Buddhism at work
first, action later;
Action first, insight later.
Insight and action together,
Insight and action apart.
Right livelihood is not just about what one
does for a living, but also about how one does it. The foundation
of practice on this path is to become one with your work, giving it
your full energy and attention, the way a Zen monk is supposed to rake
pebbles in a rock garden.
One maxim simply states, "Do what needs
to be done." Another
goes further: "Zen isn't doing what
you like to do, but liking what you have to do." At the beginning
of an intensive meditation retreat, the master sometimes reminds the
person making a wholehearted effort will benefit the entire group,
and one person who gives way to negative thoughts will pull the whole
group down." In Japanese monasteries the constant give-and-take
between monks is seen as an opportunity to build character and refine
insight, the way stones grinding against one another at the foot of
a waterfall are eventually polished smooth. Work, solitary or social,
thus becomes a potential vehicle for spiritual self-cultivation. These
teachings are equally valid in modern secular settings.
Many principles germane to the path of working with others are not,
of course, distinctively Buddhist: be true to yourself, be thoughtful
of others, keep your word, and so on. The Wheel's image of a handshake
expresses several of these familiar tenets. We can also enlist the
idea of a firm handshake to represent Zen's emphasis on becoming one
with your work. Just as two hands become one handshake, self and task
join to become just the doing.
Pace is an important aspect
of work, as any good cook will attest. In the kitchen or out, some
tasks must be done briskly, while others must not be rushed. An architect
whose designs are socially and environmentally responsible may nonetheless
fail to practice right livelihood if she takes on more work than she
can handle. Chronically busy writer Sam Keen was once asked by his
wife, "Would you
be willing to be less efficient?"
New techniques are being devised as conditions change. An account
of a harried physician offers an example. The doctor was suffering
from various symptoms of stress, and had become a compulsive clock-watcher,
when he had an idea:
He walked over to his secretary's supply cabinet and
pulled out a package of the little green dots used for color-coding
the files. He placed one on his watch and decided that, since he
couldn't stop watching the clock, he'd use the dot as a visual cue,
a reminder to center himself by taking one conscious breath and dropping
his shoulders. The next day he placed a dot on the wall clock . .
. and by the end of the week had placed a green dot on each exam
room door. A few weeks after initiating this workday practice, he
said that, much to his own surprise, he had stopped, breathed, and
relaxed one hundred times in a single day.
The green dots worked because the doctor found a method
suited to his circumstances, and followed through sincerely.
With our cell phones and wireless palm devices, we are
now able to be so connected that we can be in touch with
anyone and everyone at any time, do business anywhere.
But have you noticed that, in the process, we run the
risk of never being in touch with ourselves?... For that,
we need moments that are not filled with anything, in
which we do not jump to get in one more phone call or
send one more e-mail, or plan one more event, or add
to our to-do list, even if we can.
Experiment with the concept of a “technology fast.” Pick
a technology, old or new, that you have come to rely
on. Limit its use, or do without it, for a specified
period of time. What happens?