She hated being late so she left her house an hour early. Plenty of time to get there and then some. She wasn’t exactly sure how to get where she was going, so she turned on her GPS an filed into the bumper to bumper traffic that was lined up on Laurel Canyon. She reminded herself that she had time to spare and she breathed and stayed calm.
Surely the traffic would let up when she got to Sunset Blvd.
It did and she exhaled. She was heading for a meeting near the airport so she decided to take Crescent Heights all the way down. It was usually a good way to avoid traffic. Big mistake. After a short time, it became stop and go so she turned right and headed across to La
Cienega. A worse mistake. Road work everywhere. Loud machines clanking and sputtering. Orange cones cutting off two lanes. She inched forward, stuck behind a large white van with no back window so she couldn’t see anything in front of her. She hit every red light as her muscles tightened. Her breathing was becoming shallow and she began to hyperventilate. She wanted to slow her breath but she was too far gone as she white- knuckled the steering wheel. No more Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Hyde had taken over, telling her she was going the wrong
way and she’d never get there anyway. That was when the full transformation hit. She started screaming in her car, spewing swear words. When she finally got to her meeting exactly on time, she was exhausted, ashamed and she felt like she’d been beaten up – by herself.
You’ve probably guessed by now that “she” was me. It’s embarrassing to admit that every bit of that story is true. Sweet, spiritual, patient Andrea who forgives and encourages, who teaches and cares for the dying had turned into a cussing, raging, blaming shrew. I was having an authentic bout of road rage and for a moment, I understood why people got out of their cars when someone changed lanes in front of them and picked a potentially deadly fight with a person they didn’t know, for something they had also done at a different time.
When I got home, I was wiped out and stunned at my behavior. I remembered the name of a book by the late artist, Beatrice Woods, called, “I shock myself.” I had shocked myself. My rage had been so extreme. How did it happen? How had I gotten so angry that I had lost
it? It seemed like I had dropped into a kind of hypnosis and in some twisted way, it had felt good to swear and yell and feel like a victim.
It’s like gossiping. I know it’s bad and unkind but if I’m honest, it can feel good to go numb and blame someone else, to become united with someone against another person. It’s like being a member of a private club that uses up a lot of energy and adrenaline and if you don’t get it in hand, you can end up hurting yourself.
I felt shame about my anger and frustration. Many of my baby boomer generation of “new agers,” believed that “being spiritual” didn’t include having anger and impatience. Hate and blame. But I’ve learned that it’s a misnomer to think that spirituality is all love and light. Rainbows and butterflies. I no longer think that being spiritual is pretending to be something that you’re not, something better than who you are. It’s
about finding the courage to admit that you’re furious. Hurt. Inadequate. Afraid. If you’re lying to yourself, suppressing your feelings so you can look better to other people, the problem is that however you look has nothing to do with how you feel. Remember the old adage: The only way out is in.
I often turn to the wisdom of Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, to clarify my thoughts. She says, “When you’re angry, it’s like sitting on a keg of dynamite and it’s vibrating.” She explains that we all become enraged. I had a friend who went on a retreat to an ashram, led by a guru who only allowed joy. They called him “the joyful teacher.” One night, my friend stopped at the doorway to the kitchen and observed the guru
making himself a sandwich. When he turned his back and opened the refrigerator to get something to drink, a dog showed up and ate the guru’s sandwich. When he saw the empty plate, he looked to his right, looked to his left, and when he was sure that no one could see him, he kicked the dog.
No matter how much anger we feel, being real is the only way to guide ourselves away from negativity and onto the path to peace and compassion. I recall a teaching from the late Vietnamese monk, Thich Nat Hanh. He said that when he got to a red light, he saw it as an
opportunity to to stop and breathe. To meditate. Just think about all the
breathing and meditating I could have done during my wild ride. But I wasn’t up to the task. I had something more important to do: to investigate my rage, understand where it had come from, accept it because it was real, and watch it dissolve. In my experience, missing any of these steps puts us right back where we started. It’s never effective to turn in on ourselves and pile more anger on top of what’s already there. When we ignore anger, we end up kicking the dog.
When we acknowledge it, we can stop, take a breath and make another sandwich.