Shambhala Sun | March 2014
The Work of the Moment
Like the monk who
strived so hard he couldn’t see the goddess right behind him, if we push too
hard for results we miss what is most intimate. When we and our work are one,
says ROSHI PAT ENKYO O'HARA, even the most mundane of life’s activities are profound
Several years ago,
I was in the Catskills with a colleague, celebrating the completion of a
two-and-a-half-year project. It was summer, and it can get very hot in the
Catskills, so we were sitting on the veranda of my friend’s place with tall
glasses of iced tea and stacks of novels. We had worked really hard on this project, and we
were ready for relaxation. As we sat there, I kept looking to the side of the
house at a hillside entirely overgrown with shoulder-high tarweeds, the kind of
weeds with leaves that are sticky to the touch. They had so completely taken
over the hillside that they were killing all the other native plants.
even thinking, I rose up out of my chair, got some tools, walked up the hill,
and began pulling up and cutting away the weeds. I worked up there for the next
three days, covered in sweat and sticky pitch, my hands stinging because I
didn’t have any work gloves. My colleague couldn’t believe me; she could easily
have had her caretaker do it. However, I remember it as a time of rapture, of
enormous, satisfying pleasure. It wasn’t about “work” as we usually understand
the word; it was about my whole body and mind being fully with the smell of the
tarweed as I pulled and hacked away at it. It was about complete mergence with
that hillside, not thoughts of how it would look later, but a complete
at-oneness with what I was doing in a most profound and beautiful way.
That’s how I
experience intimacy with work, even when the work is challenging. Spreadsheets,
for example, are hard for me to understand and manipulate, and I find myself
butting up against the software, asking stupid questions, and so on. Still,
being immersed in that kind of work can also be a source of joy.
The word work is
apparently about five thousand years old, and from the beginning—in its
Proto-Indo-European version, werg—it simply referred to “something being
done.” How are we in relation to this something being done in our daily lives?
What is the heart of our work? What are the qualities surrounding our something
Work can mean our
career or simply how we make money; it can be our calling (our “life’s work”)
or simply our functioning in the world: cleaning the zendo floor, making the
beds, doing the dishes.
I like to think of
work as what we do; it is the activity of the life we live.
Work is any
activity we’re engaged in that requires our energy and focus, whether or not
we’re paid for it. We all know you can work really hard for no money. There’s
work in the marketplace, and there’s work at home. There’s paid work and unpaid
work. When I was a young woman, I took a few years off from the university and
learned so much about the world. I learned to cook, to paint, and to write
poetry; I tried my hand at pottery; I did canning; I gardened; I sold organic
vegetables; I learned to quilt; I even sewed my husband’s shirts by hand. Then
I’d go to a party, and someone would ask me, “What do you do?” And because what
I was doing had no value in the marketplace (even though I was experimenting
and learning and full of creative energy), I felt like saying, “I don’t do
anything.” But I was working twelve hours a day on all my projects. Amazing!
What is valid work?
I know a woman who is a wonderful writer. I met her because she walks dogs for
my neighbors in the apartment building where I live. We have the same daily
schedule, so we often meet in the mornings and evenings when she’s making her
dog runs. I join her, and we walk the dogs together. This is her profession,
how she makes her money. Simultaneously, she’s also a really fine writer and
probably has many other talents. Yet our society looks down on those who do
such tasks as walking dogs for a living when they actually may also be involved
in creative, nurturing, and service work.
What is work?
There’s a story about the great thirteenth-century Zen master Ju-ching, who was
once the sanitation officer at a monastery. In those days, the job of the
sanitation officer was to shovel the shit. Back then, they had wooden toilets,
and shit and piss would fall into tiled trenches below. Every week Ju-ching
would go and clean out the trenches with buckets and take the manure to the
garden. Then he’d wash the tiles with rags and brushes.
One time his
teacher, Setcho, asked him, “How do you clean that which has never been
soiled?” He was asking Ju-ching about himself.
