The thought came to me as I lunged forward to press the elevator button just as the doors were closing. It worked. I apologized to the one person inside for breaking his journey to the ground floor. Cheerfully, he replied, “No problem. It’s only half today. It feels good to go to work when you’re all done at lunchtime.” It’s 3 days before Christmas so businesses are winding down.
Harmless banter, to be sure. But a statement about this person’s life? To be very sure. He’s like millions of others I suspect, who work to earn to live, but find only mediocre emotional and spiritual reward from the tasks. That’s pretty sad IMO.
Curiously, in the same elevator a few Saturday’s earlier, I was riding down at 7:00 AM with a young woman. “Off out?” I asked.
“Work,” she said.
“Like your job?” I inquired. (It was Saturday, quite early remember.)
“I love my job,” she replied with a small smile.
So it’s not the elevator that causes the grief. Currently I am lucky as heck. I love my work too. It’s a creative activity; visual design. I happily work all hours.
So what better gift can one wish for anyone, besides good health, is that good, rewarding and fulfilling feelings are coming your way each day from your work activity. And that you are surrounded by people who are positive about the activity too.
I had this maxim schooled into me when I was very young. How often though, I wonder to myself, has that life lesson really come back to the forefront of my thoughts? It did today which is why I’m sharing about the incident that occurred.
I can say, quite honestly, I recall only one other time when that aphorism jumped front most into my thoughts. On that occasion I was at my dentist in Palo Alto, California. The dentist came into the reception area to drop off a file and asked me to come in. Also waiting in reception was an elderly gentleman. He stood up and gave a white box to the dentist.
“My wife started knitting this a while ago,” he said. “She chose white so it would suit a boy or a girl.” The box was opened. Inside was a white knitted shawl, baby size. The dentist’s wife had recently given birth to their first child.
There are few moments in life, mine at least, when one is close witness at a moment touched with such thought and tenderness. I imagined the wife of the elderly gentleman, upon learning their dentist’s wife was expecting, decided she must make a gift to welcome the new child into the world. Because that’s what you did in her world and generation. And to actually create something with her hands. Hands slowed through age and perhaps arthritis, rather than driving over to a department store. Old fashioned comes to mind, but in the kindest way.
Today, in London, I was at a coffee shop in a large department store. I was deep into my laptop and registering only sporadically sounds and voices and words around me. At the table to my right were two men, I would guess into their seventies. One told the other he was going home to India for a few days but he’d be back right after Christmas. That was the longest revelation I over heard, but yes, it did raise my interest a little. I was attracted by the tone and mood of the conversation. It was quite gentle I thought. The interaction was decidedly pleasant. The reason it struck me was that so very often I hear back and forth exchanges which are harsh and negative. (Not eavesdropping – the volume is plenty enough to be part of other peoples conversations.)
Now and then my eyes flicked over to the adjacent table. The body language conveyed a caring. The man across from the India bound man seemed a little melancholic and his companion leaned forward sometimes to apparently offer some warming words. The only other words I recall for certain was the India traveler telling his companion that he can call him after the 27th and come over if he wanted company. Not intrusive, but a welcome to a friendly space if that’s what he cared to do.
Ten minutes or so later, they stirred to go. The man bound for India took a small white envelope from his pocket and handed it to his companion. “I got you a Christmas card,” he said, or roughly said. I was moved by the gesture. Me! A stranger. An intruder inhabiting the next table.
They moved off and I was left with my laptop and thoughts. I concluded it was a lesson of sorts. Perhaps I could do more to make small gestures for other people. It’s the thought that counts is back on my mind for the first time in the longest while.
I hope his journey to India goes well, and thank you; from a stranger.
Ever sent a thank-you note to recognize a job well done?
Or filled out a corporate web form to acknowledge someone you saw doing a grand job? I have. I make a special effort for people in the lowly ranks of customer service and the service people who do not typically interact with the public.
