.”
I don’t say “wrong way,” because one of my main teachers, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Non-judgmentally means my heart softens toward myself, lets go of the I’ll-never-goof expectation. Yet I also know that if I had accepted caring help in “recalculating,” I’d eat lunch sooner. Surely, we can slide off course even in connection with others. But, with what my 3-year-old granddaughter Brooke calls “peoples,” losing our way is not so lonely, scary or shameful.
Support in “I’m human” feeds our cells and nourishes our social nervous systems. That’s science: we can uplift one another. So I sometimes meet with other mindfulness teachers in what’s called sangha, a group who practices and studies together (“sangha” just auto-corrected to sangria). One sangha-mate once argued, “we shouldn’t tell our stories of mindlessness. Folks will think we don’t practice.”
I disagree. I am not different from you. We are not separate from they. There is no us and them. As Brooke might say, “peoples are peoples.” For mutual empathy, we must share our bloopers: “Here’s a doozy. What’s yours?”
One day, in a restaurant on a break from our Teacher Development Intensive, Jon Kabat-Zinn ordered pitchers of lemonade for us. Halfway through the meal, he asked, “Where’s that lemonade?”
We saw what he didn’t and said, “On the table, in front of you.”
Jon laughed, “I’m so unaware, I didn’t notice.”
Jon has written several books that are translated into multiple languages. He teaches worldwide. Yet he is authentically, fully human, equally interdependent as all of us. He, like all of us, gets a boost from the gift of community. Peoples need peoples.
Driving south on Route 1, I again reach out to my cousin who says, “I’ve done that same thing. We all do.”
My heart softens toward her, for offering warm comfort and understanding, for noting our ordinariness. Directional challenges are normal in this human road trip. When I finally enter the pike heading north to Westbrook, I joke with her, “I’m in Boston. There’s a sign for Rhode Island. Wha’d’ya think?”
We chuckle together – together is key – and I recall what my sangha-mate said, “Don’t tell these stories.”
I say, “Tell them.” Otherwise we get confused about what mindfulness is, what it isn’t, and about our commonalities.
Being human is not about right/wrong, student/teacher, good/bad. All peoples live the whole natural messy truth. The truth was I was headed the opposite way, which is an apt metaphor for how we often travel in life. Most of us therefore thrive in relationships with compassionate friends and companions, who can help show us where we are, and guide us to where we are going.
Peoples need navigational aid and roadside assistance. And for opening our hearts to ourselves and others? Sangria won’t help.
Susan Lebel Young