I’m going to quit my job,” I told my meditation teacher. We were having a check-in midway through my first Vipassana retreat. The retreat was ten days long, and I felt a little trapped inside of it, which seemed like a normal reaction. After it was over, and I had returned to real life, all of my friends and colleagues wanted me to tell them every little detail, following up with, “I don’t think I could handle being silent for that long.” But for me, the silence wasn’t even close to the hardest part. It may sound boring, but the hardest part for me was the physical agony from sitting cross-legged all day. That, and the internal conflict that would come post-retreat.
“Don’t quit your job,” responded my meditation teacher. “People on their first Vipassana retreat often feel compelled to make such rash decisions,” she continued. Some people, like me, want to quit their jobs, while others want to give all their money away. Still others perceive the retreat as something negative, an evil problem; they try to “roll up their mat” and leave.
I understood what she was saying, and why she was saying it. But, of everyone else in this situation who ever wanted to quit their job, how many worked in a vocation that was as expressly irreligious as mine? I had the five precepts written down on a sheet of printer paper I kept folded into quarters and tucked inside a notebook; the fifth read, I undertake to train myself to abstain from taking substances that cause intoxication to the point of heedlessness. I read the sentence over and over, trying to find a loophole in the law. There wasn’t one, and this was a problem for me. I am a sommelier.
Pre-retreat, back when I had first committed myself to Buddhist practice, I immediately swore off alcohol, rebranding myself as a “sober somm.” I found this period of sobriety personally nourishing but limiting professionally. There is only so much wine one can spit into a paper cup.
My relationship with sobriety was just the tip of the iceberg. Having taken the bodhisattva vow, I had in one arena of my life committed myself to help lead all sentient beings toward the goal of perfect enlightenment, yet in another, I was dazzling said beings with the allure of wine— not just a regular old intoxicant but one that carried alongside it the promise of a certain wordly elegance. Coming up against this from a bodhisattva’s perspective, I felt a new kind of powerlessness. My teacher was wrong, I was sure of it. I had to quit my job!
When I returned to work after the Vipassana retreat, I was disappointed to discover that things were even bleaker than I thought. Over the course of my retreat, the scrappy hole-in-the-wall wine bar where I had worked for the past year and a half had relocated to a broad, white-walled former garage in an area of town known for nightlife, thus acquiring a more party-forward clientele and nearly quadrupling in size. Though the space was impressive, it was the polar opposite of the rustic retreat center I had grown used to. The room was adrenaline-fueled, accented in flashy, hot pink neon; I called it a “vodka and cocaine lounge,” which was only sort of a joke. Working my first evening service in the new space, time moved at a pace I couldn’t keep up with, and as I doggie-paddled my way through the swampy summer night, my coworkers took shots of tequila in the back room.
I remembered back to several years prior, when I’d spent time on a vineyard in Galicia, Spain. The winemaker spoke zero English, and I spoke even less Spanish. I asked him questions by using the Google translate feature on my phone, which was complicated and annoying, but revelatory in how it forced us to cut out all but what was completely necessary. The winemaker was unromantic, a bona fide skeptic, but farmed according to the biodynamic calendar simply because “it worked.” One tenant of biodynamic farming is that the growth cycles on vineyards and farms are directly linked to the lunar cycle and other astronomical events, and that planting, cultivation, and harvest should be accordingly timed.
It soothed me to consider the laws of biodynamics. A bottle of wine on a table in a restaurant might be an emblem of materialism, an enabler of heedlessness, but somewhere, to somebody, it is an extension of the moon. There is a depth to wine—a series of stories stored in roots, leaves, and vines, shaped by sunlight, perfected by the human touch—that I refuse to condemn. Winemaking is a holistic process, the passing of a torch, an energy, from a plant to a person—from the vineyard to the winery to my hands, then to someone else’s. This is what I give people—how they utilize that gift, I cannot control. And I accept that.
I have since changed restaurants, relocating to a neighborhoody French bistro that is much more my speed, and at this point, I can’t imagine leaving my profession. I never had some life-changing light bulb moment wherein I explicitly decided to stay; rather, I simply continued to practice Buddhism daily, and, over time, the benefits of my practice canvassed all aspects of my life.
To practice amidst such chaos is the real gift, a thousand times more fulfilling than succumbing to the easy allure of that faraway hilltop.
Now I think it is more profound to work mindfully as a sommelier than it is to work carelessly at a profession that’s more pious on paper. Being immersed in an industry known for fussy customers, whose behaviors run the gamut from kooky dietary restrictions to straight-up rudeness, provides me with an opportunity to practice lovingkindness every day. In the past, I would react to rude comments with coldness, sass, or even condescension (“Oh my God, can you believe table four called the Pinot Noir full-bodied? I honestly can’t with them…”), then spend the rest of the night dwelling on the negative interaction, repeating the details of the irritating event to my coworkers. I might have even continued to cycle through it, getting angrier and angrier, over drinks after my shift. Today, I find it much easier to slow down—a direct benefit of daily meditation practice—and take care to actually listen to the guest, rather than reacting impulsively or placing immediate blame. This almost always results in a positive outcome! It seems so obvious, yet still took me decades to put into practice.
Of course, there’s no excuse for the borderline cruelty hospitality employees deal with so regularly, but I do find that approaching such situations with patience and empathy tends to mollify the painful responses more effectively than fighting fire with fire. And, if nothing else, it always helps to remember that everything is impermanent—even snarky customers.
Gone are the days when what I loved most about working in restaurants was the nervousness and buzz of it all, the escape of existing in a wholly reactive state. When I relished the drawn-out panic attack of a busy service, and believed that upholding a similarly frantic temperament was paramount to my professional success. When I responded to work emails on nights off, answered phone calls from floor managers in the middle of family dinners, and woke up in the middle of the night wondering if I’d remembered to lock the restaurant’s front door. When I was never not stressed.
I’ve also moved past the days when I first found Buddhism and boomeranged in the complete opposite direction. I couldn’t believe I had been living my life bogged down by such pointless stress, and all I wanted to do was run away and escape the trivial material world to go meditate on top of a hill somewhere, ideally forever. What spiritual progress could I ever accomplish while wearing eyeliner in a devastatingly chic wine bar?
In the end, the answer is: “A lot?” Over time, the lines between practicing and not-practicing have dissolved. Yes, I exist in an erratic and bizarre little world of dirty martinis and bad decisions, but to practice amidst such chaos is the real gift, a thousand times more fulfilling than succumbing to the easy allure of that faraway hilltop. Not that I want to rule out the possibility of the hilltop entirely—it does sound like my best-case-scenario retirement plan—but until that day comes, I practice Buddhism so I can share the benefits of my practice with the people who surround me, and not just keep them all to myself.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.