On Inishbofin, Jaye Martin led us in a Shiva Natarajana sequence. We began with Uttkatasana and moved through several standing balancing poses, coming full circle to finish on Uttkatasana. The sequence was beautiful, in and of itself, and I have since led my own class in Brussels to move through their own Shiva dance.
What I find most meaningful about the sequence was the story Jaye shared with us about Shiva. Shiva, he told us, was standing on the man of forgetfulness, which represents all of us. So our yoga is a dance of remembering and re-remembering.
In many ways, the human capacity for memory is incredible. Sometimes, I wish I had was taking up less room in my memory stores with lyrics from 80s songs, but even still I can remember a great many things. However, like the person Shiva dances upon, there is so much that I forget. Each time I am reminded, I wonder how I could have forgotten something so important.
From years of experience, I have learned that people’s behavior toward me often has very little to do with my own actions and/or their feelings about me. I have learned this, in part, through communication. I remember first meeting a student in my study abroad program in Mali when I was an undergrad. She seemed unfriendly and standoffish. I instantly assumed she didn’t like and took her behavior completely personally. Months later, when we had become close friends, I asked her about it. She told me that she had been having adverse reactions to her malaria medication and having a very difficult time.
This happened in 2002.
The next instance involved another student who was a member of my group of friends in college. I always felt this strangeness around her. I am very sensitive (clearly), and I could sense that she didn’t seem to like me. There was awkwardness between us. At the very end of my college career (as they say), she was one of a few students still on campus. When I returned to visit a friend in common, we spent some time together. And I told her that I felt like she had never really liked me.
Really? She asked. I always thought you didn’t like me!
So there it was. Four years of possible friendship wasted on a simple/not-so-simple misunderstanding.
Here’s the kicker. I have remembered and re-remembered this notion time and again, yet I continue to forget. It’s like this knowledge sinks into a hidden corner of my psyche, a place I very rarely shine any kind of light upon. Often, it is someone else who does the light shining.
That someone tends to be my husband (aka, my personal, live-in guru).
When my renters in Alaska who had been promising to buy my house for nearly two years decided to break their lease, move to another part of Alaska, leave me to sort out the mess they left at my house and property, and then proceed to take me to small claims court to try to reclaim the money they had paid me to keep my house off the market (they hadn’t told me during this time that they had already been rejected by two banks in their attempts to procure a loan), my husband had to remind and re-remind me not to even peek through the door into their universe.
Over the course of a year, I was bombarded with nasty emails, court summons, and the painful emotions involved in reviewing all interactions with these nightmare inhabitants in order to create a case against them, not to mention the horrible experience of participating in a court trial via cell phone between Belgium and Alaska (which ended after midnight with the 10 hour time difference).
There were moments when I was not sure I was going to be able to get through any more of the emotional/stress roller coaster. When this would happen, my husband would offer wisdom and advice.
They are living in their own reality, he would explain. If they want to turn that reality into a nightmare, there is nothing you can do about to change their mind. You can, however, choose not to enter into that nightmare.
This advice was very helpful in terms of any kind of communication with them, especially after the judge ruled in my favor and they began to send threatening, nasty emails my way.
Having gone through more than a year of being bombarded by the rippling of waves from the nightmare reality of two people in Alaska, you would think that I would remember my husband’s sage advice. However, I seem to require regular reminders.
The most recent reminder came on the same day I shared the Shiva remembering and re-remembering theme and asana sequence for my yoga class. Upon returning home, I took my dog for a walk around the block. On our way, we met up with an older man and a small, male dog. The dog was very enthusiastic about meeting Atticus, and the man seemed all right with it as well. Atticus and I approached, and the dogs did their doggie greeting. They ran around each other, getting their leashes tangled. So far, it was the usual canine interchange.
Then, as dogs are wont to do, they both started making low growling noises. It was at this moment that the older gentleman began to freak out. He grabbed his dog and turned away from me and Atticus. Atticus proceeded to lift his muzzle to sniff at the dog in the man’s arms.
Prenez-le! The man began shrieking in French. (Grab him!)
I tried to explain (also in French) that they were just playing and that Atticus was not dominant or aggressive but to little avail.
When Atticus managed to wrap himself up, I had to let go of his leash in order to untangle it from the leash of the smaller dog. At this point, the man completely let loose any shred of comportment.
I was so surprised by his complete shift in behavior that I responded in English, suggesting he attempt to relax. (There might have been an expletive in their for emphasis.).
I was finally able to grab Atticus’ leash, and the man went running away, tiny dog still in his arms.
I could feel my emotions being stirred up into a small whirlwind from the interaction. A single event like this would not really affect me, but this kind of stuff happens all the time in our neighborhood and on our forest walks. People either freak out over my dog (who is very social and not at all aggressive) or do not take responsibility for their own dogs (who attack Atticus on a regular basis, causing me to worry that he will develop an aggressive response as a result). This happens so frequently that I have gotten to the point where I want to avoid any kind of interaction with another dog while we are out and about.
