Of course we need to support our bodies while we live in the world, but simply fulfilling material needs and desires leads to more desires, which leads to deeper bondage. We can observe those who have succeeded on a grand scale and see fulfillment of all desire eventually leaves one feeling a deep lack. Many who have great wealth and power try to resolve this difficult to place feeling of suffering by working harder to gain even more wealth and power. The greed distorts their focus, and delusion takes hold, driving them to amass more and more material goods in a never-ending cycle of fear and satiation. Some resort to drugs and other means of distraction through the senses, essentially hiding from their very self. Even those who have not achieved significant material success fall prey to these traps.
A few take up social concerns, devoting their energy and resources to helping the less fortunate. If they avoid the temptation to see themselves as a savior, they have the potential to tap into selfless giving, which always leads to joy.
With the Buddhist approach to work, we see activity as an opportunity to learn and expand our consciousness. If possible, we’ll seek out work that challenges us, and forces the brain to stretch. Even with simple or repetitive tasks, we appraise the work to be done and consider the most efficient methods. This brain stretching exercise over time makes it easier to meditate and to hold seemingly disparate concepts in the mind. We allow our consciousness to expand so everything we do becomes an opportunity to connect with the environment and the tasks as an extension of our self, where we ultimately become the work.
Through our activity, we also jump into what I like to call the rock polisher, a device that tumbles rough and dull stones so they smash against each other until smooth and shiny. In any society, we are conditioned to see the world in a certain way. We are also born with certain personality traits. This combination of conditioning and personality traits leads to sharp edges on the ego: the part of us that digs in our heels and insists we are right. This need to be right appears in many forms, including annoyance, hurt feelings, anger, frustration, and despondency. During our interactions with others, especially in a work situation where there is not always the option to walk away without severe consequences, we pay attention to when our feathers get ruffled. Instead of reacting, we watch as the different emotions and thoughts rise to the surface and allow them to teach us about our rough edges. Simply by watching and being aware of what is happening within us, the sharp edges begin to wear away. Eventually the things that bothered us do not seem all that important.
This view of work as a process with no concern for the result leads to the loosening of the root of suffering: the attachment to identity. We all think we are someone. The difference between the average person and the Enlightened is the Enlightened don’t believe the thought, while the average person does. Work gives us the wonderful opportunity to become what others need us to be, and do whatever needs to be done in the moment. Most people approach an activity with the thought of “I want to do this” or “I don’t want to do this” and depending on the word not in that sentence, they either enjoy or despise the activity. Buddhist practice allows us to let go of the sense of “I” and see the work clearly. If we don’t have the skills, we either learn them or pass the task onto someone who does. If we find the task unpleasant, we use the opportunity to learn about the attachment that caught us. Like all attachments, if we look at it honestly without attraction or repulsion long enough, it dissolves.
Even if we have won the lottery or have a trust fund, we work. We may not call it work, but the body cannot help but act. Unless we are dissolved in the silence of meditation, we are always doing one task or another. From the Buddhist point of view, we can use these moments of work to free the mind from suffering.
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