The Eightfold Path at Work

by Bear Jack Gebhardt on February 15, 2010

         We all want to be able to handle our daily work with a certain ease, a quiet confidence, efficiency and grace, even if our daily work is just chopping wood or carrying water, painting houses, flipping burgers or trading pork bellies. It makes no difference. We all want our daily work to be fun, calm and prosperous, for ourselves and those around us.

            Alas, for many of us our daily work—or a lack of daily work— is a source of unease. We worry that we aren’t getting paid enough, or are getting paid too much. We worry that we aren’t doing enough work, or doing too much, or not doing it right, or doing it too slow, or too fast. We worry that we are doing the wrong work, in the wrong job. We worry about how others around us perceive our work.  And we worry about them doing their own work, or not doing their own work.

            Obviously, we humans have a wide rainbow of work experience. A certain percentage of us are always looking for work. Another percentage have low-paying jobs that we hate. Others of us have low paying jobs that we love. Still others have average paying or good paying jobs that we hate. A small percentage of us have well paying jobs that we love. (Ahh, what work heaven!)

                       Most of us worry about our jobs, our professions, our businesses, either constantly or off and on. If we aren’t worried about the job itself, or the profession or the business, we worry about particular details of our jobs — upcoming deadlines, or certain projects, or uncertain outcomes, or relationships with supervisors or coworkers or customers. We might think we work too many hours, or not enough hours. We think we aren’t given enough responsibility, or are given too much. For whatever reason, most of us, most of the time, are not completely at ease with our work.

            The reason we aren’t at ease with our work is because we want our work to be different than what it is. We would like for our supervisors to be different, or for our employees, or our customers or suppliers to act differently than they do—to act like they “should” act. We hold strongly to our ideas about the way things “used to be,” or ideas about how they “could be.”

            We want the work we are doing to be easier, or more interesting, or quicker or slower. Again, we would like to be paid more, or offered more praise, more understanding, more respect. Or sometimes less praise, less attention, fewer expectations. Our daily work becomes a “grind” because we are wanting it to be different than what it is.

            For many people the unspoken goal of their working life is to not be working! “Someday I won’t have to work,” e.g., someday I’ll retire or win the lotto or sell the business or pull off a deal big enough that I can escape the daily grind, the daily “unease” which working seems to generate. And yet, for most of us, this “end goal”—of not working— is never reached, or will be reached only after four-fifths of our lives are spent. That’s a lot of working days— thousands and thousands and thousands of working days—full of unease! Of not meeting the “end goal.”

            A more reasonable, more practical goal might be, simply, learning to work the daily grind with more ease, more grace, more joy, more confidence, efficiency and contentment. With a more easeful, more comfortable work stride, work mood, we could happily work into our 90’s!  (If the idea of working into your 90’s makes you feel uneasy, this in itself is a sign that your work life is not yet completely easy!)

            So how might we discover this “easy work pace” that would allow us to be completely relaxed every day at work —allow us to look forward to work, enjoy our work, even be rejuvenated by our work? Is such a relationship with work—my work, this ordinary, un-exalted work that I’ supposed to do today— even possible? Surely it’s unusual. But is such an easeful “work stride” possible?

            Tradition and experience would say yes, such an easy work pace is indeed possible. People at every level of society have discovered such a stride. From garbage collectors to Prime Ministers, from secretaries to postal workers to stockbrokers— a few rare people in every profession, every work site have found the key to daily contentment in their work. (Hint: Research shows that the key is not just a pay raise! Or a promotion or a different line of work. It’s not as simple as that.) So what does it take to experience an easy, healthy and profitable daily work life?    

            Here are eight ways that have been found to work:

1. Understanding. Simply perceiving, observing and understanding what it is that we are doing—both interiorly and exteriorly– that makes our daily work life less than easy is the first step. Understanding is like an onion—it has deeper and deeper levels. So we begin where we are. We can decide to understand ourselves, and our coworkers, and the systems, inner and outer, in which we work. We can understand our gripes, and our fears and our joys and our sorrows, and how these all come about. As the Book of Proverbs encourages, “Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not…”  Paradoxically, understanding is even more valuable than a pay raise or a promotion or a job transfer, because understanding leads to even more pay raises, more promotions and job transfers. Perhaps a first understanding is the understanding that a happy, easeful, peaceable work life is in fact possible. Not only is an easy work life possible, finding such a life is the healthiest, most loving thing we can do for ourselves and all those around us. This is the first understanding in regards to our daily money grind.  

2. Easeful Thinking We can consciously choose to be at ease in our thinking. Even though it’s not usual, to be at ease in our thinking is the first step in being at ease in our feeling, which allows us to be  spontaneously at ease in our daily activity. Of course, to be at ease with our thinking requires us to stand back from our thinking, observe it, see what it’s made of, see its patterns, its routines. We don’t need to identify with our thoughts, or the boss’s thoughts, nor do we need to fight them.  Our first identity rests in that which is aware of thoughts. When we aren’t so identified with our thoughts, with our thinking, we aren’t so caught up in the turmoil. It’s perfectly permissible to ask ourselves, “Am I at ease with this thought, this pattern of thinking?”  If we aren’t at ease with our thinking, we are free to change it, or choose to be at ease with it, immediately, on the spot. This process doesn’t have anything to do with our bosses, or customers, or momentary work challenges. It has to do with our private thinking. We are free to be at ease in this inner space, regardless of any outer drama.   

