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 and beautiful.
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.
Suddenly, without 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 being done?
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 “too busy.”
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 him.”
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 involvement, aliveness.
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.
Questions and Answers
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.
From “Most 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