One evening over dinner my husband was telling me about a story he had heard earlier that day on public radio. He said he found it “thoughtful” and “provocative” and very much like the “things that I talk about.” It was about what this physician and sociologist now at Yale had learned when he was a medical student. (A little research on my part discovered that this professor is Nicholas Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University.)
Apparently, some Buddhist monks had gone to MIT during the early days of MRI scanning in the 1980s. The monks had agreed to be scanned to see how the discipline of meditation changed their brains. This being in the Boston area, someone asked one of the monks what would he do if a driver cut him off in traffic.
The monk replied he would imagine that the person’s wife was delivering a child right then and needed to get the to hospital immediately. Thus, the monk wouldn’t think of the situation as being cut off in traffic; he would think of it as an instance of giving birth.
In a recent interview for “On Being,” Christakis pointed out that the monk was re-narrating whatever he encountered, always seeing things in a good light. The professor said this is how the monk coped with the realities of life. While Christakis acknowledged that he wasn’t disciplined enough to be this way, he would like to be.
Well, I’d venture to say that most of us mere mortals don’t have that kind of discipline. But, even if I did, I’m pretty sure that I one wouldn’t want to constantly create a story behind what is actually happening in that moment.
In the traffic example, the only real thing that occurred is that another driver cut me off. Now, what comes after that one moment is what we need to examine. For the monk, everything after that one fact is something he imagined; it’s all made up.
For me – and maybe for many others – there might be a moment of real anger! And then what? Well, then I can choose to dwell in my anger; OR I can choose to cut off my anger, exhale and let it go.
That is what comes from Zen training, my Zen discipline. I don’t have to re-narrate or to imagine anything. I just cut it off.
My Zen teacher often tells students who are having problems concentrating during zazen (sitting meditation) to “hear the siren but don’t follow it down the road.” In other words, be aware of what happens around you, but don’t create a story around it. All that subsequent creation is just your imagination at work, it’s not reality.
The siren is real; everything else is not.
Choose. Exhale. Let. It. Go.