Welcome, dear readers, to another month of taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into everyday life.
Last month’s article ended on quite the cliffhanger, with me headed over the proverbial inner cliff, Thelma & Louise style, as just about every aspect of my life unexpectedly imploded and metta navigated from the passenger seat. I honestly can’t remember feeling quite so in the wrong place at the wrong time, and often wondered what magic trick the Dharma was setting the stage for.
Fundamentally, any form of meditation is a practice in greater presence. While being a meditator is usually a big help working in the hospitality sector, last month found me wondering whether presence could also be a hindrance . . .
Any readers who have watched the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will no doubt remember the incredible special effects as Jim Carrey’s painful break-up memories are slowly erased by a company called Lacuna Inc. As his memories are wiped, backgrounds half-disappear before fading completely and he finds himself waking up in his bed in the unlikeliest of locations, such as the beach.
The film’s overall premise is a nod to something far more sinister than wishing a romantic relationship had never happened: the Montauk Project, an alleged series of secret military psychological warfare experiments that included memory wiping, which were conducted in the 1970s in upstate New York and also inspired the recent hit TV series Stranger Things.
The eternal sunshine of my own mind ebbed away on me as subtly as the film’s imaginative cinematography. I’d be mid-service at the private members’ club restaurant I’d just started working at, turn to a co-worker to ask for a hand with something, and find myself taking to myself! If there was time to look for a supervisor to ask them to corral the other team members back to front of house instead of hiding in a toilet cubicle or the polishing room with their phones, I’d find the supervisors in the office gaming or watching something themselves! I often found myself “alone” at mealtimes too as the only co-worker not hunched over a phone screen in the staff canteen.
Because there was often a 20-plus year age difference between me and many of my disappearing colleagues, I at first put the phenomenon down to generational differences. It was like all those years practicing presence were working against me—rather than for me—in this new workplace. When I broached the subject at my first probation meeting, my manager asked me to report any future incidents as they were happening.
Staying “present” during food service led to the ultimate Catch-22. It meant having to do all the work-at-hand myself, which prevented me from leaving the front-of-house areas to find absentee supervisors to look for vanishing staff so that they could help me with the work-at-hand.
The first few times I managed to report these incidents as they happened, I jokingly sniffed my armpits declaring I must smell really bad for my teammates to scatter every time I emerged on the floor. The supervisors would thank me for telling them, accuse me of age discriminating, and then imply that whatever I was reporting wasn’t really happening. At one stage, HR even referred me for counseling!
After feeling more and more tired after every shift from doing more and more of the whole team’s work and after a few more confusing conversations with supervisors, it dawned on me that not only was I doing everyone’s job for them but they were gaslighting me for the privilege. While I was still at the stage of wanting to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and still a little in awe at the audacity of vanishing offsite to get pizza or hiding to stream TV shows for hours or play games in the office, I nicknamed them “houdinis” after the world’s most famous escape artist of the 20th century: Harry Houdini.
Houdini could escape handcuffs, straightjackets, water tanks, and just about any other constraint within minutes. One of his favorite tricks was making a 10,000-pound elephant named Jennie disappear.
One of the many benefits of “being here now” is acknowledging any elephants in the room that are otherwise being ignored. Only now I found myself surrounded by houdinis who were also making the elephants in the room disappear.
As conversations with supervisors became more and more uncomfortable when I asked for support after being left alone to do everyone’s work, they would answer point-blank that this couldn’t possibly be happening because we had such a strong team. The first few times they denied my reality, I joked that while most workplaces liked to quote “there is no I in t-e-a-m,” there often seemed to be only me in this particular team. And when I asked the two co-workers whom I could rely on to stay in the room with me whether they ever found themselves working alone when we were scheduled on different shifts, they both laughed darkly and told me to get used to it.
I silently generated metta for myself on and off shift, especially as memories of feeling abandoned or overburdened by responsibilities—particularly those of other people—surfaced from various phases of my life. As well as from the job I’d left for this one, where an ambitious co-worker accused me of bullying to gain a promotion. For the sake of my own physical and mental health, I decided to only drive in my own lane on shift in the hope of perhaps leading by example. This led me back-of-house to the warmth of the kitchen. Perhaps if I offered to do the back-of-house tasks everyone else avoided, such as polishing cutlery, glasses, or plates or putting clean items away for the kitchen porter and offering the chefs hot drinks, it would force my team to re-appear in the front-of-house?
