When Our Instincts Are Wrong
It was a perfect Australian day, clear skies with soft white fluffy clouds. The air was balmy, and we felt good despite the fact that Customs had impounded our Native drums as possible terrorist weapons. Evidently someone determined that raw hides could be used to smuggle in anthrax. We tried to reason with the official that these were tanned hides, but to no avail. They impounded them, and charged us a storage fee. If we wanted to bring them into the country they would have to spray them with pesticides and other chemicals as well as radiation treatments. We chose impoundment.
We spent the night at a B&B cottage and the next morning we packed to head north. Judi noticed an interesting bird in the yard resembling a Magpie, but with different markings. Describing it to our hostess, she said‑”Oh that’s a Butcher Bird.”
I was driving and pulled out of the driveway into the left lane not the right. They drive on the other side of the road than we do in the states, a clear sign that the British Empire had been here.
Judi told me later that she was just about to mention seeing the Butcher Bird, hoping that it didn’t mean someone was about to be butchered. We were on a narrow country road passing by open pastures. To negotiate the curve, I wandered into the far right lane. And then I saw the oncoming car. She was on us before I even had a chance to break.
My instinctual brain took over. A veteran of thirty some years of driving, I had never had an accident, had successfully avoided several and never even had a speeding ticket (except on the day after I got my license at eighteen). My instincts had been honed from these many years of driving, and I pulled hard to the right. There was no shoulder, and I was against a hill. Part of our vehicle was still in the road.
Her instincts told her to pull left, and our cars collided. I remember the whole thing as extremely surrealistic. I watched our cars colliding in slow motion.
The front ends of both cars collapsed under impact and suddenly everything was deathly still. The only sounds were those of fluids leaking from the cars, and the hiss of dust flying in the air. I thought our car was on fire, because I saw smoke everywhere, but it turned out to be chemical dust from the useless airbag. I told Judi we needed to get out of the car. And I went over to open her door which had been crushed by the impact. I managed to open it and help her out. She was shaken, as was I, but she could walk, kind of.
I went to the other car to see how the driver and passengers were doing. The driver was alone and although stunned, had no serious injuries either.
A woman driving by pulled off the road to see if we needed help. Another woman in a house near the wreck also offered assistance. Together we helped Judi and the other driver to the woman’s yard where she offered deck chairs and some water. My head ached, but I noticed that the wrecked cars were sitting precariously in a blind spot. I went out to direct traffic, so that there wouldn’t be another accident on top of this one.
It was then I got a closer look at the cars. By her own estimation, the other driver told the police that she was going about 90 kilometers an hour, and I was going around thirty. That’s a combined speed of 120 kph, and the cars showed it. Both were totaled, and I wondered how on earth we had all been able to walk away from it. From the looks of the aftermath, I figured we should have all died, or wished we had.
I suspect that all our guardians and angels had worked overtime to protect us. Judi’s head had hit the windshield and cracked it, but miraculously she hadn’t cracked her skull. Despite some abrasions, mostly caused by the useless airbag, I was okay I thought. The other driver was also unharmed, except for abrasions from her airbag and some bruises to her arms.
After being released from the hospital, Judi and I checked into a hotel to re‑group and then walked around town to talk about what had happened. We were amazed that we didn’t feel all that bad. We could think clearly, we thought. And things seemed to be okay.
What we didn’t realize was that we were in shock. And one of the side effects of shock is that you don’t feel. The brain has an ancient mechanism that engages when shock sets in. You get very detached from yourself, and many of the pain receptors seem to go numb.
The next day brought the realization that we were not doing as well as we had thought. The numbness had passed, and we could feel what was going on with us. Besides, our luggage told the story about the degree of impact without uttering a single word. The struts had snapped, and the steel locks had jammed. Our Tibetan thangkas that we had obtained in Nepal had been extruded from their PVC cases, the impact having ripped off the caps.
For the next six weeks we were marooned in a surfing town called Byron Bay; too sore and too disoriented to do much more than lie around. We found some gifted practitioners, thank god, and slowly tried to put ourselves back together again. Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall, well, slight revision‑Humpty Dumpty had hit a wall… and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men were having a hard time putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.
For me the accident was extremely confrontational. Ever since taking Refuge as a Buddhist, I had done my best to practice harmlessness. I had never knowingly harmed anyone, and if I had ever stepped on someone’s emotional toes, I had tried my best to set things right. But here I had hurt two people due to my actions. Not only this, but my actions had totaled two cars.
The rental agent responded to my phone call after the accident in a typically Australian way — “Glad you’re okay, mate. Hell …I’ve been in this business for over thirteen years, and after the first year I stopped crying about a ruined kah. You know you can replace a kah, but you can’t replace a person. Don’t worry about it, mate. If we can help you again, let us know.”
