Line Kindness

When I walk into a store and see long lines, my Inner Grump says, “Grrrr…” and begins her favorite rant. Are stores in the business of selling? If so, why can’t they transact a sale efficiently, rather than torture me with lines? I imagine evil bureaucratic nihilists in charge of store computers loading algorithms to ascertain how many employees to hire for the average number of customers. The Scrooges set their codes at the “Enrage” level: a cash register line five to eight people long seems the norm these days. I might queue for fifteen minutes, but my mental grousing is endless; a Whiner field day lets loose when I see a line.

I can only avoid the grocery store for so long before I must face the dreaded crowds behind a cash register. I sometimes ignore my Internal Grouch and convince myself I’m an optimist by attempting to practice Line Meditation. Most people complain they do not have enough time in a day to get all their work and chores done, let alone to meditate. But suddenly the universe provides me with a peaceful spot where I am trapped with nothing else to do. I should be delighted to have time to repeat my favorite mantra, the one in the ancient Pali language that Buddha spoke. My meditation teacher assures me 200,000 repetitions will result in enlightenment. I should welcome any forced wait with shouts of joy.

Instead, I feel stuck and frustrated. The clincher is, the kind Tibetan lama instructs me to say the sacred mantra with heartfelt compassion for all beings, not with an attitude of line rage. Therein lies the challenge and the reason I usually “forget” to practice Line Meditation. My Interior Moaner would rather complain and scheme about how to beat the line, forgetting that we are all people in the same predicament.

To convince myself I am a good person (my personal eternal quest), worthy of enlightenment someday and not your common Line Rage-oholic, I’ve developed subtle techniques. After I gather my purchases, I scan the cash register area.  When I spy the smallest number of people behind a register clerk, I invariably see another person also veering toward it. I pretend I haven’t seen that individual and casually pick up my pace, edging into the line just ahead of him. I give myself a mental high five: I won the Line Race and beat someone else to a coveted spot. But another part of me knows the lama would be disappointed. Truth be told, a tiny prick of conscience tweaks me from within. I know better, even without the lama; beating someone to the best place in line is a ridiculous case of Ego Jollies. But the part of me that needs to win is so strong it invades like a Body Snatcher when I see a line.

Luckily, I find other times of the day to repeat my compassion mantra, times where there are no hordes and I can tap into a tiny reservoir of true caring for humanity. Perhaps genuine kindness has built up over the past twenty years, as my spiritual teacher has told me it might. We’re old now, he in his eighties, me in my late sixties. If I’m to see results from my prayers, now would be a good time.

The other day, I surprised myself. As usual, I quickly glide into a good spot in the shortest line ahead of a paunchy middle-aged fellow. I feel my usual smug victory. But my small scruples nudge me and this time I listen and think. When I take a moment to objectively survey my day, I realize I have plenty of time with no reason to steal the best spot: it was just an ugly old habit. Why not give my better self some space? Am I capable of it? This might be interesting.

I turn to the man behind me and say, “I’m not in a hurry today. Would you like to go before me?” Gesturing with a sweep of my hand that indicates the path ahead, I step back, making room for him to easily go forward.

He laughs and says, “I’m in no rush either.” I feel an unexpected surge of joy. My conscience clears, plus something more expansive and welcome widens in my chest area. I open a door to the delicious unknown: helping another if it was needed, accepting my just desserts if I had offended the man, inviting an unknown response from a stranger, something beyond my predictably grasping ego. I had allowed curiosity free expression, a true thrill.

The other day, I invited a woman behind me in line who had only one item to go in front of me and she did. Our 5-person line consisted of a variety of races, ages and creeds, from punk to preppie. Eventually the next person also gestured for her to go ahead. I couldn’t tell if anyone in the line was aware of the tiny acts of kindness committed by others: it didn’t seem to be a conscious contagion. After five minutes or so, the next person did the same. Lo and behold, in this way, the one-item woman got to the front of the line. I was never so proud of my fellow Americans; I wanted to whoop and cheer. As it was, I savored the moment with a big smile and quiet acceptance of miraculous common courtesy. What could be more precious? Other than the birth of my son, this may be the high point of my life.

Although I still like to command the best spot in a line, I notice that allowing myself more latitude becomes addictive over time. I love the inner challenge and the excitement. I’m now a regular practitioner; it’s normal for me to ask someone behind me if she or he wants to go ahead of me. Almost all say “No” with a smile (the men) or a giggle (the women). Once in a while, someone says “Yes,” seeming slightly abashed. But I feel happy as he (most are men) slips in front of me. I know what it’s like to be in a hurry and stuck in a line; even if it isn’t a clock-reality, he may suffer an annoyed, trapped feeling and an urge to get ahead. I understand that feeling. In an odd way, by helping that person, I let go of one more bit of negative compulsion.

After I talk to the person behind me, I become a relaxed line holder, comfortable in my position whether behind the spot I had initially taken or not. My Habitual Complainer cracked open to allow a little kindness. I might even remember to say my compassion mantra.