Louise Thayer learned how to shift the dynamic of her life—and create different results—from these silent, graceful teachers.
One of my favorite teachers is Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chödrön. In her book, Taking the Leap, she talks about the very real phenomenon whereby our wisdom resonates with the wisdom of our various guides through life. She says of her teachers “If we apply their teachings to our lives and practice what they teach, we can realize what they have realized.” She goes on to clarify: “Our devotion to a teacher has nothing to do with his or her lifestyle or worldly accomplishment. It’s their state of mind, the quality of their heart that we resonate with.”
Recently I had an unexpected opportunity to witness in person what Pema Chödrön speaks of as “quality of heart.” Admittedly it was not with a teacher and student, but with people who easily could have chosen to lord it over a situation, but who instead showed true heart-led compassion for others.
I had the slightly (ok, very!) surreal experience of seeing my first boyfriend and his cast-mate friends in a meet and greet situation with fans of a TV program they all acted in. There was nothing contrived about the way that they confidently commanded the attention of the people who had come to the event to see them. The atmosphere was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, complete abandonment of the ‘normal’ world combined with an extreme felt sense of reverence. I easily picked up on the nervousness of the mostly be-costumed devotees as they waited in line to say hello and have their pictures taken with their favorite characters from the show.
I watched and listened as one by one the enthusiasts approached the area the actors were corralled in, and I was completely impressed by the kindness shown to each and every individual. Rather than a conveyor line, the rows of people felt as if they were part of an inclusive party as the actors set the pace of the day like the consummate professionals they are. Time seemed to slow down as they asked questions designed to settle the nerves of their admirers, so as to give them a genuine interaction that they could go home beaming about. They could have been entirely disingenuous, especially as the long day wore on and the followers kept coming, but instead they chose to display generosity and grace, viewing everybody as being important enough to spend time with in a fun and caring manner.
Being a part of this experience clarified for me that I have often been absent in my own interactions throughout life. In the past I’ve been prone to invalidate my own experiences of living in the moment, defaulting to seeing the times when I’ve managed to accomplish equilibrium as being one-off instances of dubious circumstance. The notable exception has been with the thing that I’ve been most passionate about for as long as I can remember, that is my relationship with horses.
This morning began as every morning in Texas during the summertime begins for me … that is to say, very early. I’m not nearly so opposed to the pre-dawn wake-up as much as I am to burning my flesh or to making the horses I work with cranky by keeping them out in the sun for too long. I was in the process of brushing and saddling two ponies when I realized that my mind was running on fast forward with something entirely unrelated. I’ve happily agreed to write for The Good Men Project on a regular basis, but this is the first time in a long time that I’ve had a deadline for writing work, and I’ll admit it, I was slightly freaking out!
I became aware that both animals were getting agitated, moving around a lot more than usual, and I had to surmise that it was because my internal busy-ness was coming across as incongruous (and therefore untrustworthy) to them. My hands were moving quietly enough as I smoothed manes and massaged legs, but I recognized that my brain was in a completely different place. I paused deliberately, took a breath out and continued, but this time with all of my focus on them and their comfort. Both horses sighed contentedly and settled within seconds.
Fast forward several hours and I emerged from the encounters with my equine friends in a much more reflective state of mind. I’m so fortunate to have had many four-legged therapists in my life. They’ve helped me on countless occasions with what, at times, has been near-paralyzing anxiety.
It’s very hard to fool a horse. When the locomotive of my illogical train of thought has threatened to steam away with me, they’ve been very effective in letting me know it, sometimes more ‘forcefully’ than others! As a result, I’ve slowed down everything I do with them, it’s essential for my safety and for their well being. In my dealings with them I have been clearly shown the need to direct my attention to my own state of being the minute that things start to go awry.
Outside of my contact with horses though, things haven’t always been so consistent. I’ve tried my best to bring the same presence to other situations, but somehow the motivation has evaded me. In other words, I can mostly bring my A-game for them, but when it comes to bringing it for myself or for other people, I’ve often fallen well short of the mark.
I remember with perfect clarity a piece of advice given to me by a fellow waiter in South Carolina. I had taken a job waiting tables at night so that I could continue my horse education, unpaid, during the daytime. It had been a bit of an exercise in humility because the last time I had been a waitress was in high school, and even though I was broke and it was a perfect solution, it felt like such a long way away from where I had imagined I would be at 33 years of age. Putting all of that aside I had remembered what I loved about the job, it was active and challenging and shift work suited me down to the ground.
On one particular night though, nothing was running according to plan. You soon find out in the restaurant business that a couple of mis-timed plates or bar drinks can throw off the flow of the whole service. I had five full tables and the restaurant was packed. I was looking in despair for my cocktails which had yet to appear, when up strolled Bob. Bob is the consummate professional server with a particularly cutting sense of humor, and as such, he had intimidated the hell out of me when I first stumbled back into the role that I had last played as a tongue-tied teenager. At least by this point I think he had accepted that I was sticking around and that I wasn’t as horrendous at the job as I had initially appeared to be.
That night I asked him “How do you do it? Make it look so effortless, I mean?” He answered that you could never let the customer set the pace. He explained that as much as he took care of his guests, he also made it a point from the first time he approached the table, to do so at the pace he intended to keep for the rest of the night. Regardless of how busy the restaurant seemed, or how rabid his customers might initially be for their food, he was always in control of the rhythm of service and his tables absolutely loved him.
I had watched him in action enough to know that I wanted to emulate what he had going on, so I tried to copy his strategy (keeping in mind how I liked to set the scene for a troubled horse), and it worked. I consciously slowed everything down, I smiled more and moved less hurriedly and found that instead of becoming less effective, I became so sanguine about my serving abilities that the nights flew by without a hitch. My customers instinctively knew that they had the room to relax and at least for that particular evening, they had only to enjoy themselves.
My waitressing triumph wasn’t, of course, entirely coming from a place of benevolence! I realized that I was being left much larger tips when I created my table-wide oases of calm. Nonetheless, I was honored to witness formative relationships come into bloom as I set the scene for a place where conversation could pour forth as freely as the drinks I sold to happy patrons. I made grandmothers laugh and flirted shamelessly with the groups of guys who made it a point to request being seated in my area. They left just a little bit more satisfied with life and I felt good about what I had managed to pull off without a trace of worry.
More fascinating to me than my own new-found quiescence in motion was the effect that it was having on other people. I shouldn’t have been surprised that just like the horses, they too came back to their peaceful enjoyment of the moment when I could also appreciate it for what it was.
I’m gradually learning the lesson that I can’t hustle myself through life and expect to feel fulfilled or useful to anybody else. Case in point, this morning, when my old insecurities came howling back regarding my writing; that I’m no good and why would anyone care to read what I have to share and what if it gets to Saturday’s deadline and I haven’t come up with so much as a comprehensive sentence. Even the word ‘deadline’ had taken on its own ominous sheen as the thought train careened down the tracks. Being able to catch hold of its momentum and offer myself peace of mind as an alternative felt like a much larger payoff than any lucrative tip.
I think it boils down (as most things do) to being able and willing to offer up our genuine presence in any situation, maybe especially to ourselves. That, just as with the horses this morning, people are highly aware of any attempt we make to speed through an encounter just to get to something we have prioritized (even unconsciously) as more vital than the person standing right in front of us.
It seems to me that if we want to be decent human beings, it’s essential that we get more of a handle on our internal speed, that we slow ourselves down enough to be in the moment, that we give the best of ourselves away freely and without time constraints or conditions. I can’t say that I manage this on a continuous basis, but when I do, the reward is an integral part of the act of giving itself.
Photo courtesy of author