The practice was brought sharply into my attention when I returned to London after living in the United States for twenty years. Something new was happening. It happened when riding those wonderful double-decker buses which serve London. Something that didn’t occur when I was growing up in London from childhood through my early twenties. As passengers alighted from the bus at a bus stop, often enough for me to notice, some passengers would call out loud, “thank you driver.” On a very crowded bus, on the same day as a train strike, the passenger ahead of me to get off said good and loud, “Ace job driver! Thank You.” I seconded the compliment, “Yes, thank you.”
I thought this new trait was brilliant and have incorporated the acknowledgement into my behavior — if I’m in the right mood. (I’m not perfect, but I try.)
Thank Less Jobs
In the English language, we have the terms, “thank less task” and “thank less job” which accurately reflects the daily grind of many who serve us without recognition. In my messages and emails of gratitude I observe that, “their dedication and skill should make them a good manager or trainer of others in the future.” The point here is to give a hint and boost, albeit small, to their employer to provide an opportunity for the worker to move up from their current post. Their efforts may otherwise go unnoticed for years.
I slogged thorough the website of a supermarket chain to locate and filled out the form to commend staffers, by name, at the store’s cafeteria. (I changed my reading glasses so I could accurately read their names on their shirt tags. I wanted my comments to find home, so to speak.) I end my message with the true observation, “You are very fortunate to have John or Jane on your staff.” Dedicated customer service staff are difficult to recruit.
I encourage all to make a tiny effort to appreciate someone.
I encourage all to make a tiny effort to appreciate someone. Being noticed and thanked for doing a “thank less task” might make a huge difference in someone’s life. The incidents do not have to be life changing for you. But a deliberate note of thanks to the receiver, well, it could be just the emotional upper which might change their lives.
Thank You for reading.
For examples, I’ve sent:
– Sent an email to Amtrak to commend two on-train staff for helping me find a more comfortable sleeping car room. I received an acknowledgment from Amtrak. And guess what? I happened to see the two again on another journey. They had received my email and thanked me for sending it.
– Filled out a card at KFC to note the super-efficient service of my counter server. Zoom, flash and I had I my order.
– A note to Denny’s restaurant group to note a kitchen supervisor. The computers and all the screens went down. It was Sunday brunch time too. “Ugh oh!” I thought. “It’ll be an hour before I get breakfast. Maybe I’ll leave.” Just then superman took over. One of the cook staff took all the paper orders and took charge. “Listen up, I need two brunch specials with spinach. Got that?” Yep, someone called back. He continued on and the place rolled on. I watched and was immensely impressed. I had to say something. I regret not saying something to the man personally, but he was busy as heck.
This is the final part of this blog trilogy. The trail head of this story begins in a coffee shop in San Francisco’s North Beach district. My friend Shane had returned from a weekend retreat guided by Buddhist traditions. The priceless pearl of wisdom Shane left me with was the insight to, “give up on the task of trying to know yourself.” I explored the maxim in Part 1 and further in Part 2, but here’s quick summary.
First, I took in the maxim Shane gifted me and extracted the gold within the insight so it was purposeful and useful to me. To me it means, struggling to find the so called real you, the real self is not always fruitful through endless introspection. In fact it may not reveal messages of value as often the things that move us are buried and blocked by inhibitions pounded into us in childhood or by the daily onslaught of commercial advertising.
Rather, be alert to sudden, unexpected jolts of excitement or rushes of energy. An uplifting of your spirits. These can be caused by practically anything around you. They just pop up when you are going about life. My experience is that these are messages from my true self. They can be quite small things, not huge at all, but each provides a priceless lesson as to what fires my feelings. What causes excitement. The sort of things which I can commit my time and energy to with glee and never notice time passing.
One thing came across my life’s radar just this past weekend which gives support to my take or “spin” on the Buddhist lesson. I wasn’t searching for it. I encountered it by chance. I’ll share it here.
