Sacred World, Sacred Work

When you think of living a life that matters, you may feel some remorse for all the time you have wasted in your life. You might imagine that you could do something important. Maybe you could take up Zen or go live in a monastery far away from the city. You imagine this might solve many of your problems and you'd attain some ultimate happiness. You'd finally be free of all your obligations. You wouldn't have to make your bed in the morning or wash and iron your cloths on the weekends. You wouldn't even have to answer your emails. But this kind of approach to spirituality is actually a further solidification of the self which is the source of much of your suffering in the first place. It's naive because such an ideal situation isn't how your life is actually happening right now. You probably spend most of your time at home with your family, working and sleeping. It seems that a genuine spiritual path, rather than removing you from your life, would re-engage you with the one you already have.

Work may not seem sacred to you. And while it's a long way from a monastery, you might be surprised at how much work you would be required to do in a real monastery. Work is often stressful and difficult. It can be exhausting too. You often find yourself feeling resentful about routines and procedures you are required to do. You are forced to work with people you dislike. So what in the beginning might have been new and exciting starts to seem increasingly chaotic. You whole attitude towards your work becomes increasingly heavy-handed. You find little joy or humor in it. But you do it because the bills have to be paid.

There seems to be a problem with this attitude towards work, because there is no possibility for spirituality here at all. Work deserves your respect because it always places you in a situation that gives you immediate feedback. You can't avoid the situation. It's in your face. If you do something well, it's evident right away. If you do something poorly, you get immediate feedback about that as well. And the feedback can be brutally honest. And while that is unpleasant it is truthful and you could respect that.

If you approach spirituality as a way of appreciating the sacredness of your world, then you can also begin to see that work is an expression of that sacredness. If you begin to relate to the situation of work with more attention and respect, you begin to see that there are always possibilities for inspiration and creativity taking place. You could begin to slow down and play with the situation rather than fight it. Rather than resisting the situation you are in, you could learn to open to it in ways that would bring forth further sparks of communication. There is always a small step you can take that moves the situation towards further creativity and life.

You are always living in a situation of which you are a part. If you imagine that you and others are separate objects floating in space, you will feel disconnected and alienated from whatever situation you are in. But when you see yourself as one with the situation, then you are also, surprisingly grounded and embodied in the moment. And from this place you find some earthiness that supports some confidence and sanity in the next step you can take.

In the Zen tradition we always do physical work during our retreats. We consider such manual, earthy work an integral part of a genuine spiritual path. We need this kind of peasant-like relationship to work, because we can be too much in our heads in a way that separates from the earthiness of situations. When you relate to your situation with more care and attention, you develop a proper relationship to things and people and you can appreciate some dignity in the situation.

And this is how you begin to live a life that matters. It begins at the kitchen-sink level. It begins in small steps. It's not a matter of doing some grand and dramatic gesture. It doesn't have to be an act of charity. It begins in the details of your everyday life. One step at a time. A genuine spirituality helps us begin to slow down and appreciate the simplicity and sacredness of our world. And then everything we do is important. And everything matters.

Robert Althouse