Two days ago I brought my kids shopping. When I was packing the groceries into the car, I accidentally left the paper towels on the bottom rack of the cart. I didn't realize the mistake until I was two parking lots away, so by the time I returned, the paper towels were gone.
I checked customer service inside the store just in case someone returned the paper towels. No one did.
I was angry, both with myself for leaving the paper towels under the cart and at whoever found them.
My first thoughts were, Great, there's $15 down the drain. Then I tried to make myself feel better by considering all of the times that I had found items or money that added up to that amount. Surely over the course of my life, at least $15 had fallen into my lap.
But that was just rationalizing; I was trying to make the sting go away by convincing myself that things were okay, that everything evens itself out in the end.
But they don't. Things weren't okay, yet neither were they not okay.
I had lost some paper towels--not good, not bad. Sure I could think that someone else was now happy with a bulk-sized trove of paper towels in the trunk of their car. But again, that was just another attempt to numb the throb of my emotions.
The situation was what it was. There was no need to think away the experience. I had lost something and now I was angry.
In moments like these--and there are plenty of them in our lives--we can close ourselves off through a variety of strategies, or we can do our best to remain open.
My chest felt hot and tight. I was hungry and irritable. My kids were quiet in the backseat as I drove home. I tried to stay open to the bedlam of emotions, thoughts, and sensations. The Great Way is easy, wrote Seng-t'san the Third Ancestor of Chan Buddhism, just avoid picking and choosing.
It's when we try to edit our thoughts and emotions, selecting those we deem pleasant or appropriate, that we are cast into the cycle of gain and loss. Before that moment, there is only the tightness in our chests, the sweat in our palms, the sounds of the car carrying us home.