I was turning the pages of one of those glossy magazines which comes with the Sunday newspapers, not paying close attention. I paused at a page of a one liner interview. Like, What’s your favorite food? Where do you shop for organic bread? Easy to parse, so I did. One the question took me right back to the Buddhist maxim Shane had taught me. The question was, “What unexpected things give you pleasure?” Unexpected is the key here. No prior contemplation prepared the person for the delight. I suggest such incidents, not matter how small, are revelations about your true, real self. The interviewee was Dame Natalie Massenet, a fashion entrepreneur and from 2013 to 2017 was the chairman of the British Fashion Council. These were her answers:
Blow drying my daughters’ hair. Matching luggage. Singing with a stadium crowd in unison. Cycling in the dark. Swedish salty liquorice candy. Getting a high score on in-flight trivia games.
An eclectic list. Matching luggage? How fab! I find color schemes turn me on with a zing. Patchworks of things. Like collections of photographs organized in matching frames. When I was a teenager I came across a patchwork fabric in a shop. I purchased 3 yards without knowing what to do with it except spread it over my bed and admire. It ended up a duvet cover. That incident should have (heck, did) tell me something about me, but I was too young to grasp the significance and move in that direction.
The question in the magazine seems to me a good one and could be used in counseling or development groups. “Think back over the recent past or as far back as you wish, and write down what unexpected things, emphasis on unexpected, gave you pleasure.” Give Dame Natalie answers as guide. Big events, small or odd things like matching luggage.
One point that may inhibit the process is embarrassment about the items which unexpectedly gave you pleasure. We are blitzed constantly with commercial messages about what real men and real women desire. If your desires run counter to the commercial wisdom, one quite sensibility may feel something is wrong and sharing is the last thing you will want to do.
A place of peace
Let me give you an example and I’ll close again on a place. I’ve been to growth and development retreats where some form of meditation is included. Sit quietly, close your eyes and let your thoughts go to a place of peace. The facilitator describes such a place. “Imagine yourself in a meadow. Wild flowers are growing. Nearby you hear the sound of a stream. A gentle breeze brushes the leaves on the trees.” What I imagine is the irritating wind on my neck. I shiver from a chill. However, I unexpectedly found a place of peace one Saturday morning. I worked in Silicon Valley in California for some years. On weekdays, highway 101 is crowded and multi-story parking lots at the high-tech companies are near half full by 7.45 AM. Weekends are a different tale. The valley is deserted. With projects to finish I drove in early on a Saturday. I circled up three levels of the lot passing scores of empty parking spaces. Stopping the car, I got out … and here it was. This place. Total peace. I stood still next to my car and let the tranquility seep in. Sounds from far off echoed against the harsh concrete walls. The eerie, ghostly sounds served only to heighten the peculiar silence of the parking garage. No irritating breezes. Still, cool air drifts in at osmosis pace from the open sides of the ramp. My foot moves disturbing a piece of gravel. The echo magnifies the crunching noise and my torso tingles in delight.
You can see how this could be embarrassing to admit? I imagine a gray, empty parking lot when I need a mental place of silence. Another place of immense peace was when I woke up at three in the morning in my sleeping compartment on a trans-US train. The train was parked in a siding waiting for a freight train to pass. I looked out. I was in a forest. Snow covered the ground between the trees. Footsteps. Someone was awake and moving about the train. All these elements contributed to a sense of calm and peace. I stayed awake for half an hour peering out at the trees from time to time.
In the process of blogging my thoughts on this Buddhist insight, I’ve become tuned in once again to pay deliberate attention to unexpected things which give me pleasure. Some are the same things which have jolted me since I was a teenager. That’s a big message IMO. I hope trilling jolts of unexpected pleasure will come your way soon, and soon again.
This is Part 2 of my blog “Put your own spin on Buddha.” A good idea, me thinks, is to read Part 1 first so this blog will make better sense.
