I had lunch by Lake Union in Seattle yesterday with a friend and after driving back across Lake Washington to Bellevue, I had, to put it mildly, a frightening experience! I stopped to get the mail before driving up the steep, winding hill to our house. I stepped on the emergency brake, got out of the car, picked up the mail and turned around just in time to see my car charging off across the busy street near our house by itself! I evidently had not put the car in parking gear and the emergency brake wasn’t pushed down far enough, so it followed the path of least resistance. Miraculously, I wasn’t hurt, nor was anyone else and even my car survived the ordeal.
Things happened very rapidly and yet this incident took on the unearthly sense of a slow-motion movie over which I had no control, but none of these impressions stopped me from trying. There was lots of traffic! My husband, who heard the commotion of my yelling at drivers to stop, bellowed down from our deck, “Stay there!” As usual, and much to his dismay, I disobeyed, running to the street to flag down the cars in hopes of getting them to stop while my vehicle proceeded to cross the road as if it had a mind of its own, rolled into the bushes and finally halted just before the rear wheels followed the front wheels over an embankment.
People can be so incredibly nice when there’s a crisis. Our neighborhood gardener and his assistant came running to help while my husband sprinted down the hill to the rescue and the man who had been the first driver in the line of cars witnessing this entertaining but upsetting event, who led the pack in screeching to a halt before continuing on down the street, made a U-turn and came back to see if he could help. I’ve seldom been the recipient of empathy such as I felt from him. He speechlessly listened to me ramble on in my shocked state and watched me in wonderment with an expression of kindness that said more than words could offer. And this empathy was given even though I had endangered lives and cars other than my own in this process. I have a clear memory of his facial expression and his thoughtfulness in the midst of the chaos felt good.
About this time, I looked at the car with its engine still running and was afraid to get inside it to shut it off because I thought it might rock over the embankment and slide the 150 feet or so down into the nearby lake, adding more chance of danger to the occurrence. My husband, however, has that inborn ability, seemingly limited to men, which allowed him to immediately determine that my car was secure on its perch. He climbed inside and promptly backed it out of the bushes. There isn’t a scratch or nick to be found. Upon later examination, I found a few sprigs of evergreen brush clinging to the front bumper but no damage. What a relief! Even though my car is three years old, it still feels new and I was concerned about damaging it. The adrenalin rush from this experience lasted several hours, but I finally recovered. It was a weird and unsettling experience.
I now have a “system” I’m imposing on myself, with a little help from the men in my life--my husband, father and son. When I stop to get the mail I will put the car in park, set the emergency brake and turn off the ignition! I've decided if I could become a comedienne, one of my jokes would be "You know you're getting older when...you're more afraid of telling your children what you've done than you are of telling your parents." I called my 90-year-old father before I told my 42-year-old son to report this experience. I guess I’m afraid my son will think I’m "losing it”.
The most revealing insight of all relates to “mindfulness”, which I've been studying recently. I participated in a workshop on the topic and learned that it involves being attentive to your moment-to-moment sensory experience in a gentle, non-judgmental way. It is supposed to lead to a deep sense of inner peace and calmness. I must say in this runaway car experience, I was anything but calm. Looking back at my reactions I can see I was in a hyperactive state such as I’ve experienced rarely in my life. But I certainly felt alive and “in the moment”. I believe my emotional brain was more in control than my executive brain and am asking myself if this is a good thing. I think my emotions actually helped me react instinctively and quickly to alert drivers to stop before crashing into my car. They certainly helped me appreciate the kindness of strangers and the incredible resourcefulness of my husband.
The biggest lesson I believe I’m learning from this experience, other than how to prevent it from happening again, is that I need practice obtaining clarity about which things I can control and better engaging my rational mind in a way that might keep me from being overwhelmed in a moment of crisis. I could have been better at realizing the impermanence of the situation – a goal of mindfulness that helps one make it through unpleasant experiences without so much suffering. Awareness of impermanence also emphasizes appreciation of the natural ebb and flow of events. A difficult event may seem to last forever but the rational mind knows it won’t. Increasing this awareness could give me freedom to react in a less stressed way by allowing myself to experience the feelings without so much internal resistance.
My teacher, Shelly Young. M.A., LPC, CAC III, described mindfulness as “extraordinary attentiveness and radically accepting the internal experience NOW”. I had the first half mastered – the acceptance is something I need to improve. She also taught us that external passivity is not the goal; to the contrary, the less resistance or stress we experience internally, the more energy we release to be efficient in the way we function. This is an important point about mindfulness, since many of us picture instead a yogi or monk, meditating with legs folded and eyes closed against the realities of everyday living. The picture painted by my studies is instead related to having tools to apply to situations as they happen, practical tools, easily attainable by all.
One thing I know for sure is that I don’t want to purposely engineer events of this type to improve my reactions. They are fortunately infrequent happenings in my life and I want that to remain the case. However, having this experience has inspired me to have a more regular practice of mindfulness!
For more information about Mindfulness, here's a link to Shelly Young's website: http://mindfulnessnow.com