Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hey, did you hear about...

And what is Right Speech? Abstaining from telling lies or deceiving, from slander and divisive speech, from rude, impolite or abusive language, and from idle chatter and gossip: This is called Right Speech. If your speech is not useful or beneficial it is best to keep silent.
-The Pali Cannon

I've written before on the subject of Right Speech – namely as it relates to bitching and complaining: something waiters are exceptionally good at. If complaining is the number one pastime of service staff, then gossip and shit talking are probably numbers two and three, respectively. Especially when it's slow, and servers have little to do but hang out in the side station waiting for tables to arrive (and therefore no customers yet to complain about), conversation inevitably turns to who did what with whom, or what an idiot/weirdo/a-hole so-and-so is.

Not that this is unique to service world: gossip and shit talking can certainly be found in all jobs in all walks of life. (Indeed, gossip, insulting and judging others can all be found in Donald Brown's List of Cultural Universals. Shit talking, I think, can be inferred from the other three). Something about the service industry, in particular, though – maybe the stress, the age of staff, maybe the slight tendency towards inter-office “romance” I don't know. What I do know is that it's extremely difficult to get through a shift without finding yourself drawn into a conversation saying something about someone else who isn't there.

One of my latest goals, both in work and in life, is to not say anything behind someone's back I wouldn't say to their face. If I'm having a problem with a co-worker, then it's up to me to either talk with him/her directly, or just shut up about it. Bitching about them behind their back may temporarily help me to “let off some steam,” but it generally only fans the flames of my negativity even more, and further entrenches it, not removes it. Also, I probably wouldn't like it if people were talking that way about me, so that whole stupid “Golden Rule” thing kind of comes into play. [Side Note here: part of all this is accepting that people are probably gossiping and talking shit about me behind my back as well. And you know, that's okay. Lord knows I give them enough ammunition].

It's a tall order but, as with pretty much everything in the Buddhist world view – the proscription is not intended as a moral judgement – that I'm a “bad” person for gossiping (again, it's a human universal), but rather as an observation that the behavior inevitably leads to my own suffering, not someone else's. When I talk about someone behind their back I'm, first of all, instantly creating the potential for the added drama that will ensue if and when said person finds out (which, knowing how waitstaff like to gossip, is probably inevitable). Add on to that, that now whenever I'm around that person I'm kind of worrying in the back of my mind if they know what I said or what would happen if they found out.... But mainly, my doing this only serves to reinforce the idea of separation between self and other, a division the ego loves but which ultimately takes me away from wholeness, equanimity, and all that other inner-peace crap.

But that's thing. It's not crap. It's actually very real. By making a decision not to engage – again not judging anyone for it, because I do it all the time – I inevitably end up free from a lot of bullshit and useless drama. Which, I know, sounds weird – the ego feeds off drama, craves it. I've always thought that a life without drama sounds kind of, well, boring. Drama equals excitement and passion and lust for life and all that great stuff. Except, it doesn't. Excitement and passion and lust for life are all there for the taking, and when you cut away the drama from the equation, they actually become a lot more enjoyable.

All that aside, did you hear about __ and ___ in the walk-in? And God, does ___ have his head up his ass or what?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Parable

It was five minutes till close, and the manager approached the learned server reluctantly.
"I am sorry my friend," said the manager, "but a party of twelve just came in and I have to give them to you."
The server replied, "Who is to say what is good and what is bad?"

Shortly later, the manager returned to the floor to ask the server how the party was going. The server answered that all twelve guests had ordered steaks and cocktails.
"How wonderful!" said the manager. "At least you will make some money out of this."
The server replied, "Who is to say what is good and what is bad?"

Near the end of the meal the manager came by to see how the party was wrapping up. The server answered that all twelve guests demanded separate checks.
"How awful!" said the manager. "You will be here another twenty minutes just sorting this out."
The server replied, "Who is to say what is good and what is bad?"

After the guests had finally gone, the manager asked how everything ended up. It turned out that because of the separated checks, the guests had not noticed the included gratuity and had left extra.
"That is great!" said the manager. "You made some real money. What good fortune!"
"Who is to say what is good and what is bad?" replied the server.

"Shut the hell up," said the manager.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Polish the silverware to polish the silverware..."

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly:

Why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that's precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I'm being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There's no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves....

There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not "washing the dishes to wash the dishes." What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus, we are sucked away into the future -- and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.


I remember a number of years ago, when [my friend] Jim and I were first traveling together in the United States, we sat under a tree and shared a tangerine. He began to talk about what we would be doing in the future. Whenever we thought about a project that seemed attractive or inspiring, Jim became so immersed in it that he literally forgot about what he was doing in the present. He popped a section of tangerine in his mouth and, before he had begun chewing it, had another slice ready to pop into his mouth again. He was hardly aware he was eating a tangerine. All I had to say was, "You ought to eat the tangerine section you've already taken." Jim was startled into realizing what he was doing.

It was as if he hadn't been eating the tangerine at all. If he had been eating anything, he was "eating" his future plans.

--Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness


With each spoon polished in mindfulness, the Buddha smiles.

 --Zen and the Art of Waitering

In all my time as a server, I've never been a fan of banquet service. I know a lot of waiters who vastly prefer it to the normal grind – there are set menus, not a lot of guest interaction, and it's usually not quite as hectic as just running a normal station. The main reason I've always shied away from it is that much of it consists of things I really don't consider “waiting tables”: moving tables, place setting, ironing tablecloths, polishing silverware, etc. I gravitated towards the service industry for a number of reasons, chief among them that I like being busy. Waiting tables demands your constant attention – it's task management, it's prioritizing, it's a constant flow. One of my favorite things about the job is when I look down at my watch and realize that 3 hours have flown by without my noticing; there's not much time for your mind to wander.

All that being said, in my new job (as a server assistant at a fine-dining restaurant), my night usually involves nothing but those types of “not waiting tables” tasks. I polish silverware, I polish wine glasses, I run food, I vacuum. When I'm serving the food I occasionally get to interact with the guests, where I explain the dishes, but that's only if the captain (the front waiter) is busy with another table.

The more I (try to) practice Zen though, the more in love with my new job I become. Every night gives me ample, ample opportunity to practice (and practice and practice) mindfulness in all my tasks. The best analogy I can give to a non-server about what waiting tables is like are those plate-spinners on the old Ed Sullivan show. You greet table 21 over here, take an order for table 11 over there, get a couple of drink refills for 22, the food should have been out by now for 12 so I'm going to run to the kitchen to see what's going on, now I've got to get back to 21 to see if they want any drinks, etc. You're constantly planning two or three steps ahead while at the same time attending to the demands of the moment and adjusting on the fly. We're continuously triaging the section, juggling the amount of attention and time given to each table and when.

As a server assistant, I have absolutely nothing to do but what I am doing right then. When I'm vacuuming, there is absolutely nothing else I can do but vacuum. When I'm running food to a table, there's nothing else for me to do but that, and nothing else to think about or plan for. Often when the restaurant is full all I can attend to is running food non-stop for most of the night, ending up when it slows down with a huge backlog of glasses and silverware to polish. I'll be standing there with a giant mound of silverware in front of me, and one of the other assistants will bring over yet another rack from the dishwasher to add to the pile, inevitably making some comment about how discouraging it all looks. For me, it doesn't matter. I know the only way the job is done is one spoon at a time, they'll all be polished eventually. And in that, there is peace.