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:
Knowing how to live
Knowing how to walk with people….

The full poem can be found here:

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.

Cultivating Joyful Mind, Kind Mind, Great Mind

“Instructions To the Head Cook” is one of my favorite pieces of writing from Dogen, the 13th century founder of Zen in Japan. In it he describes the three states of mind that the head cook should cultivate in all activities in the kitchen: Joyful Mind, Kind Mind, and Great Mind.

I’m struck by this simple yet radical notion of cultivating states of mind. Usually we feel as though our state of mind, our feelings and emotions just happen, generally in relation to the events and circumstances of our lives. And, of course we are influenced by what we do and what happens in our lives, within and outside of our own control. At the same time, what a powerful idea, that we can cultivate states of mind. Here are three states of mind suggested by Dogen, that are applicable to our lives, not only in the kitchen but anywhere, at work, or outside of work:

Joyful Mind: “since you are cooking pure meals in this lifetime, this is a life of rejoicing…” Whatever we are doing can be thought of as cooking meals – our work, our relationships, our play. What meals are you cooking? Whatever we are doing, we can cultivate doing it wholeheartedly and joyfully, by simply cultivating the mind of joy.

Kind Mind: This is sometimes described as grandmother mind, the mind of unconditional love, looking over everything we do with love, without expecting anything in return. Cultivating kind mind mean bringing our presence and kind attention to each activity.

Great Mind: “is the mind like a great mountain or a great ocean.” Dogen describes this as the mind of equanimity; staying focused on being aware and present, bringing compassion to whatever we are doing; staying open to freeing ourselves and others from greed and fear.

Balance: I Don’t Take Any Of This For Granted

Balance: Forget about balance. We are always out of balance. Always in perfect balance.

I sat meditation this morning as I do nearly every morning at about 6:00 a.m. This morning it was quiet, dark and cold. A wonderful way to begin my mornings. I don’t take it for granted, the privilege to begin my day in this way. The privilege to live in a place where I can feel safe. The privilege of having a body and mind, to be able to sit cross legged on a black cushion. I know I won’t always be able to cross my legs. What a pity, impermanence. And how wonderful and mysterious. And I don’t like it, that I won’t always be able to sit, to hug my wife and children, to chop fresh garlic for zucchini soup, to walk to the beach with my friends. I often think of creating a support group called BAC, Buddhist’s Against Change.

It is effortful and more painful, at times, to sit in this way then it was 10 years ago; more difficult than 35 years ago. And so much easier then when I first began my sitting practice, when I was 21 years old. My legs and hips were stiff and inflexible. Sitting every morning I could see and feel my hips opening, a little each day, my knees began lowering toward the ground, until sitting in this cross-legged posture began to feel more comfortable than sitting in a chair. This posture became my home.

I don’t take it for granted, the privilege of being able to follow my breath on this cold and dark December morning. It is pitch black dark this morning. I notice this as I bow toward my cushion, turn clockwise and bow away. This motion, this routine that I have performed innumerable times. Sometimes paying attention, sometimes lost in thought. This morning, I notice and I don’t take it for granted. Like a ballet dancer, my hands raise from my sides and palms come together. I bow from my hips, toward my cushion, turn clockwise and bow again. I notice. I don’t take this dance for granted.

This ritual that was taught to me, passed on from person to person, over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, passed on from warm hand to warm hand. It is unusually dark, black dark, no light. I remember – The street light outside the window of my home is broken. As I notice the absence of light I’m reminded that I called PG & E a month ago to report that it was broken; then called again a week ago to find out when it would be fixed. The second time I called the woman from PG&E said she would resend the request and mark it as “critical.” This was a week ago, I thought. Perhaps I need to call 911 to get their attention, I thought. This dialogue with myself happened in a millisecond, as I sit on my cushion. I’m annoyed, settling, swaying my upper body from side to side, amused at myself. Amused at it all. I don’t take any of this for granted, as I gently bring my attention back to my breath, body, and feelings. Knowing that this won’t always be the case, to experience darkness, to miss the light, to be annoyed, amused about anything, to be able to bring my attention back, again and again.

I glance at my clock on the bookshelf. It says 6:30. Thirty minutes seems to go by in an instant this morning. This isn’t always the case. I begin to slowly move my head, shoulders and upper body from side to side, an ancient routine for transitioning from meditation to entering the world. The words of Shunryu Suzuki float into my mind. “Swaying from side to side is not preparation, not transitioning for anything. This too is meditation.” Where is the line between meditation and not meditation, between paying attention, and not paying attention, the line between amusement and annoyance, the line between birth and death; these few delicious and impossible moments of time we call our lives. Just show up, fully alive. Just appreciate being alive. Just meet yourself, meet each situation, alive, and juicy, and boring. Broken and whole, completely in balance and completely out of balance.

I stand up. Noticing the stiffness in my legs, feet, lower back. Appreciating each creak and grown of this body as “they” say in Zen this “bag of bones.” I turn and bow toward my cushion. I turn clockwise and bow away from my cushion. Bowing to you, to my family, to my friends; bowing to the world. Bowing to the Buddha that is me, the Buddha that is you. Remembering Buddha; letting go of Buddha.

