Martine & Stephen


When my family first bought a phone in 1965, it was a major event.  It was a new and foreign object in the house.  Not a simple object like a fridge or a cooker but one that offered instant communication.  In those days whenever the phone rang, a real commotion occurred.  The ring of the phone seemed to be demanding instant response.  All at once everyone used to leave whatever he or she were doing to rush to answer it.  Nowadays when we hear the phone ring we are more likely to leave the answering machine on to check who is calling.  From a foreign object to a convenience to possibly a nuisance, the phone has become an integral part of our daily life. 

As the voices race through the telephone wires, instant communication takes us over and seems to hurry us along.  We start to live our life on the phone: organising, planning, plotting, and complaining, even raging.  Now with mobile phones, we have instant mobile communication.  In these circumstances, the phone can actually stop us from being able to be on our own, to be present to what surround us, to respond to the concrete situation in front of us as we are glued to one ear listening to somewhere else.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, suggests a whole practice around the phone in order not to be rushed off your feet and also to be more present to yourselves.  It was fascinating while staying a month with friends in America who used this technique to watch them answering the phone.  They were very busy people, who gave a lot of themselves and had many responsibilities.  Whenever the phone rang, they would wait three rings before answering even if they were next to the phone.  The first ring, they would use as a bell of awareness and stop to be fully present to this moment – standing in the kitchen by the phone.  The second ring, they would breathe deeply and on the third ring they would open their heart to whoever was ringing and then they would unhook the phone and answer.  If they were further away from the telephone they would breathe deeply on each ring.

I find this technique interesting at the level of redirecting our reflexes.  When we hear the phone ring, what do we do?  Do we jump and run, even with our hands full of soapy water?  We don’t have to rush to answer the phone.  We can take our time.   In the same way we would appreciate if someone took their time to breathe and cultivate a good intention when we phone them.  The more we give in to the myth that things must happen instantaneously, the more impatient we are likely to become, with all the irritations and stresses this implies.  A meditative attitude towards instant communication would see the benefit of the communication but play and experiment with what instant means. 

The phone can become a tool of awareness and even compassion.  At the beginning we have to become conscious of how we use and respond to the telephone in our daily life.  We might have a cool and calm attitude or our response might stress us.  If we have already a calm attitude, we can expand it by cultivating a compassionate attitude as well.  If we have a stressful response, we need to allow ourselves to respond in a different way.  We are not stuck; we can change and transform. A very simple expressed intention can make a big difference to the way we respond.

The first thing is to realise that when the phone ring we can meditate, walk slowly and reach for it.  The second thing is to have a more open and caring mind because this is beneficial for you and others as well. Nowadays there are numerous double glazing proposals or new deals being touted over the phone.  We can put the phone down harshly or we can answer kindly.  The people at the other end of the phone are only doing their jobs, something you might not want to have to do yourselves to earn your living.  At the same time you do not need to feel obliged to listen and buy a product you have no use for.  Then you have to strategize and think up creative ways of dealing with phone sales.  I try to be polite, thanking them for their calls but tell them that unfortunately I do not need their products. 

Are we startled when we hear the phone ring?  We could be lost in daydreams and fantasies. A phone call will actually bring us back to the present moment.  Then it acts as a meditation bell by enabling us to come back to ourselves and what surrounds us. Or we could have been suffering great distress due to a shock or a loss.  If we are in pain and cannot leave home, it can offer instant access and support.  Someone even continent away can be there for us.  A warm voice contacts us.  We are listened to and we can share our feelings.  We realise that we are part of a wider and caring world.  A phone ring could even be the cause of our awakening in the same way as the sound of a pebble striking a bamboo pole was for a Zen monk.

Long ago in China, a monk wanted to become awakened at all cost.  He tried so hard to sit in meditation day and night for many years.  But nothing would work.  He felt obstructed from all fronts.  Finally he decided to give up putting so much effort.  So he went to a hermitage to live a simple life while cultivating a garden to produce his food.  A few months later, as he was squatting in the field hoeing away, he hit a pebble that flew off and struck a bamboo pole.  When he heard the ‘ping’ it created, he was awakened to his own being and truth.

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