Poor Ju-ching did
not know how to answer. He kept practicing with that question for a full year,
during which time he continued cleaning toilets. Finally Ju-ching went to his
teacher and said, “I have hit upon that which has never been soiled.”
This would be a
good question for each of us to ask ourselves: How do you clean that which has
never been soiled? Finally, after much struggle, Ju-ching saw that there is no
work that isn’t of high value. Shoveling shit is not soiled work any more than
walking a dog is soiled work. He went to his teacher and said, “I have hit upon
that which has never been soiled.” To this day, in all Zen communities, a
tradition for practice leaders during retreats is to go out in the middle of
the night and quietly, unobtrusively, clean the bathrooms and toilets.
How do you think
about work? Is some work of value and some not? Are you “too busy”? Are you
trying to get one thing “done” so you can get the next piece “done”? Are you
anxious about, angry about, or resentful of your work? Do you neglect your
work? Do you do it in an obsessive way or in a sloppy, careless manner? Do you
think, If I work harder, I’ll be successful, and when I’m successful, I’ll
get what I want? Do you think, This work is not what I am capable of, or
deserving of, so I’m not going to give it my all?
In terms of our
work, we often think we have to act a certain way all the time, that we have to
force ourselves into some kind of way of producing rather than being alive to
what is here and now. In doing that, we close off our possibilities. We lose
our creativity, even our compassion. Too often we find ourselves stuck in a
loop of narrowing attention, trying to find some success, some acknowledgment,
and in so doing, we lose what we seek.
There is a fairy
story from China that illustrates this. Once there was a young man who wanted
to meet Kuan-yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. He began to meditate very
hard, feeling that if he were successful, he would become fully enlightened; he
would achieve his heart’s desire. As he was meditating, Kuan-yin walked by and
noticed him. Smiling, she walked up and tapped him on the shoulder. The young
man said, “Please don’t bother me right now. I’m looking for Kuan-yin.”
Delighted, Kuan-yin tapped him on the shoulder again. “Go away,” the young man
said. “I’m busy meditating. I’m looking for Kuan-yin.” So Kuan-yin shook her
head sadly and walked away.
I think each of us
can recognize ourselves in this young man. Pushing too hard, being too busy, we
miss the very reality we seek. We miss our context: the presence of our
coworkers, our materials, the changing environment of which we are a part.
There is such a
difference between complete effort and striving. It is possible to be
thoroughly involved in work and yet not be attached to the outcome, to be
thoroughly connected to the effort without grasping for some “result” that
exists only in the mind as a concept, an anxiety, a figment. How can we realize
and recognize the subtle difference between obsession and involvement? How can
we sharpen our perception?
Once there were two
Zen disciples who were biological brothers as well as dharma brothers. They
lived together at the same study center. One day, as Daowu was sweeping the
ground, his brother, Yunyan, passed by and said, “Too busy!” Daowu replied,
“You should know there’s one who’s not busy.” Yunyan replied, “Oh, come on now,
you’re saying that there are two moons!” With that, his brother Daowu held up
the broom and said, “Which moon is this?”
Visualize this. I
can just see Daowu sweeping, completely in the zone: focused, immersed in his
action. And Yunyan is critical: “You are too busy!” Maybe he thinks that Daowu,
like the young man in the previous story, is lost to what is here, that there
is no leisurely element that is alive to all aspects of the moment. Thus, he is
Daowu replies, “You
should know there’s one who’s not busy.” I picture him continuing with his
sweeping. Daowu is saying, “Oh, the leisurely one is here. You just don’t see
Very often we
mistake activity for busyness, but that is not what is really there. What is
there is complete immersion: self and broom and sweeping; self and child and
play; self and computer and problem solving. The trick is discerning the
difference both in others and in ourselves. Sometimes looking out the window is
active engagement and typing madly is not; sometimes the reverse is true. How
can we tell the difference?
