A Meditation on Traffic

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”
Yongey Mingyur

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
                                                      Mary Oliver


river templeThe traffic made no sense at all. When I first traveled to Bali, many years ago, I found the island enchanting with its lush green rice terraces, exotic birds and flowers, resonant gamelon music and its wide-open-hearted and deeply spiritual people.  The traffic, in my opinion, was from another realm entirely.

Hordes of every kind of vehicle – mostly motorbikes – mobbed the tiny roads, careening among chickens and sleeping dogs, piles of construction debris, tenacious vendors, women with market or offering baskets on their heads, oblivious small school children, double and triple parked vehicles, monster tourist buses and legions of taxis. Traffic moved forward officially on the left, not the right side of the road, though in practice it inevitably meandered to whichever side happened to offer the most open space. The four stop lights in all of Ubud, a city of 30,000, seemed to be mostly suggestive and traffic spilled relentlessly from side streets into the main thoroughfare without pause or, apparently, even a driver’s glance.  The only requirement for being a motorbike driver seemed to be, not age, but simply legs that were long enough to reach the pedals. It was not uncommon to see a single bike loaded with a family of five or piled high with various livestock headed for market. Seat belts and air conditioning in the taxis, not always even present, were a puzzlement and a western curiosity. One was wise to look both ways when crossing a one-way street and the few white-lined pedestrian crosswalks were meaningless stripes on the steaming asphalt as throngs of natives and foreigners bobbed, dashed and weaved at apparent random through the chaos.

I suffered. I jumped at each of the seeming close encounters and I mentally puzzled and argued against the obvious lack of logic and order of it all. I worried, squeaked, grunted and gave voice to my distress at more than frequent intervals. Driving from one place to another became a torture of physical tension and anxiety as I mentally rehearsed all sorts of unwelcome scenarios, even as we inevitably arrived safely and intact. My mind proliferated as I constructed and clung to logical arguments for the proper use of signs, lights, rules and order.

The Buddha had something to say about all of this. He spoke often of the cause of our deepest suffering as arising not in the inevitably pleasant or unpleasant aspects of experience, but in the ways that the mind reacts, clinging to wishes and views of how things ought to be. The mind does, of course, form views. For all of us, thoughts and emotions help the mind to organize infinite sense data into constructions: organized perceptions and categories, memories and stories that enable us to navigate our internal and external worlds.  These all help to form an imperfect but good-enough personal stability, safety and security and our sense of self.

Both the Buddha and modern neuroscience, however, note that we often mistakenly think that our own system of organization – useful as it is – is the way things actually are. At the very least, we think our personally constructed system is how things should be. We cling to views. We elaborate them with mind states and emotions that “explain” their worthiness. We can’t see – or often even imagine – another way of being. We engage in wars, internally with ourselves, with the physical world, and with others near and far, to try to make the unfolding of life conform to our own – obviously correct – views. As we hold on, we suffer and we cause others to suffer.

The Buddha’s teachings invite us to bring awareness to our clinging.  He invites a deeper investigation and a deeper wisdom.  It is my attachment to views – my clinging to them – he teaches, not the fact of views itself, that leads to suffering. He invites me to come into a softer relationship with my views. They are wholesome to the extent that they lead to individual and group coherence and deep well-being and happiness. He invites me to go further, however, and to cultivate the presence and the spaciousness of mind and heart that allows investigation and release of clinging to those views when they no longer serve a wholesome purpose and instead contribute to suffering. He invites me to learn the skills of simply resting in an awareness that can open to a wisdom and release beyond my own constructed and therefore limited views. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel, integrating the Buddha’s basic teaching on awareness with modern neuroscience, speaks of it in this way:

(Mindfulness) …means that we intentionally seek to notice the categories that shape our preconceived ideas of how we structure our perceptions. We avoid premature categorizations, come to an experience with an emergent sense of novelty and freshness, and remain attentive to our state of intention and the specific focus of awareness. This mindful stance gives us the possibility to see more directly the true nature of reality, accepting that much of what shapes our perceptions lies beneath the radar of our conscious awareness. Such a mindful awareness also enables us to become freer from the linguistic categorizations that constrict our view of the world. Being mindful of emotion…entails identifying old beliefs and not grasping on to these perspectives so that we can see things as they are with more clarity, vividness, and detail.

