Today is September 17, 2023. Welcome to everyone who was at the workshop yesterday. Today I'm going to talk about work practice, that is, manifesting our practice in the midst of activity.
In the Zen tradition, work practice has long been part of the daily monastic schedule, dating back more than 1,000 years. Traditionally, it involved manual work, such as cooking and cleaning, chopping wood, carrying water, in other words, work that does not require us to engage our intellect. And in a practical sense, work practice enables a monastery, or a residential training center such as ours, to operate on a day-to-day basis. And traditionally, the work period is held after the morning sitting following breakfast, not just during an ordinary day of the week but also during sesshin. Everyone's assigned a job; everyone contributes. And it includes routine tasks, such as preparing lunch, cleaning the zendo, doing upkeep of the buildings and grounds. And at our Center, on a typical day we'll have volunteers joining the residents, pitching in.
But what constitutes work practice has evolved over time in step with changes in the way we humans live and work. For example, at our Center practice includes office work, writing, working at the computer, planning events, creating technology solutions, troubleshooting complex repair and maintenance systems, and marketing and social media. And each of these kinds of work involves use of the intellect to some degree or another. But they're necessary in order for our Center to function and to thrive in the 21st century, not unlike any other nonprofit organization. And chances are many of the people listening to this teisho do this kind of work for their livelihood as part of their career and supporting their family.
The thing is, unlike performing simple manual tasks, you might find it pretty challenging to engage your practice when doing intellectually demanding work. You know, there's something about the simplicity of just cleaning a toilet, just drying dishes, where we can really put our whole being, our whole bodymind, into what we're doing.
But we can also do that with cognitive work. It just has a different quality to it. And I'll say more about that later. Before I get into the nature of work practice any further, I want to say a little bit about what it isn't. Work practice is not about goal completion. It's not about getting from A to B. We're so conditioned to set goals, and upon completing them successfully, we may be inclined to bask in a sense of pride or accomplishment. But the spirit of work practice is just the pure doing, doing moment by moment, without the complications of striving for some kind of attainment or end result.
Work practice is also not about efficiency. It's not about getting something done in the shortest amount of time. And this really runs counter to mainstream work culture where great value is placed on efficiency, probably especially from the vantage point of many CEOs who are tracking the bottom line.
Yet at the same time, work practice is not about performing a task extra slowly or painstakingly. In some situations, we do need to respond swiftly; we need to keep to a strict timetable. What's most important is that we're being responsive to what needs to be done and we're absorbing ourselves fully in what we're doing, moment by moment.
And there's another thing: work practice is not about achieving perfection. Perfectionism is a personality trait that involves a preoccupation with some imagined standard of success. It's an expression of wanting to be in control. And of course, you know, doing an excellent job or a beautiful job isn't inherently bad; there's nothing wrong with that. It can be a product of devoted attention and care given to what we're doing, even love. But if our efforts are driven by an attachment to success, or a fear of failure, then we're caught up in thoughts, caught up in judgments about ourselves, and chances are we extend those judgments to other people. So you can see, confronting these kinds of habits of mind is part of the process of work practice and Zen practice in general.
So now let's look at what work practice is and how one does it. Put simply, it's zazen in motion. When we do it wholeheartedly, it's a form of zazen, just like sitting and chanting and kinhin. But it's not a substitute for sitting. That's the foundation of practice. But it does enable us to keep our practice more or less continuous throughout the day, no matter what we're doing, no matter the circumstances, keeping our mind and body unified.
But ordinarily, when our attention is divided, we may consider work as drudgery. We get bored, we feel impatient, resentful. We want to just get it over with. When we're doing even a simple task like, say, raking leaves, if our attention is split, we're likely thinking about other things as we're raking, maybe making plans, planning ahead, or chewing over something that happened in the past, or getting frustrated about the volume of leaves that we have to rake. But there's another way, and that is to rake leaves with the same awareness and concentration that we're honing when we do zazen. So what does that look like? Just moving the rake back and forth, changing directions, forming a pile, the musty odor of decaying leaves and earth, the crunch of dried up leaves underfoot, the crisp autumn air, just that.
