It was an ordinary day in the Bali coffee shop. The hot Indonesian sun poured through the window; traffic roared and screeched in the narrow street outside; patrons called to each other in a dozen languages; John Denver sang of West Virginia heaven on the music loop. I calmly sipped my morning brew.
The three men in black entered in a silent line. Two of them disappeared into a back room. One quietly sat down at the table directly across from me. He rested his machine gun on the table, casually pointing it in my direction.
In an instant, eyes saw, ears heard, the mind began assessing: Oh my! What is this? Good or bad? Safe or not? Action needed? Like an efficient bodyguard, the brain spewed instant messages to try to make me safe. A few of the mental flashes were formed from present context; most were the conscious and unconscious result of a lifetime of conditioning.
In many ways, it was well and good that the human organism has evolved to do this. Our animal ancestors who were slow with these exquisitely sensitive skills didn’t survive the perils of daily life in the wild. Nevertheless, the modern brain, determined to avoid the unfamiliar and determined to make me “safe” has no shame about being not here and, furthermore – quite enthusiastically – wrong.
I see this in all sorts of tragic ways reported in the daily news, with its reports of white neighbors who call police in response to others who are “living while black.” Minds, conditioned by centuries of trauma, fear and division, see bits of data and then, clinging to these as “true,” quickly react. If we pay attention, we can each understand with compassion what happens “out there” as we watch that process relentlessly unfold in our very own minds.
Wander the world offending people.” SN 4:9
The challenge for me that day was to slow down and attend more fully to the direct and embodied experience of what was arising in that exact present moment. This is one important way in which my meditation practice is of everyday help. I practice simply knowing experience as it arises in the body/mind. I discover where (and how) to place and discipline my attention. I learn to offer a curious and kind and compassionate knowing of my actual (and, in every moment, quite unique) sensory experience.
Internally, for me that day, a pause into mindfulness allowed me to open awareness first to the physical context. I could see that I was safe. I saw that others’ business was carrying on as usual; for them, nothing exceptional seemed to be happening. My new machine-gun toting neighbor soon took out his smart phone and casually began to scroll.
Then my pause allowed a more full range of knowing as I explored what, if anything, was needed internally. There was the residue of alertness: a quickened heart rate and breathing, some muscle tension. I saw that breathing more deeply might help. My body and mind responded to that kindness; there was more ease. Soon the two men emerged from the back room, carrying a bag that I now guessed to be the day’s receipts. They all wandered out, back to the noisy street. Ah, I thought: the Indonesian version of Brinks Armed Security. I continued to breath. I laughed; that was fun! All was well.
The experience gave me a wonderful window into how my mind works and how, unattended, it can so quickly engage me in suffering and troublesome speech and action. It was a lesson in slowing down, in noticing, in letting go of clinging to immediate perception and ideas. Freedom.