When I was about 16 years old, I purchased a book that was a translation of old Buddhist teachings and Zen tales. I lost track of this book long ago; however, much of its content was quite memorable. I remember one simple story in particular that had an interesting message, which was very different from every other tale in the book. The story went like this:
There existed a man who lived alone and worked at a train station as a ticket taker.
He woke up at the same time each day to go to his job.
He took his lunch break at the same time each day.
He walked home at the same time each day.
He enjoyed his work and had been doing the same job for 30 years.
He did not earn very much money, so he brought his lunch with him to work and always walked everywhere he went.
He meditated for a few hours on the same prayers each evening.
This man was blessed and had found Nirvana in his life.
He was always content.
He was the happiest and most balanced man there had ever been.
I thought about this story and its implications often once I had read it, because the message was so different from every other message in the book. It also did not seem to make a lot of sense:
I asked myself these questions over and over again. I love books and I enjoy rereading those I have already read from time to time. I picked this book up several times throughout the years and each time I did so, I asked myself the same questions about this little Buddhist tale. I could not understand how this man could possibly have found Nirvana with his life as it had been described.
I have relocated to Las Vegas recently and am here with my wife and daughter. Our evenings are spent walking through casinos to various restaurants. There is really good food here, and we have been having an excellent time in all respects. One thing that is really interesting about being here in Las Vegas, though, is seeing the advertising campaigns all around us. There is a new advertising campaign in Las Vegas that has pictures of people going crazy and having a lot of fun. The text of the ad says something like: “BECAUSE ONE DAY YOU’LL BE DEAD. THAT’S WHY!”
It is a very effective advertising campaign. The point it is making is actually very similar to that of the Buddhist story about the man working in the train station: We should not spend our lives living according to the standards of others. In a very real sense, when you live your life according to the standards of others, you are likely to be unhappy.
This is a very powerful message. Most people live their lives according to what other people think, and as a result they are miserable. When you live your life according to your own standards and not that of others, you are likely to experience a far different and more fulfilling life.
The man in the train station could have spent his career worrying that his job was not good enough, that he should be making more money, that he should not have to walk, that he should get a promotion, that things should be different. But instead, as the tale tells us, he had actually attained a state of Nirvana, meaning he was incredibly happy and fulfilled in all respects.
In the Western world and in most cultures we would say there is something wrong with this man. We would say that he had no business being so happy because he is (1) alone, (2) poor, (3) not getting ahead, and (4) doing a job he does not like. How could this man’s life possibly represent “nirvana” when so much is wrong according to our standards?
When I was around 19 years old, I had a summer job as a garbage man. I spent my days riding around with different drivers, collecting the trash. I made friends with one of the drivers, a man in his late 30s, and one day he told me that he had been planning on killing himself for months but never got the courage to go through with it. He had a wife and two small children if I remember correctly.
“Why on earth would you kill yourself?” I asked.
“Because I am a garbage man,” he said. “This is probably the worst job anyone could possibly have.”
I understood where he was coming from, in terms of a societal point of view: Many people are under the impression and believe that being a garbage man is one of the lowest jobs anyone can have. However, in reality this man’s job was not all that bad. At the time (during the 1980s) the garbage men in the area were unionized, and most of them made over $50,000 a year. Not only did this man have a job, he had a job that paid pretty well and had many great benefits, including a pension. His job was well above average compared to many other jobs out there. Nevertheless, this particular man had decided, for whatever reason, that he had no reason to be happy in his life. In fact, he had decided that the outside perception of what he was doing was so horrible that he should end his life.
Many people spend the majority of their time worrying and feeling as if they are not well suited to be happy in life. Moreover, they spend their time concerned about what other people think instead of caring most about whether or not they are actually happy. Most of us are concerned about others’ impressions and not our own.