As I bow to my cushion there is a strange sensation under my bare and cold right foot. “What? What is that?”, I ask myself. What is under my foot, lying on my rug? I reach down in the black empty darkness, reach down, and there is an object in my hands. My glasses! The glasses I took off and placed in front of me 30 minutes ago. My beautiful, old dependable pieces of wire and glass that turn the world from fuzziness to sharpness, from out of focus to clarity. I forgot about them. I stepped on them, thoughtlessly. I feel ashamed, forgetful. I smile. Ah, so happy these glasses are flexible, nearly unbreakable. They easily return to their original shape.

In that instant, that moment my glasses become my teacher. Turning fuzziness into clarity, resilient, returning to their original shape. They are not ashamed. “What is your original face before your mother and father are born?” My glasses help me understand this silly and profound Zen question. I place them on my face; this time paying attention. I’m delighted, grateful. I smile. Feelings arise. I bow to my glasses, my shame, my resilience. I notice a tear, perfectly balanced under my left eye. I don’t take any of this for granted, the tear, slowly rolls, gone. The traces of thoughts, bows, darkness, tears, longing, memories, shame, aliveness, black cushions, Buddha, sweet caresses.

I don’t take any of this for granted.

More Vitality

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
– Pablo Picasso

“The antidote to exhaustion is not rest. The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”
– Brother David Steindl-rast

I was recently sitting in the office of a senior executive of a major corporation in the San Francisco Bay Area. We were meeting for the first time. During this conversation he shared with me his disappointment about work. “What happened?” he pondered. He had begun this job with such excitement and enthusiasm and now he felt discouraged and tired. “How did I get so busy, and disconnected? What happened to the enthusiasm and excitement I had for life as a child? When did my life get so out of balance?”

It is easy to fall into ruts of thinking, patterns of activity, false and undermining assumptions about our lives. If we continually make choices to be safe and secure, little by little we can find ourselves safe, secure and our edges dulled, work as more drudgery then heroic, and our relationships predictable.

Some questions I began with: Is there something you love about your work? Or, what might you love about your work? What do you look forward to doing? What brings you joy? What inspires you?

I asked: Who has been your most inspiring mentor, in your life or that you have read about?

I also recounted a short but powerful dialogue that comes from the Zen tradition: A student approached her teacher and says, “I’m feeling discouraged. What should I do?” The teacher responds by saying, “Encourage others.”

This executive has three people who report to him and oversees a department of more than 30 people. Imagine how his team must feel. Even if he doesn’t express his dissatisfaction, I imagine others can feel it and are influenced by it. Our emotions are contagious. Sometimes a way to shift our own mood is to become more aware of those around us. How can we help those we work with; how can we encourage others.

I also asked about some areas of his life that I think of as the most obvious and often the most important:
Sleep – what can you do to get a good night’s sleep.
Exercise – do you walk or play or exercise for at least 30 minutes a day.
Food – do you pay attention to eating good, healthy food.
Conversations – do you have at least a few meaningful conversations each day, conversations where you are connecting on the level of your emotional life.

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.

Day Of Mindfulness/Weekly Sabbath

When my two children were in elementary school, a weekly day of doing less was an important part of our family ritual. We borrowed some ideas from the Jewish Sabbath as well as Buddhist Day of Mindfulness practices. At the heart of our day we had three simple rules that we applied from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday evening:

Rule #1: There was no spending money.
Rule #2: There was no watching television.
Rule #3: We did something together as a family.

These three guidelines produced significant results in the quality of those twenty-four hours. What a relief to not buy anything, not have the television on, and spend time simply enjoying each other’s presence. My wife and I talked more with our two children; we read books, told stories, played games, went for walks, and shared meals. The biggest benefit of this structured break was that, for a day, the pace of our lives slowed down and our family connections increased.

One of my favorite parts of this ritual was the formal ending. We observed the Jewish tradition of looking for the first three stars to become visible on Saturday evening, signaling that Sabbath was over. It was fun and exciting for the four of us to stand on our deck together, seeing who could find the three stars as the sun faded and nighttime slowly emerged. Of course, since we live in Marin County, dense fog sometimes forced us to use our imaginations.

How Do We Decide? Perched On Top Of a 100 Foot Pole

To go to war or not to go to war? To act or to wait and see? Women’s rights or the rights of the unborn? Collaborate or challenge? Step forward or step back?

What is our real motivation? How do we decide? Where do we stand?

There is a story, a koan in Zen: “How do you step from the top of a 100 foot pole?”

I was thinking of a New York Times book review I read some time ago about the life of Alfred Kinsey, the famous sex research scientist. His research and books regarding the trends and variety of sexual practices were groundbreaking at the time. The review described the book as an exposé, highlighting the paradox and the alleged gap between Kinsey the person, contrasted with the public image of being a completely detached, non-involved, non-emotional scientist. The book describes Mr. Kinsey as a human being whose emotions were messy and whose personal life was colorful and erratic. The book points to the animal side, or the range of uncontrolled emotions and instincts; in contrast to the more scientific or spiritual side of human beings. The point of the book is in some way the scientific or spiritual is not real or solid, in comparison to the fact of our animal side.

