“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”
When I first traveled to Bali, I found the island enchanting with its lush green rice terraces, exotic birds and flowers, resonant gamelan music and its wide-open-hearted and deeply spiritual people. The traffic, in my opinion, was from another realm entirely. It made no sense at all.
Hordes of every kind of vehicle mobbed the tiny roads, careening among chickens and sleeping dogs, piles of construction debris, tenacious vendors, oblivious small school children, huge deep drainage ditches, double and triple parked vehicles, monster tourist buses and legions of taxis. Traffic moved forward officially on the left, not the right side of the road, though in practice it inevitably meandered to whichever side happened to offer the most open space. The four stop lights in all of Ubud, a city of 30,000, seemed to be mostly suggestive and traffic spilled relentlessly from side streets into the main thoroughfare without pause or, apparently, even a driver’s glance. The only requirement for being a motorbike driver seemed to be, not age or experience, but simply legs that were long enough to reach the ground. It was not uncommon to see a single motorbike loaded with a family of five or piled high with various livestock headed for market. Seat belts and air conditioning in the taxis, not always even present, were a puzzlement and a western curiosity. One was wise to look both ways when crossing a one-way street and the few white-lined pedestrian crosswalks were meaningless stripes on the steaming asphalt as throngs of natives and foreigners bobbed, dashed and weaved at apparent random through the chaos.
I suffered. I jumped at each of the seeming close encounters and I mentally puzzled and argued against the obvious lack of logic and order of it all. I worried, squeaked, grunted and complained at more than frequent intervals. Walking or driving from one place to another became a torture of physical tension and anxiety as I mentally rehearsed all sorts of unwelcome scenarios, even as we inevitably arrived, safe and intact. My thoughts proliferated as I constructed and clung to my abundant logical arguments for the proper use of signs, lights, rules and order.
The Buddha had something to say about all of this. He spoke often of the cause of my deepest suffering as arising not in the inevitably pleasant or unpleasant aspects of experience, but in the ways that my mind clings to my wishes and views and narratives about how things ought to be. I do, of course, form perceptions and wishes, views, emotions and narratives. As for all of us, they help me to organize infinite sense data into the patterns that support me as I navigate my internal and external worlds. They all help to form an imperfect but good-enough personal stability, safety and security and sense of “me,” a self.
Both the Buddha and modern neuroscience, however, remind me that I routinely make the mistake of thinking that my own ideas – useful as they may be – are the way things actually are. At the very least, I think that my beliefs are how things should be. Like most of us, I cling to views. I elaborate them with mind states and emotions that “explain” their worthiness. I can’t see – or often even imagine – another way of relating to the world. I engage in wars, internally with myself, with the physical world, and with others near and far, to try to make the unfolding of life conform to my own cultivated views. As I hold on, I suffer and I cause others to suffer.
With the Bali traffic, these teachings invited me into deeper investigation of my traffic suffering. As I practiced, I began to see my opinions more clearly and that it was my insistence on them – my clinging to their rightness – that was the problem. Dan Siegel, whose work integrates the Buddha’s teachings with modern neuroscience, guided me further. Mindfulness, Dan says, “…means that we intentionally seek to notice the categories that shape our preconceived ideas of how we structure our perceptions. We avoid premature categorizations, (and) come to an experience with an emergent sense of novelty and freshness…This mindful stance gives us the possibility to see more directly the true nature of reality, accepting that much of what shapes our perceptions lies beneath the radar of our conscious awareness. Such a mindful awareness also enables us to become freer from the linguistic categorizations that constrict our view of the world… so that we can see things as they are with more clarity, vividness, and detail.
As I practiced with it all, I began to cultivate more and more curiosity. I looked first at the tension I was holding: my squinty eyes and locked jaw, shoulders nudged in frozen tension up around my ears, arms and legs tightened and stretched out to protect me from the imagined crash. The more I looked with kind awareness, the more my body responded. There was a slow unwinding of the physical tensions. My mental states began to ease, too; there was a softening of my insistence on my own rights and rightness.
It all took a while, but over time, I slowly came to a much more friendly relationship with my own experience internally. Then, as I practiced with my views, I began to see: there were simple cultural differences in how traffic works. Like most eastern countries, I came to understand, there is, in Bali, a different sense of “self” and “other” and a much stronger sense of one’s own physical being as woven into and indistinguishable from family and community. While my western mind sees only chaotic traffic and personal violation, the Balinese seem to experience a more intricately moving river and a much less isolated sense of a personal self. People are less concerned with rules than with their actual relationships, their being-with one another. Dogs, chickens, trucks, pedestrians, buses, taxis, motorbikes, vendors – all of us have a place and all of us are part of a vibrant whole. There is a different kind of awareness. There are indeed (different) rules and concepts but they have less to do with one’s own self-centeredness than with a larger awareness and presence. Pay attention the rules invite: what’s happening here?
In Bali, I have learned not to make sudden moves that are governed only by my own opinions, impulses or wishes. I have learned more ease – delight, even – in paying attention more widely to context and relationship. I have learned better to consider myself as part of a wondrous whole and to make moves that are more informed by all of us at once. The great river of traffic invites me continually to simply notice. How is it now? Where is everyone? Who are we together? What is needed?
In a surprising way, I have come to feel much safer than in the US, even when I am out and traffic whizzes by me with, literally, an inch to spare. I am confident that I am seen and cared about. I am part of the family of things. There is amazing release. My personal self loses some of its importance and I have a much deeper sense of the organic nature of my own and others’ lives. I walk more easily and see more clearly the morning dew on the rice fields. I hear the funny croaking of that little baby rooster. I manage to avoid the wild boys on their racing motorbikes and I step aside from that warm pile of dog poop on the sidewalk. I make happy conversation with the dozens of taxi drivers, even as I decline yet another ride offer for today. I greet my neighborhood vendors with so much more delight, even as I assure them that I really, really, really do have plenty of mangoes for today. There is less worry, less physical tension; there is a deeper kind of joy.
My traffic practice makes me curious about what other mind states I hold that cause me suffering. How does this work with respect to anxiety in general? How is it with relationships, with work, with American politics? How does it inform my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on self and no-self and on clinging and release and letting go? This little bit of freedom gives confidence that more freedom, even full freedom is possible. At any rate, it makes for much, much happier morning walks and afternoon drives.