The word work has an impressive range of meanings. In ordinary speech, it means making a living, "going to work." In science, it means "the transfer of energy from one physical system to another." Work can sometimes mean something difficult: "This is work!" It can also mean to sew, knit, or weave, as in to "work" a knot. It can mean the opposite of play: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!"
It can also mean success: "This works!" Or the way out, as when we "work" our way out of a jam. We "work off extra pounds," get all "worked up," and so on. The variations multiply. The more we study all its variant meanings we find that the word work -- like be, come, go, or do -- describes something so fundamental that no one definition can fully embrace it.
So when we ask what is the work of a human being, which definition should we use? Is our life working? Is it, rather than fun, work? Are we working our life like Gordian knots that we don't know how to untie? Are we worked up about our life, or do we just go about it, day by day, hoping for the best?
Or suppose we go deeper and ask, of all the kinds of work we do, what is our most important work? What are we doing here in this world, anyway, where each of us arrives, naked and helpless, with no map or compass, like a trainee in some cosmic Outward Bound program? As we struggle to get our arms around these questions, there are two things we know for certain -- today we are here, and someday, sometime, we will be gone. During our time on this planet, what will we do? What is our responsibility -- to ourselves, to our family and friends, to our community, our nation, to all people and the innumerable creatures that inhabit the earth, the sea, and the sky? Do we have responsibility for any of it, or is it beyond our power? What do we say? How will we act?
In other words: What is our Whole Life's Work?
The first answer that may come to mind is that our work is to survive. And this is true enough. Survival always has a high priority in life. But is it the only one, or the noblest? And is it the one most uniquely human? We could say that the work of a dog or a cat, a lion or a gazelle, also is to survive. And for us as well -- securing food, clothing, and shelter has been the primary work of humankind for much of its history. In that sense we are like our animal cousins. But we are also more: We experience friendship and love. Our need to survive exists in a larger web of relationships, in family, community, and society. If a truck bears down on us as we are crossing the street, the survival circuits in our brains tend to override all else. Just like a dog or a cat, we leap out of the way faster than we can think about it. The same is true when someone attacks our person, our home, or country. At our worst, we behave little better than lions or gazelles. At our best, we are saints. In between is the challenge and struggle to know how to be fully human.
Dr. Seymour Boorstein has pointed out that this difference between the worst and best in human nature is rooted in brain physiology. We now know that the "survival brain" -- the brain stem, hippocampus, amygdala, and other low-level structures -- is responsible for primitive survival responses, essentially flight or fight. This brain structure is present in all living creatures, even lizards and crocodiles. It is in the "mature brain" -- the frontal lobe and cerebral cortex -- that judgment, reason, and social emotions such as friendship and love emerge. We may not realize it, but the survival brain, running on instinct and adrenaline, responds two or three times faster than the mature brain. Dr. Boorstein, who spent his early career as a psychiatrist working with prison inmates, and later with couples and families, has seen this in his clinical experience. When we are under threat, we tend to revert to our survival brains. We get angry, we lash out, we fight, or we run and hide. When we don't feel threatened, we love, we care, we grow. Throughout our lives, these two brains coexist, side by side, sometimes collaborating, more often struggling for dominance.
This struggle is hard work and requires some degree of inner development and self-realization. It has always been so. This work has been the subject of all the great wisdom traditions of the world. They were founded millennia ago, when for most people daily life was a constant struggle, without the technology and convenience we take for granted now. So we mustn't imagine that this struggle between old brain and new is a modern thing, a function of our newfound scientific prowess too subtle for the ancients. The tugging match between the survival brain and the mature brain has been going on for thousands of years. It has not been easy. It is still going on. It is work, our Whole Life's Work, the one that applies regardless of time, place, or culture. But how do we accomplish it?
The purpose of this book is to explore the various dimensions of this question, in all its complexity and variety. For that is the unique condition of the human being: We do not know in advance how to do our deeper work. The cosmic Outward Bound program that deposited us here has not given us this information. We might say that the question itself is the answer: Our work is to find out what our work is. But such a circumlocution provides no real satisfaction. This is an issue that generations of philosophers and religious teachers have tried to unravel, with mixed success. Their answers are helpful, up to a point, but they are still their answers, not ours, and for the particulars of our life, the question remains.