And if we're working on a koan or a breath practice, you know, in a lot of situations, it's difficult, if not impossible, to focus on it while performing some activity, like raking leaves. Here's another example. It doesn't make sense to be counting inhalations and exhalations from one to ten while you're chopping up carrots with a knife, a sharp knife. Not only will your attention be split, but you risk injuring yourself. So sometimes we just kind of need to let go of our particular practice in that moment, or let it fade into the background, and simply just focus wholeheartedly on what we're doing, while also letting random thoughts go. Don't engage with them.
So let's take a look though at the difference between doing physical versus cognitive work. And for physical work, there's a great resource we have here at the Center's library. It's called "Sweeping Changes: Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks," and it's by Gary Thorp. And I'm going to read just an excerpt from a chapter that's titled "The Way of the Broom."
He says, "Could anything be simpler than sweeping your own floor. Complications arise only when thinking interferes with performance. When you become too conscious of your actions, too careful, you can encounter a kind of nervous negative energy. Oddly enough, too much thought can result in the same kind of disjuncture as absent-mindedness and lack of concentration. When you strain too hard to create beautiful music, you fumble the notes and the music suffers. Even sweeping the floor can become awkward and ineffectual, if done with too much care."
So this ties in with perfectionism. If we try too hard, if we're holding on to some image of an end result, rather than devoting ourselves to what we're doing moment by moment, we're lost in thought. We need to allow ourselves to flow unimpeded by thoughts.
That said, when we learn something new, we do tend to overthink it. We try to follow the instructions carefully. But then eventually we do get it into our body, and then we're off and running. It's just like learning how to ride a bike. You know, if we're thinking about moving our feet, pushing the pedals, and we're thinking about using our fingers to operate the gears, we might topple over. At some point you just got to let go.
And then Thorp says, "Fish are not aware that they exist in water, and birds do not think about the air. Cows and crickets are, without thinking about it, at ease in their own natural elements. For you to find your own natural place, it is helpful to stay in touch with where you are now and what you are doing. Try not to let your thoughts carry you away. Keep bringing yourself back to yourself. The repetitive motions of sweeping a floor can be a good method for practicing this returning. Using a high-powered vacuum cleaner may yield more spectacular results, but we're not seeking anything spectacular here. Try doing some simple sweeping, without noise, without past or future, without premeditation, without stricture, without aim. Just move the broom."
So here he's describing the concentrative aspect of being so absorbed in what we're doing that the self disappears. You might not even be aware of what's happening around you. But that's actually not the whole of it. There is also a mindfulness dimension of being aware of our body in space, harmonizing and working in concert with everything and everyone around us.
So he continues, "When you are truly alive, you can concentrate wholeheartedly on one task without ignoring the rest of the world. You are still keenly aware of the ticking clock, the telephone, the sound of raindrops on the roof, the smell of baking bread. You see what is before your eyes and hear what is carried to your ears."
You know, from a practical sense alone, if we're not aware of other people and objects around us and of changing conditions while we're working, we're likely to bump into things or perhaps lose our footing. Years ago, I remember the day after a seven-day sesshin, I was walking through our basement, and I had my eyes kind of down, probably from sesshin, but I just really wasn't paying attention to what was around me. And I ended up tripping and I broke a bone in my hand. Life changed in an instant. It was pretty serious. I had to have surgery. Just like that. One instant of not paying attention.
And then, skipping ahead a few paragraphs, Thorp says more about this balancing of concentration and mindfulness. He says, "The next time you sweep the floor, try to move with deliberation, feeling both the support of the floor beneath your feet and the protection of the ceiling overhead. Try to sense the differences between rooms. And be aware of changing courses from area to area and from environment to environment. Notice the different qualities of light and the variations of shadows, and experience both the fragility and the strength of your own body as it goes about its common work." The fragility and strength of your own body.
There is this tendency to go about our business, without any awareness of the fragility of our body, its impermanence. We like to think of ourselves as static, as having a fixed identity. And that's how we think of other people too, without any awareness of the transient nature of life, including our own body. And so we may understand, at least intellectually, that everyone and everything is in constant flux. But it's difficult to see that we embody that flux, moment by moment. We don't notice it until it becomes really obvious, until something eventful happens, like injuring ourself, or becoming ill.
