You Never Know (a story about breathing)

Teaching with Dr. Dan Siegel at NYU, April 2011

This story is adapted from Jack Kornfield. I used this short story in a guest lecture I delivered in NAFA recently. Enjoy!

There was once an army general, who had just come back from numerous tours of duty in an active war zone. As a general in the war, he had seen many horrible things — soldiers who came back missing an arm, missing a leg, and some who had to be packed piece by piece into a box to be sent home. He had to make sure his soldiers were conducting themselves with honour each time they went out, but he also knew that every decision he made meant death, no matter which way he decided.

When he came back from the flesh-and-bone war, he had to fight an inner war. Though he saw no actual fighting on the battlefield, and had killed no one with his own hands, he still lived with the weight of a thousand souls on his conscience. He began to have problems with anger — he would rage at his wife for a little thing like a window not closed, and he came too close to hurting his young children physically, when he punished them. With his wife’s patient help, he started to see that things needed to change.

The army general, who once commanded battalions of men, now struggled to keep his own emotions and thoughts in check. He learnt how to meditate, bringing non-judgemental attention to his breath. Breathing in, he took in clean air that would heal his body. Breathing out, he gently released the tensions and worries of his being. He learnt how to notice his thoughts and emotions, and started the tremendous work of dealing with the grief and anger that surrounded his whole career as a soldier for his country.

It was easy for the general to feel calm when he was in a beautiful place, like when he would run along the white sandy beaches near his home, but it was far more difficult for him to be calm when he was out in the city. On his way home from work one day, his wife called him up and asked him to buy eggs for the family. It was rush hour, but the general agreed — the grocery store was on his way home, after all.

It was rush hour, and the grocery store was crowded with people getting their groceries on the way home. The queues were tremendously long, and the general felt foolish, carrying the few items that he was. The cashier would take only a few seconds to scan his items, and he would be done, but he had to wait for his turn, just like everybody else. Waiting in line, he started to get a little bit annoyed, with his impatient desire to get back to the peace of his home.

The general’s annoyance reached a boiling point when he saw an old woman with a baby in front of him. She was carrying a single packet of tissue, the only item that she needed to pay for. Why would she hold up the line for such an insignificant item when she could get tissue from any store with a shorter queue? His brain raged. The general almost completely lost it and was on the verge of shouting at the old woman and the cashier when he saw that the old woman had reached the cashier, and instead of just paying and leaving, was cooing at the baby with the cashier, as if she was showing off the baby. To his utter disbelief, the old woman handed the baby over to the cashier for her to play with, prolonging the delay.

The general noticed himself getting thoroughly worked up, and put to use what he had learnt. Breathing in, he took in clean air that would heal his body. Breathing out, he gently released the tensions and worries of his being. He managed to calm himself down, just simply breathing and reminding himself that nothing was worth getting so worked up over. After all, the old woman had only held up the line for less than a minute. It was a minute he could have spent feeling calm and present, he reminded himself. The general gave himself an inner command, to stand down, to be calm.

When it got to his turn at the cashier, the general smiled at the cashier and said, “Wasn’t that a lovely baby you were playing with?”

The cashier blushed and replied, “Why, thank you! That was actually my baby. It’s been hard for me since I’ve started working these long shifts.”

The general unthinkingly asked, “Oh, why the long shifts?”

The cashier, taking a deep breath, explained, “Well, you see.. the war. My husband died in the war, so now I need to work. That old woman was my mother, bringing my child to see me, twice a day, so that I still maintain my connection to her.”

You never know.

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