Dispatches from Swampland

by Gretchen Neuwald, DT

“Lotuses never bloom in the lofty hills or high terrain. Instead, this flower unfurls its petals in lowly swampland.”
– The Vimalakirti Sutra

I have a good work situation. I am fortunate to have a well-paying job with great benefits and wonderful co-workers. I work at a public library. I am paid to connect people with books, magazines, dvds, the internet, and all manner of wonderful resources. I help people from all walks of life find the information they need or are merely hankering for. How cool is that!  For the most part, I enjoy my work. I find it stimulating, rewarding, even fun. But not always. There are those times that being at work feels less like scaling a lofty hill and more like dredging through a lowly swampland. 

Many times I’m on that lofty hill. I might help someone locate a book they desperately need for a research project. Or I might recommend just the right novel to someone looking for a good read.  On any given day, I might reunite a lost toddler with their parent or a cherished bookmark with its owner. Perhaps its a day when a co-worker thanks me for my advice on dealing with a disgruntled patron. Or maybe I help an elderly person find that tax form they need. Or assist someone else with uploading their resume to a website. I feel pretty good about myself and my job at these times.

Other times my job is not so much fun. I have to tell someone they owe fines or have to pay for a damaged item. Perhaps I have to explain that they can’t get a library card because they lack the proper ID or live in the wrong county.  Sometimes I can’t find the item that they have on hold and expressly came in for.  People often get frustrated and irritated when I can’t help them. I get irritated and frustrated, too, because I want to help and dislike saying no. And then there are those times when someone gets angry, very angry. I find it hard not to get angry back when all that negative energy is directed my way. Sometimes I know I am right and the patron is wrong and I have to be very careful that my choice of words or tone of voice doesn’t upset them. I’m not always successful with that.

Then, there are those times we are so busy that I despair at the long lines of people waiting to check out. I see carts and carts of books that need sorting and shelving and mounds of new books that need processing. At these times it feels like we will never catch up and nothing I am doing will make a dent.  Much worse, though, are the times it is so dead that time just crawls by and we fight amongst ourselves over who gets to shelf books and file library cards. I dislike shelving books and filing library cards, tasks that seem so mind-numbing and menial. 

The worse times by far are the times when I mess up. Sometimes I am not paying attention and an item doesn’t get checked in and eventually someone gets charged for something they have returned. Or I misread the call number on a book and shelve it where nobody can find it. Or I give someone the wrong change back when they are paying a fine or forget to credit their account. So many little details to pay attention to at a library; so many ways to screw up.

When all these low times come together, I feel like I’m drudging through a quagmire of muck.

Everybody’s job entails highs and lows, many much more rewarding and challenging than mine. If you are like me, though, its the low times that give you pause, that seem to stay with you. It’s the boredom, stress, indignities, and messes of everyday life that shake us, that have so much power over us. When we understand that at its root, all this suffering is of our own making, we awaken to our true nature. Buddhist practice helps us see that it is in the mud of every day life that true spiritual growth takes root. The lotus flower only blooms in marshland.

I try to remember this in the swamp of work. All the difficulties and setbacks I encounter at work fuel my desire to practice. The more I practice, the more I see my attachments and the suffering they bring about. Live in the swamp offers up many lessons about attachments. I see that being attached to the idea of “help” isn’t very helpful. Sometimes helping someone means telling them something they don’t want to hear and getting them to see the consequences of their actions. Likewise, I see that being attached to the idea that some work is more important than other work often leaves me bored and dissatisfied. When I see that all work is interrelated and needs to get done, its easier to just do it and not attach to the outcome. By letting go of my attachment to likes and dislikes, I can relax and pay attention to each task at hand. And by surrendering my insistence that I am right and the patron wrong I am able to see situations more clearly and respond more compassionately and hopefully not give in to anger.

So, I tell myself, don’t wish problems and complications to go away; view them as opportunities for seeing attachments and letting go. The lotus remains pure and fragrant, despite its surroundings. It thrives in the muck of life. So may we all.