So far, this Lily Pad Sutra column has explored letting go of possessions and beliefs over the last seven years of combining location-independence with letting the Dharma take the lead—what I like to call lily padding.
I’ve primarily spent those years looking after the homes, properties, and pets of strangers and pets while they’re away. While housesitting certainly helped reduce my financial responsibilities, I still had to eat. So what exactly happened when I let go of conventional means of supporting myself and instead trusted the Dharma to fill my 21st century equivalent of a begging bowl?
Back in 2008, I was charmed by a Jim Carrey movie called Yes Man based on the book by Danny Wallace of the same name. In the film, the lead character challenges himself to say “yes” to every opportunity that presents itself, leading to hilarious and heart-breaking results. Inspired by his approach, I started to look around, when landing on each new lily pad, for who or what or where might need help until I sensed an inner “yes.”
Sometimes it took the form of a casual job, other times voluntary work. In hindsight, however, I can see I was often called somewhere for reasons beyond supporting my own material needs. I seemed to have been, as I’ve come to call it, at the World’s Secret Service.
Surrendering my curriculum vitae to the Dharma led me from pruning grape vines to answering calls on a quit-smoking hotline, to counting passengers getting on and off trains, to inoculating sheep, to writing up case studies for a dating coach, to gardening for a retreat center, to cleaning a laundromat, to working in a pharmacy, to catering school trips for inner city kids visiting the countryside for the first time, to researching business prospects, to managing offices, to teaching French, and to packing chocolate. The skills acquired en route by saying the infinite “yes” are quite literally infinite too!
Like the lily pads themselves, I’ve enjoyed some roles more than others. Each had its merits for bringing me into contact with people I might never have otherwise met and for teaching me to understand circumstances I might never have otherwise known existed.
Casual work usually places me on the bottom rung of a particular workplace’s ladder. Oddly enough, though, I’ve found that not having a professional agenda or an established identity has a power of its own. As Lao Tzu put it more eloquently: All rivers flow to the sea because it is lower than they are.
One of my first experiences of the power of having no professional agenda was managing a construction site office. A French company was laying an oil pipeline in England and, when their office manager unexpectedly walked out, word got around the village where I was housesitting that I spoke French.
Before I knew it, I found myself working for a crew of men twice my size frantically trying to get their administration into some kind of order and machinery hired for the project to continue. Within in a week, I was (semi) confidently sourcing diggers, rubberducks (wheeled excavators), Christmas tree brushes (named for their conical shape), and gallons of red diesel (dyed to ensure it’s not used domestically).
At construction sites it is commonplace for workers to turn up on spec, and it became part of my job to organize their paperwork and work gear. On a quiet afternoon, a man walked in and out of habit I started pulling together the necessary papers and making him a cup of tea. He accepted both and, as we drank, asked how I was enjoying the job. I answered honestly that it was refreshing to be able to wear jeans to work, receive one-word replies to emails and phone calls, and learn new curse words every day.
He laughed heartily before confessing that he was in fact the managing director of European operations. He then asked me how the project was going in my eyes, and I confided some misgivings I had about the invoices I was processing but didn’t have enough knowledge of construction to put my finger on why.
From then on, he always found time to catch me alone during his project inspections to ask for my input. On my last day, he shook my hand and jokingly offered to send me to the company’s international AGM in his place as I would probably cut through the merde better than he ever could.
That same year found me working as a pharmacy’s Saturday girl and taught me the power of having no established identity. After my first few weekends, I noticed that my customers were primarily teenage boys buying contraception. At first, I did my utmost to keep a straight face towards their touching mix of bravado and embarrassment. And then it dawned on me: in a town with just one pharmacy, I was the only member of staff who didn’t know their parents.
Being at the World’s Secret Service often also meant being hired to do one job, but finding myself doing another altogether. Two of my favourite examples of going under Dharma cover follow.
The first found me working as an evening cleaner in an old-fashioned 1950s-style laundromat. I passed the “help wanted” ad in the window and felt the immediate pull of an inner “yes” to apply. Every night, I cleaned the premises and maintained the machines while customers brought in their dirty laundry to wash and dry.