It may help to consider work in the plural -- works. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, this means, "the output of an artist or artisan considered or collected as a whole." We go to the library and see the rows of books bound in leather: the complete works of Charles Dickens, of Ernest Hemingway. But imagine some cosmic library in which all of us, in the course of our life, are creating the bound volumes that in the end will represent our "complete works," which we shape and develop throughout life. Indeed, shaping is yet another meaning of the word work, as when a sculptor "works" clay. Imagine saying "I'm going to work" and meaning "I'm going to work something pliable, like clay, the way a sculptor does." We are, in that sense, artisans of our own being, authors of our whole life story, shapers of our own existence.
The deeper we go, the more we see that the word work has a history of meanings that reaches back to the distant past, to the very origins of our species. In this deeper sense we are all workers of the existential clay in a way that extends far beyond mere livelihood. The primary difference between rich and poor, modern or ancient, is that the affluent seem to have the luxury to confront this life dilemma at a time of their choosing, while those living closer to the ground have little choice but to deal with the life-and-death challenges to their survival on a daily basis.
We say the affluent seem to have a choice, but that is mostly illusion, just as a curtain strung across the center of a room in which two families live provides the illusion that they live separately, and not together. When it comes to the basics, to life versus death, the partition that separates the wealthy from the desperate in today's world is little different from that curtain. All of us, all of humanity, live in one overcrowded room, on one inseparable planet, in an environment of like aspirations and shared fate. Except for outward show, the Whole Life's Work is much the same wherever we go.
While the ostensible purpose of this book is to explore this Whole Life's Work, its collateral mission is to refashion altogether the meaning of the word work. These days, when we say "I'm off to work," we mean our paying job; we forget that this use of the word is a rather recent invention, and that for most of human history there was no work separate from all the other tasks of daily life. The various activities that human beings pursue in the course of their lives -- to survive, to endure, to raise children, to care for one another, and ultimately to understand our place in this sometimes frightful, occasionally marvelous world in which we are born, and in which we live and die -- is the broader concept of work we will use throughout this book.
We pursue this Whole Life's Work throughout our lives, from childhood to old age. It is an enterprise so much wider and deeper than mere livelihood that it probably deserves a different word. But, for lack of a better word, work will do, as long as we understand that no matter how humble our station, how difficult our days, this work is by no means trivial: It is the great work of being human. Underneath our struggle to survive, there is a more primal work.
If there is any word powerful enough to supplant work in defining this deeper mission it might be vow -- an idea we will explore in a later chapter. A vow is a commitment that we stick to, that we are willing to see through to the end. A life lived according to a vow is a life consciously lived, in the full awareness of all its difficulties and contradictions. As the philosopher Albert Camus wrote, "Judging whether or not life is worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of all philosophy." No matter how desperate our straits, no matter how deep our suffering, there is a force deep within us -- a vow, perhaps -- that compels us to continue. What is it? Whence does it arise? How can we make better sense of our deepest yearning so that our time in this world can be put to its best use?
To answer these questions we need to explore the somewhat unfamiliar terrain of a Whole Life's Work. Why unfamiliar? In a society where three-fourths of the economy is driven by consumer spending, where the omnipresent lure of advertisement encourages us to take a trip, buy a car, try a new perfume, purchase dresses or jeans or shoes or tank tops in the latest style, the implicit message is that there are only two important activities in life -- earning money and enjoying leisure -- and that the purpose of the former is to finance the latter. Leisure, the messages that blare incessantly from our televisions seem to be saying, is our reason for being. The logical conclusion of this worldview might be that the ultimate goal of life is some sort of perennial Hawaiian vacation.
But as we all know, few people, even the very wealthy, actually adopt such a lifestyle. Intuitively most of us seem to understand that while "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," the converse is equally true. A life of all play leads to ennui and eventually depression and despair. Why? There is no easy answer, except to say that our existence seeks a different purpose. We all know the expression "pursuit of happiness," but what does it actually mean? This book advances the point of view that though we may not be able to define it precisely, happiness has something to do with work -- not just survival or livelihood, but work in its wider sense, a purposeful activity that advances our individual and collective search for meaning.
