flowers and candle 2

Learning to count my breaths is the least of my problems. Today, I had a full scale delusion. It’s been snowing all day, and it’s been a surprise. Weather reports said “snow,” but what we got was a constant, start 9 am in the morning and keeping going kind of snow. I left the house at one in the afternoon to do errands and every time I came back to the car I had another inch of snow on my car. The constant snow created driving hazards all over the city and I was driving southbound on N. Lincoln Ave, trying to find a parking space, when I noticed a cyclist coming across the intersection in the crosswalk with the pedestrians. This is when we cyclists cheat a bit. Sometimes we like to think we’re cars, and other times, voila, we’re a pedestrian, riding along in pack of walkers like we’re not on wheels. It’s unfair, and probably not safe, but I’ve done it and I noticed this biker was doing it now. What this meant for me, however, as I sat in a snowy intersection trying to turn right while cars sped past was that I was not prepared for him to switch from pedestrian mode to biker mode without warning. In the decreased visibility I assumed he would stop at the corner with the other pedestrians and wait for the next walk sign before he continued into the next cross walk. Instead, he bore right and tried to make it across before the lights changed. I was in his way and he was forced to stop. Before I knew it, I was turning right, and I heard three loud thumps on the side of my car. So loud, they sounded like a hit something. I turned to look and I saw the cyclist pulling behind my car and shaking his head angrily. That’s when I realized I hadn’t hit anything, he had pounded his fist on my car, thinking I had cut him off, the cyclist-cum-pedestrian.

And this is when it gets weird. I thought I saw myself do this: I stop the car, open my door, catch up with the cyclist as he pulls into the intersection, and grab him by the neck with my mitten-covered hand. I pull him backwards off his bike and slam him down so that his head hits the pavement and then I put my knee on his throat. I hear cars honking, his hands clutch at my leg while I feel his windpipe collapse beneath the weight of my knee.

This was so real and vivid that I was surprised to discovered that not only was I not assaulting a cyclist, but I was in my car, parked at a meter, counting my breaths. Exhale. One. Exhale. Two. Exhale. Three. My mind was so delirious with anger and the attempt to control anger, that I didn’t recognize the sound of my own cellphone. Out of habit, I searched for it frantically.

“Hi! It’s Alicia! What are you doing?”
“I’m parked in my car trying to count my breaths, because I thought I murdered a cyclist.”

If I was talking to some average person, my response would solicit an “Oh, well, I’ll let you get back to that,” but, thankfully, Alicia’s not average: she’s a psychic. I describe briefly my vision of attempted murder, and instead of suggesting I seek professional help, Alicia (God bless her) laughs heartily and says: “That’s so great!”

Ah, psychics.

We decide to go to lunch.

Later, I describe how instantaneous and explosive my anger was when the cyclist pounded on my car. “The weird thing is that I usually feel huge solidarity with cyclists because I am one, too. So, I couldn’t believe that I wanted to assault this guy. I realized that on more than one occasion I wanted to do exactly what that cyclist did. I wanted to pound on the window of some guy who I thought cut me off. But, when it happened to me, as a driver, I thought I saw myself kill a cyclist for doing the very thing I would have done.”

And that’s when I got it. Oh, I realized, this is buddhism.

Soon after I started the meditation class, I taped to my refrigerator a list of the Six Right Livelihoods which I tore out of a brochure that I got at the temple. I did this not so much as an act of devotion, but more in the spirit of writing the answers to an upcoming quiz in the inside of your cuff. I wanted to know the answer in case the teacher asked the question. And I don’t read it often. I glance at it briefly as I drink orange juice or put butter back. Despite this, I noticed under “Cultivate Compassionate and Loving Kindness” it read: Consider others’ perspectives deeply.

If I hadn’t stopped and caught my breath. I would have spent the rest of day seeing myself drag that cyclist to the ground and pummeling him. My breath, and counting it, gave me a momentary pause in the thoughts that were angry. I didn’t decide he was “right” to pound on my car, and I didn’t decide that it was my “fault”. Neither did I stay in my anger, certain that I had suffered an injustice, nor did I suppress it and try to convince myself I wasn’t pissed off. Rather, in the pause of my breaths, I realized that I have done what he has done and in a deeper way, a way that I can’t really describe, I understood that I am him. Buddhism talks about meditating to achieve oneness — to become conscious that we are all one — and I was surprised to learn that I understand a small part of what that means for me. Not anybody else, just me.

The irony is that even though I found that insight, I still can’t count my breaths pass the number five without getting lost in some other thought, which, I suppose, in a Zen-parable sort of way, is me discovering success in failure.

Meanwhile, it snowed and snowed and snowed. It’s cold now too, with temperatures falling into the subzero range. My bike is in the basement out of the snow and wind. I have hit my limits on winter cycling. Even I don’t brave five-below-zero weather (and that’s fahrenheit, not celsius) to ride. When spring comes I suppose I will change my ways and not flaunt the laws that say “me on my bike equals a car.” Ah, the challenges of enlightenment. So it makes me glad that I won’t have to ride for another two months.

Never thought I would say this: “But thank god for subzero weather.”