I was in NYC once, trying to hail a cab to take me uptown to a lecture by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. It was right at the time shifts were changing, when it's typically difficult to find a free taxi. Some do stop, however, ask where you are going, and if your destination matches the general area of they need to go to turn in the cab and sign out for the day, they let you get in. That's what happened to me.
But before too long, we got stuck in unthinkably bad traffic. I don't recall ever seeing such traffic. As we crawled along, trying to go cross-town, then trying to go uptown, then cross-town again, trying anything, we barely made any progress. I wondered if I would make it to the talk at all. More than anything, I felt bad for the cab driver, wondering if he would get a fine for returning the cab late. I began to apologize, "I am so sorry. You were nice enough to pick me up and now you'll be late. I can't believe this monstrous traffic. I've never seen anything like this. I'm so, so sorry." He interrupted me, "Madam, traffic is not your fault." Then he paused a moment, and added, "Nor is it mine."
I just loved that he added "Nor is it mine." I thought of how many times customers probably blamed him for their own tardiness, for bridge closings and tired toll collectors and wild drivers of other cars. I thought, "That was a wonderful teaching. Actually it would be okay if I don't make it to the lecture at all" (I did, by barely a second).
When we challenge the habit of unfair self-blame, we learn to focus our energy on areas of the job that we can manage and let go of the rest. When we take time to focus on the part of the environment we can control -- most particularly ourselves -- working life becomes less emotionally fraught.
Patience is a much-underrated tool for dealing with frustrating work situations. Cultivating a flexible perspective, and the ability to let go, is essential to whatever kind of work we do. As we learn to delay the story lines and mental habits that we typically bring to our work, and simply become available to our circumstances in the moment, we're able to adapt to things as they actually are. Patience at work begins with the full acknowledgment of conditions exactly as they are.
This includes the restless, critical or stubborn states of our own mind. A student of mine was amazed, on the morning of a job interview, when mindfulness practice enabled her to catch herself in the middle of a long-held assumption regarding her confidence and self-worth ("I'm not good enough! I can't compete. I'll never get it!"). Barraged by fear as well as impatience over the interviewer's response, her mind in the past would have spun out of control, kept her on tenterhooks, and beaten herself up in the interim. Had she not been patient enough to stop, sit quietly and observe her self-defeating thoughts, she would never have been able to notice this pattern -- and compose herself enough to land the job.
The more time we spend on meditation practice, the more rewarding it becomes as rather than rejecting difficulties as bothersome interruptions, we can acknowledge our work with all its complications and challenges as an invitation to wake up and live our lives more honestly and fully.
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