In this piece from The Under 35 Project, Dave Chang reflects on some of the spiritual challenges brought on by the rigors of a working life, which too often seems hostile to contemplative practice.
The routine is familiar and the motions have become robotic. Water runs from the tap. I drench my toothbrush, smear on the toothpaste and scrub my pasty mouth. A sharp observation cuts through the webs of sleep that cling to my mind: what am I doing? I just brushed my teeth a moment ago! No, actually it was not a moment ago — it was yesterday morning. I got up before dawn and undertook the same routine that millions of my fellow urbanites enact in almost perfect synchrony. We begrudgingly rise from bed, drag ourselves to the bathroom, shower and prepare for work and daily obligations. What miracle that such choreography should emerge from automatons playing individual parts each in their respective silos, from apartment to apartment, house to house! Briefcases clutched, purses and knapsacks slung over shoulders, we chase down buses, squeeze into trains, and sigh in exasperation as we languish in traffic.
The daily grind is the price that I pay for a career. Yet why does having a livelihood seem so detrimental to living? The drama of the changing seasons, when the summer heat dissolves into the crisp chill of autumn, is made dull when observed from inside a car; the air that carries such veritable fragrances at different times of the year too often passes unnoticed when I am beset by demanding schedules. In winter, I rise too early to witness the sunrise; in summer I work too late to bask in the warmth of the afternoon. The weekdays slur together, as if some nefarious, temporal fiend has smeared the numbers on the calendar, dragging one day into another until life becomes a long laborious slog, intermittently redeemed by the two precious days that compose a weekend.
It’s not that I do not want to work, or that I don’t enjoy my work — it’s that the rhythm of a modern working life seems so deftly out of sync with the natural rhythms of the earth and — dare I say — the rhythm of humanity? The modern economy imposes too rigid a pattern on human activity and the stiff cycles of a working life inhibits the moments of spontaneity and discovery that furnish our fondest memories and our most vivid experiences. The celebrated Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, once wrote:
Exhausted, I sought
A country inn, but found
Wisteria in bloom
We may infer that the encounter with the blossoms is sufficient refreshment for the speaker’s weariness, that an honest attention to the serendipitous gifts of the present moment fully satisfies the speaker’s deepest yearnings, far beyond what is craved by a worn body. However, were I to encounter such wisteria on a work day, I imagine myself missing its splendor, pulled away instead by the groceries to be bought, the bills to be paid, the commute to be braved, the promises yet fulfilled. A good participant of the labor force, I have learned to quantify time: paid working hours, planned vacations, banks of sick days — mine is a life laid out on paper, neatly and symmetrically divided on a grid, square slots filled in and crossed out. I have forgotten the elasticity of time, the way moments of joviality with beloved friends steal away, the way the five minutes before the end of an hour’s meditation bleed into eternity and I am convinced that the timer is broken. Time has become an intractable entity, an ever-looming threat, something to wrestle into submission. Yet, despite my efforts, I find myself on the losing end of a futile battle against the clock. The years tumble on and I am steamrolled under its unrelenting treads. Though I am practiced in negotiating the demands of a work and obligations, there is a quiet despair underneath my veneer of stoic command: is this it? Can somebody save me from this mind-numbing, soul-battering life of repetition?
Perhaps the working grind feels all too stifling because I remember the freedom of my twenties, when I spent months backpacking Europe and Southeast Asia, when solitary moments of reflection were plenty, when spontaneous discoveries bestowed each day with fresh experiences. Youth afforded me the pursuit of whims, a rare and coveted luxury now for a career man with a family.
However, it was easy to be spontaneous without a full-time job. Those moments of self-reflection and self-discovery, though crucial for my development back then, belong to another time. What remains is the present. This reality right now. Is this really it? Of course, this is it! What else is there? The tendency to long for and romanticize what is no longer here is my habitual way of denying reality, of escaping the ever-shifting forces of life. Like the stinging cold that is inseparable from the beauty of a wintery landscape, life remains uncomfortable and ever so challenging. Yet it is the best guide that I have, this abiding sense of dis-ease, this quiet fear that I barely have enough wherewithal to cope with what is in front of me.
Talk to me about enlightenment! Epiphanies and moments of transcendence have their place in stories and biographies. I can recall some of my own moments of illumination as well — but I have realized that the insights of the past rarely impart any sense of mastery; neither do they serve as a qualification badges for a practitioner. In mindful practice, there is only the open embrace of the present, surrendering myself to the instructiveness of the moment (this dissatisfaction, this pain, this despair) while relinquishing the baggage that keep me from seeing what is square in front of me, even the most towering insights earned in the past, the most nurturing times of personal growth and development.
Leaning into the thick of this working life, I have taken to some practices to help me further discover the teacher in every moment. Waking up, for example, is never easy for me. I resent every moment when the alarm rudely tears me away from the sweetness of slumber and the warmth of the bed. Outside it is dark and cold; I am grumpy and foggy. The first waking moment of the day is full of discomfort – Herculean effort must be mustered just to get through it. However, it is also full of possibilities: in mindfulness, I follow the questions, “who doesn’t want to wake up?” “What is this feeling of reluctance, what is its texture, what sensations and sentiments compose this negativity?” As usual, there are no ideational answers to these meditations, but in pursuing this line of inquiry, a moment of tension opens a space for investigation, offering a glimpse into the very fundamental quality of experience. Without this attention to the immediacy of experience, I am liable to be beaten down by their repeated imposition. In mindfulness, the experience is new, fresh, open and not as rigid as it is perceived to be under a less attentive state of mind. Admittedly, this practice has not make waking up every morning any easier – alas, it remains a pain in the ass – but it has become more acceptable, as if I have discovered my own willingness to face the challenge. And herein lies the central paradox of Buddhist practice: in mindfulness, I have become more sensitive to every pain wrought by the fragility of life; yet the sensitivity nourishes a certitude, an intuitive trust in my capacity to cope, my capacity to fully grapple with everything that this wild and wonderful human life has to offer. There is no mastery – only honest engagement, moment after moment.
Now I stand in a long line. The bus is late – held up in traffic on the first snowy day of the year. The faces around me are sullen and resigned. My fellow commuters may not object if I called us all slaves of a modern sort. But I dismiss the bleak proclamation and survey the snowy landscape. To practice Buddhism at this stage in life is different from the way I practiced a decade ago. Now, there is snow, schedules and responsibilities – they are my only teachers. There is no wisdom apart from this reality, this present moment. I look up and see a seagull cut a path across a swath of trees and disappear behind the snow-frosted train tracks. The routine is the same, but this day will not come again.