Recently, traveling by train to New York City, I found myself sitting between a woman having a moderately loud conversation on a cell phone and a man growing increasingly agitated at the volume of her call. As the ride went on, accompanied by the unremitting sound of her voice, he wriggled and sighed, then finally exploded. “You’re making too much noise!”
She turned to glare at him over my shoulder, as I hunched further down in my seat. Sandwiched between them, I glanced over at him and reflected, Well, the same could be said about you, too! A saying I once heard came into my mind: “The problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”
It takes strong insight and often a good deal of courage to break away from our habitual ways of looking at things, to be able to respond from a different place. Imagine if we dropped our need to be right, our easy perpetuation of what we’re used to, our urge to go along with what others think, and tried to practice what the Buddha taught: “Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love.”
Shouting to drown out someone else’s noise, returning belligerence for belligerence may be automatic, but it tires us out. Rigidly categorizing people as good or bad or right or wrong helps us feel secure; yet relating in that way doesn’t allow us to really connect to anyone, and we actually feel alone.
Risking a new level of seeing enables us to try out new behaviors and find ways to communicate that convey our feelings without damaging ourselves, or those around us.
That would kick off an enormous adventure of consciousness—a readiness to step into new terrain, redefine power, see patience as strength rather than as resignation. Instead of yelling at the woman on the train, the man might have made his request before his anger built to unmanageable proportions and he saw her only as an irritant, not as a person. He might have asked before insisting and spoken before shouting, just as he might like to be spoken to himself.
My seatmates on the train settled down, but we see elements of that ride every day: frustration, carelessness, an effort to be in control, rage, fear—and the chance to be different. Can we see it all and seize the chance to operate from new levels of thinking?
Even in horrible circumstances, we have that opportunity—and the prospect for meaningful change. I saw it after the metro bombing in London in July 2005, when, like most people, my initial response was sorrow for the lives lost and some anxiety about getting on a subway in New York. This was all natural and appropriate, but limited by “us versus them” thinking.
Willa, the 7-year-old daughter of a friend, had another perspective. On being told what had happened, her eyes filled with tears, her mother wrote me, and she said, “Mom, we should say a prayer.” As she and her mother held hands, Willa asked to go first. Her mother was stunned to hear Willa begin with, “May the bad guys remember the love in their hearts.” Hearing that, my own heart leaped to another level altogether.