So in this redefinition we imagine work not as just another form of leisure, not as a more industrious form of a Hawaiian vacation, not as an artifact of modern prosperity, but as something quite venerable and ancient, which has its roots in the way life was lived hundreds, even thousands of years ago, and in the wisdom traditions of those times. Because I am a Buddhist, well versed in its worldview and teachings, that is the wisdom tradition I know best, but I do not intend this to be just a Buddhist book, nor are the views expressed here solely Buddhist ones. Buddhism, like any other idealistic system of practice and belief created by human beings, is itself flawed. Many of its doctrines -- such as lifelong monasticism and second-class status for women -- are conditioned by a particular culture or time period. And like every other religion, as it has moved through the centuries from country to country, some of its original humanity and simplicity has been overshadowed by complexities of doctrine and imagery. Besides, I am more interested in exploring Buddhism's future than its past.
The essence of Buddist teaching, in any case, is not in its doctrines but in the living tradition and example of its living teachers. So, rather than quote extensively from Buddhist scripture or commentary, I have chosen to use material drawn from the teachings of contemporary American teachers, especially that of my teacher, Shunryu Suzuki -- author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and the recently published Not Always So. To paraphrase an old Zen saying: The masters of India and China did not live long ago in faraway places -- they are here!
I was drawn to Buddhism at a young age precisely because I saw that, of all the world's religions, the teachings of the Buddha more effectively transcended time, place, and culture. From my Buddhist study has come the conviction that our deepest work as human beings is to discover, for ourselves and for others, what it is to be human.
This insight is really nothing more than a return to the core values that were once the stance of humanity the world over, when we lived cheek by jowl with nature, when there was no firm boundary between work and play, when one activity of life -- such as raising children -- flowed seamlessly into another, and the days were demarcated not by clocks and street lamps but by the sun, the moon, and the stars.
As we bemoan our fifty- and sixty-hour work weeks, as we struggle to further our careers, let us remember that ours is not the be-all and end-all of human societies. In the pursuit of happiness, we may in fact lag behind our ancient brethren, who may have known something important about work and play and all of life from childhood to old age that we, in our unchallenged assumption of an endless staircase to progress and prosperity, may have lost.
In all that is essential, we traverse life in the same condition as we might have thousands of years ago. Regardless of the computers, the cell phones, the supermarkets filled to overflowing with truck-delivered bounty, we have to tread the path of the spirit that knows no ancient or modern, that beckons us to a timeless journey that each of our forebears had to endure, and that we must, too.
THE CONSCIOUSNESS PROJECT
This timeless journey is known by many names. In Buddhism it is known as the Bodhisattva path, or simply the Path. But for this book I have chosen to call it the Consciousness Project. The Consciousness Project is both individual and collective. It is the individual's discovery of how to live his or her life in fullness, in maturity and harmony with others, as well as the collective discovery of all the generations that have come before us and will come after.
Shunryu Suzuki once said, "I am waiting for the island off the coast of Los Angeles to come to San Francisco."
From one of his students he had learned that, geologically, Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, is moving slowly north, a few centimeters a year, and will eventually reach San Francisco. As a Buddhist priest, Suzuki certainly would have felt a kinship with that kind of time frame. Buddhist literature often speaks of thousands of lifetimes and cycles of millions of years. The Buddhist worldview accepts the vastness of time and space, as well as the gradualness of human change.
Our species has been on this planet for a few hundred thousand years, little more than an instant in the life of our planet and our galaxy. Science tells us these things, but they are inconceivably abstract. What does it really mean for our present life? For one thing, it means that learning to be fully human takes a long time. It may seem, from the perspective of this century, that many frightful things have happened. But from another view, we are all slowly learning, generation after generation, what it is to be human and how to live together in harmony and mutual respect. From the standpoint of one or even a few generations, this is a slow process, one that can seem to take a step back for every one forward. But sometimes progress is more rapid.
