Hanging on the Telephone

Thich Nhat Hanh (Master Thay) is a Nobel Peace Prize winning Zen Buddhist monk. I love reading his work because it always practically inspires me, and his sense of humour is fabulous, particularly his take on humanity (mine, his and others).

He is spectacularly good at promoting telephone meditation. Stay with me.

Banks just don’t ‘do’ good telephone service

A 2013 customer satisfaction survey of Singapore conducted by the Singapore Management University Institute of Service Excellence noted that the bank and insurance industry customer satisfaction had dropped significantly, in comparison to other industries where it had increased (like the Health care sector).

The survey said … “This is a timely reminder for banks and insurers to review their products and service offerings on an ongoing basis to stay relevant to different customer segments, particularly since these were the two sub-sectors that registered significant year-on-year declines in customer satisfaction.”

A load of words with a pretty clear message.

And where I got to practice telephone meditation…

Just before Xmas, my partner’s credit card was hacked at a major hotel in US. He had bought some travel from a company in Austria and some other goods online while he was asleep.

Credit card take up in Singapore is approx 650,000 per annum, and total number of consumers with credit cards is 1.44 million (in a population of about 5 million). This means that nearly all Singaporeans have more than 2.  So this is big business.

Try and get a card replacement – it takes 10 days, even if you are platinum super star. Feelings are calamitous, but move to downright murderous, when you discover they have cancelled both you and your husband’s credit cards, despite having been assured by a faceless customer service centre staff person that one (i.e. mine) was not affected by the fraud. Add another 10 days please, don’t bother asking to expedite this process, not possible la, even when they got it wrong.

And a form, oh the forms – actually, husband needs to sign it because you are on a DP (Dependent Spouse Pass), and cannot be responsible for your own credit card. He is in Machu Pichhu, enjoying the views.


Before telephone meditation

Practice makes perfect, my great-grandmother used to say..

Lucky for the customer service people and me, I had been reading Master Thay’s works on telephone meditation. I may have been feeling murderous (this feeling did come and go, but was a constant during this time) however a little mantra in his book transformed the way I spoke. Although customer satisfaction did increase since 2013 in the finance sector, it was led by the life insurance sub-sector.  Complaints have increased. I was one of them.

But something changed in the way those anonymous service operators treated me, when I spoke with this mantra in my heart. Conversation became, well, more human.

‘Words can travel many miles; they build understanding and mutual acceptance between ourselves and others; I vow that my words will be like gems; I vow that my words will be like flowers in all circumstances and under all conditions.’

Before making any telephone call to this bank, I would read and reread these words, until I felt their meaning.  Sometimes, it might take a few minutes – this was the murderous days  – other times, a few seconds.  And then I would make the call.

I stuck this mantra to my laptop, and on my iPhone as a screensaver. For a whole two months.


Me after telephone meditation – well, you get the drift…

Maybe you don’t have an issue with your bank, but I can guarantee there will be times when you are on the phone to someone and, suddenly, the conversation heats up.

Master Thay recommends practicing yogic breathing with the mantra. Breathing in, you say: ‘Words can travel many miles;’ breathing out: ‘They build up more understanding and mutual acceptance;’ breathing in, ‘I vow that my words will be like gems;’ breathing out, ‘I vow that my words will be fresh like flowers.’

Ok, may feel a little weird to be doing this. But watch the change.

Loving speech is a very good practical example of mindfulness. That is what you are really reminding yourself of while you breathe in and out and recite the mantra.

Telephone meditation is great for a family to practice together. If everyone agrees to it. If one person still talks, or runs to answer the telephone, it wouldn’t work. Children practise telephone meditation well. It’s a game, right? When they hear the telephone ring, they stay where they are and breathe in, and breathe out calmly, smiling. And then they answer with loving speech. But parents? Sometimes it is not the young’uns hooked.

Master Thay said, if everyone in London practised telephone meditation, there would be more peace and happiness in the city. See what I mean about his humour? London people need telephone meditation. Maybe Singapore finance people too?

“You can make a person float for several days if you say something that inspires free confidence and happiness.” Thich Nhat Hanh


An excerpt of this article was published in the January 2016 edition ANZA Magazine, Singapore

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