Working alone, unobtrusively,
Practice like a fool, like an idiot.
Just to continue like this
is called the host within the host.
When Nicole and Naia moved out they left an empty bedroom. It occurred to me that this home, with its organic orchard and garden, where friends and family come to rest and be healed, that is permeated with art and color and shady trees, and layers of generations of people, dogs and cats, might be a place worth sharing. Being a private person, I never imagined opening up my home to strangers, and probably wouldn’t have done so were it not for airbnb. Although inviting strangers to share my private space was way out of my comfort zone, with airbnb I felt I could, perhaps, expand that zone. If I liked hosting I’d continue, if not I’d take my offer off the website. So, cautiously, I entered into hosting. My first guests were a mother, father and 4 year old boy from Columbia. They were elegant human beings, stunningly beautiful, intelligent and kind. The little boy ran around the back yard picking apples off the tree. When it was time for them to leave the little boy looked up at his mom and said, “This is my happy place.” An auspicious maiden voyage.
Since opening up my home to guests I’ve become fascinated with the question, what creates great hospitality? A friend told me about a vacation she took at one of the Ritz-Carlton hotels. She said a janitor opened the door to the store when, late at night, she needed something. His act of kindness made her vacation one of the most memorable she’d ever had. The Ritz-Carlton is heralded as one of the best hotel experiences in the world, out ranking other luxury hotels by way of their exceptional hospitality. Here are a few of the core values all of their employees, from the CEO to the janitor, recite each morning:
I am always responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.
I am empowered to create unique, memorable, and personal experiences for our guests.
I continuously seek opportunities to innovate and improve the Ritz-Carlton experience.
I own and immediately resolve guest problems.
I have the opportunity to continuously learn and grow.
I am proud of my professional appearance, language and behavior.
I am responsible for uncompromising levels of cleanliness and creating a safe and accident-free environment.
There is an air of generosity and selflessness about these vows, creating service that is infused with honor and thoughtfulness. The recitation of these vows by the Ritz-Carlton staff has some things in common with the recitation of the 4 vows at the beginning of Zen practice. Although both vows have a different basis, one is to provide great service and the other awakening, both vows set the tone for their respective environments. Both contain potent wisdom. Through following my own personal version of these vows I’ve learned a lot about myself, about happiness, about being a host, about being a guest and about being an open gracious human being. It’s not a bad business model either! My guests consistently give my home and service five star reviews.
The personal rewards of hosting are many. Through hosting I’ve stretched my capacity to accept others, just the way they are. I’ve become less judgmental, more tolerant of diversity, not just sexual and religious diversity, but psychological diversity. People show up in all sorts of containers-gruff, shy, stern, bubbly. I’ve learned to meet people where they are rather than expecting them to be the way I want them to be. I’ve become more selfless as I focus on my guest’s comfort. I’ve learned how to greet and how to bid farewell, when to move into someone’s space and when to allow for their solitude. I’ve learned to read my guest’s subtle body messages and move in and out of their space like an Aikido master. I’ve come to enjoy the pleasure of living in a beautiful space that’s always guest ready. One can see this sort of environmental beauty in the polished wood floors and simple flower arrangements found in Zen monestaries. Using home maintenance as a mindfulness practice infuses the work with purposeful, forward moving energy. While the monk is dusting the mantle he is also dusting his consciousness.
I used to envision spiritual practice as going off into a forest, monastery, or retreat center in order to sit quietly in a protected environment. But 40+ years in, spiritual practice looks more like a way of life than an event. As such, it contains all the same sorts of messy issues that everyday life contains. Like many others, I came to spiritual practice in an attempt to better control my environment, inner and outer. I wanted my life to be less messy, more peaceful. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the path isn’t so neat and tidy. Spiritual unfoldment is wild and unpredictable, all the things I was hoping to avoid through silent meditation. But, the ancestors have left us wisdom to navigate these wild seas. This wisdom can be found in the mystical echelons of all major religions. I’ve found the Zen wisdom to be particularly practical for use in everyday life. An example is the pocket koan, whatever arises, be the host. The practice of welcoming whatever, and whoever, appears in the moment becomes an ever-available door to freedom.
The host opens the door and lets the fresh breezes blow through her life. An entire form of Zen dialogue about host and guest was developed by Zen Master Lin-chi during the mid 800’s in China. Zen monks traveled from monastery to monastery to learn from different teachers. The teacher was the host, the mountain, and the student was the guest, the wind that blew through the mountains. The host invites the guest in, shares the best of what they have, and sees to their guest’s needs. The guest respects the host’s gifts, brings their full presence into the room. They come empty and willing to receive. The host is grounded in the bedrock of the numinous. From that vantage point she welcomes in her guests- the leaky faucets, the grumpy teenager, the sunny day, with kindness and curiosity. Everyone, everything, becomes her guest.
If the host’s practice is selflessness and generosity, the guest’s practice is gratitude and respect. When my dad was in my home dying he taught me a lot about the guest practice. Each morning, when I’d wake him up to give him his medicine, he’d look up at me with so much love in his eyes and say, “thank you” fully from his heart. He was afraid of being a burden when moving in with me. The opposite turned out to be true. He was a delight! He was sensitive to my home environment and contributed to the household any way he could. While he was dying he hired workmen to build my garage into an art studio. He gratefully picked figs and drank orange juice on the deck in the morning and found delight in things the way they were. His gratitude and gifts made his stay one of the best memories in my life.
Ours is a lonely culture. We’ve created little nuclear units where each person tries to make their homes into perfect environments for themselves and their immediate families. The cost for not sharing our bounty is isolation and loneliness. I’ve found that being a host, and being a guest, ameliorates the loneliness in my life. It connects me to the rest of the world in a positive, caring way. Considering the needs of one another and letting go of selfishness is one way to become both connected and free at the same time. I’ve learned how to be part of life rather than imagining myself as a solitary nuclear unit. Einstein wrote, “A human being is part of the whole…but he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest. This delusion is a kind of prison for us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion.” Hosting, and guesting, is one way great way to do this.
Like seaweed in the ocean, the host and guest move freely with the tides. The guest brings gifts chosen with the host in mind and respects the space that holds them. The host does her best to make the guest feel at home on their travels. The host stays in one place like a mountain, the guest moves in and out like the wind. In Zen there is a saying, “By the fireside there is no guest or host.” Eventually all roles, host and guest, are abandoned. There is no “other”.
As we move into the holiday season many of us will be hosts and many of us will be guests. I wish you much insight and joyful memories as you open up your door and enter the opened doors of others.