out of service

s_glass_lotusLiving in a bilingual city has its perks.  Like it or not (which summarizes Buddhist practice), I’ve picked up a second (third?) language just reading various signs.  As a sidebar, it’s very embarrassing to admit that I grew up in a dominantly French city and was passably bilingual until I moved away.  As language skills go, apparently even using it, one can lose it if using it amounts to saying “Bonjour!” and “Bien!”  Now, when asked if I speak French, I humbly say, “No,” rather than “Once I get going, it comes back.”

My failed aspirations as a polyglot notwithstanding, one French phrase has always captivated me.  I see it on the front scrolling signs on city buses – all to frequently.  Désolé – hors de service. Sorry – Out of service. Depending on my mood, I either shrug and mentally remind myself not to vote for the same city councillors or I feel a sense of panic rise up from the pit of my stomach.  My brain does silly – or maybe profound – things with the translation:

Désolé – desolate

hors de service – hours of service (yes, there is a homonymous translation but that’s a topic for a future post on the precepts)

Desolate hours of service.  It peals through my head and I can feel Quasimodo bouncing up and down off my hara.  When the resonance is particularly strong, I do stop and take stock of where I am and what I’m doing.  The long hours at work, the even longer hours at home catching up for work.  How am I of service?  Who am I of service to?  Do I need to be put out of service?

I wish I could say it’s made a dramatic re-routing of my everyday path.  “Oh yes, I gave up everything and took on a life of asectic purity.”  “I left my home and family and found my teacher who elevated me to dharmic glory!  Really.  Please leave your dana in the bell on your way out.”  Not a chance.

In this woman’s world, there are loans, mortgages, kindly bank managers, business overheads, and a huge hole in the ground called a “hobby” farm.  Désolé.  So sorry.  Life is happening and there are no pee breaks let alone enlightenment ones.

A long time ago, I sat my first sesshin with the Zen community lead by Albert Low.  I was fascinated and, despite all instructions to the contrary, I couldn’t stop staring at his attendants.  Every move was calculated, precise, careful.  Microphones were placed, robes adjusted, stands erected and teisho papers propped on them; the room unfolded in slow motion.  In that moment, I knew.

In dokusan with Master Low, I confided: I want to be in service.  He smiled.  And rang the bell.

I want to be in service.  No longer desolate.  No longer caught in hours of service.

I’ve shifted the way I do many things.  Ironically, I’m a lot less tolerant – of relationships that are not supportive, of activities that don’t nourish, of exchanges that are not generative, that do not circulate what is being given.  Being Generous by Lucinda Vardey and John Dalla Costa is fascinating look at the ways we can be open-hearted and the (surprising) actions that are not generous.  True giving is a difficult art to master if only because it calls for skillfully saying, “No” to the things that only feed the ego and not the spirit.

There have been many missteps in this practice of being in service – and I’m sure there will continue to be many more.

The wheels of the bus go ’round and ’round.


Thank you for practising,


5 thoughts on “out of service

  1. Zen Master Seung Sahn frequently spoke of the mind that keeps this question: “How can I help you?”

    This question nudges us to turn away completely from self-absorption, and toward a larger engagement with the world as it presents itself in each moment.

    I find it elusive, especially as it contradicts my desire for things to go my way.

  2. One teaching that has endured in my practice is learning that I call things difficult when they aren’t going my way. 🙂

    I am deeply inspired by the call to help. The problem – as you wisely point out, Barry – is that I want the person to feel helped in my definition. But often, they never got the memorandum of understanding that defined the terms of my saviourship! It’s taken a lot of stepping back and breathing to let go of the ego’s struggle.

    Though I am proud that in my enlightenment I have saved so many fish from drowning… 😉

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