“Your copies aren’t ready.”
Many years ago, I was at an office supply store to pick up copies of class materials for a course I was to begin teaching that evening. But on this afternoon my copies weren't ready at the promised time. Not ready? What would I tell the room full of students I was about to meet with in an hour? I felt an immediate jolt of panic in my belly, and the familiar heat of anger in my chest. I demanded to speak with the manager. As he approached me, I saw the defensiveness in his expression. What would happen in the next moment?
My former self (let’s call her “Mad Maddie”), was a prickly porcupine of automatic irritable impulses ready to explode. And I was definitely feeling Mad Maddie’s presence in my body that day. Once upon a time, years back, I had a job as a lawyer: Arguing and confrontation were part of the job description - a way to get what I wanted. This combative outlook seeped into my life and affected those unfortunate enough to “waste my time”, treat my child in a way I deemed “unfair”, or carelessly litter. Those people got an earful from Mad Maddie! She didn’t suffer fools.
Only thing was, Mad Maddie was very unhappy. She had stress-related health troubles, insomnia, chronic pain, and anxiety attacks. And her bossy M. O. of putting people in their place was not helping any of that! Underneath all her anger, Mad Maddie was really “Scared Maddie”. She was used to being “in charge” (of everything!) But lately stress, anger, sleepless nights, and anxiety attacks were in charge of her like a runaway train. Angry blowups with anyone who crossed her path had become a habit she seemingly couldn’t escape.
Long story short, Mad/Scared Maddie had to admit she didn’t have all the answers (even though she was pretty good at giving the impression she did). But fortunately, being in a state of “not knowing” – including not knowing what’s happening to yourself and feeling like you’ve turned into some unhinged alien being - is the perfect opportunity to drop the illusion that you can control and solve everything. Once you make that little admission, then the next step is easy: Become a student again. When you become a student, you’re in a position to learn something new. In my case life forced my hand. I was getting chronically sick and something had to give. This junction in my life led me to learn and study meditation, yoga, transpersonal psychology and ancient practices for quieting the mind and developing compassion. Just what Mad/Scared Maddie needed!
Fast forward a few years later as our frazzled and unnerved manager of an office supply store is walking toward me. As I mentioned, the same physical impulses of anger were bubbling up in my body as before. But what was different this time was my awareness of what was happening. I noticed my angry thoughts, the sensation of anger in my body, and the automatic impulse to blame someone for this problem.
The noticing itself opened up a space for me to try something different than my knee-jerk irate reaction. The study of meditation had introduced me to the practice known as “Loving Kindness” (also called “Unconditional Friendliness”). I know it sounds crazy that someone so previously prone to anger as I was would even consider such thing in a moment like this. But my study and practice of meditation had changed me. Now, I could see clearly that how I had been relating to problematic people and situations wasn’t working for anyone.
Meditation, by showing me how I was suffering, also showed me how everyone suffers in life, including overworked store managers who have to deal with angry customers. In addition, meditation practice had taught me how to pause in the midst of an emerging angry reaction. Within that pause, I had a moment to think about trying something different than following my angry impulse to blame and lash out. So, instead, I considered the fact that I wasn’t the only person suffering that day. The store manager was under pressure too. This magical moment, which I will never forget, opened a door in my heart to feel compassion for someone who was in a jam. Haven’t I been in a jam before in my life? Plenty of times!⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
As he walked toward me, I made eye contact and blurted out, "It must be hard when everybody wants everything at once." Instantly the aggression drained from his face, replaced by relief "Ma'am, you have no idea." This changed the entire tone of the conversation. Kindness replaced our mutual inflexibility. Without my meditation practice I never would have been able to notice what was going on inside me (anger) or been able to change it (pausing, expressing compassion instead of blame). I would have reacted on automatic pilot and he would have too. Nothing would have been solved and we both would have been reinforcing unhelpful negative patterns.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Instead, here’s what happened. Not only did the manager make sure my copies were done immediately, but for years afterward he never forgot that incident. From then on, he greeted me with warmth and friendliness every single time I came into the store and often gave me a discount. Of course, getting a discount was not my motivation, but it was nice karma.
Madeline Ebelini is a former stressed-out lawyer turned certified mindfulness instructor with a mission of helping people reduce stress through teaching them practical and effective mindfulness techniques. She teaches the 5-star reviewed online course Mindfulness For Stress Relief, and leads a weekly live online meditation group Remember to Breathe.
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