Animal side, spiritual side; in what ways are they connected or opposed? Native American cultures and shaman traditions and many wisdom traditions have well-developed ways of integrating the so-called animal and spiritual sides. Each of us, particularly we as westerners, steeped in the scientific tradition, when we hear these words, has our own spin, history, opinions, conditioning. It is easy to get caught by these words and ideas, to think and believe, and fight wars over these ideas and distinctions.

From a Buddhist view, all emotions that keep us from seeing things as they are, or emotions that unnecessarily push us out of equilibrium can be called destructive. Our practice is to become intimately familiar with our so-called animal side and spiritual side, to go beyond these labels and return to our authentic, free and un-nameable natures. This koan says that in order to do this, to be genuine, we must be willing step from the top of a pole. That is, to step outside of our usual safety, to go beyond our comfort zones.

What are you really feeling? What’s under that, and what’s under that? It is so easy to hide from our real feelings and to obscure our feelings and emotions.

This is one reason why working with a teacher and working with a community is so important. All of us, no matter how much effort we make, are not always capable of seeing clearly. We are like fish in our own tank. Little by little the water can get dirty, and since it is just a little bit each day we don’t even notice it is dirty. Then our friend or teacher comes into our space and it is so obvious – hey, the water here is pretty dirty. Even though we may be working hard each, with the intention of cleaning the water, we may not notice the subtle leaks, the ones we can’t see, that may be obvious to those around us.

Stepping off the 100 ft pole can be as simple as paying attention, truly investigating reality. It may mean really listening to ourselves and those around us. Sometimes this means inquiring deeply about our feelings and emotions. Sometimes it means being open to a friend or teacher; being willing to be open to the perceptions and perspectives of our friends and teachers.

Destructive emotions can be summarized by five negative emotions: hatred, desire, confusion, pride, and jealousy. The more you examine, the deeper you look into the source of the human mind, the more these emotions appear, and the more they fade and disappear. At the core of these destructive emotions is actually a core of clarity, and brilliance, something not in any way harmful.

These obscuring emotions can be on the surface and they can run deep, getting in the way of how we see the world, the nature of things, our view of permanence and impermanence. These emotions actually cause us to lose our freedom. Thoughts become chained in a particular way, affecting how we think, speak and act

Meditation practice is another way to work with negative emotions. Sitting practice allows us to investigate the reality of our minds, feelings and emotions, to just watch. At a subtler level we can begin to allow some space in our thinking and feelings, to undo some of our conditioning; the embedded way that our feelings and emotions are part of our bodies. We see that the emotions themselves are not the problem; it’s the attachment to the emotions, the way they take hold of us and the gaps between our emotions and what really is.

Some practices:
1) If you are feeling hatred, practice love and compassion.
2) If you feel jealousy, practice kindness and joy.
3) You go first:
If what you want from your friend or spouse is more openness, acceptance and love, then you go first. You practice being more open, accepting and loving of the other person. If you want and need more vulnerability, sharing and risk taking; then you go first – be more vulnerable, more disclosing and more risk taking. Your actions, your going first is the antidote for whatever it is you find lacking in others. You have the courage and skill to take these actions because through your meditation practice you have a taste of impermanence and a taste of emptiness, – you come to know that everything is empty of being separate.

Since our lives are so short, everything we do is quite significant. And, the fact that we are not separate from others doesn’t mean that therefore we don’t have to take things personally. Again, just the opposite. Everything is personal, everything is important.

The koan says that you step from the pole. It doesn’t say that you wait for someone else to step from the pole.

Stepping from the pole is being willing to enter new territory, to say things that are not rehearsed, not safe, not part of our conditioning. The term “beginner’s mind” is easy to mention, especially when talking about others. But what really is beginner’s mind? How do we practice beginners mind not only on our meditation cushions but in our lives – with our spouses, lovers, children, parents, co-workers.

Stepping from a 100 foot pole is to step out from behind ourselves and our habits. This doesn’t mean to step away from our pain and confusion, and our messy, unpleasant emotional life. Instead, stepping from the 100 foot pole is just the opposite – we step directly into our feelings and emotions, our motivations and condition. We step and embrace whatever is most messy and difficult. We inquire. Ask others – Is there a way that my words hurt you? Have I done anything that causes you pain? Please tell me. Please let me know how I can support and be there for you. How can I express my love and care for you?

Why is it so difficult to talk with those we love in this way? What kind of armor do we have on that prevents us from being real and disclosing? What is this treasure we are protecting, this idea that we need to keep things safe?

The case:
You who sit on the top of a hundred foot pole,
Although you have entered the Way, it is not genuine.
Take a step from the top of the pole
And the entire universe is in your eye