The Path: To Sink or Swim

By Lily Pond

At our Sangha meeting one Tuesday night, the Dharma teacher spoke of loving kindness. I nodded and nodded as she spoke. I had spent years reaching the same conclusions: that loving kindness, gentle friendship, and the way of the heart are all that bring joy and rest to our spirits. And on that sunlit spring evening, when even the leafy limbs of trees clung to the late daylight, and the faces of all who gathered radiated its presence, I believed I could live in that light forever, my heart open, in that place of essential joy.

As part of her talk, the teacher led us in meditations, “I will be safe from danger,” “There will be peace in my heart,” “I will radiate peace to all.” Even something that had been difficult for me to assimilate, “radiating peace” to those who did not radiate peace back, suddenly came clearer. I understood that they were radiating all the peace that they could, they were loving to the extent that they could love, and that whatever encased them need not encase me. I glowed from the evening for nearly twenty-four whole hours. Then I went swimming.

I swim three times a week in the Albany High School pool. In the mornings, the shallow end is roped off for various swimming lessons, and the deeper half is open and unmarked for those swimming laps the width of the pool. People measure off their own lanes, and swim without submerging or bumping anyone else. Wednesday morning was like many others. I lay on my back doing a backstroke, blissful behind my pale-blue tinted goggles, humming a song just loudly enough to hear myself under the water.

I was going along happily for about twenty minutes when suddenly I got a face full of water; someone had inserted herself in the far too narrow space between me and the next swimmer, ignoring the entire rest of the pool with plenty of available lanes. She was splashing right where I’d been swimming all morning. Boy, did my blissful loving kindness disappear fast! How dare she?! Doesn’t she know the rules?! Can’t she see?! Then I began to analyze this total stranger. “She must be a selfcentered little brat. She doesn’t care whose place she takes as long as she gets exactly what she wants!” All this in the space of an instant. With as much mindfulness as I could gather, I did the only reasonable thing. I moved to another lane. But I didn’t think I should have to!

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I thought about this encounter the rest of the week. It’s one thing to grasp the concept of loving kindness and its importance; that’s a lot and I don’t mean to diminish it. Nor can I disregard the goal of loving my enemies as well as my friends, to wish them peace and revel in their joys. But in actuality, to be able to keep my heart fully open in the face of someone stealing my lane, or cutting in front of me in a checkout line, or turning on their electric hedge trimmer the moment I sit down in the yard for a quiet session of deep meditation—these tests will take me a while to pass.

My reaction was about me, and mine—territory, property, identification of boundaries, or perhaps lack of them. This is what wars are fought over. I wanted to look at my response more closely; it was so immediate it seemed instinctual.

One thing I came up with is the identification with the self, the ego, the body. This, as they say, is the root of all suffering, the body clings and it pushes away. The ego, built of layers of fear, seeks to sacrifice everything to protect itself. Because make no mistake: if loving kindness is the route to perfect joy, my wish, on one level, to annihilate this woman for taking my swimming lane, is saying, “This lane is more important to me than perfect happiness.” That’s pretty heavy.

Another thing I notice is that the very things I thought about her are the things I think about myself when I’m being most self-critical. Perhaps these are the same things my self-centered mother became the most angry with me for—my own self-centeredness, which I learned from her, which she learned from her mother, which she learned, presumably from hers, and, probably, my swimmer did from hers. And what is “self-centeredness” if not fear? So much sadness and fear for mindfulness and loving kindness to heal. When I interrupt or don’t listen well enough, when I put my own needs before those of someone else, I don’t always know I’m doing it, and neither did the splashing swimmer. Sometimes I come home from the simplest of evenings and rake myself over the coals for the same kind of behavior that angered me about her. In following my body’s call, in perfect unmindfulness, I behave from such ever-present and simple fears that it’s not till I reflect that I see those fears at all.

If I can feel compassionate toward all of my own fears, can I also feel compassionate toward all of hers, my small thoughtless pool-mate? Sometimes. Can I remember that her thoughtlessness is born of the same things as mine? Sometimes. Can I open up my heart with love to her as one of all sentient beings in such a way that her doing this or that is absolutely unnoticeable? Well, not this week anyway. Will I do it perfectly every time? No, never.

Yes, there’s the interim step: communication, communication from the heart, “Hey, girl, check this  out: see these lanes …,” etc. When do I simply accept the situation and move on, when do I try to change things? I’m not sure. And in any case, I have to know and recognize from the start that she may not hear. I have to make that decision, that one choice from minute to minute to minute: will I hold my heart open now? And now? And now? Can I really wish to trade perfect happiness for “my lane” at the pool? Can joy really be that simple?

Yes, I think it can. If my whole happiness depends on this woman’s stroke, I guess the best thing I can do

Postscript: When I later learned that this swimmer was terrified of deeper water, I realized that there was even more I could learn from this situation. Lily Pond is a member of the Fragrant Earth Sangha in Albany, California.

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