So there I was, driving home along Hwy 20 which winds determinedly through the hills which protect the coast, when a car pulled up very close to my rear bumper. I was on my way back from the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center where I had spent several days on retreat with a group of about a dozen people from my local meditation group. We had soaked in the splendor of hot springs, sat together in a beautiful zen temple, and worked mindfully for a few hours a day in support of the monastic community there. All of that, coupled with the stillness I yet feel after my return from India, added up to my just simply enjoying the drive home.
The winding road part of the drive takes the final hour of the trip, and some people can be very aggressive on this stretch, like the man riding my tail. There are many turnoff areas along the road and I’ve made it a policy of mine to wait until these turnouts to pull over for faster vehicles. I wasn’t driving slow, mind you, but this person behind me wanted to go faster. By his riding my tail, he was sending me a message to pull over to let him pass, but he wanted me to pull off into the gravel shoulder, which I see as potentially dangerous. After we passed one of those gravel areas, he honked his horn at me and “double flipped me off”, middle fingers angled up and towards each other like pieces of laboratory equipment in a Frankenstein movie that arc electricity from one point to the other. His hands even jostled with the voltage moving between the two fingers. My first response was to laugh at the preposterousness of the action, but then I realized that I was hurt and upset and probably a little scared inside, not afraid that he would do something more, but just a reptilian fear type response.
I continued on, staying with my feelings, noticing how hurtful hatred can be, until a formal turnout appeared about a minute or two later.I pulled over to let him pass, feeling like flipping him off in return, but also thinking that that behavior wouldn’t be a very “spiritual response.” Would the Dalai Lama flip him off, for example? I’m quite sure he would not. As he drove by and accelerated past me, I debated whether to flip him off, and then the middle finger of my left hand unfurled and my hand moved forward towards the glass to emphasize that the gesture was clearly intended for him.
The thing is, not only did it feel good, it felt right.
So that’s what I’m really writing about here. What does it truly mean to be spiritual? My friend, and Zen teacher Robert gave a talk last night which I thought was brilliant, and in it he talked about the truth being whatever is right in front of you in this moment. He said as part of his talk, and I paraphrase hopefully accurately, that being enlightened doesn’t necessarily mean not having emotions, but rather simply not identifying with those emotions. You can have anger or sadness for example, but don’t identify with that anger or sadness. And so the quandry here is that I was angry and hurt in response to the driver, but I was fully present to and aware of that anger and thus not really identified with it, and the anger felt very ‘true’ in that moment. There wasn’t anything to be done to get rid of it, other than attending to it and being curious about it, which I was.
So I flipped him off from a place of awareness. I know that sounds funny, but it’s true. The action felt true to the moment, yet it was decidedly “unspiritual” as many would normally take the term to mean.
I’m curious what some of you may think of this situation and my response. What does it really mean to be spiritual? Is it following a list of good and generally compassionate loving behaviors, or is it found in being honest and true to our humanness. I won’t claim my behavior as being enlightened action, but whatever enlightenment happens does occur within this human psyche, which is full of beautiful emotions. Even the ugly emotions can be beautiful if we watch them and feel their essence. Thoughts?