As with any process of transformation, the path to living mindfully in the present moment isn’t linear. It’s two steps forward, one step back, and it requires thousands of reboots along the way.
For me, if it’s not my kids triggering a retreat back into the stinky, muddy, fly-ridden swamp of negative reactivity, it’s an angry lady at the post office.
One day, just when I thought I was getting the hang of this whole mindfulness thing, I pulled into the parking lot of our local post office. The place was packed, with cars backing out of spaces, cars waiting to get into spaces—simply too many vehicles squeezed onto one confined patch of asphalt. Boxed in, there was nothing to do but be patient while the moving jigsaw puzzle sorted itself out.
A woman pulled up behind me and started honking. Not those polite little “please stop texting—the light is green” honks, but really laying on the horn with full-blown road rage.
I laughed out loud and turned to look at the driver. She was attractive, with long dark hair framing big sunglasses, probably in her late thirties or early forties. Maybe she couldn’t see far enough ahead to know that what she demanded was impossible.
Nope. She had a perfectly clear view. I laughed at her again, just to be sure she saw me. Once we waited the two excruciatingly long minutes it took to park, we got out of our cars at the same time. I had a vague notion of thinking I should handle the situation with presence, and maybe even compassion. I said in a light tone, “Do you really think that helps?”
“FUCK you!” she said.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
She stated louder this time, “FUCK YOU!”
Again, a little voice was calling out from the distance: Stay conscious, Martha, be compassionate!
In a half-assed attempt to comply, I said to her, “Wow, I am so sorry...for you.”
Although I had told myself I was choosing my words carefully in the post office parking lot, my response was clearly not coming from a place of compassion. I was trying to embarrass the road-rage woman. If the universe passed out report cards, I would have gotten a D at best.
The thing was, I really did feel sorry for her. I remembered what it felt like to be consumed with anger and resentment—the tight feeling in your stomach, tense muscles, clenched jaw, and seething sense of being out-of-control. But I didn’t behave in a way that diffused her anger or her pain. Quite the opposite. I reacted to her negativity with my own negative, belittling response, and in doing so brought us both further down. I felt slimy the rest of the day.
Fast forward six weeks. It’s just a few days before Christmas, and I’m pulling into the very same post office parking lot. I see an open spot between two cars. Nobody is moving, and it’s easy to back my van into the space. I use both mirrors and the backup video—all clear.
The ignition clicks off and I start to get out. The door of the car next to me opens and the driver says, “I guess you didn’t see me—you almost hit me! You almost ran right into me!” Another angry lady, this one much older than the first.
I was a heartbeat away from getting defensive, but I realized it was my Groundhog Day moment. You remember the classic Bill Murray movie, in which his character is forced to relive a particular day over and over again until he gets it right.
I almost laughed out loud.
Mustering my presence, I locked my ego in the closet, took a step back, and said to the woman, “Oh! I’m so sorry!” But this time I meant it. It wasn’t that I believed that I had almost hit her. But I did see real distress in her eyes and feel her fear. I was truly sorry that she was suffering. Empathy trumped defensiveness, and I was able to stay clear-headed. “Are you alright?” I asked. “What can I do to help? Can I carry your packages for you?”
Disarmed, she grumbled, “I don’t have any packages.” Then she hobbled out of her car and started walking very slowly toward the building. She was probably in her late seventies, and physically impaired to boot.
“You’re not allowed to rush ahead of me and take my place in line!” she snapped, as I started at my normal walking pace. “The men always do that!”
“How about I just walk next to you? I promise not to get in line in front of you,” I said. I slowed to a snail’s pace.
“How long have you lived around here?” she asked, in a slightly less grumpy tone.
“Twenty years,” I replied.
“I’ve lived here for fifty years,” she said. “We bought our house for $20,000 and now it’s worth $750,000.”
“Wow!” I said. “Lucky you!”
“Two years ago I went in for routine surgery and the doctor accidentally sliced my bladder open,” she said. Our relationship was progressing quickly. “I’ve never been well since.”
Me (again): “I’m so sorry!”
When my ego muttered, You should tell her you weren’t anywhere close to hitting her, my true self replied, How important is it, really?
Inside the building, she had to fill out an envelope. I waited behind her, assuring her I wouldn’t take her spot. I ran my fingers along the edges of the package I was sending, staying in tune with my senses.
Fortunately, I wasn’t in a huge hurry. As a means of staying present, I focused on my breathing, even counting my inhales and exhales in cycles of ten if I started to feel impatient. Unlike my response to Angry Lady #1, my second chance with Angry Lady #2 showed me that being present could keep me in a nonjudgmental frame of mind. I was able to empathize, which diffused her tension immediately.
I wasn’t pandering. I wasn’t playing the martyr. I wasn’t looking down on her. I wasn’t belittling her or myself. I was simply there, paying attention to someone whom most people rushed by. She was frightened and frustrated and lonely, and it sounded as if that was her life experience most of the time.
It was so easy to give her a few minutes of respite. And it felt good to dissolve her negative energy. Presence felt good. It was the exact opposite feeling to the one I had after my exchange with the f-bomb lady a few weeks earlier. Instead of coming away feeling like a sewer rat, I came away feeling as if I had made the world a little bit brighter.
So what made the difference?
What I had lacked in the post office parking lot the first time was what Eckhart Tolle refers to as “presence power.” I hadn’t had a stored reserve of presence from which to draw in that difficult moment.
Presence power is generated during mindful moments when things are going smoothly. Alertness arises when you take a moment to become mindful, conscious, or meditative.
When you respond to a difficult person with presence and without judgment, you interrupt their cycle of unconscious behavior because you have interrupted your own cycle of unconscious behavior.
Here are a few opportunities to soak up presence power throughout your day:
1. Instead of checking your phone at traffic lights, spend thirty mindful seconds generating presence power.
2. Instead of scanning tabloid headlines in grocery store lines, use that time to open up to presence power.
3. Instead of looping your to-do list tape in your head while showering, scrub in some presence power.
4. Instead of checking email right up to when your next meeting starts, take a few seconds to breathe in some presence power.
Tiny moments of presence add up to a lot of fuel in your tank when you need to step back from a challenging or stressful situation. Those stored reserves of presence power our capacity for empathy and compassion. And it’s only through empathy and compassion (including compassion for ourselves) that we are able to dissolve negative energy flows in ourselves and others.