Has your life delivered you to the very place you expected it would? Mine hasn’t. At this moment, late on a Saturday night, I find myself working the swing shift in a windowless room on the sixteenth floor of a mostly deserted Los Angeles skyscraper, where I am a legal proofreader. Since I’m also a Buddhist, committed to integrating Zen into my everyday life, I decide to practice mindfulness as I pore over a stack of public offerings and credit agreements. Unfortunately, awakening to this moment, I find no fresh breezes, no grass growing of itself, no V-shape of geese migrating against the autumn sky. Instead, I tune in to the incessant hum of fluorescent lights, underscored by a deeper, even more unpleasant multiple-machine drone; stale, recycled air; and the fact that, for some reason, the toes of my left foot have gone cold and clammy.
“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences,” said Seng-ts’an, third Zen patriarch. I reflect on this teaching at times like this, when my eyes are tired and my back sore and I really want out of this room. And then I know, frankly, that I haven’t had a preference-free moment in my life. I grumble that maybe old Seng-ts’an set the bar just a little too high—I mean, no preferences? Right. Try proofreading for eight hours in an air-conditioned sarcophagus. But part of me knows Seng-ts’an simply stated it the way it is. So I aim for no preferences, have them anyway, and find that the effort helps.
This is the challenge that daily perplexes and fascinates me: How to bring my Zen practice into the workplace, even when that place seems so cold, inhospitable, and, well, corporate. Coming to my aid are the skills cultivated over fourteen years of at-least-once-a-week meditation and the wisdom that flows from my incomplete mastery of the dharma. The wonderful thing is, these seem to be enough. Enlightenment and mastery are great goals, but not required to reap the benefits of Buddhism. The main thing is to have a practice, and to keep it alive, personally relevant, and engaged. Make it your own, and bring it with you everywhere.
I’m sure that my Buddhism makes me a better employee. My concentration is good, my disposition willing, my listening empathic. But these things are easy; they aren’t where I feel the daily stretching of practice. No, practice begins for me when my separate little self springs to life, judging, comparing, and clenching. These moments are easy to identify: To one degree or another, they always involve suffering. It might happen like this: I step onto the elevator, a stack of documents to be delivered under my arm, and find I’m sharing the ride up with three hotshot young attorneys. Then, in an instant—in a vivid illustration of the Buddhist principle of codependent origination—my full-blown separate self springs into existence, co-arising with the young attorneys, the society beyond these walls, which so values wealth and success, and my own internalization of those values. It’s all there!
I stare at my feet like the diffident bottom-dweller I am, a grown-up delivery boy, while they happily jaw about the firm’s skybox at the Lakers game or the latest billion-dollar merger, and I feel a flush of envy and embarrassment. I should be going to Lakers games! I should be negotiating billion-dollar mergers! I get off the elevator with my feathers a little ruffled.
Now, behold the beauty of practice. It was all transparent. I saw my feelings come into existence and made no attempt to stop them. I saw my preferences and shrugged; they seemed understandable enough. I knew that my feelings of discomfort were “empty”—that is, they have no fixed or permanent existence in themselves; they are transitory, conditioned by time and place—and sure enough, in the absence of further judgment or resistance, they pass. I am putting into practice a fundamental skill learned in meditation. Each time we let go of distractions to return to our focus, whatever that is, we practice letting go. Letting go of thoughts, scenarios, judgments, conceptual thinking—little chunks of self.
So I return to my desk under the humming lights to tackle another stack of documents. There’s still no meadow in here, no grass growing, no tableau of geese against the autumn sky. For a moment, there were some ruffled feathers—but now they are smooth. Practice!
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