Monday, February 26, 2007

Lessons of the Jacket

I don't know why, but ever since I can remember, I have favored scruffy, beat-up clothes. My grandparents almost disowned me a few times for getting my new white tennis shoes intentionally dirty on their first trip out of the house. If I had a shoelace that could come untied, a shirt tail that could come untucked, or a sweater that could be stretched out, you can bet what would happen. Haircuts also remain one of my least favorite activities.

Gwen, however, loves the sheen of new things, which is one of the reasons we get along so well. We happen to wear the same size shoe and usually fit into the same jackets, so traditionally, when she wears out a cool pair of sneakers I get them, nicely broken in and looking sufficiently scruffy. With this system I have only bought two new pairs of shoes in 7 years! (At times, however, the system stings, like when my bicycle was stolen, so Gwen got a new bike and gave me her old rusty one)

Well, last Christmas, Gwen and I were doing some painting in the studio. It was cold and we were wearing our jackets inside. Gwen leaned up against a window frame, and when she turned around, skunklike, she had two streaks of white going down the back of her one year old down-filled Columbia Sports jacket. Ha ha, she was mad! But I knew that before the winter was up that jacket would be on my back! And the two streaks down the back were just the kind of character I like in my clothes.

So, I was really happy. That jacket was warm, light, and looked cool on me. And one of the best things about it was that in addition to a standard zipper it had magnets sewn into the lining that automatically went together. So, if you were just going out for a short trip you just let the jacket button itself up with the magnets. It even came with a hood that snapped on and protected you all the way up to your nose with mess free magnets. It was the coat of the future, and it was going to be mine, all mine, as soon as Gwen figured out that it was going to impossible to get white wall paint off of a dark gray polyester jacket.
So, this winter, as the weather turned cold I reached for Gwen's old Columbia jacket which she had of course passed on to me. Little was I to know that it would also be my curse.

It started with one of my bank cards, which suddenly wouldn't work in the ATM. I didn't think much of it, applied for a new card, and went on with my business. Then it was my point-card from the supermarket, and then my credit card which stopped working. These things were happening a few weeks apart so I didn't really put it together. One day the key to the yoga studio, which is kind of like one of those hotel key cards, stopped working. I took it to the landlord, and they explained sometimes the keys lose their magnetic charge. They recharged it, but a few days later it stopped working again. I figured the guy didn't put a strong enough charge on it the first time and took it back. After just two days the studio key stopped working again, on the same day as another bank card, all of which was on a busy Tuesday when I had to pay rent and do a dozen things before going to my second job. It made an already stressful day unbearable.

I went to the bank to try and get yet another new ATM card, my number was 316, and the current number was something like 290. I was really frustrated and trying to think about what was messing up all my cards. Was my apartment in the middle of some kind of high voltage zone? Was someone trying to steal my bank information from a remote scanner? Maybe it was the Suica train pass scanner that I used to get through the train gates, didn't those idiots know they were erasing peoples' data!!? Someone needed to write them a nasty letter!

So I was sitting there, stewing, when I noticed the metal chain that attaches to my wallet was sticking to my jacket. I had actually noticed this many times, had even played with it sometimes, seeing how hard I had to pull to make the chain come loose from the magnets in the lining. But this time I really noticed. Metal chain. Magnetic coat. Erased magnetic data. Could it be? The magnets in the coat were so small. And it's not like I went around rubbing my credit cards against my jacket.

Still I decided to pay close attention to the jacket in relation to my wallet (the studio key is also attached to my wallet by the way) For the next few days I tried to take note of how the wallet was interacting with the jacket. It wasn't long before I was paying for some groceries at the supermarket when I saw it.

The cashier was handing me some change, which I was going to put in the change pocket of my wallet. But having only two hands, I was pressing the wallet against my chest to better open the change compartment. See picture below...
...thereby pressing all the cards and my key right against the magnets, anytime I got change. And it was happening more and more often as the winter went on because I was wearing the jacket more and more. Mystery solved. I stopped wearing the coat, put on some extra layers, and haven't had a problem since.

What does this have to do with anything? Strange as it sounds, that jacket taught me a lot. Here are some of the lessons of the jacket, from least to most profound.

  • Beware of shortcuts in life. Having magnets on my jacket saved me at most, 1 minute of zipping up during the winter I wore it. Contrast that to the 5 or 6 hours I spent replacing cards and keys during the same time. The same thinking applies to the time you "save" eating fast food, in relation to the weeks or years that kind of food will ultimately cut out your life with visits to the doctor and time in the hospital.
  • Learning to love long lines. It was at about this time, when I was spending hours in lines to replace my erased cards, that I heard a zencast podcast with Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal in which he talked about how waiting in line is a great time to just be happy in the moment. He said when someone says to you "Sorry to have kept you waiting" try saying "Please, don't apologize, I was enjoying just sitting here." Sounds cheesy, but it really worked for me and continues to take the stress out of waiting in lines.
  • Finding some "bells of mindfullness" in daily life. In some styles of Buddhism, when you go on retreat sometimes they will ring the bell at a few random times throughout the day. When you hear the bell, you quietly stop what you're doing, take a few deep breaths, and come fully into the present moment. And of course, if you do this several times a day the mindfullness seeps into your actions even without the reminder bell. In that period when I was trying to figure out how my jacket could be affecting my bank cards, every time I was wearing the jacket and had my wallet out I was paying close attention, and, without planning it, I was coming back to the present moment. The wallet/jacket combo was a bell of mindfullness that rang a few times a day. Some other ideas I've heard include being mindful: everytime the phone rings/ everytime you stop at a red light/ everytime you hear the jangle of your keys/ everytime you hear a police or ambulance siren/ everytime you wash your hands/ everytime you hear your new email signal/ everytime you see a baby/ everytime you see a Volkswagon Beetle/ everytime you turn on a light. Really it's up to your imagination. Just make sure it's not something that happens too frequently or infrequently. About 6 times a day is good.
  • The universe is not malignant towards anyone. At my most frustrated I was actually entertaining the idea that someone was tampering with my wallet just to spite me. As soon as I figured out that it was my jacket, all that outward directed anger evaporated. In her book Everyday Zen which I was rereading at the time of all of this, Charlotte Joko Beck gives us a great image. Imagine we are out on a foggy lake rowing our new boat and having a wonderful time. Suddenly, out of the mist, another boat comes straight towards us and we collide. At first, there is a lot of anger. "Look where you're going! I just painted this boat! Don't you have any sense!" But then we see through the fog that the other rowboat is empty. In a flash all of that anger is gone, and we immediately relax. "Oh well. Stuff happens. I'll just have to repaint it." Joko Beck's point is that all of the interactions we have in our lives are with empty rowboats. If a child kicks you in the shin, or someone lets you down, none of these things are attacks against you. It's just the universe playing itself out. To go around constantly feeling put upon is not only useless, but sends your stress levels through the roof, and makes others around you suffer. So when things don't go your way, remember how crazy you look yelling at an empty rowboat.
All of these lessons from a piece of outerwear! Truly, wisdom is open to us every day and in every thing. Just be open and ready to hear it, and for heaven's sake don't always hold your cards so close to your chest!


Yoga Garden

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