Chinese New Year and I was invited by my mother to eat and celebrate with a bunch of her party people. I knew some of the dinner guests, but not all of them.
One woman, whom I had not met before, was rubbing most of us the wrong way. She was there with her husband and two kids, ages 14 and 12. By the end of dinner she manage to alienate each of her family members and everyone else at the table. It felt like a shooting gallery for her.
For example, I was engaged in a conversation with the guy next to me, when all of a sudden the annoying woman interrupted everyone to say, "do you know the rule about putting your elbows on the table?"
We all stared blankly at her. I took my elbows off the table and then noticed that half of us had elbows on the table. I put my elbows back on the table.
"You're not supposed to do that."
"Oh, OK," someone cocked his head and mumbled. Then we resumed our discussions, actually having lost track of what we were talking about before.
"REALLY. It's bad manners to put your elbows on the table," she insisted. "Would you teach your kids to do that?" Whoa! I felt a twitch of annoyance, blindsided by a sudden pang of guilt as her rebellious teenagers sat there mute. I could see the cheekiness in their eyes. Their elbows were off the table.
I don't have kids, but I can imagine that they are like mirrors of your own karma, glaring at you like spotlights every time you have the courage to look. A person could lose her mind trying to get that under control.
A few days later, in the middle of my meditation, I found myself ruminating about Mrs. Table Manners. Ten minutes of my sitting practice was consumed by stories of me putting her in her place and saving the table from the train wreck of party fouls that she continued to unleash on us throughout dinner.
The reason I'm writing about this is to admit that Buddhism and mediation haven't stopped me from getting annoyed with people. What practice has done is to help make me much more aware of my irritation.
When my mind is sharpest, I watch the irritation unfold step by step. The irritation doesn't catch me off guard like it used to. This means i'm less likely to behave in such a way that I plant seeds of karma to painfully burn the hair off my toes in days to come. I can still be cheeky. I can still call people out. But the aim is to do these things with compassion, in a way that invites awakening rather than depression, for me and for others.
The other thing worth mentioning is that irritation can be a useful thing. I'm constantly reminded of Chogyam Trungpa's words, "irritation is the vanguard of basic goodness." When I sat on the cushion noticing that my meditation practice had been hijacked by storylines of vengeance and indignation about Ms. Table-Mannerosaurus, I realized I had the perfect opportunity to practice gentleness, letting-go and compassion. When the meditation bell rang as the cue for me to start Tonglen, I took the opportunity to lean in and practice.