Why can a short conversation with a complete stranger bring me so much joy? I’m not 100% sure. I think that maybe, when I allow myself to truly be present with a stranger, I can be really curious to learn more about them and that is fun.
Chatting with a stranger is different from having a conversation with someone I have known for a long time. Neither of us have any expectations. It can be a bit like watching a great film unfold – I’m unsure of, and open to, what will happen next.
Dear reader, I had a lot of fun writing this one, so please enjoy my ramblings about how to truly be nourished by having a conversation with a stranger.
First off, let me recognize that not all conversations with strangers are joyful. That’s ok. Every so often, we have to let go of this hope.
For those times when you meet a stranger who is ready to have a pleasant conversation, I think there is an art to allowing that conversation to manifest.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “allow” lately. What can I allow myself to enjoy that I might not always give time or energy for?
I frequently have so many expectations that can colour a moment and influence my ability to relax. I have expectations that I need to get a task done in a certain amount of time or that I will finish a certain number of tasks in a day. I have expectations of how others will interact with me. I have expectations of myself about how I need to be around others.
All of these expectations can get in the way of me allowing myself to simply enjoy a moment.
I previously reflected on expectations in this post after watching a talk by Br. Phap Dung. In that talk, he described how he used to have all kinds of expectations of himself. He grew up in Los Angeles, and was influenced by the surrounding culture. He had expectations that he would go down a certain career path. He had social expectations of how he “should be” with his friends.
When he let go of these expectations, he found he was much freer. It opened up space for healing.
So, I ask myself, what expectations can I let go of, while talking to a stranger, to allow myself to experience joy at that moment?
Being present for strangers
When I’ve gone to a Plum Village practice centre for a retreat in the past, usually after I leave, I am noticeably more present for random people. I have slowed waaaaaay down in my mind.
Young children are excellent at noticing this – when you aren’t present with them, they tell you. Dear reader, maybe you know what it’s like to have someone fully present and listening to you versus daydreaming in their head?
So, after a retreat, I’m more patient with random people that I meet. I spend extra time with the store clerks who help me, I might smile to a stranger on the street more often, and I might strike up a more meaningful conversation with a waiter. I somehow see with different eyes and take in the humanity of others in a new way. It’s not something that is a conscious effort, it just seems natural.
I think that the barrier for me being present with strangers is typically that I have this idea that I need to move faster and get to the next, more important task. When this is how I am thinking, I can be quick to become frustrated with others for “slowing me down.”
If I remove the idea that I need to get to the next “more important task,” I can free myself to peacefully interact with another human being as a human.
Application: Grocery shopping
For example, I regularly enter a grocery store with the expectation that I will finish grocery shopping in 20 minutes. This expectation prevents me from enjoying a 30-second conversation with a stranger because my mind is in a rushing mode.
The question is, “why am I rushing, and to what end?” When I enjoy that 30-second conversation, it can have a positive impact on the rest of my day.
Grocery stores are a miracle
I treat grocery shopping as an inconvenience, and yet, when I really look at it, I see that it is a miracle! When I say miracle, I mean that it is miraculous, it’s spectacular, it’s beyond belief.
I can go to one place and get all these diverse foods prepared by so many people from around the world.
What an insane thing if you really think about it. I absolutely take grocery stores for granted.
Rushing past the clerk
So, getting back to strangers… if I am in a rushing mode when I get to the check-out, I don’t truly see the person there helping me. I only see the function they are providing.
They are simply there to help me exit the store – the slower they work, the more inconvenienced I am… I’m ashamed to admit it, but I can think like this sometimes.
This can be the collective consciousness in a grocery store. There are so many people rushing to get past each other, bumping into one and another, all while avoiding eye contact and interaction. It’s like we enter this place within the privacy of our own little world, and yet, it is a place where so many people co-exist.
What if, whenever I went into a grocery store, I started having patient conversations with whoever was in there?
It’s hard in a big city because I rarely ever see the same person twice while shopping. But, the people that I do see, over and over, are the folks working at the store. These are the people who help me enjoy this miracle of acquiring delicious food to take home.
I can enjoy a simple conversation with them.
My grocery store clerk earlier this week
Earlier this week, I was a bit stuck in my head with stress. I was ruminating and was having a tough time slowing down my non-stop thinking.
I knew I needed to practice slowing down, but I was having trouble. Then I had a conversation with a grocery store clerk. It was beautiful.
I had the at a time when not many other people were in the store, so no one was in line behind me. While she was ringing me through, I started chatting about enjoying the spring weather arriving. Even after I was ready to go, I stayed back a while and got to hear about her joy of sitting on a secret back patio at the store during her breaks.
It’s little things like this. We connected about enjoying the sun. What a simple conversation, and yet, I walked away from it smiling, and I think she did too.
We had a moment of real human connection. It’s so simple, so easy, and yet so often I don’t allow these moments to happen.
Conversations without baggage
I think when I’m having a conversation with a stranger, less of my baggage is present. I don’t have a previous relationship with them, so I don’t have expectations. I can be truly curious and present with them.
It’s a practice of aimlessness.
I’ve discussed aimlessness before on the blog (here’s an earlier post to check out), but I thought I’d review it here as well. It’s a concept within the Buddhist Psychology framework of The Three Doors of Liberation (for more on those, check out this episode of The Way Out Is In). The gist of it is, that by being aimless and not having an “aim” that we are grasping for, we can liberate ourselves. This is exactly like not having expectations on ourselves.
At that moment of having an aimless conversation with my grocery store clerk, I was liberated from my busy, frustrated, and anxious thinking. I was able to, for a moment, let go of expectations of myself (e.g. my to-do list for the entire day) and any expectations of what the conversation would be. This really helped me to get my head out of my butt. I was liberated!
I would argue that all of these small moments, of possible aimlessness, add up. It can start with a conversation with a stranger, and it can continue with the way in which we have patience for ourselves and our loved ones.
Having a conversation with a stranger is a great way to practice aimlessness in a conversation, and it is a transferrable skill. Imagine how lovely it would be to develop that style of aimless conversation for everyone we speak with!
So, dear reader, please do not underestimate the effect of taking a moment to pause, let go of your expectations for a certain moment, and meet the human across from you with your full presence and openness. You never know what joy will manifest.
I want to leave you with some final words from the scholar and zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh:
If reality is an interaction, an “interbeing,” how can we penetrate its essence? The Tsao-tung (Japanese: Soto) Zen sect teaches its practitioners just to observe, without judgment, without speculation. They say, “How can one conceive the inconceivable? Not thinking, that is the essence of Zen.” I like the Vietnamese words quan chieu because they include the idea of shining light on something in order to look at it—a looking free of all speculation, reasoning, interpretation, or evaluation. When the sun shines continuously on a lotus flower, it opens widely, revealing its seed-heart. In the same way, through the activity of looking, reality gently reveals itself. In meditation, the subject and object of pure observation are inseparable.
(The Sun My Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh (1988), p.32)
Truly being present for the grocery store clerk helps me to practice being truly open and curious to whatever will unfold in the present moment. I can have a moment that is beyond whatever expectation I might otherwise bring to such an every-day experience – beyond speculation or reason. At that moment, reality gently reveals itself.
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