The outdoor Christmas market in downtown Chicago the Saturday after Thanksgiving—who would expect it to cause suffering? Probably anyone who feels overwhelmed by a large crowd packed into a small space. But my partner and I had been before and wanted her niece to experience it. Laura took the lead, her niece followed, and I was happy to let them choose where to stop. Unfortunately, at a stall with European candies, I made a tactical error. We all three waded through the crowd for a closer look but I turned my head to examine an item for several seconds. When I looked up they were gone. I scanned the crowd expecting to spot them easily as I couldn’t imagine they’d gone far.
But I didn’t see them and as the seconds passed I felt my chest tighten and my jaw clench. More time passed and a roaring voice in my head let loose. “All I did was look at something for a few seconds and they abandoned me without a backward glance! Why can’t I find something interesting without being punished for not following along like an obedient dog?” I am the youngest of six and I was so routinely overlooked that family stories were told about all the times my mother and siblings forgot to notice my existence. My five, six, ten-year old self was standing in that Christmas market in Chicago. She never found those stories funny and she wasn’t laughing now.
You can’t imagine, or maybe you can, how much I want this to be my partner’s fault.But it’s hard to know how far down the rabbit hole we need to go when we try to blame others for our feelings. My partner’s to blame for not noticing me stopping to look at candy, but I’m to blame because I stopped following closely behind them, or is she to blame for wanting to come to this crowded market, or am I to blame for agreeing to it, clearly the people who manage this thing are to blame for poor crowd control, and Chicago’s to blame for sponsoring the market, the weather’s to blame for being so nice that a lot of people came out to shop, and when you get right down to it, Jesus is to blame because this whole thing started with his birthday. Of course, no one is to blame. There are only facts: I am in a very crowded place and I can’t see my people. No one did anything wrong, not even me.
Despite the roaring in my head, I was able to make a good decision. I moved slightly away from the candy stall to a more central space and stood still. Within three or four minutes I spotted them. As I approached, my partner’s niece called out, “Oh, she found us!” The incident ended but I struggled with the feelings the brief separation evoked. Now in addition to feelings of abandonment and anger, I was upset with myself for being so reactive. Wow, was it hard to slap a smile on my face and keep moving through that crowd.
Eventually the feelings dissipated enough or were sufficiently stuffed down that I was reasonably pleasant for the rest of the trip but when I got home I fell apart. It wasn’t just the market. The travel had disrupted my routine—a missed yoga class, no meditation, no inspirational reading. And initially, I wondered if traveling was just something I’m bad at because I can’t maintain the practices that help me stay in the present. Fortunately, a conversation with my coach was on my schedule for Tuesday and her kind wisdom helped me face a deeper challenge.
My ego hijacked me—it took a perfectly normal occurrence and blew it up into a terrifying trip down memory lane. In that moment my partner didn’t abandon me I abandoned me.
In the last few months I’ve thought a lot about the practices I’ve developed. One day it dawned on me why people go to church or read their religion’s holy texts over and over. Practice. We’re practicing so that in bad moments the clarity and equanimity that come from faith are available to us. I sit in quiet contemplation of the knowledge that I Am so that when the world around me and within me starts to fly into a thousand pieces, I don’t fly with them. Clearly, I need a lot more practice. And that’s okay.