Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Do You React or Respond?

Today  I needed  a couple of photocopies to experiment on some image transfer techniques so I walked over to a nearby repro-graphics centre.  The young man at the counter looked very hip.  He had a purple shirt on with grey pinstripe pants and white shoes and a white belt.  He clearly had disdain for the minimum wage job he was working.  He was, shall we say indifferent to me and my requests, not so much rude, as bored and uninterested.

In the past I might have responded in kind, feeling somewhat insulted by his attitude but it has become part of my practice to notice such behaviour and rather than to react to it, to try to respond with kindness and caring.  I had asked for copies  on tracing paper which  a coworker promptly told him he couldn't  do.  When I said I had specifically called  a few days earlier and was told they would do it, so they proceeded with my request.  After he'd tried a few copies, came back for more tracing paper, gotten mixed up about how many copies of what he needed to do, I asked off handedly if it was an aggravating process.  For some reason this seemed to diffuse the situation and he completed the job, almost in good cheer, gave me a gazillion copies for 92 cents and offered an invoice and smiled.

It was an interesting exchange.  We both left the situation in a good frame of mind (no new unpleasant residue or karma created) and carried on with our respective days.  I find this scenario is repeated often in shops and restaurants where people are not particularly happy with their work situations.  Sometimes they respond with kindness and perk up when I make a little chit chat and sometimes not.  But always I know I have tried to meet them as a human being, not a server, not an object, and I have made an attempt to add a smidge of brightness to the day.

I did not come by this skill naturally.  I would regard myself as a polite Canuck but if a server was surly or rude, in the past I might have taken it personally and reacted by not being friendly back.  Isn't that what most of us do?  But taking my friend the Buddhist monk out on errands was especially instructive at first.  She always makes chit chat and even asks people's names and about their lives.  She is genuinely interested and goes out of her way to connect with them.  And it has been such an education to watch the grumpiest restaurant server warm to this treatment.  It is amazing to watch the transformation.  And kind of fun.  Now I am not her  and don't do the name or family question thing as it doesn't feel comfortable to me.  We need to make these things our own.  I am more likely to make a silly comment or tell about something related I have heard or seen, if it seems appropriate.  I adapt it my quieter, less outgoing self, still stretching further than has been my habit.

What you learn is that really the surly or indifferent behaviour is not personal and on some level people are suffering when they are grumpy or rude.  If we can spread a little good will by our simple choice to respond with compassion and kindness in the smallest situation then we have added something to the world.  We have made it a slightly friendlier place.  And we feel better for it.  We have not fallen victim to our own self centred "reacting", our self cherishing stance of "how dare you not treat me as the centre of the universe."  We are in control  and we are free when we respond with conscious choice rather than react with habitual tendencies.  We are not dragged around by our emotions.  And it gets to be a fun game or a new habit.  

We let someone in the traffic line, pop a coin in the expired parking meter .  We choose to express our sense of community, our recognition that we are all in the same leaky boat together, in small ways everyday.  We don't need to wait to do works of great philanthropy, we can start with grumpy Mrs. Smith down the street.  Maybe no one has spoken a pleasant word to her in 50 years because she grumbles at everyone.   Sometimes it's the little things that count.  A small gesture of kindness can brighten someone's day.  So perhaps it seems obvious, or not like the Dharma at all, but really that's how we aim ourselves in the direction of  enlightenment, one action at a time.

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