“If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?” – Rumi
I recently went on a glorious, one-week trip to the Florida Keys, where I was “polished.” And by that I mean that I spent the week with someone I did not know very well, and who at almost every turn was difficult to have a conversation with. She was abrupt, all-knowing, careless with her comments and supreme in her confidence that her opinion was the final say on the matter…any matter.
In short, there were many times that week when I was on the verge of allowing myself to be openly irritated by her behavior. But even as it was happening, and even more so now in retrospect, I can see that I was being polished, that I was being shown something, a reflection of myself, – my past, present and perhaps future self.
I can admit that in the not so distant past I would have allowed this person to grate on my nerves, to send me into paroxysms of righteous anger and indignation, into roadside sermons and coffee shop insights, I would have fully embraced and vocalized my sense of irritation. Convinced that the fault or problem was all hers. When clearly, the issue (my reaction or response to her) was mine.
But somehow, someway, on this trip I was able, from time to time, to laugh at my fuming self and the whole situation. As much as possible, with as much presence of mind as possible, I sat back and observed.
And that’s when I had an insight that was both wonderful and awful at the same time: this person was just like me, she was in fact a near replica of an earlier, younger version of me. I can see how in the past I have been just like her. I have been a know-it-all. I have been impatient with slower mortals, I have glibly dismissed topics that didn’t interest me and opinions that did not align with my own.
It was even possible, as this person/mirror was showing me, that I could still be that way.
I have been an irritating person, I can still be irritating and I am sure I will be irritating again.
But in the meantime…
I remind myself that this time, I am being polished, that it will take some hard rubbing to smooth my edges and get the tarnish off, that I have something in particular to learn from her because here she is, in an Airbnb condo with me for a whole week.
Her impatience, her dismissive remarks that halted all dialogue or discussion, her insecurity disguised as arrogance – “polishing! polishing!” – I tell myself.
All of this also served to ask me: are you really calm and centered, even when life is difficult and people are irritating? Or just on your meditation pillow? Are you really as Zen, kind and compassionate as you’d like to believe?
Here she is, a gift from the Universe to confirm if I’ve really got it, sweeping away the hard edges of my practice, of my understanding of my self, stretching my sense of patience and compassion to it’s very limits. Showing me something about myself, about how I am like her and can choose to not be like her, about how I respond is always up to me, about how I am calm and sometimes not calm while being “rubbed” the wrong way.
And perhaps this situation was also an opportunity for me to consider how far I’ve come. To see how I used to behave and understand with hindsight why people responded to me as they did, and to see how I can choose the way I respond now.
How now that I know better, I can do better.
I can have compassion for the person I was in the past and for the person before me now…polishing away with all her irritating might.
And I have to remind myself that it’s also not my job to change her. That if I cannot love her I can at least accept her as she is.
And that is healing for all.
Certainly, I do not have to bestow my unsolicited wisdom upon her like some holy offering…tempting as that may be. It is just my job to accept her, and my issues with her, with compassion.
And then I can laugh. Now I am laughing! Because it was a long week of irritation in Florida which in the grand scheme of things is not so bad. What is important is that I am having exactly the experience I am meant to be having, because I’m having it. And thanks to her, I am being polished to a shine…and for that (and perhaps only for that) I can thank her.