Welcome to another Living Metta experiment in taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.
February’s experiment was inspired by, of all things, an unexpected response to an out-of-office message I’d set up on my personal email thanking everyone for bearing with me for being slower than usual to respond while I eased myself into 2020.
One sender emailed again to say how much she loved my surprise message, and jokingly added that she couldn’t possibly imagine how her work would react if she tried something similar. When I (eventually) answered, I shared a personal pet theory that our current culture expects us all to constantly live in “automatic” (either park or drive) when living in “manual” (gears 1–9, depending on the transmission) might be more realistic . . . essentially, “gearing” ourselves to every moment rather than running roughshod through our days on automatic.
In an earlier article, “Making the Material World Metta-real,” I shared about coming to terms with everyday materialism after seven years of living out of a backpack, combining location-independence and meditation practice. The other biggest culture-shock for me in choosing to live in one place again in 2018 was how, paradoxically, time seemed to speed up. I have no idea how much of that is simply down to the pace of city life and how much of that is due to being surrounded by people constantly commenting how little time there is, they have, are wasting, are losing, are saving. . . . It made more sense than ever why a German friend had nicknamed me a “Zeitmillonaerin” time millionairess) during my location-independent years.
Practical ways I stay in the slow lane in speedier city surroundings include forgoing social media, a TV/laptop and wifi at home, and walking whenever and wherever possible. Readers would be amazed at some of the reactions I’ve had when these simple personal lifestyle choices emerge in conversation. One chef I worked for last year looked at me like I’d just confessed to being Amish, and cautiously asked: “You do have a radio, right? I mean, how do you handle the silence otherwise?” I laughed and laughed at her genuine concern as—along with silence—I also love music (on my radio), going to the cinema, and maxing out my library card.
Perhaps readers have heard of Satish Kumar? At the height of the Cold War in the 1970s, Kumar and a companion named EP Menon went on two-year “peace walk” from Gandhi’s grave in New Delhi to Kennedy’s grave in Washington, D.C. Crossing Russia, they found themselves at a picnic bench having lunch with factory workers on their break who were curious to hear more about their travels. They explained they were walking 8,000 miles without money or possessions from New Dehli to Moscow, Paris, London, and Washington, D.C. in the hope of meeting with the world leaders of the escalating nuclear arms race.
One of the factory workers sprung up, dashed back inside the factory and re-emerged with four teabags. She spontaneously renamed it “peace tea” as it was light enough to carry and to deliver to each head of state with the request that if they were ever tempted to “push the button” they take a breath and make themselves a cup of tea first.
Charmed by this gift, Kumar and Menon did their best to distribute the factory workers’ peace teabags as requested, and later described their efforts in the inspiring book No Destination: Autobiography of a Pilgrim (Green Books 2014).
Returning to 2020, where did the Dharma send me for my next metta experiment? Not on a pilgrimage, or to a factory, or to a political office, but to a university estates and facilities helpdesk.
The phone and email requests for help trickled in haphazardly at first, ranging from the ridiculous to the messy to the deadly serious. One of the first calls I took was a request to clean up a crime scene.
I took a deep breath in an attempt to stay neutral, and replied: “I’m pretty sure that’s not legal. What exactly happened, and would you like me to call 999 instead?” The caller giggled at my grave tone and explained it was for a Forensics Department’s weekly crime scene student practical.
A helpdesk has no control over when calls come in and what they could involve. Just as in everyday life, much depends on the weather. At the time of writing, four major storms—Brendan, Ciara, Dennis, and Jorge—have blown through Liverpool. Some days the phones were ringing non-stop, and other days they were nearly silent.
What I soon noticed on busy days was either how rushed or over-complicated the requests were, depending on the caller’s state of mind. On the other hand, quiet days gave me a chance to observe how rushed and over-complicated the staff around me were feeling.
One Director’s personal assistant regularly called me in ninth gear, speaking faster than I’ve ever heard a human speak before. I’m not sure she even took time to breathe, so I would take a breath for us both, silently bless her, and repeat back her request in first gear. A few weeks in, I started injecting a little humor (the best way I know to bring someone back to the present when they’re lost in the past or the future). For example, when she reported an old broken filing cabinet left over from an office move that she wanted disposed of immediately, I whispered, “Is it currently in the same room as you?” Yes, she answered slightly confused. “Did it hear you?” She went silent and cautiously asked why that would make a difference. “I may have to add some counseling for getting dumped to the request.” She burst out laughing, and just last week confessed how she’d grown to love calling the helpdesk for the injection of happiness it brought to her workdays.
Caller impatience that we weren’t Amazon Prime but a team of well-meaning staff doing our best to maintain 44 campus buildings amind everything from vandalism to construction work to acts of God was a daily black-belt test of equanimity. One morning, the whole team was asked to attend a meeting, which meant that an administrator from another department was answering calls for half an hour. When I returned, she practically threw the phone at me like a baby needing a smelly diaper changed and said: “I don’t know HOW you do this all day!” I thanked her for phone-sitting, silently blessing the years of meditation practice that had slowly dissolved in me the need to take anyone’s antics personally, and shared a running in-joke the team had of a mythical office voodoo doll and prioritising requests based on this Virginia coffee shop’s politeness pricing policy:
On slower days it became obvious just how stressed the team themselves were. When, in the second month, my co-workers started coming out of meetings in tears or threatening to walk out, it became clear that some kind of restructure was going on behind the scenes. I endeavoured to help the helpers as much as I could with a cup of tea, a listening ear, a silly story, or asking for help myself with a tricky request.
They almost never went to the toilet, often ate lunch at their desks, took calls when they clearly weren’t in any state to, snapped at one another (or me), and my manager’s smartwatch was actually programmed with a “breathe” alert whenever her blood pressure got too high.
Rather than entrain their ninth gear, I decided to slow down into metta’s first gear.
I made a point of getting up on the hour, doing silly walks towards the loo saying, “Let me demonstrate how we wee.” I brought in delicious homemade soup, simmered in my slow-cooker for at least 72 hours for everyone to try. I deliberately picked up calls when I sensed someone wasn’t in a fit state to answer without the request getting even messier. In completely quiet moments, I would pretend to study the floor plan of the whole office and—the opposite of practicing office voodoo—silently generate metta for each individual member of staff. And on Valentine’s Day, I left this anonymous bowl of goodies by the kettle in the morning which was empty by the close of day.
Hilariously, the ultimate snoop—the head of security—finally outed this Snoopy by reviewing CCTV footage!
I then turned the tables on the political fall-out I was observing by launching a weekly “most helpful to the helpdesk” award. It was endearing to watch grown men and women working to maintain the actual ivory tower of academia in 101 unseen ways light up at suddenly having their achievements recognized. One facilities team won children’s party-bag medals, another magic wands, and another a booklet of gold star stickers.
And so, my fellow metta-scientists, in the face of arms races on every scale—from personal to relational to global—I invite you to experiment with slowing down to speed up the spread of metta. Or, to metta-morphose the lyrics of Jack Johnson’s Inaudible Melodies:
Well shortcuts can slow you down
And in the end we’re bound
To rebound off of we
Slow down everyone
You’re moving too fast
Metta can’t catch you when
You’re moving like that