DRE Column for December: The Gift of the Bengali Tea Boys

Difficult situations are gifts.  Gifts we often resist and usually don’t appreciate.  They teach us about our blind spots. . . if we stop and listen to what is happening inside us.  You may want to return these gifts, but resist!  Sticking with the feelings and experience pays off.

When my buttons get pushed, I start wondering what is going on in me.  What do I believe is happening?  What should the other person be doing?  Wanting the other person to be different only because they are driving me crazy is my cue to reexamine the situation more carefully.

American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron told a story at a retreat years ago that has always stuck with me and helped me with situations I find difficult. She also tells this story in her book Start Where You Are. She writes, “When the great Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha went to Tibet, he had been practicing (mind training practices/teachings) for some time. Like most practitioners, he felt haunted by the fact that there are blind places that you don’t know about. You don’t know that you’re stuck in certain places. So he valued the people that drove him the most crazy in his life tremendously because he felt they were the only ones who got through to him enough to show him where his blind spots were. Through them his ego got smaller. Through them his compassion increased. 

The story goes that Atisha was told that the people of Tibet were very good-natured, earthy, flexible, and open; he decided they wouldn’t be irritating enough to push his buttons. So he brought along with him a mean-tempered, ornery Bengali tea boy. He felt that was the only way he could stay awake. The Tibetans like to tell the story that, when he got to Tibet, he realized that he need not have brought his tea boy; the people there were not as pleasant as he had been told.

I love this story. It helps me realize whenever I find a situation difficult, or someone stubbornly refusing to behave as I expect them to, I am dealing with my Bengali tea boy. I’m being given an opportunity to see how my beliefs or perceptions of the other person’s —and mine — intentions or motivations are being labeled as good/bad, right/wrong — when perhaps they are neither.

Waking up often requires stepping back from my point of view to ask how the other person is experiencing the situation. After all, life is complicated.  Our personal histories constrain our vision. When a Bengali tea boy appears, it’s very easy to retreat to the comfort of the convictions I’ve cultivated throughout my life. But it’s only by exploring the situation, my feelings and reactions, that I may realize a whole new view of the situation, hidden by my life-long blinders. And, I may even note that, at this very moment, I am someone else’s Bengali tea boy!

Difficult situations are ideal and aggravating teachers. The present difficulty is my signal to look anew at the situation, note my blinders, and thrust open a window or door to discover a new understanding. It’s quite a jolt to discover that someone else feels equally right, good, and smart about the situation as I do!

By trusting that each of us is trying our best in any situation, being mindful of our reactions, and having compassion, we can find the space to pause, ask questions, check in, engage in honest, direct communication, and figure out what we’re both seeing and believing and what we actually want and need. It is a powerful practice to let difficult situations be our cue to step back, seek, and ask, “What is my blind spot here? What am I missing?”

May we all take a deep breath the next time we find ourselves with a difficult situation and pause, check out what is happening inside, and ask ourselves what we believe the other person is doing to us, and what we are doing to them. Ask for clarification; share our feelings and needs. We may find we’ve encountered one of our blind spots.

May this be a year of peace, love, caring, and thoughtful communication for all of us.

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