I recently came across “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”, an award-winning children’s book by Mo Willems. In this story, a bus driver needs to take a break, so he asks the reader to keep an eye on things until he gets back. His last instruction is: “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus!” As soon as the driver leaves, an insistent pigeon appears, pleading to be allowed to drive the bus. The pigeon tries many angles: direct (“Hey, Can I drive the bus?”), crafty (“Hey, I’ve got an idea: Let’s play ‘Drive the Bus.’ I’ll go first!”), bribery (“I’ll give you five bucks!”). As the pigeon persists and persists, and begins to enter tantrum territory, the reader gets to hold the line and say “No!” What a great reminder for kids (and adults).
Setting boundaries is an essential aspect of honest, compassionate relationship with ourselves and with others. I see people as having many inner “parts.” The work of self-compassion involves coming into a wiser, more compassionate relationship with all of these parts so that we can experience a deeper sense of integration. This requires both awareness and discernment. I find that most of us have been in situations that bring out our “Inner Pigeon” – the part that wants what it wants and will campaign loudly to get it, even though what it wants may not be wise or beneficial for us. Just because the pigeon wants to drive the bus, doesn’t mean that it's appropriate to put the pigeon in the driver’s seat. Sometimes the most compassionate response is to say "Yes" to a part of ourselves that we have ignored. At other times, though, saying a clear, “No” is the most compassionate action.
How do we discern this? When a pigeon wants to drive a bus, it's relatively easy to see that "No" is the appropriate response. In other situations, the way may be a lot less clear.
The three components of self-compassion are awareness, a sense of common humanity, and kindness. I find that bringing awareness to experience makes it more possible to see oneself as being comprised of many parts. And once one can do that, it becomes easier to dis-identify with any one part – particularly those that are insistent about getting their needs met immediately. With even a little bit of space and perspective, it becomes more possible to pause and step out of a habitual way of responding to experience. This often brings clarity.
The next time you notice that you want something very badly – an actual thing, or “to be right” in an argument with a loved one – see what happens when you bring some attention and curiosity to what’s happening. Is it just one part of you that wants this? What happens if you simply listen to that want without giving in to it? Are there other parts that feel less invested in having a particular outcome? What do you really want? Will getting that be satisfying?
As for the pigeon, when he doesn’t get to drive the bus, he moves on to a different dream ...