The Y-axis of life

This weekend was the first time, in a long time, that I’ve given myself a proper day of rest. A Sabbath.

I invited my friend Alex to New York City for Shabbat dinner, and he said YES! We spent the day slowing down together.


But the day wasn’t all lollipops and rainbows. Like any other day, there were moments of darkness…

Alex and I sat in a restaurant as the rain drizzled outside. The waiter brought us our platter of Ethiopian food. It was time to wash our hands and dig in. 

“Where’s the bathroom?” Alex asked.

“It’s out of commission,” said the waiter. “A pipe burst and it flooded.” 

“Is there any other bathroom we can use?” I asked. 

“You can try next door.”

I went to the restaurant next door, but they were closed. I came back and told the waiter the news, asking if he had other ideas. He racked his brain, but came up with nothing. 

“I don’t know what to tell you…” he said.

What? went my internal monologue. How can this place not have something as basic as a bathroom. I kept quiet, but my face did the talking. The stink bubbled from my eye.

“You can use the hand sanitizer,” said the waiter. I looked at the bottle suspiciously: it had antibiotics. Then I picked it up to take to our table.

“That’s for everyone to use. You have to leave it here,” admonished the waiter. 

The nerve! I thought. 

But ultimately, after a few minutes, I forgot about the bathroom. Alex and I started to talk and eat. Our conversion was vast and meandering. After a while, it wandered into a dark place, casting a negative light on someone we knew.

“We’re bonding by othering,” Alex pointed out. 

Shit, I realized. He’s right.

“When I was 23, I spent a summer working as a fireman. Everyone on the crew made me the odd-man out,” Alex said. 

“I felt terrible about myself constantly, so I would repeat to myself: ‘I am not a bad person, I am not a bad person.’ Anyways, the summer ended and I got over it, but it sucked…

“A few years later, one of the people who had bullied me invited me over to his house. He’d moved up in the ranks, had a house, his wife was pregnant. He took me into his man-cave, and gave me a can of beer. He looked me in the eyes and said: ‘A few summers after you left, I became the manager of that fire brigade. The squad made me the bad guy, just like we made you the bad guy. I felt really shitty about myself during that time. I want you to know that I feel bad about the way I made you feel. I’m really, really sorry.’

“It was an honest apology, and we both felt great afterwards,” said Alex.

Suddenly, it dawned on me: “I think I want to apologize to the waiters,” I said. “It’s not their fault that the bathroom flooded. They aren’t plumbers. They’re just working a shift…”

So, before we left the restaurant, I went up to the waiters and said: “I just realized that I was putting out a pissy energy earlier, and I wanted to say I’m sorry. Also, the food was really good.”

The waiters’ faces softened. “It’s all good,” they said. And something in me softened too.

On the way back home, Alex and I listened to a meditation in the car. Over the speaker, Ram Dass’ voice told us where to point our minds:

“[There’s] a quality of radiance coming from your own heart. Now imagine everybody in this room has exactly that same place in the middle of their heart…All of us, the same, in that way, and yet so different in all that surrounds that heart. If you knew that in every human being there was that quality of spirit and truth and that’s what you focused on when you met another person, how different would that be? 

Now expand to all the people you came upon today. In the subways, on the streets, in meetings, in offices, in bed. At the dinner table, at newstands…and think of each of those people as another point of light, as a container containing an essence, a quality of softness, of caring, of warmth, of light. 

Think of the people you’ve interacted with today. Think of how often, how frequently or infrequently you remembered the light that is in the center of the container?

Sometimes the container is so opaque that you can’t see the light. People say to you, ‘I’m the container, and when you remember you say to them: ‘No, you’re the light.’

Now look at yourself through today. How often did you remember that light that is the center of your being? How often were you quiet enough, or was there a pause long enough, for you to remember. Because unless you can see your own light, how can you truly see another’s? For it takes a light, to know a light.

Who did you meet today? Did you meet partners or children or parents or business people or people asking for money or social workers or kids or trouble makers or politicians or newspaper vendors? 

Is that who you met? Or did you meet the light, in all of its various ways of being contained?”

Ram Dass

Listening to the meditation, I saw how frequently I miss the opportunity to see people’s light, their wholeness. Sitting around the Shabbat table on Friday night, I saw the people across from me as all beautiful. I saw their light. This moment of seeing was a rare glimpse, not where I live.

Even on a very relaxed Saturday, I had othered an acquaintance in casual conversation, as well as the waiters in the restaurant. 

Alex and I walked down the street, and we saw maple trees shedding yellow leaves.

“There could be two trees of the same type, but one is shedding its leaves and one isn’t,” said Alex.

I was reminded of another Ram Dass quote: how people don’t judge trees for being tall or short or misshapen, but we judge people all the time…

There’s an idea from stoicism called “the dichotomy of control.” The gist is that we can’t control if the bathroom is broken or if we have a negative reaction to someone. But we can control if we seek to see the light in others and ourselves, or not.

The new year is approaching. This is usually the time I start thinking about my past year and how it went. I’ve been very diligent, the last two years, about reflecting. I would look at “Annual Review” templates online, and ask myself a million questions about my year. Now, having done these reviews for the last two years, I’ve realized that the million questions are really all versions of the same one: Am I living well? 

Let’s back up a bit: what does living well mean?

A common metaphor for life is a graph, with many ups and downs:

Calculating the area under a curve using Riemann sums - Math Insight

The X axis is “time,” but what is the Y axis?

I used to think that the Y axis was something like experience. Now, I’m starting to think that the Y axis is something else…

When the Dalai Llama was asked if he was afraid when Tibet was captured by Chinese soldiers, he said, “Yes, I feared I would lose compassion for my captors.” This is a very profound quote for me, because the Dalai Llama did not fear an unpleasant experience or outcome, he feared succumbing to bad intentions, to a loss of compassion.

Living well, for me, is about having good intentions. I see intention as the Y axis of life. I could be in prison, but if I am cultivating good intentions, then I am free. Conversely, I could be eating fabulously flavored Ethiopian food and hanging out with my friend all day, but if I’m badmouthing people and sending off pissy vibes to the waitstaff, then I’m in a mental prison. I’ve lost my compassion.

We overemphasize the external in our society. The goals accomplished, the beautiful experiences. Good intentions, seeing the light in ourselves and others – this is not instagrammable. But intention is the measure of goodness in life. Without good intentions, we are in hell, even though externally, it might look like heaven.

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