By Scott Mayer When I was 18, I was working hard in an Oregon sawmill factory. I was also ingesting hallucinogenic drugs with the incredible boredom of work, as I considered it "grave time," a sacrifice from life. This conditioning still lingers. The Puritan in me looks to work for self-esteem and, at the same time, considers work an obligation that requires me to miss the present moment, to miss my life. Neither of these attitudes towards work touches the deeper opportunities for happiness and freedom that work offers.
Two summers ago I was asked to be the work leader at the Plum Village Summer. I dreaded asking the other retreatants to work during their vacation days. I preferred my previous job as a guest manager, where I could welcome people and see to it that they were comfortable. So I decided to make this my summer for developing fearlessness. I would muster my courage and ask people to work, all the while breathing consciously and smiling.
I was trying to make the work sign-up board clear, truthful, and beautiful. I was praying that this might ease the pain for people of signing up. But when it came time to put the title on the top, I was stuck. "Job Sign-up" was honest but boring. "Community Effort" was true but vague. "Work Meditation" was the usual heading, but coming from me it felt too euphemistic. So I left the space empty. On the first evening of the retreat, when I was to introduce our work practice to the community, the sign-up board was still without a heading. Sitting in the audience waiting to speak, I saw how stuck I was in my attitude towards work. By the time I was handed the microphone, a muse somehow came forth and helped me speak. My negative understanding of work vanished and was replaced by a compassionate, positive view. I saw that work, rather than an obstacle, can be a door to liberation. Since so many of us carry strong seeds of the work ethic in us and need to earn a living, why not use this for our practice of transformation? I envisioned three levels on which work can help cultivate liberation—"Three Stepping Stones of Work."
First, I saw the "Mundane Stepping Stone," doing work simply because it needs to be done, and as a way to be in touch with our bodies, our breath, and the physical environment Work at this mundane level is a form of prostration, a physical participation in the reality of human life.
The second opportunity offered by work is the "Mindfulness Stepping Stone." With this stone, we can utilize our daily work as a field for awareness. Why limit meditation to sitting and walking? Why not include work also? But this is not easy. Today there are few jobs that offer the manual simplicity of chopping wood and carrying water. Late twentieth century work is characterized by time pressure and greatly varied conceptual demands. If we think that work meditation must be like wood splitting, work practice will be nearly impossible to integrate into our lives.
Mindfulness means simply coming back to the present moment. The practice is about awareness and acceptance of life as it is, in this moment, not about creating ideal situations. The practice of working calmly, quickly, and efficiently, while not rushing towards our goal, is fundamental to practice. Consciously following our breath and physical actions creates this awareness. I also try to stay in touch with the big picture while working on the little picture. When I find myself in a big hurry, I ask myself, "One hundred years from now, what will the important aspect of this moment be?" I often use a koan offered by Thay, "Where am I going?" Sometimes I just look up and see the perspective that the sky, the clouds, and the stars offer. When I have this larger perspective, even my work feels like play. Work becomes an end in itself, engaging and enjoyable. This present-centered-ness usually helps my efforts be effective. But even when it doesn't, I still feel more alive.
When writing, I try to be aware of my body's tensions, comforts, and posture, and to make the appropriate adjustments. At the same time, I periodically observe my mind to see if I am present with the task at hand, or dreaming, or getting nervous. Everytime I remember to return to the present moment, it feels as if a spring breeze is blowing over my mind and body, offering me a fresh start.
The third stone offered through work is the "Community Stepping Stone." Taking refuge in a community helps us let go of our small selves and realize our greater body. I have experienced no better way to let go of my painful sense of an isolated self than by my working with a community for the common good. Working with a community is a manifestation of interbeing. We give of ourselves and we receive the benefits. For this stone to be effective, we have to do our share of the work, and we must practice giving generously. For work addicts, this may be unskillful, but for most of us, generosity is the only way. I tried this first at Plum Village, and now in my hometown with a tree planting group and in efforts at helping form a practice Sangha.
I shared this "sudden enlightenment" on the opening night of our retreat. Now my challenge is what to do with this insight. How can I nurture it into a realization? Is it possible to form a work practice community that can serve as a vehicle to manifest this practice right in the marketplace? By myself, I will certainly fail. With others, it may be possible.
The work sign-up board remained all summer without a title, but the Sangha filled in this lack of words, with a generosity in their work efforts. This was due to the good spirit of the retreat, Thay's talks, Sister Jina's direction of the Upper Hamlet, and to many of the members tasting the fruits of mindfully helping out, doing what needs to be done.
Scott Mayer, True Nonduality, is a tree surgeon in Portland, Oregon.