My hands went numb. My body went cold. My breath turned shallow.
I was on the parkway, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. With nothing but a sea of red brake lights ahead, a single thought bounced around my brain: how could an ambulance possibly reach me?
White-knuckled, sweaty yet cold, I had arrived at my unintended destination: Panic Attack.
At the moment, during this unprovoked traumatic moment, my brain re-wired, rendering me unable to drive any distance out of an unfounded fear of being trapped and unreachable if I needed medical attention. It was a fucked up and disconnected thought.
Thankfully, through years of cognitive behavior therapy, I corrected my flawed thinking and got it back to a stable and rational place. And while I thank a good therapist and a strong wife for helping me through, there was another source of support who came to my aid during these dark times. Thich Nhat Hanh.
The late great Zen Buddha master taught me to retrain my mind by embracing mindfulness, even when it came to gridlock. By treating every brake light and stop sign and red light as a blessing–you get a moment to relax, take a deep breath, and feel grateful. Wow.
It was a proverbial flipping of the script. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade! At first, the exercise felt futile. But over time, this thought-swapping exercise became a type of entrainment. See a red light and smile. Simple.
Dare I even say that I no longer dread traffic but even look forward to it on occasion!?
I owe this lesson to Thich Nhat Hanh.
“The red light is a bell of mindfulness. We may have thought of it as an enemy, preventing us from achieving our goal. But now we know the red light is our friend, helping us resist rushing and calling us to return to the present moment where we can meet with life, joy and peace. Even if you are not the driver, you can help everyone in the car if you breathe and smile.” – TNH
Hahn’s books on anger and happiness and even sitting helped me gain clarity during difficult times, and they still put me into a healthier state of mind today.
There are very few people on this planet that I have ever looked up to. Respected. Revered. Sure, there are artists and people in my life that have had influence, but the impact of a Buddhist monk 4,000 miles away is unrivaled.
Thich Nhat Hanh will be missed but never forgotten.