Training with a One Hundred and Eighty Pound Mosquito

If a mosquito bites you in the forest, does anybody hear?

“That would be hard to do,” a friend said to me as we sat chatting over coffee. “To watch a mosquito bite me and resist the urge to smack it.” She rubs a hand up and down her forearm. “Have you ever tried it?””

“Yes,” I say. “As a matter of fact, I’m trying it right now.” I take a sip of my coffee. “Problem is, this mosquito weights a hundred and eighty pounds.”

She stares at me.

“My older brother,” I explain. “He’s attacking me, verbally at least. And it seems to me that the wisest choice for everyone’s sake is to just let him be.”

And yes, it is hard to do. Almost impossible. The alternative, though, giving in to the urge to engage, to smack him back, as it were, would be so much worse. Retaliating, trying to explain, attacking his weak spots, which as a sibling who he’s confided in repeatedly over the years, I know all too well: none of that would do anyone any good, least of all me. Certainly not him. No, what he needs – what we both need – isn’t my anger, but my understanding, if I can just find the will to muster it.

This happens to all of us. The guy who cuts us off in traffic, then shakes a fist at us as if it’s all our fault.  The family member who unexpectedly snaps at us out of stress, exhaustion, misunderstanding or all three. The guy standing in the coffee shop line who suddenly decides to take out his or her anger on the innocent cashier.  Whadya mean you’re out of American cheese? Are you an idiot? What kind of place runs out of cheese?  I want to tap him on the shoulder and say: a place run by humans who, all too humanly, make mistakes.  And run out of cheese.

Deciding not to react is one thing. Turning off the endless stream of thoughts that play in our minds is quite another. The imagined confrontations, the stinging one-liners, the dramatic playing out of a lifetime of anger, all of which hold us captive in our own custom-designed hell. I realize this as I drive on the highway, attempting to listen to a lecture on CD by a favourite Buddhist teacher on Working With Anger. I hear a sentence or two, and then my focus drifts away to the movie playing in my head. The one that I both star in and direct. After everything I’ve done for you…You’ve got a lot of nerve… Why don’t you just … It is a miracle that I don’t drive right off the road, I am that disengaged from the world in front of me.

Drop it. I tell myself. These are just thoughts. Leave it be. He is innocent and you know it. Leave him alone. Even in your mind, leave him alone.

That’s when I’m able to wrench my attention back to the CD and that’s when I hear this: “Those tormented by the pain of anger will never know tranquility of mind. Strangers they will be to every pleasure. Sleep departs them. They can never rest.” The 8th century Buddhist teacher, Shantideva. I would like to point this out to my brother, but I know the person who needs this medicine isn’t him.  It’s me.

When I explain the situation to my friend, she shakes her head.

“You let him off the hook pretty easily,” she says.

“No, I say, “I let myself off the hook.” I sip my coffee. “I am trying to anyway.” The only way out of this conflict is through compassion, so every time that runaway train of thoughts shows up, I thump it down with every shred of love that I can gather. It isn’t easy, but if I can’t do it, I don’t know how I can expect a hundred-and-eighty pound mosquito to do it.  After all, he’s only human.

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