On Friday night, my wife and I went to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace here in Las Vegas for dinner. We walked into an FAO Schwartz, and my two-year-old daughter picked out a book called Elmer, by David McKee. I had no idea what the book was about, but my daughter seemed pretty excited about it, so I decided to buy it for her. When we went to the cash register the girl working behind the counter said: “I love this book. It is my most favorite book and definitely the best book in the store. I have read it hundreds of times.”
The girl behind the cash register was obese and I also got the impression she might be a lesbian. She seemed very happy in all respects.
“What is the book about?” I asked.
“It is about an elephant who has different colors than other elephants. The elephant has to learn to live with different colors and be accepted for being different.”
What is so important about this little lesson is the idea of being different and the fact that it is okay. We do not need to live according to the expectations of others. We can be happy being different from society’s norms, as there is nothing wrong with being different at all.
Whether someone is a different race from other people, a different sexual orientation from other people, doing a non-prestigious job, living in the “wrong” area, overweight or overly thin–that person still is entitled to feel good about himself or herself and to experience Nirvana. We experience this level of happiness and fulfillment only when we learn to live without basing our happiness on the expectations and judgments of others. We simply choose to live according to our own expectations of what we want to be and who we want to be.
So few people are happy in any job they have because they always feel as if they should be someone or somewhere else. They want to have a different life, to be another person and to have another job. They are not satisfied with who they are.
I am in the property business as well as the career business, and in this work, I often interview different people to do things for me such as maintain various properties. For example, one of the jobs I have for people is that of a full-time gardener. Every time I interview gardeners, I get TONS of applications from people who are unemployed in other professions, including sound engineers in studios, actors, and others. I have interviewed several of these types throughout the years. They typically show up to the interview and say something like this: “This is not what I want to do, but I am willing to do it until I get my next acting job.”
What the F*&^? This is what I am always asking myself. What employer in their right mind would hire someone who is “willing to do the job” but does not really want the job? Such persons will never be happy doing the job and will never enjoy what they are doing; therefore they probably will not do very good work. You need to be completely enthusiastic about whatever it is you are doing and choose to love it. No one in his right mind would hire someone who is doing something for the short term and does not really want to do it. Broadcasting those kinds of halfhearted intentions is simply bad for business.
About a month ago, I went with my wife to her high school reunion. She went to a very competitive, small private school in Los Angeles, incidentally where Paris Hilton and a lot of other famous kids also went. In addition, most of the kids from her class became lawyers, doctors, veterinarians, and other high-profile professions (my wife is a lawyer too). Most of the kids also went to schools like Stanford and so forth. The people I met were all really nice and seemed pretty down to earth, despite their great pedigrees and extremely obvious competitive natures.
My wife and I were getting ready to leave, when a guy who had graduated from my wife’s school around 10 years before she did, came up to us. He was dressed poorly compared to the other people (wearing jeans and a T-shirt–not a suit like the other men), and he also seemed a bit happier and less concerned. He handed me a card and I could scarcely believe it. He was not a doctor, lawyer, or anything of the sort but worked in a surf shop in Malibu. He had found a good job and a happy life working in a surf shop, nothing more and nothing less. This seemed incredible to me; here this guy was, surrounded by all these professional sorts of classmates–but it was true. I was incredibly impressed with him, more so than all of the other attendees.
What is so special about the man working in the train station? What is the message here that the book is trying to tell us? I think the real message is that people can be incredibly happy when they can just do their job and stop worrying about the outside influences and what others think. There is nothing wrong with working at whatever job you are doing. There is nothing wrong with not making as much money as the next guy. There is nothing wrong with not being perceived as being in a prestigious profession by others.
People can never be happy when they are concerned with what others are thinking and doing, or what others think of them. Most of us seem to be doing everything we can to move toward others’ ideas of perfection, and in the process we deny ourselves our own happiness. There is something very wrong and wholly unnatural about going through life not feeling good about your profession or whatever it is that you do–all due to others.
There is incredible value in being content and happy with yourself, wherever and whoever you are.
Filed Under : Staying Positive