Last week my compassion was put to the test. People have often asked me if it really works. They know I research and practice compassion, but they are skeptical that compassion changes anything. I've heard others say "compassion sounds all lovely and everything, but when the rubber hits the road, does it really grab?"
Where the rubber hits the road
Well, last week the rubber was indeed on the road when I noticed the flashing blue and red lights in my rear-view mirror. I was puzzled, to say the least. I knew I had not been speeding, as photo radar is common on this stretch of Deerfoot Trail where the speed is 100km/h and then increases to 110km/h. I was on my way home with my son, who had just had a play-date at one of the activity centres near the airport. It had been a fun morning, however, the lightness in my mood dissipated as I pulled to the side of the road, wondering what was up.
I retrieved my license and insurance papers from my wallet as I waited for the officer to run my plates and eventually approach the vehicle. My heart started to beat a little faster with each passing minute. Since getting my license at 16, this is only the second time I have ever been pulled over and memories of the first time still stung. I sat there thinking about every detail. I realized I could not reach my registration in the glove box without undoing my seat belt, and so I waited to do that after the officer could confirm I was indeed wearing it. I confirmed that my cel phone was still safely tucked in my purse and had not slipped out on the seat when I retrieved my documents. I was conscious that my son would observe this impending interaction and start to form his own relationship with law enforcement. I took a deep breath.
Two officers approached the vehicle. The lead officer announced that they had pulled me over today for an unsafe lane change. The only detail given was that the vehicle I pulled in front of had to swerve. I was informed that it was standard procedure under new legislation that every driver pulled over must provide a breath sample. As the officer struggled with the plastic wrapping on the straw, she seemed flustered. I reassured her that it was okay. I note looking back that this was not calculated, but almost automatic, an indication of habitual compassion, the recognition of her struggle and my genuine desire for her not to struggle. I was hopeful that they would rule out intoxication, give me a warning, and we would all be on our way. This stop had served its purpose, they would know I was not impaired and I had a heightened awareness of how I approach every lane change.
The officers returned to their vehicle. I replayed the events of the last 10 minutes in my mind. I had merged into the centre lane to move around a transport truck that was not up to highway speed. While I was travelling in the centre lane, the speed limit increased to 110km/h and I had accelerated to match the surrounding traffic. Then once past the truck, I had moved back into the curb lane so I would be ready for the off-ramp to Stoney Trail. I was sure I had signalled, and I had been conscious of my speed. I know I shoulder-checked because I remember being glad to have been wearing my lighter jacket as the hood on my heavier coat gets in the way sometimes. Moving left, I recalled a white vehicle approaching in the centre lane. I estimated they were travelling at the same speed I was and that there was room for me to enter the lane in front of them. Moving right, I was in front of the transport truck I had passed. Had I cut it too close? Did one of them not see my signal? Did my blind-spot monitors go off and I didn’t register that warning? I felt terrible that I had potentially made another driver feel unsafe. I exhaled my intention, my aspiration that they would not be shaken. This, like my response to the officer, was again habitual, automatic. I have worked to lay down these patterns of being aware and responding with compassion through practices of cultivating awareness and empathic attunement.
The officers re-approached the vehicle. I could see in my mirror that the lead officer carried not only my documents but also the yellow strip of paper that was a ticket. Uggh! It was like a punch in the gut. A ticket! She explained I was being ticketed for the unsafe lane change and referred to my options detailed on the reverse. And with that, they returned to their vehicle. It all happened so fast. I didn’t even have an opportunity for clarification.
The anxiety that was bubbling inside me in the past 20 minutes started to gush through my body. Anger and frustration and shame swirled as I processed the penalty before me. How subjective was the officer’s assessment of the situation? Why didn’t the other driver slow down to let me in if they judged it was too close? I had no malintent. Was a $233 ticket really commensurate with the violation detailed? Where were the details, what exactly happened? Is a clean driving history not worth some grace? Did being cooperative not count for something? How could this happen to me? Why me? Thoughts flooded my mind, one after another. There was nothing mindful about this mental turbulence and the accompanying physical distress.
“These are the moments when what I research and teach and practice need to be effective.”
And for me, this is where it counts. These are the moments when what I research and teach and practice need to be effective. And so, I needed to tame the turbulence. Parked at the side of the road, I put my face in my hands. I needed to shut out the cars whizzing by on my left, the flashing lights still parked behind me, my son sitting in the back seat observing how this all unfolds. Then I began to breathe. I focused on the sensation of the breath moving in through my nostrils and out through my mouth. I breathed in the metaphorical grey cloud that had accumulated. I visualized transformation, the warmth of my body evaporating the cool dampness to exhale warm air, golden light. I breathed in and out, in and out, the rhythm of my breath slowing, lengthening, my body relaxing, the thoughts jumping from detail to detail settled into this moment and the task at hand. It was time to pull back into traffic and head home.
Arriving at compassion
I continue to reflect on what happened last weekend. I am still frustrated by the events that unfolded. Breathing doesn’t erase reality, but it does give you perspective. This, for me, is where compassion is solid and strong, not light and fly-away. I wish the officer had seen my humanity and not issued me a ticket. And yet, I see her as a person doing her job, a job that is full of unknowns and challenges. I have compassion for her, even though her actions caused suffering for me. I wish that the other driver had been affected and reacted differently. And yet I acknowledge that my decisions informed their decisions. I have compassion for them because being cut off can cause the suffering of anger and fear, which are not things we aspire to as humans. I wish that I had simply stayed tucked in behind the vehicle I sought to pass and not changed lanes. I wish that I had been more careful, more cautious in my actions. And yet I can have compassion for myself. Self-compassion in these circumstances is to acknowledge I might have made a mistake and treat my traffic-ticketed-self with the same care that I would a friend in the same situation. My compassion for others does not preclude this self-compassion.
Furthermore, my acts of self-compassion also includes showing up at the courthouse on the date required to tell my side of the story and gain further understanding about what actually happened. For me, this action addresses my suffering, that of feeling ticketed unfairly based on my recollection of events. I am open to the possibility that I did make a mistake. Having clarity transforms the feeling of injustice. Compassion does not mean shrinking away but rather the strength of leaning into the suffering and engaging its transformation.
Creating habits of compassion
I have developed this ability to engage in compassion, even in times of difficulty, through an understanding of why compassion happens and how to activate this natural process.
If you are interested in doing this too, consider registering for an upcoming Compassion Cultivation Training. The next program in Calgary begins March 17. Click here for more info.