One quiet evening, a woman stumbled in with two giant black plastic garbage bags. She shyly waited until we were alone to ask for my help using the machines. I sensed it was because she didn’t know how to read, and so I talked her through what to do. She then confessed she’d been sleeping rough for months. A kind stranger had given her money to clean herself and her things, and she wanted to honor the promise. We sat down on one of the benches to sort her things and figure out the best use of her donation. Customers often forgot to take their detergents, so we went through all the leftovers to find the best smelling ones to use.
It took several hours to salvage what could be salvaged and, as we waited, she told me all about her life. It was both inspiring and horrifying to listen to disaster after disaster that would challenge even the Buddha himself, and all I could do was reflect back to her how much I admired her courage and how none of what had happened was her fault. By the time her things were dry, we hugged and she thanked me humbly for being human.
At the time of writing this article, I’m working in a chocolate warehouse packing Christmas orders for distributors. The building is on the edge of a stunning nature reserve, so I happily walk to and from work.
The first week there, my wanderlust (on my daily communte) caused quite a fuss amongst my new coworkers who all drive: Was it safe out there? What if I hurt myself en route? Did I carry a phone and a torch with me? What if there were strangers lurking in the bushes? While their genuine concern was touching, their projected fears secretly had me in stitches as those walks were in fact glorious meditations on autumn colours, rare birds, friendly dogs, and fresh air.
One afternoon, a coworker offered me a lift at the end of our shift and I found myself unexpectedly saying yes. As we drove, she confessed that she was debating quitting! I asked her to pull into a nearby car park and let her pour her heart out. She had struggled with depression for many years and this was her first job since not leaving the house for over a year. I simply listened and reflected back to her how well she came across to others in the workplace and—whatever she decided was best—how brave she was for even making it through the first week. Two months on, she’s still part of the team and going from strength to strength. And since that day, I’ve accepted lifts from four other coworkers for the exact same reason unbeknownst to each other!
Four years into lily padding, I experimented with being the World’s Secret Service online in the form of a blog offering solutions to any problem on a priceless basis. My only ground rules were that requests be legal and cause no harm, otherwise the sky was the limit. Most people I knew thought it was crazy to literally take on the world’s problems, but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding years I’ve had lily padding. The most touching moments often came once we’d found a workable solution together, and the person would look up from their own preoccupations and ask whom they could help now.
The very last request I took before taking it offline was from the managing director of a Wall Street bank. After a year of listening to many people blame the so-called 1 per cent for the world’s problems, it was beyond humbling to listen to one of its members describe the other side of the coin: the loneliness of having no one without an agenda to talk with about how best to invest US$50 million they wanted to spend on the greater good.
While I didn’t have an immediate solution to their problem, I offered to send links of the people, places, or projects I stumbled across that struck me (an unknown blogger) as genuine. To this day, I have no idea if the banker followed up on any of my suggestions; however, that’s part of the fun and freedom of being agenda-less.
In my sixth year of lily padding, I returned to volunteer at the meditation centre where I’d sat my first 10-day Vipassana course. One evening, while helping wash dishes, I got chatting with a Japanese man who’d taken a similar surrendered approach to work. To look at him, you’d assume he was a film extra for a samurai movie. And yet, somehow, he had managed to get a random job offer as a receptionist at a beauty spa in a Canadian ski resort. Like me with the oil pipeline construction site, he wondered what on earth the Dharma had up its sleeve as he knew nothing about facials or skiing! After a few days of dealing with extremely stressed clients, it dawned on him why he was there—or anywhere: he’d been hired for the peace he brings to every workplace through his meditation practice.
Once I understood that generating metta was my true work, so many twists and turns of these lily padding years made sense. But nothing prepared me for the ultimate task as a metta operative in the World’s Secret Service a few months later.
Despite no longer being a practicing Catholic, I still love to attend the Easter Vigil mass wherever I happen to be. It’s held the Saturday night before Easter Sunday, and I especially love the symbolism of being in a darkened church while each person lights the next person’s candle waiting for the resurrection of Christ. As there were no Catholic churches near to where I was housesitting last April, I looked around for a local Church of England that might be celebrating an Anglican version.
When I arrived at the parish church in the neighboring village, I was clearly the only stranger in attendance. The vicar came over immediately to introduce himself, and apologised for the presence of Secret Service agents outside. Apparently the prime minister would be joining us in a few minutes for the service. And so I spent the next hour inside as the World’s Secret Service agent, generating metta for a world leader in the dark in the next pew.