That man on the tram

That man on the tram

David commutes daily on the Number 72 tram in Melbourne (Australia), traveling between his apartment in the suburb of Malvern and his company’s office in the Melbourne CBD. It’s an unusually cold and wet Melbourne spring. One moment it’s hot, another moment cold and windy with pouring rain. Most people are frankly over the terrible weather. The local football team just miserably lost the grandfinal to the interstate upstarts. There is constant bad news coming through about the overall economy and growing joblessness (while some selected parts of the economy are booming and the few people in those parts are minting a packet). David is busy reading all this on the news app in his smartphone on the ride back home when he hears raised voices. He looks up to see an intimidating man having a loud, angry rant at two terrified young overseas students. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious instigation for the rant, and the students look baffled and terrified in equal measure. There are many people on the tram but as is wont in such situations, everyone is staying to themselves.

You are David. What happens next?

Here’s what most people would do:

You ignore the man just like everyone else, staring harder at your smartphone, but with one ear cocked at what’s going on with the man and his rant. You feel bad for the young students, and you also wonder about the unfortunate impression they must be forming of your country. But is it really worth intervening? The guy could be a psycho. Worse still, he could turn violent. You have heard the stories about well meaning people who intervene in such things and end up themselves getting verbally or physically assaulted, or worse.

In all probability the rant may just abate, but still leaving everyone on tenterhooks. Or someone may intervene to defend the students and tell the man off. He in turn, may just sit sulking in a corner, but there is also the ever so small chance that it might escalate. He might even have a go at you… and then what?

Now let’s see what happens when you have been meditating a little while (or even if you have been just practicing a meditation for beginners!).

The raised voices attract your attention so you look up and size up the situation – there seems to be an angry man yelling at some hapless people. You are aware of your heart beating a little faster, your breathing unbalanced. So you focus your awareness on your breath and within a few seconds it settles back into its normal rhythm. You sense that the situation is unpleasant but doesn’t appear to be dangerous for either party, others or yourself.

You close your eyes to briefly contemplate what it is you are experiencing (something similar to the Contemplation exercise provided in the Mindbody Mastery online meditation program, see here). You sense that you see (a) two seemingly innocent people being bullied, belittled and intimidated, (b) someone clearly angry and upset about something else in his life unfairly taking it out on others, (c) about 30 people pretending that they don’t see or hear the obvious but probably feeling bad about it, and (d) you yourself experiencing an uncomfortable situation that you are finding unpleasant. You smile, silently wish all these people well, and ask yourself “what can I do that could transform this situation for the benefit of all?”

No thought may come to you, suggesting that your best course of action is to do nothing overtly. So you continue to wish them well, and perhaps even visualize a soft light of healing surrounding the principal actors in the scene in front of you (like the White Light Imagery exercise provided in Week 72 of the Mindbody Mastery online meditation program, see here). Alternatively a thought may come to you, suggesting a sure and simple way of diffusing the situation. For example you might “accidentally” play a song on your speakerphone that suddenly diverts everyone’s attention, and then good humouredly apologise for it. It may even be that a strong thought comes to you to just stand up and intervene (safety permitting!). Either way, you live your truth and go home feeling a bit better about yourself and your place in the world.

Back home you are struck by the synchronicity of coming across this passage in the book you are reading (Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence”) – “Bystanders play a pivotal role in a bullying episode. If they do nothing, they tacitly support the bullying. But research finds that if a bystander says something that makes the bullying seem “not cool” or otherwise intervenes, in half the cases the incident ends within 10 seconds (this does not guarantee an end to the bullying, of course, which makes the intervener all the more courageous)” (reproduced with permission from the publisher).

And finally let’s see what happens when you have mastered your mind and body through years of meditation practice and are well versed with the benefits of meditation.

Again an excerpt from Daniel Goleman’s superb book, Emotional Intelligence reproduced with permission from the publisher (with the implicit understanding that the emotional brilliance alluded to by Dr. Goldman in this case study is akin to Mindbody mastery gained from long years of meditation practice) – “If the test of social skill is the ability to calm distressing emotions in others, then handling someone at the peak of rage is perhaps the ultimate measure of mastery. The data on self-regulation of anger and emotional contagion suggest that one effective strategy might be to distract the angry person, empathise with his feelings and perspective, and then draw him into an alternative focus, one that attunes him with a more positive range of feeling – a kind of emotional judo.

Such refined skill in the fine art of emotional influence is perhaps best exemplified by a story told by an old friend, the late Terry Dobson, who in the 1950s was one of the first Americans ever to study the martial art Aikido in Japan. One afternoon he was riding home on a suburban Tokyo train when a huge, bellicose and very drunk and begrimed labourer got on. The man, staggering, began terrorising the passengers: screaming curses, he took a swing at a woman holding a baby, sending her sprawling in the laps of an elderly couple, who then jumped up and joined a stampede to the other end of the car. The drunk, taking a few other swings (and in his rage, missing), grabbed the metal pole in the middle of the car with a roar and tried to tear it out of its socket.

At that point Terry, who was in peak physical condition from daily eight-hour Aikido workouts, felt called upon to intervene, lest someone get seriously hurt. But he recalled the words of his teacher: “Aikido is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

Indeed, Terry had agreed upon beginning lessons with this teacher never to pick a fight, and to use his martial-arts skills only in defense. Now, at last, he saw his chance to test his Aikido abilities in real life, in what was clearly a legitimate opportunity. So, as all the passengers sat frozen in their seats, Terry stood up, slowly and with deliberation.

Seeing him, the drunk roared. “Aha! A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!” and began gathering himself to take on Terry.

But just as the drunk was on the verge of making his move, someone gave an earsplitting, oddly joyous shout”: “Hey!”

The shout had the cheery tone of someone who has suddenly come upon a fond friend. The drunk, surprised, spun around to see a tiny Japanese man, probably in his seventies, sitting there in a kimono. The old man beamed with delight at the drunk , and beckoned him over with a light wave of his hand a lilting “C’mere”.

The drunk strode over with a belligerent “Why the hell should I talk to you?” Meanwhile, Terry was ready to fell the drunk in a moment if he made the least violent move.

“What’cha been drinking?” the old man asked, his eyes beaming at the drunken labourer.

“I been drinking sake, and it’s none of your business”, the drunk bellowed. “Oh that’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” the old man replied in a warm tone. “You see, I love sake, too. Every night me and my wife (she’s 76 you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench…” He continued on about the persimmon tree in his backyard, the fortunes of his garden, enjoying sake in the evening.

The drunk’s face began to soften as he listened to the old man, his fists unclenched. “Yeah .. I love persimmons, too…,” he said, his voice trailing off.

“Yes.” the old man replied in a sprightly voice, “and I am sure you have a wonderful wife.”

“No”, said the labourer. “My wife died…” Sobbing, he launched into a sad tale of losing his wife, his home, his job, of being ashamed of himself.

Just then the train came to Terry’s stop, and as he was getting off, he turned to hear the old man invite the drunk to join him and tell him all about it, and to see the drunk sprawl along the seat, his head in the old man’s lap.

That is emotional brilliance.

1 Comment On This Topic
  1. Michael Carter
    on Aug 14th at 10:25 pm

    What a great post. Most of the time Anger management can be self taught. But there are people starting from there teen that just can’t control this, and a simple psychiatric help can be a big help.


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