Vipassana Mysteries: Honking

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Now seems like the perfect time to write this. I got an early start (7:30ish) to avoid the heat and am already most of the way from Pak Bong to Nong Khiaw. I’m not sure how close I am, since the distance is either 26, 28, or 33 kilometers depending on whether you trust the Lao road signs, the Chinese guesthouse owner, or the Lonely Planet. Or, going by that French girl’s map, it might be about 50. All I know is I’ve been riding for about two hours in just about total serenity. Villagers are walking, cycling, moto-ing, or riding twenty to a truck bed on the way to the rice paddies to take care of the day’s work. Water buffalo are either walking around chomping on whatever foliage they feel like, or standing obliviously in the middle of the road obstructing the non-existent traffic. Children sit around in front of the houses giggling, waving, and shouting “Sabaidee,” “Hello!, ” or “Bye-bye!” (only one “Hello.FuckYou” so far) as I pass by. Just a few minutes ago, I hit gold: an abandoned temple complex with lots of shade, the perfect place to kill an hour or two so that it’ll be lunchtime when I make it to Nong Khiaw.

A few kilometers back, somebody honked at me and I thought to myself, “Hey, people hardly honk here.” It’s true – cross the border out of China, whether to Vietnam, Laos, or even to Taiwan, where everyone still speaks, writes, and eats Chinese, and the honking stops, immediately and entirely. Honking is so rare here that I might entirely forget about it and all the trouble it used to cause me. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that I have a honking-related meditation experience that I’ve been meaning to share. So, here it is. Though, in typical Buddhist fashion, my subject is not the honking, but my response to it. The scenario usually played out a little something like this:



What a jerk.

That was completely unnecessary.

Do you think I can’t hear your giant, stinky, gassy, polluting, wretched truck coming behind me? You weigh untold tons, have eight to eighteen wheels, and are bearing down right behind me. If you weren’t here, I would be able to hear the butterflies flapping their wings. Asshole. Of course I hear you. Honking is overkill.

Plus, what do you want me to do, anyway? I’m already riding on the shoulder. Do you want me to move further over to the shoulder, into all the rocks and pebbles, where I run the risk of slipping on something, losing control, and swerving into your path? The fact is that I’ve already optimized my riding position and made considerations for the fact that assholes like you are going to pass me every five minutes. So, I’m here, and you’re going to go around me. Which you could just as well do without honking. Why don’t you just do it?

Plus, I’m the righteous one here! I’m on a bicycle, working my ass off, because I want to be noble. I am doing what I can to protect the environment, indigenous cultures, traditional ways of life, natural beauty, and everything else that makes life worth living. You’re actively taking part in a system that’s effectively dismantling all of that. Who the hell are you to get angry at me?

You’re probably aware of all this and just honking because you have anger issues. It makes you feel better. You like being in a big truck, able to push everyone around on the road. I really pity people who are so uncomfortable with themselves and their status that they need to puff themselves up at other’s expense. (Subtext: It’s far better to be secure and at peace, like me!) I mean, if I wanted, I could also go get a license, start driving a truck, and honk at people. Would it make me a better, cooler, stronger, more important person? No, it’d just make me an ass.

Jesus, what an ass.

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After this long chain of accusations, insults, and self-justifications, I would often look over my shoulder to see just who was doing the honking. Often enough, the driver and his passenger would have big, goofy smiles on their faces. The friend would be hanging out the window, gawking and giving me a giant thumbs-up.

Or, I would turn around to see that there were several other cars between me and the truck, meaning that the honking wasn’t directed at me, but rather at whichever vehicle the truck was about to pass. I probably wasn’t even on the truck driver’s radar.

Or, I would turn around and see that I was indeed in the middle of the lane. My bad.

Sometimes, of course, I was to some degree “in the right,” in the sense that the honking was purely unnecessary. I would guess that this was the case about 40% of the time. The rampage in my head, though, happened about 90% of the time. This despite the fact that I knew it was useless. My anger didn’t dissipate the pain in my ears; it didn’t make the other guy less likely to honk in the future; it didn’t make him a better driver; it didn’t make him recognize that I’m a good guy and shouldn’t be treated with respect, even deference. It didn’t do anything except get me all worked up for a couple minutes. It didn’t do any good in any way for anyone in the world. But I let it happen, I suppose out of sheer habit.

