If I made a list of my Top 10 Least Favorite Things to Do, somewhere toward the top would be, “cleaning the cat’s litterbox.” Above that would be, “going to the dentist.” Then jump up to number one and you’d find, “standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.”
I’m not alone in disliking the DMV but I think I dread it more than most. Let’s just say that if there was an Uber-like service that allowed me to pay someone to stand in line for me at the DMV, I would have already downloaded the app and entered my credit card digits.
Sadly, no intrepid 20-something entrepreneur has yet invented such a boon to mankind, so today I had to go to the DMV. I’m in the process of managing some of the paperwork from my mom’s estate (she passed away last September) and one of those things involves her car.
Walking into the building, I immediately noticed a long line of people winding out into the hallway. Taking my place at the back and peering around the corner, I could see upwards of 70 people ahead of me.
“Wow,” I said out loud.
“I know!” exclaimed the woman in front of me. “I’ve never seen the line this long!” She turned to leave. “I can’t wait. You just moved up a spot.”
Grateful to have one less person to wait behind, I stepped ahead. But five minutes later the line had barely moved. This is when my mild claustrophobia kicked in and the voice in my head started talking.
You know the voice I’m talking about — the one that’s never quite satisfied with anything, but gets especially noisy when things don’t go your way.
Voice: This is ridiculous! Let’s get out of here. We’ve got better things to do.
For the past several months, I’ve worked to integrate mindfulness and meditation into my daily habits. Since mindfulness creates some space between our emotions and our reactions to them, it occurred to me that this might be a perfect opportunity to put mindfulness into real practice.
We all have a voice in our heads. Depending on your personal viewpoint, you may think of it as your unconscious, your ego, or just the part of you that reacts without your thinking about it. What meditation and mindfulness have done for me is allow me to recognize that voice in my head for what it is: just a temporary feeling or thought. I know that, given time, whatever automatic emotional reaction I’m having will fade away – even a negative one.
So I took a couple of slow breaths and began a conversation.
Voice: This sucks. All this time is just wasted. We’ve got a lot to do and this is not productive.
Me: OK, good point. But if there’s always only one present moment, this is it. Why should we spend it being anxious?
Voice: All these people are crowding us. Why does everyone have to be here right now?
Me: Right, but check out that guy in front of us. He’s wearing a navy blazer with a red-checked shirt, complete with matching pocket square. And he’s reading an actual hardback book. I bet he’s a professor of some kind.
Voice: That guy behind us is watching sports on his smartphone. Seriously, why are people so rude?
Me: Breathing is a good way to focus on something else. Let’s do that.
Voice: This is 2016. Why can’t the government figure out a way to do all this online?
Me: The line is starting to move faster.
Voice: This is still taking forever.
Me: Look how hard the DMV people are working. They’re actually trying to be efficient.
Voice: I think you’re ignoring me.
Me: Hey look, it’s our turn.
In Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, mindfulness teacher Dr. Mark Epstein tells the story of his visit to a Thailand monastery in 1978. Upon meeting the head monk, Achaan Chaa, an internationally known meditation master, Epstein asked, “What does it mean to eliminate craving?”
After being silent for a moment, Achaan Chaa picked up a glass of drinking water.
“You see this goblet?” he asked. “For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it, I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it off the table and it and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
This is a simple but impactful reminder of how shifting our perspective just a little can make big changes in how we view things.
The difference a little mindfulness makes
After standing in line for 50 minutes, a nice DMV employee told me I did not have the correct paperwork. I would need to send something off in the mail, wait for it to be mailed back, and then come back and stand in line again.
In situations like this, it’s good to remember the monk’s glass. I’m not saying the DMV is broken (well maybe it is, but that’s another story). But because everything is imperfect and temporary, in a sense it’s already broken.
If you pause and separate yourself from your automatic emotional reactions, you can find the beauty in a situation rather than focusing on its imperfections. You’ll be able to create some peace for yourself that is actually noticeable.
How do I know? Because walking out of the DMV it occurred to me that a year ago I would have been a lot more upset about this. That’s what practicing mindfulness can do for you.