It’s not only the strangeness with people with dogs. It’s also the people themselves. I try to be friendly and small and say hello, and often people respond in kind. Then, there are people who seem to not possess direct or peripheral vision, not even acknowledging my existence as we cross paths. In addition, there are people I have chatted with in the forest who barely respond with a nod when I say hello in passing on an evening walk around the block.
I don’t get it, I said to my husband. Does she not like? I had just said hello to a person I had engaged in long conversations with on several walks in the woods, and she had hardly even looked at me as we walked by.
It really isn’t about you, my husband said. She is in her own world.
Yeah, I guess so.
You really shouldn’t take it personally.
Even knowing this, and after so many years of forgetting and remembering with each encounter, it is challenging to follow this advice. I just don’t understand. For one, why would anyone choose to live in the kind of nightmare created by the people who took me to court in Alaska? Why would anyone choose such misery? In addition, how can a person not even realize a person is standing right in front of them, making eye contact and saying hello?
Are they just completely asleep and unaware of the events of the world happening around them?
Each of these incidences offers an opportunity to remember (even if it still takes my husband nudging me to remember) and a choice of how to respond/not respond given that remembrance.
Even with the knowledge and the choice, the actual (putting into practice) can be really challenging. There is nothing easy about being awake and aware in a world that seems hell bent on staying asleep.
For whatever reason, some people insist on perpetuating the nightmare. I glimpsed this nightmare just the other day on my way home from an errand in the city. I was riding tram line 7, direction Heysel. A woman entered the tram, sat down across from me, and began talking on her cell phone. She wasn’t yelling by any means, but the volume of her voice was loud enough that I was not able to drown her out by turning up the volume on the book I was listening to. I sat very still, taking deep breaths, hoping she would be finished with her call soon. Thankfully, she did finish. However, she then proceeded to scroll down to another contact and yet another call. By the third or fourth call, I had had it. Enough was enough.
Since she was completely immersed in her own world (clearly, or she otherwise might have noticed there there was a car full of people who clearly were not interested in listening in while she proceeded to call everyone on my contact list). I waved to get her attention and pointed to my ears and made the gesture for “shhh” with my finger. Then, I explained in French that there were a bunch of people in the car, and could she not talk on her cell phone?
She stood up and began slamming me with the most insanely explicit, vulgar language I have rarely had the “pleasure” to receive. There was quite a bit of swearing, along with the notion that I was less than nothing, all in French, of course. It came so readily from her lips that I would not be surprised if this was simply the way she responded to anything remotely controversial.
It was so shocking and unnecessary (particularly considering she was behaving counter to the basic mores of respectful etiquette for a public space) that I began laughing. Thankfully, she walked to another car. Later, she walked right next to me in order to exit through the door closest to where I was seated; however, she did not send any more choice words or colorful expressions in my direction.
As I sat, listening to my story audiobook, I thought about the nightmare this woman had created, and I wondered what had happened in her life to convince her that this was an acceptable way to treat another human being?
I was thankful our interaction had been limited to a gesture and nod on my part and some vulgar tongue on hers. I was also thankful it was over. I have not found a solution for how to confront people talking loudly on cell phones on public transit or other behaviors that seem to be born of a complete disregard for other people and beings.
Part of the challenge is that it is difficult to transcend deeply engrained patterns and beliefs. Their behavior would indicate that these individuals appear to already think it’s acceptable to move through the world as if it is a shared space. There is not much I can do to explain that their behavior is disrespectful without receiving a serious backlash in response.
I have experienced this backlash from people whose perception of the world is that they seem to be the only individuals of note (the inconsiderate [understatement] woman who lived in the apartment below my husband and me in our previous apartment in Belgium was a great example). Informing them that actually there are other people in the world tends to unleash some serious animosity. In the example of our previous neighbor, she threatened to call the police when we requested that she end her loud dinner party, which had been taking place on a weeknight and endured past midnight. In these situations, it seems like people skip the cognitive dissonance stage and go straight to a place of entitlement/victim, sending unmitigated anger my way.
I really do not enjoy the backlash, but I also cannot avoid transit or the many other activities that take me out into the world, where my own reality comes into contact with the nightmares of others.
I do not have a solution (beyond refusing to take transit ever again and moving to a cottage by the sea, far from humanity), but I do have a long list of reading materials and online courses for studying how to communicate like a Buddhist and brush up on nonviolent communication techniques.
Are you on a path to being awake and aware? Have you struggled with similar experiences? How do you find balance with the zombies of the world? Even more importantly, how to practice remembering not to let the zombies get to you and to not take it all too seriously?