I went with my neighbor Nancy to the monthly meeting of the chamber of commerce in the small, rural California town in which we live. The chamber accepts both individuals and businesses for membership, and I planned to join. The official greeter, the person who would be presenting visitors and potential new members to the group, asked me how I wanted to be introduced.
“You could say that I’m Nancy’s friend and that I’ve lived locally for twenty years,” I replied.
“Fine,” said the greeter. “We’re glad to have you.” And then she went on to welcome the folks behind me at the door.
Nancy and I found seats at one of the twenty or so trestle tables set in rows spanning the length of the hall. “You sit at the end,” Nancy said. “That way, it will be easier for you to stand up when your name gets called.”
At that moment, my mind registered that it felt challenged. Not hugely challenged, but enough to notice. Suddenly, it had a project to accomplish. It had to manage my feelings as I prepared to be singled out by name and to stand up in a roomful of strangers. Because I regularly stand up in front of groups of people—and even stay standing to teach—I was amused by the frissonof concern in my mind, and also seriously interested in it.
All I needed to do was stand up for a few seconds, be identified as Nancy’s neighbor, and sit back down. Still, my mind was busy making thoughts: Would I be the first to be called? I hoped so. That way, it would be over with. Was I underdressed? Some people, I noted, had dressed up. I, thinking, “This is Tuesday-night supper in the Grange Hall,” had come casually dressed. And shouldn’t I have told the greeter something more to say about me? Shouldn’t I have said something to explain why it had taken me twenty years of living locally to enter into the chamber of commerce? Would that seem like a slight?
I thought of my teacher, Joseph Goldstein, thirty years ago quoting the philosopher Wei Wu Wei: “If there is anyone at home to suffer, they will.” I thought about how, five minutes earlier, I’d been one of 150 or so relaxed people milling into the Grange Hall, not needing to be anyone or appear in any particular way, and how my own mental habits had created a problem.
I got called on first. I stood up, smiled, and sat down. Big burst of applause for nothing other than being Nancy’s neighbor and wanting to join the chamber. I felt great. Also, relieved. I watched, listened, and applauded as the other visitors were introduced. Some of them needed to be coaxed into standing. Others blushed. I realized what a big deal it is just to be looked at and acknowledged. I also thought about how pleasant it is to be applauded just for being a person.
Afterward, I recalled having a similar thought just the previous week, at the end of a hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation retreat at which I was teaching. During the retreat I’d noticed that Richard, one of the participants who I knew to be a professional photographer, had taken photos of the group in some of the yoga sessions. He was very discreet, and no one seemed to notice or to mind.
At the last evening party after the close of the retreat, Richard set up his computer on a table and ran a continuous slide show of the hundreds of photos from the retreat. I was aware that something was happening when I heard the squeals of delight: “There I am!” “There you are!” “Look at us!” “I didn’t know anyone was taking my photo.”
I viewed the slide show several times during the evening and heard my own thoughts (some laudatory, some derogatory) about how I looked when my photo appeared and I heard other people saying out loud: “Oh good, I look great!” “Oh dear, I look awful!” Mostly, though, I was touched by how much whether or not I was in a particular photo made a difference to me (and apparently to everyone else). Being seen, and being applauded just for being a person, makes a difference. It makes problems, too—“If there is anyone at home to suffer, they will”—but there’s a reward in being acknowledged as part of a group, not isolated in worry but connected in friendship.