This last week I was out and about on my rest day when I decided to stop in at a coffee shop I had been meaning to try out. I ordered my usual coffee: four shots of decaf espresso with a moderate amount of hot water to make a strong Americano. I always order decaf because I have a hard time with caffeine. It would appear from my reaction as the day progressed, that instead of being given the decaf, I got the real thing. It was interesting to watch my body and mind react to this, interesting but not terribly pleasant.
One of the themes that was playing through my mind as this played out was the question, did the barista do this as an act of aggression, did she give me this coffee on purpose, or was it a mistake? While I do have a propensity for getting all unnecessarily paranoid about things like this, it is also the case that sometimes people do this sort of thing on purpose. (Regrettably, when I am out and about in my robes, there is always the risk someone will take it badly and small things have happened). In the end of course, in this case, it would be almost impossible to find out what was actually going on with the barista and happily for my own peace of mind, I realized that I didn’t really need to know what she thought or intended.
For me, the whole experience of taking in caffeine is permeated with fear (the stimulant seems to go right for my kidneys and brings up a lot of anxiety) but it is also easy for that simple, almost physical fear to turn into a kind of paranoia, like “no really, I am sure they are out to kill me!” and from there, it is easy to get all worked up in an excessive way about protecting myself and all that.
The nice thing about this coffee case was that it was low-stakes enough to allow for the pattern to arise and be seen without requiring me to do any particular thing. To just allow the fear and paranoia to arise and be seen and felt and to get a sense for the whether those feelings felt true, or had the ring of truth about them. What I mean about this ring of truth business, is that sometimes I can be utterly convinced of the truth of some set of feelings and by sitting still with them over a period of time, the truth of the feelings begins to break down in some way. When the feelings of fear that the barista was trying to harm me arose, there was some part of me that really believed that to be true and believed that that truth had some weight to it (like, if that was true than I was somehow due some form of justice in a militant sort of way). But there was also some part of me, maybe a little quieter part, that wasn’t convinced, and I was trying to hear that in spite of all the noise.
Because, it was low stakes, I could just sit through this and not act on the feelings and see what would happen. As the week progressed and the effects of the caffeine dissipated (it can take about four days) and I went about my business, I could see that while it might have been the case that this was a deliberate act, I could also see that my fear and paranoia were based in deeper patterns of my past experience and didn’t really apply in this case.
Even though additional negative feelings can be produced when someone intentionally does me a harm with some form of aggressive energy behind it, those additional feelings don’t necessarily mean anything about me. For example, I could have the thought “that person was really angry and wanted to harm me: maybe that means I somehow deserved that!?!” or some variation on that theme. And this thought would add an extra dimension of suffering to the situation if I believed it was true that I deserved it. If I believed it, it would be an extra unnecessary dimension. That someone hates me is unpleasant and produces unpleasant feelings, but it doesn’t mean anything about me.
Another question that was going through my mind as these events played out was how should I respond, what should I do? As I say, and I want to emphasize this, this was a very low stakes situation; I know that there are other situations where there is greater harm and a good and appropriate response would be swift and decisive action. But because this was a low stakes situation, it presented me with the opportunity to see what would happen if I didn’t take action, at least immediately. It gave me the opportunity to sit still with my feelings and to give them a neutral space to arise and be seen and to experiment with not believing in them so much. By not believing in them so much, I mean not drawing conclusions about myself or the other people involved, at least immediately.
Although it may seem odd to some people who know me, I have been, on occasion, accused of being too passive or of avoiding looking at something (burying my head in the sand) and this may be true. But it is also possible to see what is really going on and to choose to not draw a conclusion, or to choose not to act. We usually swing between too much action or too much inaction and a case like my barista situation seemed like a good opportunity to practice for that middle way, to practice for wise action.
As it turns out, I went back to that coffee shop the other day, just to see what that would be like (I wanted some coffee as well). I didn’t go with the intention of confronting anyone (except possibly my own mild fear and aversion to the place) or even really to try to work anything out (I had already let them know about the possible mistake in an electronic feedback solicited by them with the electronic receipt they sent me). I kind of liked the place, but really, their decaf was sadly not that good and I probably wont go back there. I also went back because I find that if I avoid places and people because of a residue of fear, then I start to get this feeling of being in a shrinking world and I wanted to push back on that at least in an internal way.
There are many different responses to the events that arise in our lives and I don’t want to give any impression that I am suggesting any kind of template for action. Really, I just want to offer a bit of my experience that applying practice to these events can be a real aid in helping us to digest them and let them go through us without leaving a residue of suffering.