3. Easy Speaking Easy speaking comes naturally from easy thinking. We never  need to say anything we don’t enjoy to say, or say something with which we are not at peace. This doesn’t mean we don’t say things that others may not want to hear, or expect to hear. What it does mean is that we use our own peace, our own joy, our own ease as a guiding beacon for our words. We never need to leave our own ease, our own peace, even though the outer temptations to do so are innumerable. If what we are about to say is something that will disturb or own peace, or comes from a sense of unease, un-peace, we are never obliged to say it! We aren’t talking here about immediate danger—a truck turning on the highway or file cabinet about to tip over. In such circumstances we will spontaneously offer warnings. We are referring here to what most of us know as “office politics,” or power struggles or personal responses to daily irritants. The principle is simple: If we don’t enjoy to say it, if we aren’t at peace with our own words, no need to speak.    

4. Easy Moving We can consciously, physically relax. We can train ourselves to not be physically tense—either sitting at our desks or working in the woods. As we practice easy thinking and easy speaking our “easy moving” arises spontaneously. Sometimes, though, especially when we are first learning this process, we find it useful to go in the other direction. We can allow easy physical movements to guide us toward easy speaking which can lead to easy thinking. Starting with the physical approach to easy working can feel somewhat stilted, artificial or clumsy as a means to bringing ease to our feeling and thinking. Nevertheless, it is an approach that both beginners and advanced students sometimes find useful.

5. An Honest Job. As mentioned, although almost any job can be a worthy “practice arena” for easy work, we have to admit that some work suits us— and the world— better than other work. Bank robbing, for example, is a very difficult profession with which to be easy. An “honest job” does not necessarily mean an easy job or even a suitable job. As we practice “easy” in our current job, the right job will naturally arise. Some jobs are not healthy for us, or for other people or for the planet. If we find ourselves in such a job, we can muster the courage to not do it any more. This, too, is part of our “job.”

6. Impersonal (Effortless) Effort What makes work work is that we are paid to put our attention on problems, or services or conditions that need to be changed, or that someone wants to have changed. “This tree needs to be chopped down,” or “this hamburger needs to be flipped,” or “this brain needs surgery.” We are paid because we have agreed to put our mental, emotional and physical attention into a specific, limited, time-locked arena.  And yet, being itself, life itself is timeless, unlimited. Our work becomes effortless when we see through the illusory, limited self, the time-locked self. Attention itself has no problem with the tree, the hamburger, the brain surgery, until we call it “my attention,” (or even more problematic, my tree, my hamburger. my brain surgery.) Although such personal claims –personal ownership—of the work activity is the common and accepted approach to work (this is my cubicle, this is my job) we can easily observe that such personal claims are at root superfluous, something we unnecessarily add on to the work itself. We did not create the energy—this life— that grew this tree, or this cow for the hamburger, this brain that requires surgery. Life itself is the mover of the work, not only before it came to our work station, but here in our work station. We can watch life move, let it move, in and around and through us, without falsely claiming ownership. As we recognize that it is life itself that is doing the work, the work is experienced as effortless. Such effortless work is work we can allow to move through us until we’re aged 90 or more!

7. Past-less, Futureless Attention to Work We can observe that attention itself is free of both the past and the future. It is this free attention—this past-less, futureless attention— that is at the root of our being, that we naturally are. This root attention is peaceably powerful, exact, sufficient. This natural, timeless attention allows our work to unfold gracefully, easefully, creatively.  Yes, of course, thoughts about both the past and future— images, projections, sensations– rise up in our awareness, our attention. Yet awareness itself, attention itself, is always in the present, always just right here, right now. Our daily un-ease with work most often arises because of our projections about the future or memories of the past, and more specifically, because of our personal attachment to and identification with such past and future projections. Even when a particular problem occurs in the moment— say we do something to jam the copy machine or find an error in our annual accounting or turn the pipe such that the water main breaks—we naturally, spontaneously begin to attend to the problem, but most of us also add on unnecessary angst. We tend to bring up either the past or the future or both. “Oh-oh, what’s the boss going to say. I always do this. I’m going to be in trouble. He told me not to do this but I didn’t listen…” etc etc. These projected past and future selves are phantoms, even though we are giving them a lot of energy in the moment. These past and future phantom selves are the source of suffering, of unease.  Attention itself is past-less, futureless. This is the effortless attention, the natural energy that makes our daily work a breeze!

8. One-Self Focus  One-self focus is the natural outcome of past-less futureless attention. Where we put our attention spontaneously brings up a particular aspect of our identity; we might even say brings up a particular ‘self.’ “Where attention goes, identity flows.” When we are mopping the bathroom, we naturally bring up the “bathroom-mopper” self, or identity. Same with paper shredding or tree trimming or computer repair—we bring up our various selves for each task. When we are at our best, e.g., at ease, we welcome these various work identities, work selves and they thus become effortless, almost transparent. We aren’t thinking about mopping, we’re just mopping, or paper shredding or tree trimming. When we’re at ease, we’re just present, doing the job in front of us that needs to be done. What makes our work somewhat clumsy or more difficult than it needs to be is that we often tend to work on one thing while thinking about another—either what we’ve just done or what we might do, or even about next year’s sports team. We aren’t present with what we are doing. Or we are resisting the self—the identity– that is present. “I have a Ph.D. Why should I have to mop this damned floor?” Un-ease at work arises when one self is in conflict with another—and 98% of the time the conflict is between our inner selves, not our outer selves! One-self focus is simply agreeing to be—and do– whatever the moment demands, agreeing to be whoever we are being in the moment, doing what we are doing

            Work is how we spend our lives, where we spend our lives. We don’t know how many days we have left to work. Our discipline can be to make this day at work an easy day!

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