But my conscience still wrestled with my having caused harm. Not only this, but I found myself becoming ever more insular. I was dipping into depression and showed all the signs‑disturbed sleep, no energy, not wanting to do anything, and not giving a shit about anything.
Finally, I began to slowly face my conflicted emotions. I would really like to have told you that I moved through my depression with grace and ease. I mean, after all, I am a psychotherapist and do have the skills to help myself. But alas, understanding the emotional process does not exempt one from going through it. And the weird thing about depression is that you don’t give a shit about having the skills to help yourself. Self‑blame is a fascinating and terrible thing.
The whole affair was made more complex by the fact that Judi and I had both suffered head concussions, not enough to be hospitalized, but enough to make things stranger than usual. Looking back, I think we were both in varying degrees of shock for about five weeks. And during that time I found myself entertaining actions that I knew were not in my best interest, especially during the depression.
I didn’t want to do anything. I certainly didn’t want to do anything positive. In fact, for the first week or so, I ate inordinate amounts of comfort food. I knew this nutritionally useless crap wasn’t good for me, but I didn’t care. You see, I have a “subpersonality” within me I call “the rodent.” He’s kind of like a 200 pound hamster with all the resources and intelligence that goes along with this species, As long as he is eating something, everything is okay. So when the world gets really strange, as it did after the accident, he takes over. I began to find empty cartons of ice cream, trails of peanut shells and other crunchy things, like cookies, strewn about the house.
It’s a damnable thing about being human, but when we are under extreme stress we often resort to un‑resourceful actions-things that are guaranteed not to improve our condition.
Anyway, to make a long story short, with Judi’s help I finally managed to pull myself out of my emotional garbage bin.
I have learned many things about myself through the “accident” and one of them is the power of relationship.
There’s a lot of talk about relationship these days, perhaps because no one seems to know how to do it. The templates for relationship were given to most of us by our parents. And many of us baby boomers grew up with TV companions like “Ozzie and Harriet,” and “Father Knows Best.” But these ways of doing relationship basically suck the big one. They just don’t work. But of course these TV shows simply mirrored the American psyche at the time. And wasn’t this when Naugahyde® was invented, and plastic? I think this was also the time when a lot of people started covering their sofas in vinyl. Emotional honesty was not encouraged, nor was it ever considered as an option in TV’s “Happy Town.”
Negative messages about emotional honesty still abound in our society despite the sexual revolution and putting a man on the moon. And such taboos against emotional truth run deep in many of us.
When Judi and I were finally able to speak our truths and express our painful feelings around the accident, we actually started feeling better.
I don’t claim to be an “ex‑spurt” on relationships, mind you. I can only report what has worked and what hasn’t worked for me. And I have found that being emotionally honest with ourselves and each other is the best medicine for the difficult situations in life.
I was reminded of a comment Magdalen made in regards to relationships just a few days before the accident “The bliss of relationship is the opening of the heart. The work of relationship is what emerges from the opened heart.” And what began to emerge from my heart was a bunch of conflicting feelings-gratitude for still being alive, amazement that no one had been killed, and wondering “why” it had happened.
Now, over the years, I have come to feel that the “why” of something is not as important as what we do with it. Besides, explaining a situation to ourselves does not solve much. Our actions in relationship to the situation are far more impactful.
As I began to talk my way through the morass of feelings, the gray fog that had been surrounding me began to lift. I could think more clearly. And one of the things that began to intrigue me was the instinct thing.
I had swerved to the right by instinct. But my instincts had been wrong, and they had led me to take a course of action that was ultimately destructive.
Now when our life is threatened we go into automatic, and our instinctual mind takes over. In fact, our instincts tend to take over whenever we are taken to the edge of our capacities. This is obvious in situations like car accidents, but less obvious in our emotional lives.
Yet something very similar occurs. Being taken to one’s emotional edge can be triggered by anything, the loss of a job, death of a loved one, a big argument or a national disaster. But I don’t think that anything brings us to our emotional edges faster or more consistently than being in relationship.
Now for some, your emotional edges may come from your current intimate relationship. For others it may come in the form of your friends, your neighbors, your co‑workers, or even your bosses. Those of you who are hermits have perhaps one of the most challenging relationships in your face‑yourself. I mean if you are a hermit, you can’t blame your problems on anyone else, now can you? There is only you.
Relationships are very much like mirrors. We think we are seeing the other person, but in many ways we are seeing ourselves.
This may be one reason why relationships are so catalytic and have the power to unsettle us.
America’s relationship with the rest of the world is at an all time low. And many of us feel quite unsettled by the current turn of national and world events. But America’s relationship with the rest of the world is only part of our problem.
Our relationship with the Earth is in dire straits, and the ecosystem is showing signs of exhaustion. Lemurs in Madagascar disappearing, unable to reproduce due to environmental stresses. And other plants and animals are joining them in a fast race to extinction.
Not only this, but our relationships with each other are strained. Road rage, teen suicides and homicides are on the increase. Senseless savagery is on the rise.