Then Thorp says, "At times in our lives, we all experience hunger and headaches, fever and chills, metabolic imbalances, distractions and disorder, near misses, wild diversions, and doubt. Still, still we go on sweeping. We do the things that need to be done. We become united with each action. This daily work then becomes a kind of team effort. When we work wholeheartedly, who is not with us? Who is not helping us? Who does not support us in every action and breath?"
Without the burden of thoughts and expectations, there's just the sweeping. Can we say that there's anybody doing the sweeping? Only our thinking mind can say.
Now let's shift to considering work that requires mental activity. Do we have to abandon our practice altogether when we're writing, reading, coding or analyzing? it's certainly more challenging because it can feel quite heavy, especially if you're sitting for hours at a desk, staring at a screen. But there are things we can do to engage our practice with that kind of work, first by simply focusing on what we're doing and letting go of extraneous random thoughts, just as one would do with manual work.
When I was a university professor, I spent a lot of time at a computer, reading and writing, and I still do as a Zen teacher. But to get more into my body and out of my head, I have learned to pay more attention to my posture while seated at my desk. And not only does this help with concentration, but it also minimizes the potential for issues with back pain or hip pain due to poor posture.
Taking breaks also helps. Every time you take a break, whether it's to stand up and stretch or to walk down the hall, go use the bathroom, get a drink of water, this is an opportunity to re-engage the practice in a bodily way. But it requires us to drop the cognitive work, drop it right there in that moment when we get up. Whatever we were just thinking about or analyzing at our desk, drop it and then be one with what we're doing now, just opening the door, just walking down the hall. It's an opportunity to get physical again, whereas while we're seated at the desk, we're largely stationary, with the exception of our fingers tapping at the keyboard.
It's also important to avoid juggling multiple tasks. And this is a habit that has serious consequences for our mind state. If we're toggling back and forth between, say, preparing some written report and checking our email or checking our phone, our attention is split. The same goes with listening to music while working.
I recently came upon a podcast about the value of so-called deep work, and it was part of the Hidden Brain series, a conversation between the host Shankar Vedantam and a computer science professor from Georgetown named Cal Newport. And Newport is the author of a book titled "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World." So here's what Newport says about deep work, and he defines it as the the act of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.
He says, "Even when people think that they're single tasking, they say, 'I've learned a lesson that I'm not supposed to multitask. I'm not supposed to be on the phone and do email while I write. I'm just working on one thing at a time.' What they're still doing is every five or 10 minutes, a 'just check.' How many of us have done this? Let me just do a 'just check' to my inbox. Let me just do a 'just check' to my phone, real quick, and then back to work.
"And it feels like single tasking. It feels like we're predominantly working on one thing. But even those very brief checks that switch your context, even briefly, can have this massive negative impact on your cognitive performance. It's the switch itself that hurts, not how long you actually switch."
So there's a price to pay each time we shift our attention. You know, it's the difference between being with one person or doing one task at a time and doing it simultaneously with the awareness in the back of your mind that you've got a full inbox or you've got a text message waiting for you.
And while Newport's research is much more focused on the impact on work performance, we can see that it also applies to Zen practice. The solution he proposes is to protect our mind from such distractions by consolidating tasks. And that might mean designating time for what he calls the shallow work, so only checking email once or twice a day, putting your phone on Do Not Disturb. Putting it away and out of sight can really make a difference.
Another strategy is carving out time to work without interruption. And the extent to which you can do this is going to vary. Sometimes we do need to be accessible and available. And if you work in an open office or shared space, or if there's just a revolving door of people that need to see you, it's hard to do. But it's worth experimenting with and making adaptations to the extent that you can.
The most important takeaway, though, is that doing cognitive work need not be construed as an activity that is separate from practice. We don't abandon our True-nature when we're analyzing, when we're using our thinking mind. The celebrated lay practitioner Layman Pang, who made a living as a merchant in support of his family household, said this: "Drawing water and carrying firewood are spiritual powers and sublime functions." And we can say so it is with writing reports, adding up numbers, tending to a customer. In truth, there's nothing about our lives that is not practice, nothing, no event, no location, no time of day, no activity, no single moment that is not the embodiment of our True-nature.