A construction site is developing at the soon-to-be-torn-down house across the street from where I live. And by “across the street” I mean that, standing at my front door, I could toss a rock and hit this house. Left-handed. My neighborhood consists of less than 20 historic mini-homes that line a single-lane, gravel road, better suited for horse and buggy than cars, let alone excavation equipment. It’s a unique hamlet, an anomaly in Chevy Chase. We’re surrounded by parkland and protected against McMansions, but getting in and out of my sanctuary requires patience.  For example, when you drive down my street and encounter another car, one driver must yield. Two cars simply can’t pass on this road. Throw in UPS trucks, trash collectors and, now, construction vehicles, and you’ve redefined “bottleneck”.

On this particular morning, a large, boxy Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission truck planted itself in front of my house, blocking my car and the entire end of my dead-end street. As I see the two orange-jacketed men standing and chatting outside their vehicle, I instantly think “I’m stuck and I’m going to be late”.  My auto-pilot, well-practiced “I’m a victim” commentary continues on how this is going to unfold and the tenseness begins. I tense my hips. Then my back. I restrict my breathing. I have just flipped the tension switch.  The thoughts and tension (or vice versa) all happen within seconds.

In another instant, I am aware that I’m tensing, and I know I can undo this tension.  Not only do I teach a class called Upset is Optional/Navigating Upset, I actively practice the observation skills I teach. Daily. And many days, hourly. Otherwise, what will be the result of repeated tightening of my body? I’m aware of some of the things I tighten, but there are likely a whole host of other things happening in my body that I don’t and can’t notice.  What do other internal organs do under stress or tension?  What about blood pressure, my ligaments, tendons, muscles and bones under repeated duress?  Are you aware of all that goes on in your body? All I can do in this moment is allow the tension I do feel, these various pains in my body to be my guides back to peace.  What I am in practice is using what I can observe as the reminder to breathe and that I can flip my thoughts on what I’m interpreting. I can switch the tension switch off. That’s within my power. I breathe. I relax my hips, my back and deepen my breath.  In the game of Upset is Optional: Mary 1, Upset 0.

In the moment I choose to be peaceful, I decide to milk the peaceful mood by incorporating another skill (from another class I teach – so handy to have many tools in the toolbox). I “reframe” the story that I’m telling about the orange-jacketed men, standing, chatting and who are now outside the truck that is blocking the street and my car.  The story that is generating tightness is that they are OBVIOUSLY not busy, in my way and they are going to make me late, which will make me look bad to my patient is under revision. Yet another stellar moment of blaming/me being a victim, which perpetuates the tension. I soften my thoughts.  The thought and the tension are the teacher.  Breathe. Okay. New story:  These men, likely up well before I rolled out of bed, are doing their job thoughtfully on this very cold morning and it’s not personal to me that they are parked in a one lane road with really no place to go (the area to park was occupied with neighbor cars).  That feels better in my body. Tension abated. Next time, I could even offer them coffee.

I amble outside. I smile. I say good morning. They seem a bit wary.  Perhaps waiting for a me to start yelling, rushing them to move. Yet, I’m not yelling, not rushing. I say, pointing to the small red car that I’m parked over there, and I need to go to work. They sense my ease, and they tease me about having to go to work (you, too?), comment on my car that it must get good gas mileage (it does!). I ask if they will be here all day, and they say no, just looking for the water lines.  I get in my car. I am still present my deliberate, slow breath while aware of the time and wait for the big truck that moves slowly out of the way.  I realize it’s also trash day, and that since my neighbor’s driveway is vacant, parking in my neighbor’s driveway seems a good place to stay put. Being easy about this situation inspires me to share this FYI. I want their morning to be easy, too. I roll down my window, and let one of the the orange-jacketed men know this, and he thanks me and wishes me a good day. I slowly drive down my road, avoiding potholes, breathing, and thinking that was an example of intentional design of ease. Not a reactive reaction to my thoughts about the situation.  It didn’t come naturally, or instinctually. Remembering to incorporate what I teach takes practice, and I practice. Every. Day. Some days are better than others.  Being aware of my enfleshed or bodied reactions is what I offer to everyone to practice.  Am I spreading ease or upset?  I stopped spreading tension in my body nor did I spread it to the the WSSC workers and they didn’t spread my tension to anyone either. We are all rippling out into the is big pond of a world.  In the game of Reframing a Situation: Mary 1, Upset 0.

Perhaps now you want to know about the situations I have been a big fat zero and upset has had the upper hand.  Tune in next time to stories where I didn’t navigate my upset well, and declared Upset is MANDATORY.  Plus, the how and why it is so important for me to be consistent and rigorous with myself and my patients.