Then, the day before my birthday, while staying at a friend’s house in a Tibetan village, I did a rare bit of morning meditation. My head was full of the normal battle: breathing, distracted, breathing, distracted, and so on. A truck coming through the town honked a normal, blaring, honk. I continued the cycle of breathing and distraction until a minute or two later when I realized that the honking hadn’t cued the standard mental rampage.

Well, of course it hadn’t. It hadn’t been directed at me. I was here in my room, sitting on a bed, not in the guy’s way. Why would it upset me?

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Had I been out on the street, though, dressed in spandex and straddling my bike seat, I would have taken it personally. The normal stream of pointless, ugly thoughts would have ensued, and I would have given no acknowledgment to the fact that that truck driver was going to honk whether I was there or not. The honking was nothing but a reflection of his inner state: he feels compelled, for whatever reasons, to honk in certain situations. But I was making it about me. The truck driver was offering sound waves, but I was taking offense. Actively, like I had to reach out and grab it. Which I could clearly choose not to do, since this last honk hadn’t moved me at all.

In other words, all that pain, frustration, anger, over and over and over again for nine months – all my choice. All under my control. And, thus, all my fault.

On the one hand, I don’t think this is a particularly deep analysis. As I mentioned, nothing was revealed to me through meditation that I didn’t already in some sense know. Had I seen a friend dealing with a bout of road rage, I could easily have used the exact same sentences to attempt to help himher deal with it.

And yet, this experience has resulted in a significant and long-lasting change in my thought patterns and behavior. Now, when I hear a honk, I don’t automatically assume that I’m the one being honked at. Even if it’s just me and the truck on the road. Most of the time, it strikes me as just a sound. I imagine the sound waves approaching my back and then passing directly through me and into the distance ahead. If I’m particularly tired, hot, gassy (an issue of late), uncomfortable, or otherwise testy, the rampage in my head will start revving up, but it dies down before getting very far. It generally ends as little chuckle as I shake off the pointless anguish I was preparing to cause myself.

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I don’t know what the technical term for this sort of experience is. It doesn’t seem like learning, since the lesson is often something that was already known. Terms like “awakening” or “getting enlightened (about x)” seem too grandiose. “Insight” might do nicely, except that, again, it’s not a matter of knowing something new so much as a matter of knowing something differently. To me, it seems best to say that I came to a sort of “visceral understanding.” As in, I really got something, deep down. Not as arguments in my head, but as blood and bones as flesh of my body. And, finally, as action.

I’m not claiming that Vipassana, or other styles of meditation, is the only way to achieve such “visceral understandings.” I certainly had a few – well, at least one, the switch from knowing that eating meat was wrong to actually stopping eating it – before I had even heard of Vipassana or considered trying meditation. And there are of course other ways of reflection too: reading, dairies, conversation, therapy, and even just plain old thinking. What’s interesting, though, is how often it’s the case that direct reflection on these fails to result in change, whereas simply spending some time try to be aware of tiny little sensations opens me up to all sorts of stuff.

I find that interesting, mysterious, and somewhat enticing.

And yet, apparently, not apparently convincing, because I still don’t do it daily. Or even weekly.

Such a lame ending to an article about such a sweet transformation! Nice shot.

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8 Responses to Vipassana Mysteries: Honking

  1. SHAKY says:

    if I saw a guy in spandex id honk too id feel obliged to

  2. Jeff says:

    Looks like the temple is smiling in the last photo.

    And come move to LA. You’ll hear honks like it’s your job, and eventually you just tune them out!

  3. Niall says:

    Liked this post, Mickey Mack

    HONK THIS *points to crotch

  4. Matt says:

    “What’s interesting, though, is how often it’s the case that direct reflection on these fails to result in change, whereas simply spending some time try to be aware of tiny little sensations opens me up to all sorts of stuff.”

    Thinking mind must become living mind. : )

    Awesome post, brother.

  5. Niall says:

    I will say it again- this post is my favourite on your blog man.

    I saw this and thought of you:

    • Michael Roy says:

      “And then we have another really long sentence that builds up excitement for our overarching concept that…makes absolutely no sense.”

      Pretty much spot on regarding how I feel about most of my own work. Thanks!

  6. Anonymous says:

    mike,i am lizhen .remember? where are you now?

    • Michael Roy says:

      Lizhen…hrm…I met so many people in my 9 months in China, I need more than just a name to remember them all. Remind me where we met or what we did and I’m sure I’ll know who you are. There might even be a picture or two of you on the blog!