The central theme of these blogs is about discovering what moves me, what excites me. In short, who is “me.” But here’s the rub; it can be quite a disconcerting experience I’ve found, even giving rise to some anger. How can this be? Why should I feel anything but delight when I am jolted, invariably unexpectedly, by a sight or an experience, an encounter or a place which fires up joy inside?
Here’s an actual example. I was at Chicago Union station one mid-December. I had an hour to wait for my cross-country train to Los Angeles.
Umbrella up, I walked outside and stood on the strand overlooking the Chicago River. The umbrella? It was snowing. Grimaced faced commuters hurried into the station. I however, was in a peaceful place. All around me were rushing, agitated people, horn sounding buses and trucks and cross walk cops blowing whistles to arbitrate the traffic versus the people wanting to cross the street. But I was marveling at the snow. Slow motion. Silent. Graceful. And a plentiful supply so there was no hurry-up compunction to enjoy it quickly while it lasts. Take as long as you want. Stay and watch as long as you want. I think it’s the slowing down effect which snow imparts on the environment which attracts me.
Ouch! I said that precisely the wrong way didn’t I. Let me turn that around. My psyche, my senses, for what ever reason, respond to snow and snow fall by creating a sense of well being and calmness. I didn’t have to think about it or engage in any lengthy aforethought. My biology just responds that way. No other way to say it I think, than to say, “this is me.”
Now that moment of, of, of what? Insight? Discovery? I can’t find one word so I offer a narrative: I am a student, and my senses are the perceiver which periodically sends out a sensuous charge of pleasure. The charge says, whatever is happening out there in the world, wherever I am, whatever I am experiencing is causing a very special delight for me. Please take note of this moment…if you wish. I’d enjoyed being among snow before, but the message, the sense perception charge, never made it’s awareness heard so clearly and strongly until that day in Chicago.
I said earlier these discoveries can be disconcerting. I think this arises from a conflict between, “I thought I was a sunshine and beach kind of person” versus, “Wow, I actually experience a calming and warming sense of well being from quiet, unassuming snowfall.” And to think I saved up and spent five days in Barbados where I had an OK time but tell everyone is was the greatest vacation I’d ever taken. Maybe a dash of anger creeps in. Anger at yourself for not knowing what really gives you joy. Another dash of anger at being a sheep to one of the most pernicious de-personalizing influencers in society; commercial advertising. Buy “this” and you will feel happy beyond measure. Go “here” and you’ll have more fun than you can handle. I have included a link to a short video I like very much like by Sam Harris where he addresses the discontent caused by perpetual product envy.
“There are places I remember”
In Part 1 I ended the blog on the subject of places which have brought me an unexpected rush of contentment and joy. The sense perception message, in such moments, says, “Oh, oh this is a lovely place. Don’t move. Just stand still and look and feel and look and be here. Just be here.” Let me share one with you. And in harmony with this blog the place is somewhere I just happened to go. But once there my sense perceptions dispatched a warm feeling of joy. Sometimes they are a message of peacefulness, other times buzzing, electric excitement.
The peaceful message says, “Stay. Be still. Welcome in the wholesomeness this place is giving you.” Such a place for me is The Paradise Inn, elevation 5,400 feet in Mount Rainier National Park near Seattle. I’ve only been there once. The atrium lobby is constructed from native trees and native woods and native materials. I’d driven up one morning because, well just because. I entered through the creaky front door and my senses responded at once. “Oh! A piece of heaven is here. Stay.” And I did, till it was almost dark and I had to drive back down the mountain road. I had made no prior planning to make the drive up to the Inn. I didn’t even know the Inn was there till the road ended in a gravely unkempt parking lot befitting an old growth forest.
Fortunately for me there are locations which my senses respond to which are much nearer than mountain tops in the Pacific North West. And some of the places are where some people, maybe many people, would screw up their faces at the idea of finding a positive rush there, or where my creative juices bubble and boil to be released. But maybe I’ll talk about those another time.
