by Richard Johnson
I got on the bus from Seattle to Everett to teach Mindfulness Bases Stress Reduction and saw there was only one available seat. I looked at the double seat and saw a man with his leg crossed and his foot extended into half of the seat I was to occupy. I sat on the small space, which meant I had one bun on the seat and one bun hanging out into the aisle. Also, due to a neuropathic condition, I had an arm in a sling, and it was extended halfway into the aisle.
Given how little space I had on the seat and especially my arm in the sling, I was sure my seat mate would scooch over and give me space to sit and protect my arm. After a few minutes it dawned on me that he was not about to move his leg over at all. I looked at him and saw an angry man silently guarding “his territory.” I was sure that asking him to move would mean I’d get an angry reaction.
What to do?
Should I risk asking for space and possibly spend the rest of the trip with him fuming at me, or just sit there the best I could hope no one would run into my arm? We only had one more stop before we’d get onto I-5, so odds were good I’d be okay.
At that last stop, however, a very big guy came down the isle. I squished my arm toward my lap, but not far enough. As he ran into my elbow, I felt a sharp pain run through my arm. I exploded with anger and turning to the man next to me, I blurted: “Would you please move over???” He gave me a look like I was something the cat drug in, ceding just enough space so I was no longer hanging out in the isle.
I was not grateful. Fuming with anger, I felt justified in blaming him for my physical pain and my angry reaction. I was also angry at myself for not asking him to move over earlier - when I wasn’t reactive. Then my arm wouldn’t have been hit.
One of the things I enjoy about riding the bus is the opportunity to meditate. But now I felt stuck in anger and resentment.
Oh yes, I could bring my attention to the breath, then to the anger, resentment and blame - as I’ve been taught, and as I teach.
But as much as I’ve practiced over the years, it was tough at first. A part of me didn’t want to let go. I was justified.
So I began paying attention to that. And slowly my reactions began to diminish, like air moving out a small hole in a balloon. I began being kind to myself. I had been caught in a difficult situation. I felt a sigh of relief. And then kindness to my seat mate. He had so much anger locked in him.
Just like me…
And then I remembered the phrase, “Just like me.” He was just like me. We were both caught in anger. We both felt justified and blameful. Another level of criticism was released. We were just a couple of guys on our way to Everett, carrying our share of tough stuff inside us.
I got to the hospital were I was going to teach, and I felt light. I told my class about the incident. We laughed together about the angry, stressed teacher coming all the way from Seattle to Everett to teach stress reduction. One participant said, “He had his foot in your face.” That was a good metaphor for how I felt.
As I reflected about this experience, I realized my seat mate was my teacher on the bus. In my reaction to him, I saw my own anger and blame. I could then work with these hard places inside me. Awareness, kindness, softening, common humanity emerged. I am grateful to him.