With so many interpersonal, national, international and ecological relationships out of balance, the world is teetering on the edge of disaster. And all of this is deeply troubling, to say the least.
I have a Buddhist friend who recently returned to his home in Asia after visiting the U.S. He was deeply troubled. “The world’s falling apart,” he said, “and my heart aches with sorrow.”
Many of us know this feeling more and more as our spirituality stands in stark contrast to the conditions of the world.
I am always reminded in situations like this by the words of Sogyul Rinpoche, a living Dozgchen master of Tibetan Buddhism
“If your heart is breaking, let it break!”
What I think he means by this is that we can use the moments of our emotional suffering to further our illumination. All beings suffer from time to time. That’s the way it is here. But when the suffering comes close to home, we feel sorrow.
Such sadness creates an opening, even though it is a painful one, and all openings of our heart serve our illumination. The stories we tell ourselves about why we feel such sadness are just stories. What is important in the spiritual journey is the transformation of our obscurations that separate us from life and from our spiritual essence. And sometimes the sadnesses of life can bring down the walls of separation between us and the world quicker than anything.
I do not believe in prophecy nor predestination. I do not believe in the soothsayers and fear mongers who say that the end of the world is upon us. Nor do I believe in the Pollyanna view of our future either. I don’t think that things are going to magically get better or that a mother ship will descend from the skies and protect us from ourselves.
I do believe that we are witnessing the collapse of the old world. And those who broker power based upon the old terrestrial view of politics and economics are pulling out all the stops to keep themselves at the top of the monopoly game. We are in the midst of a planetary revolution with so many fronts and so many diverse issues it is hard to grasp. But all revolutions bring suffering as well as liberation.
When the Computer Revolution moved computerized robots into the work place, thousands of people lost their jobs. Their financial lives were devastated, and some of them never recovered. Some went on to get training in new fields and are now prospering.
As with so many things in life, it is not what happens to us that matters so much as what we do with it.
The crucial thing to remember is that we always have the power of choice in a situation. Whether we are conscious of it or not, or whether we exercise that power or not, is immaterial. It is always present.
When I went numb from the aftereffects of the “accident,” it took me a few weeks to come to my senses enough to realize that I had any choice in my situation. I was in shock, and at my emotional edge. My instinctual mind drove me into isolation, which only increased my depression.
Now depression is really just an attempt to avoid feeling emotions that we deem to be unacceptable or too difficult for us to deal with. So we just put a lid on our feelings. And the effort to keep a lid on our emotions takes a lot of energy, so much in fact, that we feel depressed from the effort. (Note: This is true for those depressions that center around specific life experiences, like the death of a loved one, the loss of job, etc. But this is not true of those depressions caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.)
Like my instincts which told me to pull to the “wrong side” of the road, my instincts were telling me to pull further inside away from the world, and even away from my feelings.
But the world of relationships and the truth of my feelings were what freed me from my emotional suffering in the wake of the “accident.” And I think that being honest with ourselves and with each other about our feelings is a good ally to have in the midst of turmoil.
I mention this because I think that more and more of us are in a kind of cultural shock. The changes and dangers of the world are so vividly in our faces that many of us are going numb. Our instincts are telling us to stop feeling.
Judi and I get emails from all over the world from people reporting that they are at their emotional edge. Life is becoming too difficult. Relationships are being challenged as never before, and many people feel that their lives are unraveling.
Some feel unable to cope with the increasing levels of violence in the world, and others are just fed up with struggling.
But as my high school algebra teacher used to say‑”It’s going to get worse, before it gets better.” And unfortunately, I think this is an accurate assessment of our world situation. The global revolution may wind up freeing the human spirit or imprisoning it. But whatever the outcome, we will probably see a lot more global conflict and suffering.
Perhaps we will slip through the eye of the needle and pass through the next decade unharmed. Perhaps we won’t. One hundred years from now, our moments of angst and greatest torment will mean very little. What will matter is how we lived these moments, not for our progeny but for ourselves.
For in the world of the soul, there is no time. And in the end, it is what we have gleaned from life that matters. The personalities and the situations that we are now so caught up in will return to emptiness from which they came. Years from now all of this will seem like some kind of dream, which it is. It is a dream that we are creating and believe to be real. From the perspective of the soul, the important things of life are not what we take them to be. The qualities of heart and mind that we develop through the act of living is the treasure‑not the things we do or the things we accumulate.
And so at the end of our lives, when we are taken from the Great Wheel of Life, there will only be a few questions. Did we become more compassionate or more hateful? Did we learn to embrace life, or did we run from it?
These are the important questions, I think. It takes spiritual courage to keep one’s heart open, make no mistake about it. But I have found nothing else as rewarding.
Don’t hide your heart but reveal it,
So that mine might be revealed, and
I might accept what I am capable of.