Yunyan says, “Oh,
come on now, you’re saying that there are two moons.” He thinks he’s caught
Daowu: “Aha! You’re saying there are two realities: the reality of your being
busy and the reality of your being not-busy.”
In the Zen
tradition, the moon in the sky stands for true reality, and the second moon—the
one we see reflected in the water—is our idea of reality. Here, Yunyan is
implying that when Daowu says there is one who is not busy, he is actually
separating his sweeping activity from the concept of being one with the
wholeness of life.
Daowu holds up the
broom and says, “Which moon is this?” He brings it back to no-separation: even
in our most involved, focused activity, right there is the balanced one, the
leisurely one. It is in our actual activity, in our intimacy with all aspects
of this moment, that we are whole.
Who has not felt,
in a moment of great activity such as creating, serving, giving, or holding,
both the energy and the aliveness of the activity and at the same time the
leisure, the ease, the simple movement? It is not poky and not frenetic; it is
the smooth and unhurried quality of doing each thing at exactly the right
moment—not too fast, not too slow, but at just the right moment. It actually
has nothing to do with fast or slow; it has to do with the whole body
connecting to reality itself.
We heal, we listen,
we hold a hand, we find a solution or a way around a difficult problem, we draw
a line, we make a sound, we make a meal, we clean a space, we give an honest
answer or a steady hand up. Sometimes just the presence of our body sitting
with someone when they are down, blocked, upset, locked up, or dying (or even
dead) is the full-on activity that is needed.
This is true
intimacy with our work of the moment, an intimacy with who we are and what we
do, whether we are cleaning toilets or waiting tables or designing software or
making art or playing music or teaching or whatever. Just the other day I was
watching a young man working the back of a garbage truck, swinging up and down
from the truck, picking up sacks of garbage, and manipulating the controls of
the compressor. His whole body was synchronized, like a dance—utter
Of course, not all
work is like this. There will always be little breaks in the intimacy: a
headache; a cranky boss or coworker; a hangover; the arising of resentments and
comparisons and craving ideas in our mind that create anxiety, frustration, and
boredom. What might we do at such a time? Again, the strategy is to include
everything, to turn toward, not away from, the conditions that are emerging.
Take a breath. Check your body and mind, and look directly at the obstructions.
What is it that is pulling you away from this very moment?
The “second moons”
trip us up. What are we to do? Daowu shakes his broom, saying, “No! Right here
in what I am doing right now is everything: me, broom, floor, all of life is
right here, flowing around me.”
The garbage worker
grabs the next bundle of trash.
Question: It seems like a lot of things that are
impediments to intimacy with our work are things that our society tells us are
good. Like, you should make money, but thinking about making money can be an
impediment to intimacy with our work. Or you should know what you’re doing, but
knowing what you’re doing can be an impediment. Or you should work as hard as
you can, or you should relax and take it easy. It seems like these can all be
impediments to being intimate with our work.
Roshi: Yes. Buddhism often refers to the openings
to insight as “gates.” The gate can swing in two directions, so with something
we usually consider a vice, maybe we just need to turn it another way. We can
just turn something that keeps us “out” and open it as a way “in.” Sometimes
it’s just our language. “Working too hard” is different from “complete effort,”
and “slacking off ” is very different from “being at ease in our work.” We get
so caught up in language that it can condition us.
Question: There are these tasks that I hate, and I
find it’s really hard to remember that once I’m doing whatever it is, it’s
fine. For example, I hate doing the laundry. It’s so hard for me to remember
that once I’m doing the laundry, it’s not a problem.
Roshi: Yes, because it’s not doing the laundry
anymore; it’s more like putting things into the washer and taking them out and
folding them. That’s very different from doing the laundry.
(Click here to view O'Hara's exercises from this issue, on "How to Make All Your Work Meaningful.")
Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges, by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, ©
2014 by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala
Publications, Inc., Boston. www.shambhala.com
Image(s) by Mark T. Morse