Taking Zen to Work
Work is a big part of our lives. Whether you love your job, hate your job, or are indifferent to it, you spend quite a bit of time working. Some of us, the lucky ones, absolutely love our work and look forward to showing up every day. Others would gladly throw their jobs over in a millisecond if they thought they could find one that suited them better. A great majority of people, however, fall somewhere in the middle, sometimes liking and sometimes disliking their work. Your Zen practice can contribute to your ability to deal more effectively with the conflicts you encounter in the office.
Whatever we do and wherever we do it, we tend to set up likes and dislikes at work, or we might rank things we do according to our own value system. How many times have you heard someone complaining about a task at work, preferring to do one task over another? One of our friends, who is the boss at his job, always says to his employees when they complain about a certain task, “You get paid from nine o'clock to five o'clock if you are working, so why does it matter what you do in that time?” It matters to us because all day long we make distinctions.
Our distinctions range from, “I like the coffee, but I hate that creamer they put out” to “I like writing my monthly status report, but I hate filing the paperwork.” If you listen to your thoughts all day, you will recognize a constant parade of distinctions. “She's nice, he's an idiot; Mondays suck, but Fridays are great; the bathroom on the second floor beats the bathroom on the third floor; Andy has an ugly shirt on today, but the one Susan wears is great; this pen is awful, where's my favorite pen?” And on and on and on.
Making distinctions is the same as having preferences. Having preferences can often lead to a kind of suffering as we elevate one thing over another. If you are thinking, “This pen is awful, where is my favorite pen?” you are certainly not living in the moment. You are living in the future moment when you envision having the pen that will make you feel better. Feel fine with the pen you have now. This is the road to happiness. As the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Hui-neng, once said, “While we may say that humans mark distinctions of north and south, in terms of Buddha-nature south and north do not exist.”
One way to practice Zen at work is to become aware of the distinctions you are making. Then focus your acceptance on what is going on right in front of you. You do not necessarily have to love what you are doing but just to do it. Put your attention on the task itself, not on how you feel about the task.
What did he mean by this? How could north and south not exist? Think about it this way. If you were to head north and keep on going, you would eventually be walking south. There is no distinction between north and south, east and west. These distinctions are created by us to facilitate communication. Directions such as these are useful, but they are not the truth.
We make distinctions not only within our jobs but also about our jobs. We form instant opinions about people based on the work they do. “What do you do?” is a question we are often greeted with when introduced to new people. The answer we give can often create a strong impression on someone else without our saying anything other than naming our occupation.
Think about your own impressions of the people who work in other professions. What would you think if you were introduced to someone who said he was a judge? A beauty queen? A mechanic? A lawyer? A priest? A rabbi? A television producer? A writer of novels?
Take a moment to consider your first thoughts upon hearing someone else's profession. If someone were to say that he or she was a politician, what would your immediate impression be of that person?
More distinctions most likely. Lawyers are bad, doctors are good, producers are greedy, politicians are liars and so on. We form judgments about other people merely from knowing what work they do. We may even feel less inclined to talk to someone just because we have formed judgments about their profession! Don't define yourself by your own job, and don't define another by his or her job. Your job is not who you are, and that applies to all people. Drop the distinctions and judgments, and try to stay open at work.
Overheard: A man told his date that he was dissatisfied with his profession of counselor and was looking for new work. “What do you want to do?” she asked him.
“I want to snowboard, run, and go camping,” he said, seriously, “but no one will pay me for it!”
Don't trap yourself in small mind by defining yourself by what you do. Big mind!