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.

Peaceful Life

Peaceful Life, a poem by Katagiri Roshi

Being told that it’s impossible,
One believes, in despair, “Is that so?”
Being told that it is possible,
One believe, in excitement, “That’s right.”
But whichever is chosen,
It doesn’t not fit one’s heart neatly.

Being asked, What is unfitting?”
I don’t know what it is.
But my heart knows somehow.
I feel an irresistible desire to know.
What a mystery “human” is!

As to this mystery:
Clarifying
Knowing how to live
Knowing how to walk with people….

The full poem can be found here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/zen/katagiri.txt

Possible or impossible; which is it?

Katagiri Roshi was the teacher of the Minnesota Zen Center for many years, until he died in 1990.

This is a poem about saying “Yes!” to our lives, to the mystery, the messiness, the love, the impossibility of being a human being.

It is a poem about stopping, and appreciating, ourselves, each other, our work; and going beyond ourselves. Stopping, being changed, and getting back to work.

The poem goes on to present and encourage living with a vow, or more strongly, living a life of vow, stronger than intention; stronger than a promise. A vow to live a peaceful life, to help others live peaceful lives:

To aspire
To be resolute

Today, I let these words wash over me, through me.

Just Being Present

A Zen teacher from the 9th century in China could sometimes be heard having a stern conversation with himself: “Master Zuigan!” he would call out. “Yes?,” he would inquire, “Are you here?” “Yes!” He responded to himself.

How sweet, how odd, and how wonderful! This Zen teacher underscores how challenging it can be to be present, to show up, to be present for ourselves, and for our lives. And he didn’t have a smart phone, the internet, or television to contend with. It seems that showing up and being fully present has always been challenging.

I’ve been reading a book by poet Jane Hirshfield called Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. In an essay about concentration she says:

“Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.”

How can we learn to attend to ourselves, to our relationships, our work, our lives? What prevents us from the simple act of showing up? Fear, greed, wanting what we don’t have, not wanting what we have. Or as Jane points out – the distractions of interest or boredom – the need to be entertained or the anxiety and distraction of not being entertained.

How can we be more present? By practicing again and again, noticing when we are present and when we are not. By leaning in toward our fears, and our discomfort. As well as embracing our joy and our appreciation. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, being present for the “full catastrophe” of being alive, of being human.

I like the practice of Zen teacher Zuigan, “Are you here?” He asks himself. “Yes!” We can all try this – are you here? – when listening to another person, when driving a car, when eating your food. Checking in with ourselves – what’s happening, right now, with your thinking, your feelings. What’s in your heart?

Cooking/Kitchen Meditation

“When you prepare food, do not see with ordinary eyes and do not think with ordinary mind.”

This quote is from a document titled Instructions to the Head Cook, written by Eihei Dogen in 13th century Japan. Dogen is one of the most revered teachers in the Zen tradition. His temple, Eiheiji is one of the premier training temples in Japan today.

I find it an encouraging and inspiring reminder for the 21st century; how to cultivate an attitude of caring, a spirit of generosity and of focus, right here in my kitchen. I can do this while chopping vegetables, steaming kale, or washing dishes. Meditation, bringing awareness and focus to day-to-day activities, can be done anywhere, even in the kitchen.

Dogen goes on to say, in his instruction to the Cook, that you should bring three minds to your work in the kitchen: Joyful Mind, Grandmother Mind, and Big Mind. Joyful Mind is somewhat obvious, but not always easy to practice – enjoy what you do in the kitchen. Be present, have fun, create an atmosphere that is playful and alive. Bring your knives and vegetables and pots and pans alive.

Grandmother Mind is the attitude of unconditional love of sincerity and of acceptance. Imagine planning, cooking, and cleaning with this mind, working with others with this mind, and serving food with the mind of grandmotherly love and acceptance.

Big Mind is the mind that is wide and open, accepting things as they are. There is an expression in the Zen tradition that says “The Way is easy; just avoid picking and choosing. When you give up grasping and rejecting, the Way unfolds before you.” This is pointing to the spirit of Big Mind. On one level, impossible. On another, this is how are lives really are, beyond picking and choosing. And yet, what should we make for dinner?

Experiment. Bring into your simple activities of working in the kitchen — the mind of joy, grandmother mind, and big mind.

Ordinary Mind Is The Way

We learn from the past what to predict for the future and then live the future we expect…. Predictions based on the past allow for more efficient brain function in the present, but can lead to mistakes.

— Regina Pally, The Predictive Brain

In the Zen tradition, there is a famous dialogue between two leading teachers in sixth-century China, a time when Zen was flourishing. One teacher asked another: “What is the Way?” This is another way of asking — How can I live a happy, meaningful life? Or, How can I find real freedom? The other teacher responded, much to the first teacher’s surprise, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”

I find this to be a wonderful, encouraging answer, as well as a terrific way to cut through our ideas and assumptions. This was not the answer that was expected or assumed, then or now. Ordinary mind is the way. Just trusting, or returning to, our ordinary mind is the way to find happiness and meaning! To find satisfaction, composure, and results — we don’t need anything extra, fancy, or special. We don’t need to do or add more; we need to do less! We just need to let go of some of our assumptions, particularly our thinking that our freedom and happiness lie someplace else, or during some other time, or with some other mind. Instead, let’s be guided by our inclusive, playful, mysterious, and plain ordinary minds.