The Buddha taught that suffering is of value because it shows where the mind has become caught. Suffering, he taught, shows me where the mind has gotten snagged on concepts, trying to control the fluid, impermanent, multiple causes and conditions that make up our experience at every single moment. His teachings invite me to investigate, to look deeply when I suffer. What am I attempting to hold on to that can’t really be held? Suffering is the clue and the doorway to greater insight and freedom into a deeper, more comprehensive happiness and peace.

“But first your attitude to suffering must change.  Suffering is primarily a call for attention, which itself is a movement of love. More than happiness, love wants growth, the widening and deepening of awareness and consciousness and being. Whatever prevents that becomes a cause of pain, and love does not shirk from pain.”
                                                                                                                   Jack Kornfield 

Over the many years of traveling in Bali, my suffering with traffic has offered me an bali dooropportunity for humility around my views and for just this inquiry, insight and release. It has taught me a deeper understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and the value of investigating experience below the surface appearance of things.  Balinese traffic has become a metaphor; willingness to investigate at this place of suffering also has brought me more spacious and happy insights into the traffic itself.

In Bali, I came to see that there is a different sense of self than what we westerners are used to. Like most eastern countries (and like the Buddha’s time) there is a much stronger sense of one’s own physical being as woven into and indistinguishable from family and community. I’ve had many talks with people, for instance, who find it incomprehensible and incredibly sad that my family – my parents, my children – don’t live in the same home compound as me and even – a horrifying thought – live many hundreds of miles away. Yesterday, a young shopkeeper shook his head in tender compassion for me as he sorrowfully offered that he never wanted to visit America if that’s the disconnected quality of families and communities. I think for him it was like imagining a physical body whose parts are severed and then thrown in different directions to fend for themselves.

Traffic, I slowly have come to see, is a part of that understanding. My western mind holds a view that sees chaos because my own rules about stability, individual rights and personal territory are violated. The Balinese, however, seem to experience an intricately moving river and a much less isolated sense of self. People are less concerned with concepts than with their actual relationships: their being-with one another.  In traffic, like everywhere else, all of us – dogs, chickens, trucks, pedestrians, buses, taxis, motorbikes, vendors – all of us have a place and all of us are part of a vibrant whole. There are (different) rules but they have less to do with self-centered concepts than with practical awareness and presence. Pay attention. What’s happening?  What’s needed?

Even more deeply, however, this inquiry – a spiritual one, really – has brought a deeper understanding of how my own suffering rested on the limits of – and my clinging to – my own conditioned views, especially of my western view of “self.” In Bali, I have learned not to make sudden egocentric moves that are governed only by my own personal concepts, impulses or wishes. I have learned a broader sense of self: to consider myself as part of a whole and to make moves that are more informed by all of us at once. The great river of traffic invites me continually to simply notice. How is it now? What is needed? In a surprising way, I have come to feel much safer here than in the US, even when I am out walking and traffic wizzes by me with, literally, an inch to spare. I am confident that I am seen and cared about. I am part of the family of things. There is amazing release. My personal self loses some of its importance and I have a much deeper sense of the organic nature of my own and others’ human life. There is less worry and a deeper kind of joy.

These are, of course, still views, accompanied by not a little ignorance. The mind still sees through a veil of beliefs and opinions. But there is less clinging to view, a bit more spaciousness, more awareness of life (and death) unfolding. There is far less suffering. There is a tiny taste of ease and brief glimpses of an even deeper freedom. It makes me curious about what other mind states there are that cause me suffering. How does this work with respect to anxiety in general? How is it with relationships, with work, with American politics?  How does it inform my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on self and no-self and on clinging and release and letting go?  This little bit of freedom gives confidence that more freedom, even full freedom is possible. At any rate, it makes for a much, much happier morning walk.

” If you let go a little, you will have a little peace.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace.
If you let go completely, you will have complete peace;
your troubles with the world will have come to an end.”

Ajahn Chah   


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