Friday, December 31, 2010

Dukkha isn’t always a drag

There’s a saying that I often find instructive: If you want to make god laugh, make some plans.

While it’s good to have a plan, an idea of what you hope to do or accomplish, experience tells us that our plans seldom go as designed. If our plans aren’t flexible, when things go awry we can become confused, frustrated, even angry. Often we are the cause of our plans falling apart, but there are occasions when the world around us can throw a kink into things.

My recent trip to Boston revealed much to me in terms of how things can go and how my attitude influences outcomes. Originally planned as an arrive Thursday, depart Monday itinerary, a blizzard arriving Sunday night completely shut down Logan International Airport, stranding not only me, but thousands of others. Attempting to contact a travel agent at American Airlines to find out when I could fly back to Chicago was unsurprisingly frustrated. Sunday night, when I learned my flight on Monday had been canceled, I was on hold with American for 1 hour and 27 minutes before I finally gave up. I called again Monday morning and was on hold again for nearly an hour before I was able to talk to an agent.

Before the agent answered, I made some key decisions about how I was going to behave. First, I put myself in the agent’s shoes. By the time he or she would speak to me, the agent undoubtedly had spoken with hundreds of other stranded travelers who were tired, confused, angry and perhaps even hostile over their predicament. I told myself that I wasn’t going to add more by being a complaining drama queen. So when the agent answered, I said hello to her, and let her know I was sympathetic to her situation. After telling her I was aware that she had probably been dealing with a lot of angry and frustrated people, all I wanted to know was when I could return to Chicago. The earliest flight she could get me on was Thursday, Dec. 30. I said that was fine, I completely understood the situation. She told me she couldn’t get me a seat assignment, but a notice would be emailed to me shortly. I thanked her and wished her a happy new year, then hung up.

When my email arrived confirming my booking, I saw that I was assigned a seat in first class. That won’t happen, I thought to myself. But I did have three more days in Boston to explore, so I made a decision I would enjoy myself.

I took some good photos, persisted in my search of a good used book store until I found one, and had a wonderful chat with a taxi driver in a pub in Cambridge. There were other events that I had hoped would occur, but which did not. Oh well, here I am, the moment is now, where does it go?

Equanimity isn’t always so easily had. But it is critical to following the “middle way.” There’s a sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya Book of Fives on subduing hatred, but really it’s about how to deal with an annoying person. Step two was the most useful for me in my situation in Boston: “When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should develop compassion for that individual. Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued.”

I didn’t hate the travel agent, but by developing compassion ahead of time when I was rearranging my travel I was able to be a pleasant person with her when she had probably already been dealing with rude people. I wasn’t going to add to her dukkha by sharing my own dukkha.

In Wings to Awakening, Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes equanimity as “an attitude of even-mindedness in the face of every sort of experience, regardless of whether pleasure and pain are present or not.” He explains that there are three steps to developing what he calls the “equanimity dependent on multiplicity.”

1) development, or a conscious turning of the mind to equanimity in the face of agreeable or disagreeable objects;
2) a state of being in training, in which one feels a spontaneous disillusionment with agreeable or disagreeable objects; and
3) fully developed faculties, in which one's even-mindedness is so completely mastered that one is in full control of one's thought processes in the face of agreeable or disagreeable objects.

The weather did more than just disrupt my travel plans. My two cats back at home were going to run out of food before I could return. This was a situation ripe for me to get all bent out of shape over, largely because I was practically powerless to do anything about the situation. Isn’t it funny how the situations we have the least control over freak us out the most? It was my acceptance of the fact, I believe, that I was completely powerless over the demise of my cats that helped me develop the equanimity to deal with the situation. A phone call to my landlord, who luckily was back in town, to coordinate letting someone into my apartment to check on the cats, plus the willingness of friends to help combined to easily solve my dilemma.

Of course, what would I have done had my landlord not been in town? No one else had a key to my apartment even if they were willing to check on my cats. What would I have done then?

This type of questioning is pointless, really. Because it did work out. And why did it work out? I would dare say that it was the result of my past actions, my kamma. Had I behaved like a prick with the people I know, had I been an awful or even just a disagreeable tenant with my landlord, then when I needed help from others, things would likely not have worked out so well.

Which emphasizes how important it is for us to consciously develop equanimity – we have to make the conscious effort to view both the good and bad in our life with a dispassionate perspective. A pleasurable event may lead us to an unhappy situation later on if we allow the pleasure of the moment to distract us from making skillful decisions. Just as an unhappy event may actually lead us to a better situation in the future if we avoid wallowing in self-pity.

Oh yes, and another thing; the first-class seating on my return flight was not a mistake.

1 comment:

  1. What a great way to end the year, a lesson all of needs to hear and it's great results. I doubt your cats would suffer much, you probably keep them well fed and they would make it, but of course your sofa would kill YOU!