In 1983, a million people marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City in an effort to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the then two great nuclear powers. Today, that particular fear is reduced; something great happened, inconceivable even two decades ago. An awakening occurred: the Cold War ended. The nuclear threat receded somewhat, and we were given a reprieve. That moment showed us what is possible. However, that triumph was short-lived. Today there are new threats, new horrors to haunt us, perhaps even worse than the nuclear threat, which itself has reemerged as an instrument of terror. One step forward, one step back.
We all want pretty much the same things. We want to be cared for, to belong, to be loved, to be healthy and secure. Suzuki would have added that we also want to be awake, to come to spiritual maturity, to be buddha -- originally the common Sanskrit verb for "to wake up." These are our deepest desires. In the fulfillment of these desires, we -- a work crew six billion strong -- are pushing on the great island of humanity, moving it inch by inch toward a higher latitude. Of course, some of us may become confused and want to own the island, or blow up the island, or push away those who are of a different nation, race, or religion. This is the darker side of human nature, which slows our efforts.
Indeed, we must not be naive or complacent about the progress of the island. We now have the ability to destroy the island completely or render it uninhabitable by poisoning it or make it too hot or cold. Terrible things are happening in our world; the light and dark sides of human nature are advancing together. The task of pushing the island has become more and more problematic as our capabilities have grown, and there is no guarantee that the island will ever get to its destination.
How can we, in our insignificant, humble lives, contribute more tangibly to this worldwide process of awakening? We are not saints or priests. We work at ordinary jobs and live ordinary lives. What does the grand concept of a Consciousness Project have to do with us?
In fact, each of us has his or her individual Consciousness Project, which is a part of the greater one. This individual project to reach wholeness and spiritual maturity is our life's work, and at the end of our life it will be expressed by all that we have said and done to make our way in the world and leave our mark. These acts of individual authorship have an outward manifestation -- we have raised children, pursued careers, made friends, gone fishing, climbed mountains. These are the outward aspects of our whole life.
But for each of these outward acts, there is an inward corollary. In the course of raising our children, we have raised ourselves to a higher level of maturity, compassion, and understanding. In climbing a mountain we confronted our fears and learned something of courage in the face of adversity. In the placid waters of a mountain lake, our fishing pole drifting lazily in the current, we have had a chance to reflect on our life, in the quietude of great nature.
The bulk of this inner work is shared with no one. Consciousness builds and grows over the course of our lives, it encounters setbacks, in a crisis it may become terrified or confused, but as we come to the end of life all this inner work becomes the sum total of who we are, the maturity of our years, the realization or disappointment of our dreams.
In the next chapter we will explore the various modes of outer work we do in the course of our lives, and the inner work that corresponds to each of them. This schema -- eight modes of outer work, eight corresponding modes of consciousness -- is the backbone of A Whole Life's Work and its organizing principle.
Copyright © 2004 by Lewis Richmond
Living Passionately, Growing Spiritually
A Whole Life's Work
Living Passionately, Growing Spiritually
-- from A Whole Life's Work
What is work in the truest sense of the word? For Buddhist priest and acclaimed author Lewis Richmond, work is more than just having a job, or a means to a profitable end. It is the key to cultivating inner life and contributing to the developing consciousness of all humanity.
In this companion to his national bestseller, Work as a Spiritual Practice, Richmond applies his Buddhist understanding to address what is perhaps one of the primary struggles of contemporary Western life: how to achieve a healthy balance between professional ambition and personal happiness. Here he adapts Buddhist categories of spiritual virtue in defining eight important modes of work the Earner, the Hobbyist, the Creator, the Monk, the Helper, the Parent, the Learner, and the Elder along with their corresponding eight modes of inner work: Precepts, Vitality, Patience, Calm, Equanimity, Giving, Humility, and Wisdom. How to internalize these modes of work, and lead a more meaningful and spiritual life, is what this groundbreaking guidebook is all about.
Whether we are professionals, artists, hobbyists, parents, students, or spiritual leaders, A Whole Life¹s Work can teach us how to reconcile our outer livelihood with our inner lives...and reap the benefits of hard work well done.