Zen and the Art of Work

There’s a strange cult of productivity these days. People seem to be working faster and harder. When everyone works faster and harder, the value of their efforts decreases. I know “writers” who get paid remarkable amounts of money to churn out countless meaningless Buzzfeed articles all day. They’re productive, sure, but is what they’re doing of any real value?

In my white upper middle-class high school, no one praised the kids who went off to trade schools to learn how to operate complicated machinery, build houses, fix cars, or cultivate plants. Now all of those kids are grown up. They have fulfilling jobs mastering their chosen craft, like Zen practitioners learned archery or gardening.  Meanwhile, people who spent $200,000 going to liberal arts school are getting prescribed anti-anxiety medication because they spent 4 years listening to professors complain about how meaningless life is.

Ok, that was a playfully dramatic exaggeration, but it symbolizes a real issue. Productivity has become a buzzword that prevents people from looking into the nature of work. Work has become comfortable, and mobile technologies have fused work with everyday life. Work used to be synonymous with life; everyone saw the fruits of their labors. Now these fruits are intangible and ethereal. It leads to an alienating sense that what is traditionally called “work” is a waste of time.

I admire my father to no end for his refusal to be overworked. He has never used a cell phone or a home computer to do anything professional. He gets to the office, does his thing, and leaves. No one bothers him when he gets home because no one is able. Oftentimes, the things we complain most about were things we decided to do ourselves. It’s hard to own up to bad decisions. It’s hard to work when you’re complaining about working.

So, here’s a novel concept. All critiques of capitalism, salary jobs, overwork and productivity aside— if you have to do something, do the living hell out of it. I’ve done part-time landscaping for years for some extra cash, and it’s taught me the value of being fully in-the-moment while working. Zazen is not just a sitting practice. It relies on sublimating the lessons of sitting meditation into a technique for everyday living.

When you wash the dishes, you wash the hell out of them. When you sit at your desk archiving old emails, you archive the hell out of them. When you have to prepare for some sort of pitch or presentation, devote your full attention to it and become what you are doing. You get the idea.

It’s one thing to complain about a bad job and then have the willpower to leave and do something simpler and more fulfilling. That’s something anyone technically can do. But not everyone wants to. There are kids to feed, spouses to please, houses to pay off. That’s fine. But if you’re going to spend your days doing something, you’d better put your full attention into it. Otherwise there’s no point. As Ron Swanson says, “Don’t half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

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