Living Beyond Right and Wrong

Beautiful poem by Zen teacher Ryokan, from the early 1800’s Japan:

What was right yesterday
Is wrong today
In what is right today,
How do you know it was not wrong yesterday
There is no right or wrong,
No predicting gain or loss.
Unable to change their tune,
Those who are foolish glue down bridges of a lute.
Those who are wise get to the source
But keep wandering about for long.
Only when you are neither wise nor foolish
Can you be called one who has attained the way.

(translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi – from Sky Above, Great Wind)

The Myth Of Work-Life Balance

There is a famous Zen dialogue from ancient China about a monk and a teacher.  The monk arrives at the monastery and says to the teacher, “I’ve arrived.  Please give me your teaching.”

The teacher says, “Have you eaten your breakfast?”
The monk responds, “Yes, I have.”
The teacher says, “Wash your bowl.”
The monk understood.  What could be more obvious?

If you were to ask, “How can I find work-life balance?”, I might be inclined to ask if you have eaten your breakfast… And, assuming you have, suggest you wash your bowl.

This dialogue and this terse instruction are meant to shift your attention from looking for answers outside yourself to looking more directly within yourself beginning with your experience – directly and simply.  Noticing, appreciating, and learning from the mundane activities of your everyday life.

Even the act of “bowl washing” washing dishes, can be turned into an incredible, even sensuous event; an act of discovery, a blossoming of the senses.  What is the sensation of the water touching your hands; is the water hot or cold?  Or washing dishes can be simply a chore to get done as quickly as possible to get to the next event, where the real action is – like sending emails or watching television.  The same activity can be completely different, depending on where you put your attention.

Context matters.  The story we tell ourselves is vitally important, not only to our state of mind, but also to our physical relationship and response to the events of our daily life.

Attempting to achieve work-life balance, as though something is missing or something is wrong, (either with you or with your situation) is a set-up for failure, for stress, and for anything but balance.  Instead, experiment by bringing your attention to the activities that make up your work.  Notice the activities and notice your inner dialogue, the stories you weave, as well as your feelings.  Just this act of paying attention can produce positive change – a bit of slowing down, a little more space – opening up the possibility of change, of more calm, even of more appreciation.

So often, all the attention goes to the “what” – the content or story line – too much to do and not enough time.  Try shifting the focus to the “how” – what is the quality of your activity, as well as the quality of your state of mind.

All of these suggested activities are simple and complicated, easy and sometimes impossibly difficult.  Paradoxical?  Yes!  Much of being a human being requires that in order to get more done, try slowing down.  To become more confident, try more questioning.  To achieve more, explore beginning by accepting what is.  To know yourself, try forgetting yourself.  How – pay attention and appreciate what is right in front of you.  Please, wash your bowl.