How do we give better customer service? That might sound like an odd topic for a rabbi to bring up, but actually, good customer service is an essential spiritual practice – one that doesn’t just apply to performing a profession but to all of the difficult interactions we have with people in life. When you pick up the phone – whether the person on the other end is a relative, a friend or a client – you might find they have things to say that you just don’t want to hear.
Our natural response is defensiveness. We feel attacked because our actions are being critiqued or because we feel we are personally being criticized. That raises our hackles, and even if the person has something constructive to say – even if they are right and we are wrong – it makes us less able to see it because our ego (our sense of self) gets in the way.
One of the things the rabbis teach is that in order to make ourselves ripe for spiritual learning we must first make ourselves “like the ownerless desert.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:6)
What does it mean to be “like the ownerless desert?” I think it means to ask who the “me” I think I am really is.
We all experience a “stream of consciousness.” There are so many voices and thoughts in our head. We notice sights, sounds and sensations. We respond to things said by people around us. Sudden inspiration or a totally random thought will often leap into the mix. Just sit quietly for a few minutes and watch what your mind does and you’ll see that keeping track of it all is a dizzying task.
With so much going on inside our minds, is “me” the one speaking all those hundreds of thoughts and feelings? Can you pin down exactly which bit of your stream of consciousness is “you?” Some spiritual teachers suggest that we are in fact just observers watching that torrent of thoughts, emotions and sensations.
So where does that leave that “me” voice that gets defensive? Where does that leave the “me” voice that gets offended? I believe that to make yourself ownerless is to let go of ownership of the idea that there is a “you” to get offended in the first place.
A note of caution: If a person behaves in an abusive fashion, we must of course take steps to remedy the situation. The question is, do we need to take their actions personally?
Letting go of the idea that there is a “you” to be offended, known as “bittul” in Jewish sources, is not an easy spiritual practice. It’s one I find challenging every single day. It’s one I inevitably fail at, at some point, every single day. However, I firmly believe it comes with some incredible advantages for our lives.
First of all, it lets us hear constructive criticism without getting upset. After all, if there is no “me,” there is no need to get defensive.
Secondly, when someone behaves in an insulting manner, we don’t have to take it personally – after all, there is nobody there to insult. It’s a bit like the old story of the serpent in the blacksmith’s shop. It slithers along but inevitably gets scratched by an iron comb. Enraged that another animal would deliberately attack it, the serpent tries to bite the comb but only succeeds in blunting its teeth. Similarly, an insult hurled across an empty room just bounces harmlessly off the wall.
Thirdly, if there’s no “me” to get offended, then there’s also no “me” to bear grudges. Bearing grudges can cause years of heartache and hurt us profoundly. Instead, this approach frees us to see if we can build a better relationship with the person who we had that difficult interaction with.
So here’s my challenge to each of us: Let’s sit and watch our stream of consciousness. Let’s try to pin down that thing we call “me.” If we can’t, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to give up on it occasionally.