That strategy worked somewhat until the staff Christmas party (postponed until March due to worries over Omicron variants), when—yes, really—35 staff tested positive the following week, including both of my housemates in staff accommodation. Now, if this were a script you might be right in assuming that the next plot twist would find all of us remaining pulled together like a team at long last.
Not so here.
Instead, I found myself living and working on the Mary Celeste, the mysteriously abandoned, fully intact ship found floating off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1872 that gave rise to a famous short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: was it perhaps alcohol fumes rising from the cargo? A submarine earthquake? A waterspout? An attack by a giant squid? Or evidence of paranormal or extraterrestrial intervention?
The tipping point for me came one morning when all on site were asked to assemble in the ballroom for a “One Team Meeting.” Imagine, dear readers, about 200 chairs set out as an already-outdated nod to social-distancing with only 30 or so staff present to sit on them. Think Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which 10 guests isolated on an island for the weekend are done away with, one by one.
The chief executive gave an hour-long presentation to those present and the rest who dialed in over Zoom. Yet, with the best will in the world, I couldn’t recognize the organization and team he was describing. He decided to close the restaurant for a week for the first time in the club’s history, which secretly came as a relief. But the finale was the most surreal part, when he handed out giant Toblerone bars with #teamawesome printed down one side.
My first instinct was to return to the kitchen and immediately re-gift mine to that day’s agency kitchen porter, who had done more to support and make me feel part of a team in the past few days than anyone with whom I actually worked.
And then the validation that I wasn’t imagining things started flooding in: one after another, staff working at the still-open bar would bring in items to wash or to get a drink of water, and ask: “Am I imagining things, or am I the only one out there? Where hass everyone gone?” I would laugh, finally welcome them to my world, and suggest that they tell a supervisor—if they could find one—as coming from me it would get written off as age discrimination. One agency worker in his 40s chuckled bitterly at my Catch-22, saying that he felt discriminated against for being the only adult on the floor prepared to take responsibility.
Everything reopened as normal a week later, but I was changed and determined to move on to somewhere where my presence would be a gift not a curse. How did metta help me to unshackle myself? With baby steps at first, like finding a nearby park bench for lunch instead of being ghosted in the staff canteen. Or enjoying brief chats with members when time allowed. Or putting my hand on my heart when I needed reassurance that I wasn’t imagining things and could still count myself as present.
And then, as with all the best stage magic, came the grand finale.
The shift started quietly enough, but within hours the bar’s lunch orders were coming in thick and furious. I did the best I could to deliver them, given that the staff at the bar were assigning incorrect table numbers and the chefs in the kitchen were grizzling at each other each time I tried to solve a mystery. There were also five supervisors onsite and when I managed to find them to ask for help, they either laughed, refused, or ignored me. You know those watershed moments when you find yourself asking, “Is it just me?” By that stage, it clearly was just me in every sense.
I disappeared to the loo myself for the first time since I’d started working there to cry angry tears of frustration. And by the time I was ready to face the world again, my boss shamed me in front of the whole kitchen staff, saying that he felt I was being over-emotional and it was best I go home. . . . No checking if I was ok, no asking what happened, no seeing if I needed help getting home.
Absent in every sense.
I walked to the park bench and just shook for an hour, not fully understanding what had happened and not fully trusting myself to walk home safely. Hilariously, while sitting there I witnessed one of the houdinis return from an escape into town—I wasn’t imagining the disappearing acts. I disappeared in turn by calling in sick for the first time in my working life, and taking the weekend to be really present for myself and digest just how crazy the situation had become.
At my probation review the following Monday, two supervisors and a representative from HR suggested straight-faced that perhaps I’d feel more part of the team if I put in less effort. A co-worker later hilariously echoed the sentiment by telling me all my hard work had made her uncomfortable. I had a quiet chuckle at their utter obliviousness at the 10,000-pound elephant in the room, and allowed metta to unshackle from these particular handcuffs and straightjacket by resigning altogether.
And so, dear readers, rather than metta meditation helping us to be more fully present, perhaps at times it can also help us disappear altogether—preferably in a puff of sweet-smelling incense.