The Zen of Work
‘When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.’ ~Shunryu Suzuki-roshi
Post written by Leo Babauta.
At work, we often face stressful situations, dreaded projects, irritating co-workers, frustrating bosses, an overwhelming number of tasks and messages, boring work we don’t enjoy.
These problems have one simple cause: we’re holding on.
The work itself isn’t stressful — it’s just action that’s taken or that needs to be taken. It’s our reaction to the work that causes the stress: our holding on to a wish that things were different.
It’s not the constant stream of interruptions that is frustrating — they are just events that happen around us, like a leaf falling or a bird flying by. It’s our holding on, in our minds, to the task we were doing before we were interrupted that causes the frustration. We wish we weren’t interrupted from the task, and we resent anything that interrupts us, and our minds are still half on the previous task.
Our co-workers and boss aren’t the problem either: they’re just other human beings trying to do the best they can in this world. It’s our holding on to the idea that they should somehow behave a certain way, that they should do their best to make us happy, that causes us anger and irritation.
It’s not that we have an overwhelming number of tasks and messages that causes us to be stressed out — it’s our reaction to that number. It’s just a list of things, or a phone ringing, or an inbox with a list of messages. Those things are harmless. But when we hold on to the idea that we can do everything, and that we have to deal with all this at once, we become stressed, because obviously we can’t. We can only do one thing, though our minds are on all of them.
So what’s the solution? It’s letting go.
This is the Zen of Work.
Learning to Let Go
When you let go of these ideas of how things should be, how other people should behave to make you happy, how you can do everything at once … then the problems go away. They simply don’t exist.
There are other problems, of course — you still need to do the work. But the frustrations, stress, anger, irritation, feelings of overwhelm … those are all caused by holding on, and they’re in our minds. We also hold on to things that happened earlier — something someone did that wasn’t nice, a meeting where we said something embarrassing, a mistake we made on our project — and of course this only compounds the pain, keeps the pain replaying on an endless loop.
Letting go allows the problems to disappear.
It’s that simple, and yet letting go isn’t always easy.
It’s a learning process. First you have to learn mindfulness, which is the key to the whole shebang. Mindfulness allows us to see these thought processes that are causing us pain, allows us to delve into what we’re holding on to.
Mindfulness also helps us return to the moment, so that all those things running around in our heads can fade away, and we live in what’s actually happening, right now.
We do a task without holding on to other tasks, or offenses made by other people. We do a task, and then let go of it, and move on to the next task.
This takes practice, and so I suggest starting with a simple practice, like 5 minutes of meditation, and working from there. Once you get good at this simple practice, you can expand mindfulness to other tasks. Eventually you’ll get pretty good at it, and the problems will start to dissolve on their own.
The Zen of Work Course
I’ve created an online course, with my friend and Zen teacher Susan O’Connell of San Francisco Zen Center, called The Zen of Work.
The course is designed to help people to let go, to learn mindfulness habits, and to bring mindfulness to work tasks, meetings, email, to-do lists, dealing with co-workers, and problems like stress and procrastination.
We’ll teach you how to form the habit of meditation, and simple mindfulness practices you can do on your own and then carry into your work life. We’ll have a group challenge to help you stick to the mindfulness habits, and Susan and I will answer your questions as the course progresses.
The course runs for four weeks starting Oct. 1, and you can register today. (Note: Sea Change members will be receiving an email soon for a discounted registration.) Learn more: The Zen of Work.