Just before Christmas of 2007, almost exactly a year ago, I steered into a Starbucks drive-thru line for a cup of tea on my way to teach a morning tai chi lesson. There were a few cars in line, and I got in behind them. When my turn came I gave my order at the billboard menu and moved up as far as I could while waiting patiently for the cars in front of me to get through the cashier line. While the South Florida weather would probably would have felt tropical to much of the rest of the country, I was a bit chilled and was looking forward to my hot drink.
The fellow in the SUV behind me reached the menu. Dissatisfied with the alignment between his mouth and the microphone, he laid on his horn, leaned out his window, yelled an insult and exhorted me to move up. There was nowhere to go. I was in a line, and mere inches separated my car from the one in front of me. Indignant at rudeness, I felt my temper come up, and because I am a pure and enlightened being who entertains nothing but positive thoughts, I reached for the door handle with the intention popping out of the car, taking a few steps, reaching into his open window, and sending him to the dentist for a holiday visit.
I'll show you what happens to rude and impatient people, I thought. I'll teach you that a martial artist is waiting in every car around you with the express mission of settling the world down into just the fair, quiet, and patient place they think it should be. Running that tape in my head, my ire grew even further. Testosterone and adrenaline flooded my body and in a few seconds I had transformed from the peaceful, content, slightly thirsty writer/teacher to a raving lunatic. My heartbeat was up, my hands were clammy, my muscles were tense, and the whole world had constricted down to the tiny business of completing my hostile mission.
Then I glanced in the mirror. The face of the impatient driver behind me was florid and twisted with anger and hate. I refocused my eyes and noticed that my own face didn't look much different. Whatever plague had taken him had penetrated the steel and glass of my car to infect me too, robbing me of my much-vaunted equilibrium, my peace, my balance, my equanimity--precisely that thing that my beloved tai chi training, and the Chinese philosophy behind it prizes most highly.
I teach my students that it is best not to lose that balance--wuji in Chinese--through meditation, breathing, and tai chi training, but when you do, you can use any of three "doors" to get it back. Door number one is meeting force with force: I could go ahead and start a fight. Door number two is yielding: I could kowtow on the concrete, admit to being an idiot, and beg the other driver's forgiveness. The best option, however, is door number three. That door is different every time. The trick is to figure out what that is.
The car in front of me moved off and I pulled up to pay. "I'd like to buy the coffee for the guy behind me," I said.
The barista looked at me in surprise. "But he's a jerk!"
"Just having a bad day, " I said. "Happens to the best of us."
"A random act of kindness, eh?"
I shook my head, thinking how I could explain door number three to her before the guy rammed my bumper with his. "Not really. I'm not doing it for him; I'm doing it for me. I was mad right back at him, but now that I'm doing this I feel much better."
I had only a $10 bill in my wallet, and I handed it over. She checked her order screen. "He has ordered breakfast for five people. It's a lot more than ten dollars."
That gave me pause. I'd already regain my wuji. Did I really need to go through with more? I took out my credit card and handed it over.
She searched my face. "You're sure?"
"Do it," I said.
After I'd signed the charge slip, I drove away without a backward glance. I had found my door number three, was finished with the act, and indeed was already forgetting about it. I didn't want to meet the guy on the road, either to hear thanks or more yelling, so I took a circuitous root to my lesson, avoiding the main highway.
Six hours later, I returned home to find my answering machine full of messages from the Starbucks manager, and from a reporter for NBC news. They had me using my credit card information. Apparently the guy behind me had continued my act of giving and the person behind him had done the same, and on and on. No doubt encouraged by the store manager, the chain was intact well into the afternoon. NBC covered the story. You can see view it here:
The news spread around the world. Within 24 hours I had received calls and e-mails from as far away as Australia. The key point, of course, is that I had performed a random act of consciousness rather than a random act of kindness. I'd nearly lost my cool, had retrieved it, and done something good for myself and someone else in the process.
In a sense, you can think of this as self-centered, but in a good way. Keeping your cool, maintaining your wuji is just like putting your own oxygen mask on in a damaged airplane before helping those around you. If you pass out, you can't help anyone. If you lose your temper, you are of no good to the world. Cool, calm and collected you are ready and willing to participate in the world.
Violent crimes and burglaries are up this holiday season. The financial crisis is creating anxiety, depression, desperation and anger. Spread the word about wuji. Do your best to control your own feelings before acting rashly. Think twice before doing or saying something you'll regret. Random acts of consciousness are perhaps even more contagious than random acts of kindness. Raise your level of view, dig deep for perspective, and help make this a more peaceful holiday season for everyone.