Tuesday, May 11, 2010

...and then the Buddha said, "Put up or shut up."

Dealing with the guests is only half the matter; the other half is dealing with your restaurant. Maybe the problem is a particular jackass of a manager, maybe it is a bar that is constantly weeded, or hosts that routinely triple-seat you. Understand that the law of restaurants is that no restaurant is perfect (and the ones that actually are, are not actively hiring, since no one in their right mind would ever leave there). Know that the only choice you really have is which particular pain-in-the-ass you will have to deal with. It could be a large tip-out, ridiculously belabored side-work, an inflexible schedule, incompetent co-workers, a constant lack of plate and glassware, etc, etc. No one has put a gun to your head and demanded you wait tables for a living nor that you do it at your particular restaurant. You are free to leave at any time. The question you have to ask yourself is: do the pros of this job outweigh the cons? If the answer is no, seek other employment immediately. If the answer is yes, than cease your bitching – odds are it would be no better anywhere else. As the poet Maya Angelou has said, “If you do not like something, change it. If you can not change it, change your attitude. Do not complain.”


How many times have you found yourself stuck in a situation that you're continually not happy with - job, relationship, your own bad habits, whatever - but you haven't stopped it because it's not that bad? You just maintain a low level of discontent: you gripe about it, you complain to anyone who will listen, but you don't actually ever do anything about it - you just keep repeating the same patterns and the complaints day in and day out.

I think it's part of the human condition that one our biggest fears is change. We can be miserable all day long, but so long as that misery is tolerable we really won't do anything about it. Things usually have to be really awful to snap us out of our routine and force us to do something different - it's why recovering alcoholics talk about "hitting bottom." We usually don't change unless the situation gets so bad that we don't have any choice.

Why is this? Why when faced with a choice between the known and the unknown, we choose the known ninety-nine times out of a hundred, even when the known is awful? Maybe it's because even if we're unhappy now, we're afraid that if we change anything we risk becoming more unhappy. That even if we're in a bad situation, at least it's a situation we're familiar with - we're prepared for it. With the unknown we just kind of have to trust that we'll be able to deal with whatever happens when it comes. And I think a lot of us are afraid we won't be able to do that. But think about it - haven't you really dealt with everything that's happened to you in some form or another? You're still here, right? And even if you've made bad decisions - haven't you learned from them in one way or another?

But that's the thing - how much of our lives are the results of actual decisions, good or bad? Isn't most of our life the result of not really deciding anything - of just kind of going along without offering much resistance, until you find yourself where you are? How much of our life is a result of conscious choice, and how much is stuff that just happened to us?

We may not always have the power to change a bad situation, but we always have the power of choice. It's a power that we don't really believe we have, it's a power that we're often afraid to use, but it is our power. If we can't change something, we can choose to accept it, and upon accepting it life seems to open up different avenues. But a lot of times, those things we're complaining about are things we can change, we just don't. Zen is not about passively accepting everything that comes your way - if you can change something that needs to be changed, then do it quickly and without hesitation. It's usually the hemming and hawing that's more destructive than the decision itself. It's a lesson I'm very slowly learning: how to change without having to hit bottom first.


  1. Excellent post, Jonas! Obviously the most difficult thing is to know WHEN to attempt to change something and WHEN to stand pat because that is the right decision. What forever amazes me is that mindfulness training and meditation make this usually-difficult-to-obtain wisdom, dare I say, obvious! Not all the time, of course, but so many things that I know used to stump me, or that I see stump others, are quite clear to me, and that is attributable to simple mindfulness practice and meditation. What's so hard is that you cannot explain this to others; they never understand unless they just sit. It's not about philosophy or logic or organized thought or goals or pros/cons analysis or planning -- just sit in meditation and see for yourself!

  2. It's like Nhat Hanh talks about in "Understanding Our Mind": Our intellect is just the gardener. It cannot do the work of the earth (our store consciousness). The job of the gardener is to water the seed every day; the earth will then do the necessary work and "when we least expect it, the flower of understanding will appear to us as an offering from our store consciousness." Our intellect only gets us so far, the greater wisdom comes not from obsessively worrying about something over and over again but about allowing the mind to settle and letting the answer present itself. However, I have found it's very hard to get my mind to settle unless I have already thoroughly written out exactly what it is that is bothering me and what my options are. Once I've identified that, then I can proceed.

  3. I love that TNH quote!

    > I have found it's very hard to get my mind to settle unless I have already written out what is bothering me and my options <

    Yes, I agree. I'm not of the belief that meditation can just up and cure anything (no, meditation will not cure your cold!). I was speaking more along the lines of the wisdom of really knowing WHEN to act, and having the ability to see through the options available to clearly ascertain the best choice. It's THAT wisdom that meditation opens us to. But to know what options are available, that's what all the mindmapping and list-making is for.

    It was asked of me once what the Buddha taught about karma, with the particular question: "How can you know which decision is karmically best when he teaches that everything is so interconnected?" Initially, my answer was that some things are too complex to know for sure, but wisdom helps us make the most probabilistically correct choice. But now, I wonder. I've seen some pretty complex webs just basically unweave themselves right before my very eyes, make choices easy. It makes me wonder if that is what the Buddha (or any enlightened being) experiences when analyzing all situations for the best (causes the least harm) responses.