Deepening our study of the mind through work
It seems almost too simple to say that work is zen practice. But it is. Like Zazen —which might also, to reverse the equation, be thought of as a form of work. Our conceptual understanding is of meditation and work as two separate activities is not only tempting, its all but irresistible.
The foregoing is one of the reasons we sometimes emphasize an awareness of mind, thoughts, sensations in teachings. I will, in a moment, say something about the limitations of the suggestion to change your mind, or work at changing your mind, or the teaching, “these are only thoughts”, just, “let go.”
Work is practice just like everything else in our lives is practice—food, family, work, politics, and every other realm of ordinary life—all the moments between birth, old age, sickness and death.
See the main hall pictured on the above right? This one one of ten buildings on site of the three grand shinto shrines at Nachi Taisha (the shrine is the cover this post)—the other buildings that are part of the shrine complex include for example a treasures hall, abbot’s quarters, and shrine. This old building, requires a lot of work. And, that is practice. We probably do not hesitate to say, “but this is what monks do, to maintain their shrine.”
When we have jobs like teacher, nurse, contractor, administrative work, we think work (to pay the rent, to buy groceries, to raise kids, to pay for health care) not religious practice or faith beliefs. In the secular world, work is utilitarian. What would make work meaningful?
I wonder if the admonition to “change the thought channel” or just realize that “thoughts come and go” is exactly the right teaching. Here’s my hesitation in a nutshell—work, class, and money are part of a structural inequality (big sociological term0 which means the structures are relatively independent of individuals. If you quit your job to become a full time zen student, someone else will step into your former job.
Here’s my main point: we bring our ideas about class for example, to work, and we bring our ideas about faith to zen. Different realms, different unconscious and sometimes conscious ideas about these activities.
I read recently in the NYT business section a short query about happiness working retail. The query was from someone who used to be a media VP, making in the six digits but lost her job during a management changeover. Unrelated, was a divorce and moving to a different town. In her new retail job, earning a fraction of her previous salary, the writer was happy but embarrassed, no, ashamed about the loss of income and her slide back from VP in to clerk. That is the workings of ideology, or class consciousness that haunt us.
That mind, those thoughts, don’t go away on realizing there are other ways to think, conceive, be at work. Our habit mind that is comparative and competitive is deeply ingrained and held in place by other systems of thought, behavior. So complex, and, that is one reason so many of us struggle to just “let go.” Easier said than done.
And when it is done, when our attachment to the idea of things is loosened or lifted, is it because we convinced our mind to change itself or were there other experiences (not thought itself) that tempered our attachment?