Sense of Self and the Traffic in Kathmandu

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If I am an individual whose rights and autonomy are sacred, then someone else’s path crossing mine can feel like an infringement, even a cause of anger. But what if I feel like a part of a collective whole?

I’m spending a week in Kathmandu. I’m visiting temples, stupas, sitting among the monkeys and stray dogs and sacred cows as bodies are cremated into the river, and receiving blessed popcorn from the monks at Boudhanath at sundown. This is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in exile and of Nepali Buddhism, co-existing with Hinduism. Meditating at the temples and stupas, carried along by the collective energy of the place, has been uplifting. However I think I have learned the most from the traffic.

The traffic-flow in Kathmandu is a contradiction in terms. It’s appalling. It’s not just that it crawls into a standstill a thousand times within a short distance, there are also no lanes or apparent regulations applicable – apart from the occasional appearance of a couple of guys in caps in the middle of it waving their arms – so a constant surge of motorbikes and cars weave between each other. There are no straight lines.

Seemingly completely free of external order or rules, the traffic creates its own living organism, an organic, shifting form made up of thousands of small parts each utterly reliant on the other.

I have become over the last few years, increasingly scared of crossing roads. I wait far too long until an empty space appears, somehow despite my rational thinking, my nervous system remaining convinced that cars will suddenly speed up an run me over. I thought this was just an inevitable part of me getting older and more anxious about things.

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Here though, where if you waited for a space to appear you would wait until midnight, I just move into the traffic on my own two feet and make my way where I want to go. I obviously am very aware, but I feel no fear.

This is clearly not theoretical. You can’t fool your nervous system that way. I am actually at ease here in this honking chaotic mass of traffic, even where in this case my rational mind is saying ‘this is insane, there must be an awful lot of casualties’. I think my rational mind is right there, statistically speaking, although maybe in the context of all the potential incidents occurring each second the actual rate is low. Because the rule of the road is clear – we all want to get somewhere, and no-one particularly wants to die today or kill anybody else. And the main shock for me is that there appears to be a stunning lack of aggression, considering this situation where everyone wants to get somewhere and no-one is making any great progress.

Everyone blares their horn but more in the sense of information than as an act of aggression towards anyone else. When I think of ‘road rage’ back at home it makes me laugh. People are so self-important, this constant sense of me getting to where I need to go and other people being impediments to that. And worse – impediments that deserve punishment for their very existence in my way.

It does seem to be linked to basic assumptions built into the cultural and religious world view. If I am an individual whose rights and autonomy are sacred – including that right to get to where I need to go at a speed of my choosing – then someone else’s path crossing mine or their lack of consideration becomes both an infringement of a human right, and a personal attack, both justified causes of anger. Or so the default reasoning runs.

On the other hand if I am a part of a collective whole, I have a basic trust that it is all going to work, everyone will get more or less where they are going, more or less on time. This experience of a basic trust in a collective self, or a collective wisdom, or an organic, natural state, that kicks in when I set off along the road in the filthy honking chaotic stream of it, is an experience, for my nervous system, and maybe my soul, of extreme relief.

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