Shortly before the pandemic began, I had a bad day. I hadn’t been feeling well for a few days, and maybe that set the stage. First thing the prior morning I discovered that I couldn’t send text messages from my phone, which was old and dying. It looked like they had sent, but they never went through, so communicating with a friend got all screwed up. Later that day, I had to take a bus from New York City, where I was living, to New Jersey, and even though I pressed the buzzer for my stop like I had done countless times in the past, the driver drove right past the stop and then was grumbly when I asked him to stop. He snapped that I needed to press the buzzer several times in order for him to hear it, and I should have known that (even though that had never happened before). On the way home that night when I wasn’t feeling well and was very tired, I had to wait around 20 minutes for a subway, which was way longer than usual. When I finally got home, I was in a pretty bad mood.
The next morning, after just a few hours’ sleep, I had an appointment early with one of my teachers. It takes three subway trains and well over an hour to get to him, so I leave very early and stop for coffee beforehand. That day, on the heels of the prior day when quite a few things had gone wrong and when I still wasn’t feeling well, the trains took me close to my stop, but then suddenly without warning or any explanation, just went out of service, and I had to get off the train and wait a very long time for the next train. I finally got to my stop and went to Starbucks. I ordered a coffee and asked the guy to fill it up because I don’t use milk. I was looking forward to the coffee—sitting for half an hour or so quietly, drinking something I really enjoy and preparing for a session with my teacher, which is usually pretty intense. I opened the lid of the coffee cup, and I saw that the cup was only filled about two-thirds of the way, leaving tons of room for milk.
Well, that was just too much for me at that moment. There had been too many things over the prior day or so that hadn’t worked out the way I felt they were supposed to, and I lost it, inside. On the outside, I just sat there quietly. But inside I was raging—I kept looking at the cup in disbelief, even in despair. It’s not like I hadn’t asked clearly for what I wanted, just like I had pressed the buzzer on the bus the day before, and just like the indication on my phone that my text messages had been sent. Of course I knew that I could have gone up and asked the man to fill the cup up, and I knew he would have done so happily, and he would probably even have given me a coupon for a free coffee next time to say sorry, which is something Starbucks usually does. But in that moment I felt completely defeated, and I could not move. For some reason, the universe just didn’t want to let me have what I needed and wanted, and I felt like it hadn’t given me anything for days. I actually got pretty emotional. I sat there watching myself cycle through rage, grief, frustration, despair, and more, and every time my eyes fell on the partly empty cup, the emotions surged again.
I knew the issue of how much coffee was in the cup was itself utterly trivial, but I could not shake the turmoil I was feeling. I closed my eyes, deepened my breathing, and asked myself—if it’s not the coffee that’s bothering me, what exactly is it? I placed my attention on my breath and sat for just a few moments, and then I saw that the real issue was how intensely I was attached to a certain way that things were supposed to be, and that that is what had been bothering me since the day before. And somehow, suddenly, I just gave up. I saw that the entire “problem” was that I was unconsciously insisting that I knew how things should be and how things should work out, and that that simply is not the way the universe works. Holding on to the illusion that I get to decide how things work—even relatively simple things that one could argue really ought to work—was making me suffer.
After a few minutes of sitting with that realization, I saw that the partially-filled coffee cup had not defeated the real me; it only defeated the me who thought he was in charge or who thought he had a say in how things turned out. In fact, I saw that the universe moves according to its own intelligence, and the only real choice I get to make is (1) to align myself with it, whether I like it or not; or (2) to fight against it by digging my heels in and insisting that the universe align itself with my desires. I realized that since I was a kid I had tricked myself into thinking that I have some control over my life, because so often things have actually turned out the way I arranged them. But that was a fiction, and it had always been a fiction. When things had turned out the way I wanted them to, that was because the universe and I had been aligned on that issue, whether I had thought of it that way or not.
In that moment, I surrendered the fight, and since then, I have actually found myself much more peaceful and contented than I was before. It’s like I can see a me who is very different from the me I thought I was. I’m still discovering precisely who that new me is, but I do know what that me isn’t, and it certainly isn’t someone who needs the trains to run on time or for coffee cups to be filled just so.