Three years ago, I was at a spiritual retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York with the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Master, poet, and peace activist. I can’t begin to express what a transformative experience it was: learning to sit peacefully, gently attending to my in breath and out breath; learning to eat mindfully in full awareness of the miracle of the food I was chewing; and learning to walk mindfully — realizing every step I took — no matter where I was — I was walking on sacred ground.
On the final day of that five day retreat, we were to meet at 6:15 a.m. in the meditation tent for the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are teachings regarding ethical speech and behavior.
Those of us who stayed at a local hotel were to come to the grounds of the monastery in on four buses. I was in the fourth bus. As we were approaching the monastery, I heard our bus driver say “Oh great. This is all I needed this morning.” Looking up, I could see that the two buses ahead of us were blocking the way. One had stalled and the other, trying to get around it, had dropped a tire into a shallow ditch. The passengers on all three buses had to get out. Another bus that had already dropped its passengers off at the monastery, began to ferry passengers to our destination. I was on the last ferry ride. It was already closing in on 6:15 and it looked as if we would be late.
When we finally arrived, we all hopped out of the bus and began to make our way up the 100 yard pathway to the meditation tent. It was still dark and the air was cold. I was walking at a fairly fast clip, hoping that I would not miss out on the start of the ceremony. As I got about halfway up the path, I saw that up the way there was a small group in front of me moving very slowly. I immediately began to feel worried and irritated. I could feel my nerves begin to push me forward. Why were these people going so slowly? Didn’t they know we were already late? My heart and my mind began to race. Every cell in my body very much wanted to pass them. I could see that others in front of me were already were going around. Those people would get better seats than I. They will get to sit closer to Thich Nhat Hanh. They will have a better view. I should make my way around the slow group and go catch up with the faster group. This is what one part of my mind was telling me.
But then I also thought, What if that person up ahead in the slower group is hurt? Maybe they twisted their ankle. It would be wrong of me to take advantage of their pain and rush ahead of them to take their place in the meditation tent. That would be exploiting someone’s injury. Benefiting from another person’s pain. I began to wonder about them. How were they feeling? Were they feeling worried and anxious about all these people who were passing them. What if that person was me? I found that was filled with compassion for that person, whoever they were. I couldn’t pass them. How could I? It would be like passing myself.
So I slowed to match the pace of the group ahead of me and began mindfully walking, breathing deeply and firmly planting my feet on the ground: kissing the earth with each step, as Thay (this is the Vietnamese word for “teacher” which Thich Nhat Hanh’s students call him) had taught us. And as I did this, I began to enjoy the brisk morning air and I saw the light coming out in the early morning sky, and I began to smile and truly enjoy the walk to the tent. My worries were dissolved. I had already arrived in the present moment with love and awareness. How could I be late?
As others continued to pass, the crowd began to thin out and I drew closer to the group in front of me. And I saw then, in that early morning morning light, that it was Thich Nhat Hanh himself, walking slowly ahead of me. And that in choosing to take the slower, mindful path, I was literally following in this great man’s footsteps.
So perhaps the next time you are traffic, slowed to a crawl, and you are ready to lean on the horn or jump out of your skin, curse your misfortune or the person who has caused it, perhaps you could stop and wonder — maybe you are stuck in traffic behind your spiritual master. Because if you can take that moment and learn compassion and understanding from it, certainly you are.