Volunteer: I am seeking guidance on what to do about an email I received today. Someone who registered for a retreat and cancelled is asking for a full refund. We refunded the amount minus the administration fee of $75. But now they want the $75.
Teacher: Was our cancellation policy for the retreat communicated clearly?
Volunteer: It is on the website. But I will email the person with the information again.
Two days later:
Volunteer: I received a response to my email. They accused us of being in it for the money and insisted on the full refund! It makes me angry to think that someone out there thinks we are greedy! That is so absurd! And over $75! My first impulse was a rude reply. My second was not to respond. But in sitting with it, it occurs to me that I might send a note that corrects their misconception of us. Would that work?
Teacher: No. Just refund the $75. No explanations required.
There are many practice principles to explore in this exchange.
Everything is practice:
There is a conditioned temptation to believe that an office email about a refund is not the subject material for spiritual practice, certainly not something to bring to the Guide. Spirituality supposedly deals with the “big” issues in Life. But as Alan Watts so eloquently phrased it, Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.
Everything is included in the practice arena because what excludes, separates and divides is egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. Hence, the guidance to bring all of Life into practice. What a coup for karmic conditioning if it can ensure that huge swathes of existence are beyond the purview of conscious awareness, that it is in control of what aspects are never examined!
If our practice is to be conscious compassionate awareness, then in the spirit of “how we do anything is how we do everything,” nothing is done from a place of unconscious assumption. There is no trivial pursuit in Awareness Practice. If we really understand the stakes, we bring as much attention to the spiritual aspect of a response to an email as we do to a question of “life and death.”
Taking responsibility - not taking it personally:
Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate automatically jumps to what’s wrong – wrong with you, wrong with me, wrong with the situation. Blame is an automatic, conditioned reaction. When receiving information that sounds like criticism or judgment, the impulse is to take it personally, to defend the ego point of view, to deflect blame, to point the finger.
The injunction to see if we had clearly communicated the cancellation policy points to an attitude of mind that comes from a different place. It is the practice of transcending the limited, dualistic ego context of right and wrong and moving into taking responsibility for bringing consciousness to the situation. From center, it is possible to see if there was a lack of attention/skill in our process and to address any ego identification from a place of compassion. Or as Rumi put it, Out beyond wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.
We are deeply conditioned not to examine our beliefs around how we react to injustice, bigotry, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, arrogance, hatred and cruelty. The voices of self-hate have a lot to say when we don’t stand up for what is “good” and “right” and “fair.” It can seem justified somehow to lash out against what feels unconscionable; in fact, self-righteousness can feel good.
To defend the integrity of the Practice, the Monastery, the Guide, could feel appropriate in this situation. Why not take this opportunity to point out the unconscious conditioning operating?
As we accept that it is our practice to transcend the “ego-self,” it becomes possible to see that self-hate and self-righteousness only keep the “self” alive, no matter how justified the context. In other words, the teaching is not referring to the morality of the content or an appropriate response to it. It is pointing us to the process we need to practice – transcending ego-identity maintenance no matter what. As Aldous Huxley put it, So long as attention is fixed on the delinquent ego, it cannot be fixed upon God, and the ego (which lives upon attention and dies only when that sustenance is withheld) cannot be dissolved in the divine Light.
This brings us to the final principle to consider. We are this Practice. What we say, what we do, the way we are is how this Practice is perceived and experienced. We are each called to maintain the integrity of that which supports our spiritual transformation. In walking this path, we accept the responsibility to steward the practice so it is available in its purest essence to all who are approaching the Path.
In refunding the individual, the volunteer models the most complex teaching of the Buddha:
In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
- the Dhammapada
For the next 48 hours, practice the ancient law. As you encounter places where conditioning reacts in ways that are out of harmony with the heart, see what Conscious Compassionate Awareness might say, think or do. Record and Listen to what arises.
Make a recording that reminds you of all the ways you walk this path, practicing integrity and harmony with the teachings.