Saturday, August 07, 2010

Some Fine Predictors of Intemperate Action

I returned from my metta (lovingkindness) retreat at Spirit Rock on a Friday, and the following morning went to the Zen Center to meet someone from last year’s Establishing the Path of Practice class and hear Blanche Hartman’s lecture, which was about metta! That was a pleasing coincidence.

Afterward, my classmate and I had lunch with another man from our class and his husband, at the café one block down Page St.

The night before I left for the retreat, I got a new neighbor in the building adjoining mine. The buildings are mirror images of each other, built in 1925, and share a common trash area (you know, the “courtyard”). From my kitchen window I espied three men, one of them brandishing a lit cigarette. Egad!

Reacting instantly, as is my highly constructive custom, I strode out my kitchen door and politely asked the fellow to extinguish all smoking materials. I explained that smoking there results in smoke entering the apartments of several non-smokers. He was very nice about it. He said, “Oh, sorry,” and waved his cigarette as if aiming for a place to put it out, though there wasn’t anywhere to put it out except against the side of the white-painted wall, which he did not do, and then he introduced himself and said he had just moved in. He’s the person I will see when I stand at my kitchen sink and vice versa. I welcomed him to the compound.

When you practice metta meditation, you start by sending friendly wishes to people it’s easy to have kind feelings for and move on through various categories to, finally, a “difficult person.

My new neighbor technically was not a difficult person yet, but my experience with smokers (sorry, smokers) is that one polite request may not do the trick. Indeed, ten strongly worded requests may not do the trick, unless your goal is lingering ill feeling with your neighbors, in which case I've found ten emphatic complaints works pretty well. It seemed inevitable that this person would be my nemesis soon enough, so I used him as my difficult person while on retreat, and it was an interesting exercise.

I expected to feel irritation, but immediately realized what I felt was fear. I also realized that the reason I was so sure he was going to behave badly is that I can’t necessarily count on myself not to behave badly. When I act from a place of anger or fear, when I act before I have actually experienced my own feelings, when I act before a period of reflection, it can easily happen and certainly has.

Ergo, I have some input into how things turn out. If I can tolerate my own feelings for a bit, if I can delay until I’ve decided on a course of action that is more likely to be constructive, things may come out better.

Also—more subtle but maybe even more important—when I can trust that I’m basically a good person who will act reasonably, I can potentially trust that about other people and, naturally, approach them in a friendlier spirit.

I can’t say that I felt comradely love for my neighbor while at the retreat, but I at least reminded myself that there were a variety of approaches to consider when this person proved to use the courtyard (“trash area”) as a smoking lounge.

After arriving home, I asked Tom if he had observed the new neighbor smoking. He said, “No, I haven’t—maybe he’s a good guy.” And for the better part of a week, my mind was at ease.

Then one afternoon I returned home from work and saw what appeared to be an ashtray on my new neighbor’s kitchen windowsill. I was due to meet my small meditation group for an outing, but didn’t make it. Instead, I spent an hour online trying to figure out if there’s a law against smoking where this fellow evidently meant to smoke. Good news: there is, passed in April of this year.

While all of this Internet research wasn’t exactly the same as sitting in my apartment tolerating my roiled-up feelings, I’m still glad I did it, because it made me feel less powerless, which is another fine predictor of intemperate action, in my experience. Knowing the law confirmed that I’m not alone in not wanting to live in a cloud of secondhand smoke. It didn’t mean I had to use my newfound knowledge right away.

Having said all this, I have yet to observe my neighbor smoking, which could mean it’s not actually an ashtray, or that he’s extremely wily and has just one cigarette per 24-hour period, at 2:17 a.m. The lucid dreamer is up often during the night, however, at random moments, and I haven’t smelled a whiff of smoke. (From that direction. There is an immense amount that comes from a neighboring building in the other direction.)

How nice to think that maybe he is indeed a courteous fellow who has found somewhere else to smoke.