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Shoshin and the Fear of Others
The previous two articles in this column, which explored combining location-independence with letting the Dharma take the lead—what I term “lily padding”—described how tonglen dissolves the fear of letting go* and how metta dissolves the fear of the unknown.** This month, I explore how shoshin (or beginner’s mind***) can help to dissolve the fear of others.
Over the last seven years, I have housesat at some 30 different locations in four different countries. Housesitting differs from traveling as I am usually a stranger arriving in well-established, local communities. Interestingly, when I talk to people about lily padding, most confess that they would struggle with constantly being the new person in the neighbourhood. They ask me questions such as: How do you make new friends after a jump? Do you ever get lonely? Are you ever tempted to fabricate outrageous backstories about yourself, like Goldie Hawn’s character does in the brilliant 1992 comedy film Housesitter?
Luckily, meeting new people is something I have always enjoyed. However, starting over as a stranger over and over again in such quick succession has taught me a lot about the fears that we are all prone to project onto others. During my first few housesits, I understood why some homeowners feel nervous trusting me with all their worldly possessions and pets. More baffling, however, were the outrageous rumors circulating about my arrival in the neighbourhood.
Was I really running from the law?
Or escaping an abusive relationship?
Or seducing the postman?
Sometimes the stories that made their way back to me were funny, at other times they were hurtful. In fact, at one point my best friend made me a badge that I could wear when all the rumors became too much or too ridiculous. The badge read: “Save your projections for the cinema please!”
Perhaps it was that while the people I was housesitting for were off having adventures, I was left behind with those who weren’t? Or perhaps it was a case of an impermanent factor arriving in their permanent lives, and that I was literally embodying the change in their midst? Over time, I have learned not to take anything personally (although it can still hurt sometimes), and I quickly learned that the more stuck someone feels in their own lives, the more likely they are to be the source of the rumors.
Metta was often enough to win the trust of pets, but communities proved a little more challenging. Meditation had already taught me that I can’t change another individual, so perhaps I could change my own response? Why not experiment by applying the shoshin I was practicing every time I moved to a new location to each new interaction as well? Or, in the words of writer Karen Armstrong:
All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, ‘Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you,’ or in its positive form, ‘Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.’
One of my favourite experiments for applying shoshin to conversations with strangers happened while I was looking after two cats in Windsor, England. Their humans, a retired couple, were on a three-month tour of Australia and never had a sitter before. When people are “first-timers,” I'll often jokingly compare myself to Miss Moneypenny (i.e. holding the fort and taking care of mundane reality) to their James Bond (off on a wonderful adventure).
This couple took the analogy a bit more literally than most first-timers and cheekily texted me from Heathrow Airport that the original Miss Moneypenny was a hooker from Canada! Should they be worried about a pop-up brothel operating out of their home in their absence? I quickly checked Wikipedia, and discovered that first Miss Moneypenny was indeed a Canadian actress, known as Lois Maxwell, but born Lois Ruth Hooker. I quipped back that police checks obviously weren’t what they used to be, and from then on it became a running joke in our communications.
We had agreed that I would bring the mail to a trusted neighbour once a week, instead of opening it myself. I was not prepared for the cross-examination that would accompany my visits. When I arrived for my first visit, I was introduced to a recently retired primary schoolteacher who did not suffer fools gladly and was baffled by her neighbor trusting a complete stranger she had met on the internet. The third degree that I received during those initial few weeks was worthy of applying for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II herself at Windsor Castle, and proved to be a perfect chance to practice shoshin in the face of the fears of others: I answered all her questions as openly and as honestly as I could, and in turn took a genuine interest in her life with questions of my own.
Before long, the cross-examinations evolved into delightful conversations over afternoon tea. It turned out that she was feeling both depressed and lost over recently losing her professional identity as a teacher. Speaking with a stranger who deliberately embraced change and was clearly enjoying not having a fixed identity provided her with a new perspective, one that her life-long friends and family could not give her.
Tea and sympathy converted one my biggest skeptics into one of my biggest allies. When her neighbors returned from Australia, she lent me a red lamp to place in the living room window and I jokingly plastering the front door with a banner that read “pop-up brothel under new management.” She and her neighbour whom I was housesitting for have since visited me at several lily pads: “We could never live as you do full-time, but it is fun to experience it vicariously for a day every now and then.”
If you enjoyed the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival, you’ll no doubt remember how frustrating it was to watch the aliens get so grossly misunderstood by human collective fear of others. Luckily, the character portrayed by Amy Adams had the good sense to attempt a different approach, learning their language instead. This helped her save humanity, and—back to reality—it might just help us to make some unexpected new friends.
If anyone reading this feels shy about meeting new people, take some lessons on shoshin from Amy’s Arrival book: find out what a stranger is good at, pay them a genuine compliment, and then ask them to teach you whatever their talent is. For example, while housesitting for three months in the south of France, I learned how to prune grapevines from vintners in their 70s who had been making wine for generations and found it hilarious to watch a newbie get to grips with the gas-powered sécateurs (pruning clippers). And when I was living on a smallholding in Norfolk for nine months, I surprised a fellow farmhand who was half my age by asking her to show me the ropes in all things related to the farm, from inoculating sheep to mucking out pigs and grooming horses. She had never had an adult defer to her like that before, and really took the requests to heart. One day, she even surprised me with homemade tractor flashcards! To this day, I can still tell a John Deere from a New Holland from a Fendt at a passing glance, and then I always think of her.
A couple of years ago, I got my hair cut by someone who, in a previous career, designed early missile detection systems for the airforce. Our conversation connected unexpected dots for me regarding a less tangible form of the fear of others I have observed.
“Have you ever looked after a property with a panic room?”
I answered: one.
“And have you ever had a break-in?”
I answered: one.
“Let me guess, the same property?”
“Isn't it amazing how, on an energetic level, we seem to invite what we have literally built a room to protect against?”
I am often asked whether I feel safe during the first few nights on my own in a new place, and—until this conversation—I had never realised why I felt safer looking after homes without alarm systems. What the hairstylist had no way of knowing was that the only other time I had trouble with intruders was at a property surrounded by a moat, electric gates, and guard dogs. And one of the places I felt safest was a stone cottage on an island in the Scottish Hebrides, with no locks at all.
The most surprising thing that lily padding has taught me about my own fear of others is not to assume, after arriving somewhere new, whom among my new neighbours does and does not have a beginner’s mind. Some of the most fearful people I have met were world travelers, and some of the most welcoming and open-minded friends I have made over the last seven years still live where they were born, have worked the same job all their working lives, have never used the internet, and don’t hold passports. Their mantles are now covered in postcards from all the places I have landed, and their regular phone calls to check how I am doing anchor me from one jump to the next.
* Living in Transit for Seven Years (Buddhistdoor Global)
** Sowing the Seeds of Metta to Dissolve Fears of the Unknown (Buddhistdoor Global)
*** The idea of having an open mind and attitude and letting all your preconceptions go when you approach something new.