“You must give up on the task of trying to know yourself.”
That’s what Shane told me. We were having coffee at Cafe Puccini in San Francisco. Shane is a successful artist and theater performer. He’d just returned from a weekend retreat infused with Buddhist teachings.
Let me lay out my cards right away. I am logic and science kind of person. That said, I very much enjoy positive ideas about life and learning. So I was very comfortable and pleased to spend a long hour with Shane hearing about his weekend.
It’s been a decade and a half since my coffee with Shane. Most of what he said has vanished into the fog of time but for the startling exception of that single insight: “You must give up on the task of trying to know yourself.”
I am no scholar of Buddhism so I do not know precisely, or even loosely, what that mandate actually means in the Buddhist discipline. So I arrive at the crucial point of this blog. It doesn’t matter a fig what it means in the Buddhist tradition. The phrase resonated with me as soon as I heard it. I recall saying to Shane in that moment something like, “Oh that’s good. I like that. Say it again.” The key lesson, in my view, is that when one hears an idea or a story that jolts your senses, the real task is to adapt it’s core wisdom to your own personal circumstances.
So what did that phrase mean to me, the non- Buddhist? Needless to say, jolted as I was, I have given sizeable consideration to what that phrase means to me. I came to this imperfect narrative: Whatever you want to call it, one’s true self, one’s genuine self, I found a probing, intentional search did not reveal useful results about the so-called true me. Useful insights, revelations, came about when I was just going about my life. Unscheduled, I would feel a jolt which spiked my dopamine levels. A wave of good feelings rises through my body and mind. Let me give you a real example. I learned I am moved by certain types of calligraphy. “I learned?” How? I was walking along Walton Street in London passing the window of a small shop called the Walton Street Stationers. (It’s been there for years and it’s charming.) I glanced at the display in the window and whooosh! I stop dead and move to the window. “Oh my, I love that letter E.” A collection of pens were on display along with cards with sample calligraphy. Like air-guitaring, I move my hand in space tracking how I would draw that same letter E. “And look at that R. It’s gorgeous.” No amount of navel gazing could have ever disclosed that beautifully written letters would move me.
Some commercial art effects me the same way. So do modern artists who use bright colors like Ellsworth Kelly. And I’ve just discovered the French artist Edouard Buzon. I was passing a gallery in central London and, “Oh wow! That’s exciting.”
Places can also stop me dead. The ambiance, the silence, the view. And they are not the sort of places that constantly show up in advertisements. In the particular case I’ll describe, the sensation was a gentle feeling of well being. Calmness. I was driving on a country road a little north of Edinburgh in Scotland. It was a chilly, early spring day. I took a detour to extend the drive back, then stopped at the side of the road and got out to look at the view. Not a whoosh but I experienced a warming infusion of well being. I stood in the cold watching the sheep in the field and sheep watched me. Occasionally another car went by. I remained there for half an hour. The place, that spot, was so calming I didn’t want to rush away. No amount of meditation I posit would have divulged the insight to, “drive to an isolated road in Scotland and watch the sheep. You will feel so, so much better.”
So maybe Buddha was on to something.
“You must give up on the task of trying to know yourself.” Be alert to your jolts, the dopamine rush, the moments when you stop dead in you tracks. Stop and admire. Stop and just look. Stop and enjoy those moments for as long as you can.
The Jaguar E-Type automobile, actually a mobile work of art, was released in 1961. It’s like seeing a tiger; you know one when you see one. I encountered a beautiful red E-Type Parked on a side street not far from Sloane Square. Of course it was red. The Jag’ was parked between a duo of drab, modern day robot produced people wagons. A statue to Britain’s glorious 1960’s. Sure, you can see them at collectors shows, but seeing one parked on the street, someone’s everyday run around, was a moment for me to pause. A moment to admire and wonder what events and parties the glamorous classic had attended. Far more than me I expect. But when you’re that good looking and special, you get to go places.