Just Breathe

By Steve Fisher

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All photos in this post were taken in and around Hoi An during travel in Vietnam, March 2014

“WTF! Is this guy suicidal?” One day last summer, while living in Bangkok, I’m on Sukhumvit Road, a major artery through the city, and a tall, fit foreigner in gym clothes has jumped in front of traffic and is facing down a lane of cars. I think he’s American, based on the accent of his screams. He’s angrily demanding that the drivers respect pedestrians’ rights by stopping whenever someone is standing in or near the crosswalk. Dude, if you’re reading this, in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, those large painted white stripes on the street are just decoration and drivers pay them no heed.

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This is probably an odd question but when you left your mother’s womb and entered this world, was there a satisfaction guarantee certificate stating that everything would be to your liking? As if to demonstrate the sincerity of this guarantee, did your kindly, smiling mother ask whether you were happy with your milk as it was or whether you would prefer her chocolate or Nutella flavor? What, on the day of your birth, you didn’t get the “Everything will be perfect” guarantee? Me neither.

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In the earliest photos of newborns, their faces are scrunched up in a look of anguish at the cold, cruel world they’ve just entered. These are NOT the faces of babies happily suckling Nutella flavored milk from a warm breast. Alas, the evidence is clear – there was no satisfaction guarantee offered upon our entrance into this world. Apparently, that man ranting in front of a long lane of Bangkok traffic, didn’t get the memo (but happily was unharmed).

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Let’s just face it – life is full of potential annoyances. An endless river of people and things not to our liking. So far, so ordinary. Much more interesting, I think, is how we choose to respond to these daily difficulties. I think our happiness and success in life depend a lot on how we deal with difficulty, so I really believe there is great value in considering our approach to challenges.

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Happily, most of these difficulties are small, trifling even, if we adopt a certain mindset. The flow of these small irritations is endless though and most of us don’t need to cast our eye very far to see examples in our own lives. Here in Saigon, my apartment building and most others have a security guard sitting in the lobby or in front of the building. Typically in their 50s or 60s and heavy smokers, these men would struggle to stop a sweet-talking Vietnamese grandmother, much less a savvy criminal intent on robbing expats. They spend their long workdays of sedentary boredom chain-smoking and watching YouTube videos of Vietnamese pop starlets. Their entertainment choices are of no concern but the smoking fills the lobby and stairwell of my building with a toxic cloud of secondary smoke. How should I react?

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To take another example with local flavor, new arrivals to Vietnam are universally terrified of the traffic in Saigon and other large cities. Day and night, a torrent of motorbikes, taxis and cars flows through the streets. Traffic lights, stop signs and pedestrian crosswalks are rare, and where they exist locals often ignore them. During rush hour or simply when it’s convenient, motorbikes come up on to the sidewalk, drive at full speed and honk at pedestrians to get out of their way. How should I respond to the daily encounters with this sort of traffic? How would you? While the details of course vary a lot, your life and mine are full of these small potential irritations.

When I was younger, I believed that the best approach was to actively confront each of these small “problems”, and “solve” them with the combined force of my intellect and effort. Surely it’s better to confront something that bothers us, I believed. Why would we simply accept difficult circumstances? We should actively change them for the better, I believed for a big part of my adult life.

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Over the course of the last few years though I’ve come around to a very different perspective and discovered an entirely new way of handling these small annoyances. I’ve learned that there is great value in quietly accepting these minor deviations from our preferred state of affairs as just the way things are. In other words, to peacefully accept not only things that can’t be changed, but also those that can but are just not worth the effort and agitation involved. I’ve come to believe that, in the face of these small daily difficulties, it’s often better to simply note them without judgement. And breathe. 

When the impatient businessman on the motorbike honks at me to get out of his way on the sidewalk, just breathe. The young students who make my Vietnamese ice coffee (beware! this is addictive!) at my local cafe never have correct change. Just breathe. When my building’s security guard smokes inside the lobby – after holding my breath until I’m outside – just breathe. (But watch it, buddy, if I smell that poison in my flat, I’m taking it to the manager!) I’m sure you have lots and lots of these little irritants in your own life. What if instead of getting irritated or angry, we skipped over the usual judgement, and simply continued to breathe?

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The problem with confronting even a portion of these annoyances is of course that they are never ending. “Solve” one of these small “problems” and three others will pop into view, like a never ending game of Whack a Mole. In fact, I think that the act of confronting these small difficulties trains our mind to see more of them. The more of this sort of annoyance you confront, the more will appear. So “solving” all these “problems” will not actually solve the real problem, which is how we perceive difficulty and how we respond

At this point I should note that this is not at all an argument for a sort of lazy passivity, for doing nothing in the face of real challenges. We should of course address the big, weighty problems in our lives. The key I think is more reflection and discernment – to confront only the important difficulties and challenges, the ones that really matter.

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Are you unhappy or unchallenged in your job? By all means, make a change. Is your relationship creating more pain than happiness? Consider ending it. Is there pain in your chest when you exercise? Stop working out. And see a doctor!

But when we really think about it, how many of the daily difficulties we all face really matter? Which will be important, say, one year from now? When we pass daily irritants through this filter (“Will this matter in a year?”) the vast majority of what we call “problems” fall away. In fact, I think most of what we call problems is actually a matter of our perception, the filtered lens through which we see the world. Personally, I’ve found it incredibly liberating to just let all these small things go.

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I’m far from perfect at this. Just this morning, when I was crossing a busy street near my apartment, an old man on a motorbike was texting on his phone while making a turn through a line of pedestrians, including me. This sort of thing is a hazard and strains my patience. To all those who text and drive, is your chat really more important than the safety of all the people in your path? As I’ve worked to adopt a new, more accepting approach to these annoyances though, I’ve been rewarded with a more frequent feeling of relaxed calm. And with the rapid disappearance of many of what I used to call “problems”.

As citizens of a very, very imperfect world, I think the key is not to strive for perfect circumstances (or wait for them). It’s to be happy and successful in the world as it actually is. And that’s a world with crazed and clueless drivers, chain smoking security guards, cheerfully inept Vietnamese coffee saleswomen and the endless small challenges in your own life.

When this stuff happens, simply note it without judgement, and breathe. You’ll be amazed at the results.

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