Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it

I was going through a stack of old books, re-reading things I had highlighted, when I found this parable in Happiness at Work by Srikumar Rao. He was describing how a shift in your thinking, in how you choose to see the world, can change everything.

“The abbot of a once-famous Buddhist monastery that had fallen into decline was deeply troubled. Monks were lax in their practice, novices were leaving, and lay supporters were deserting to other centers. He traveled far to see a sage and recounted his tale of woe, saying how much he wanted to transform his monastery to the flourishing haven it had been in days of yore. The sage looked him in the eye and said, “The reason your monastery has languished is that the Buddha is living among you in disguise, and you have not honored him.
The abbot hurried back, his mind in turmoil. The Selfless One was at his monastery! Who could he be? Brother Hua? No, he was full of sloth. Brother Po? No, he was too dull. But then the Tathagata was in disguise. What better disguise than sloth or dull-wittedness? He called his monks together and revealed the sage’s words. They too were taken aback and looked at each other with suspicion and awe. Which one of them was the Chosen One? The disguise was perfect. Not knowing who he was, they took to treating everyone with the respect due the Buddha. Their faces started shining with an inner radiance that attracted novices and then lay supporters. In no time at all, the monastery far surpassed its previous glory.”

There's a natural tendency to label people and file them into categories and boxes. It makes life simpler in some ways, but also poorer. 

What if, instead, we remained open to the possibility that each person has something precious inside them? What if we looked deeply for the gifts they have to offer? What if we listened carefully for the stories they have to tell?

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A stranger in a strange land

The story, written in 1959, takes place in an Ibo village Nigeria. I read it while traveling in Germany, where I’m working with new clients. I finished it today on a train to Köln. My experiences on my trip and the experiences in the book could not be more different. Yet I was surprised that some of my reactions were similar.

A portal to another time and place

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, follows the life of Okonkwo and his clan. It’s a world completely foreign to me. Besides the words and names I couldn’t pronounce, everything was unfamiliar to me, from the food and customs to how they related to each other and their view of the world.

Each time I came across something new, I found my instinct was to judge it, to take comfort in labels. Their gods were “ridiculous.” Their food “disgusting.” Their ideas and customs “primitive.” It was a riveting story, and yet I felt the need to rationalize the differences.

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A modern business trip

My reactions were extreme because the differences were extreme. Yet on my trip I noticed the same need to label and value things. Good or bad. I like it or don’t like it.

Traveling in Western countries, the contrasts are more muted, and so are my reactions - to the language, the different foods, even to the prevalence of soccer and smoking. I had minor opinions on everything from the architecture to how people drive to how the trains and taxis work.

I have enjoyed meeting so many lovely people here, and had some wonderful experiences. But reading the book made me mindful that I still had a need to deal with the small differences somehow. Though I liked to think of myself as an open person, it was as if putting things in neatly labeled boxes was a strategy for making sense of the world.

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Something to practice

Towards the end of Things Fall Apart, a missionary arrives, trying to change what people believe and how they behave. He’s challenged by a group desperate to maintain the ways of the clan and fighting to keep their distance.

“He does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his. Let him go away.”

When I read that paragraph, I put the book down and thought about my own ways and habits. What if, instead of judging things that weren't familiar, I just accepted things for what they are? Instead of labeling the differences and keeping a safe distance, what if I got closer and asked more questions?

Being more open and curious seems like a better way to live, and something I'm committed to practicing.