Welcome back, dear readers, to another month of taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into everyday life.
Last month found me doing a disappearing act from my second toxic workplace in the last six months. Walking away again was all well and good in theory, but in practice I couldn’t for the life of me sense what would come next. If this was the supposed “new normal,” there was nothing new or normal about it.
And then I remembered an unexpected driving lesson in deepest winter some thirty years ago. One freezing pitch-black night, my instructor—an aspiring heavy metal musician with the gentlest heart and wickedest sense of humor—brought me to an abandoned lot where he’d set up a dozen traffic cones spaced apart randomly in a row. He explained that he wanted me to learn to lose control in a controlled way and that, when skidding on black ice, the safest thing to do was to steer into the skid despite every instinct itching to hit the brakes or steer away from danger.
As I slalomed my way between the cones at increasing speeds, every skid became easier to maneuver the sooner I remembered to turn in the opposite direction to the one my hands on the wheel wanted to take me in. Feeling the adrenaline rush and confusion and actually losing control over-and-over, that night’s lesson taught me more than any theory ever could. I wouldn’t say it ever got to the stage of feeling fun, but eventually I stopped fearing what might happen because the worst-case scenario already had—over and over—and my instructor and I both lived to tell the tale, laughing and head-banging like loons!
What was fun about that memory is how often it’s guided me in other ways too—like not knowing what on earth to do next despite doing my best at daily meditation, coupled with media predictions of a world financial collapse and food shortages and climate change and nuclear threats and, and, and. . . . I’m sure everyone reading this has their own version of what currently feels like skidding on life’s black ice.
As I sat with the increasing row of personal and collective life traffic cones, it dawned on me: why not stop trying to avoid any of them with finding yet another—possibly toxic—workplace and chasing yet another pay check—in a currency that may well no longer exist shortly—in a place that could well be missing from the map shortly, all in the name of so-called security? what about instead of worrying about being penniless in the face of food shortages and climate change and WWIII, maybe I learn to grow my own organic produce?
Within 24 hours, I had created an online profile and sifted through some 450 listings posted by organic farms around the UK looking for live-in volunteers in exchange for accommodation, food, and learning new skills. I shortlisted a dozen and—within 72 hours—committed to my first placement for a month on a farm in the south-west of England that also doubled as a film location—a fact that this film buff couldn’t resist.
On arrival, it was even more beautiful than I’d imagined from photos, and the polar opposite of the private member’s club staff accommodation I’d just vacated—clean and welcoming, overlooking spacious green fields and budding fruit trees complete with a private lake to swim in!
My first three days were a whirlwind of finding my way around, learning the feeding and sleeping routines for the animals, the watering and weeding routines for the fruit and vegetable garden, and the opening and closing routines of the overall site itself. Dear readers, believe when I say it wasn’t that big a leap from waiting on VIP private club members—especially the geese and the honey bees!
So far, so good. Or so it seemed.
However, unforeseen drama was brewing beneath the surface of my seemingly new Garden of Eden.
The couple who owned and operated the farm were in the process of selling to downsize after nearly twenty years fixing it up and raising their children. This meant that the entire site had to stay “staged” for viewings at a moment’s notice—no mean feat with animals involved.
On day four of my month-long stay, I started to see beyond the peaceful idyll on show to potential buyers: near-constant arguments between the owners, conflicting instructions from them, and one of them snapped at me when we were alone for mistakes I didn’t yet know enough to have possibly made.
At first, I put the false blame down to stress or lack of sleep or perhaps getting used to having a new stranger underfoot? However, soon a pattern emerged—every time we were alone, they would create some new form of drama and I could get praised or told off for the very same action or behavior depending on their current mood.
Now regular meditation is excellent practice for learning about our own sankharas, but what about when you find yourself cast as someone else’s?
I was about to find out.
The way film studios like to sometimes pit franchises against each other, like Godzilla vs Kong or Batman vs Superman—I secretly titled the plot twists in the weeks that followed Dharma vs Drama.
When greeted with insults first thing in the morning, I would peacefully offer compliments in return. When told off for a mistake I knew I hadn’t made, I would gently say thank you for the feedback in return. When sent dirty and suspicious looks, I would smile kindly in return. If I’m absolutely honest, most days I didn’t even understand most of what was said to me from a guilty-until-proven-innocent script I never auditioned for.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend this approach for anyone in a truly abusive situation. However, while my first instinct at the first whiff of yet more workplace toxicity—especially as I was literally dependent on this couple for food and shelter—was to pack my bags and move onto a new placement asap, the Dharma kept nudging me as if to say there was something important to learn here by losing control in a controlled way to steady me even further for a world with increasing levels of Drama.
And so, day-after-day, I followed the routines, made new two-legged and four-legged friends where I could, and improvised making counter moves to the ones Drama was baiting me to make. And, night-after-night, I sat with the realization that—despite best intentions towards all sentient beings—I had been cast as Public Enemy No. 1 in a stranger’s understanding of the world.
Some interactions were secretly hilarious and others heartbreaking—I couldn’t even imagine living a life where every interaction was a competition or a conflict and chaos was the norm, especially surrounded by such peaceful beauty. But, day after day, I kept turning up to chop wood and carry water as well as pick up plenty of poop both literally and metaphorically.
Was there eventually some movie magic moment where we became friends during my stay? No.
Did the owners find the perfect buyer and their dream next home during my stay? No.
Did I sense a lifting of the seeming curse of the toxic workplaces of the past six months during my stay? Not even close.
But with enough fresh air, sleep, walks, healthy food, stillness, chores, learning new skills, making new friends, and nothing whatsoever going to plan—especially where my new animal friends were concerned—I shored up enough metta in reserve to face whatever daily life traffic cones were placed in front of me over and over—until I got to the stage where I knew in every one of my cells that any Drama being projected had nothing whatsoever to do with me, and all I had to do was to keep my peace and keep driving.
And so, dear readers, whatever head-banging Drama vs Dharma plot twists you may be facing in your own lives just now, know you are not alone and please keep turning up, and into the skid, until—to metta-morphose the lyrics of Enigma’s song by the same name—we each navigate our own return to innocence:
If you want, then start to laugh
If you must, then start to cry
Be yourself don’t hide
Just believe in destiny
Don’t care what people say
Just follow metta’s way
Don’t give up and use the chance
To return to innocence
That’s not the beginning of the end
That’s the return to yourself
The return to innocence
Related features from BDG
Being a Buddha, Being a Servant
The Soul of Soil: A Portrait of Frith Farm
Dharma’s Garden – Nourishing the Local Community through Homesteading
Ajahn Sucitto, Down to Earth
Our Happiness Is Interconnected with That of Others