Some Assembly Required

Musings on addiction, recovery, mindfulness, and chronic pain

If You Meet the Buddha, Say Hello

There is more to the ordinary than meets the eye.

Once in a while you can get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.
~ Robert Hunter, Scarlet Begonias, Grateful Dead

Often, things are more (sometimes much more) than they seem at first glance. Embedded in ordinary every day experiences we can find windows to the extraordinary, gifting us with glimpses into the deep richness and beauty of life. However, access to such gateways requires an expansion of conscious awareness that awakens mind and spirit, along with an openness to heretofore unseen possibilities.

Some years ago, I went backpacking in Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe. My hiking partner and I stopped at a grocery store in South Lake Tahoe to pick up some last minute supplies. After gathering what we needed, per my standard operating procedure, I identified the shortest checkout line and assumed the position. After a few moments, I started to become aware that several lines away the cashier seemed to be engaged, and engaging everyone who came through his line, in having an absolutely great time—on the checkout line at Safeway!

The scene was simultaneously bizarre and compelling. I found myself instantly drawn to this cashier and the quality of his interactions with customers. He was short, bald, rotund to the point of being obese, and wore thick old-style black horn-rimmed eyeglasses. He didn’t just greet his customers; he embraced them—each and every one—in a verbal/emotional bear-hug of warm, welcoming, it’s-wonderful-to-see-you-again-my-old-friend energy.

His manner was boisterous to the point of standing out, yet neither obnoxious nor intrusive. It was congruent rather than contrived, as genuine and natural as the Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Fir trees dotting the landscape around Tahoe. I was mesmerized. Although I wasn’t entirely certain what was going on, I knew that it was exceedingly rare.

Somehow, in the midst of one of the more mundane, often frustrating environments on the planet, this grocery store cashier seemed to be operating in a state of unadulterated joy that allowed him to appear to float ever so slightly above the ground that constrained the rest of us. There was a certain music and magic to this person and how he related to others and to the world. Whatever it was that he had, I wanted to experience it up close.

I then did something I have never done in my entire life, either before or since. I actually switched lines to one with a noticeably longer wait, just so I would have the opportunity to be in personal contact with this phenomenon, whatever it was.

I waited in his checkout line with curiosity, anticipation, and unusual patience, noticing more carefully how the customers, without exception reacted to his unexpected and enthusiastic grace with bemused grins and a sense of wonder. When it was my turn, he greeted me with equal élan and a Cheshire cat smile that consumed most of my field of vision. I made direct eye contact and returned his greeting, adding “It’s great to see someone who really seems to know how to enjoy life.” He leaned toward me, lowered his voice slightly and chuckled, “And you know, it doesn’t cost anything extra,” at which point he gave me a knowing wink.

As his sense of present-centered joy washed over me, for a few brief seconds that felt much longer, it was as if everything else faded away, and in that moment, I knew everything that I would ever truly need to know—though I would quickly forget it. It would only occur to me years later, viewed through the perspective of recovery and an enhanced sense of spirituality that this effervescent generosity of spirit stood on a foundation of loving-kindness—simple, pure, and abundant.

As perfect as that moment was, of course it couldn’t last. Perfection only visits us every once in a great while, and it never stays very long. Such transcendent experiences are always temporary. Whenever we try to keep them as if they are possessions, we invariably set ourselves up for disappointment. The most healthy and spiritual thing we can do is to recognize and appreciate such moments for what they are, as opposed to focusing on what they are not and can never be.

Two of the fundamental tenets of Buddhist psychology are that all things are impermanent and constantly changing yet we tend to relate to them as though they were static and permanent, and all things are interconnected yet we relate to them (and ourselves) as though they were independent. These discrepancies are among the root causes of discontent and suffering. As a result, growth and healing come from experiences that move us toward the acceptance of impermanence, as well as conscious connection with others and the world around us.

As Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has been instrumental in bringing Buddhism and mindfulness practices to the West has put it: “Spiritual practice is not just sitting and meditating. Practice is looking, thinking, touching, drinking, eating, and talking. Every act, every breath, every step can be practice and help us to become more ourselves.”

Copyright 2014 Dan Mager, MSW
Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain

Dan Mager, MSW is the author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain. He received his MSW from CUNY's Hunter College.

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