WHAT IS YOUR WORK? Larry Smith
We meet someone new and they ask—What do you do? What is your work? And how do we respond? How do you? Typically we name our job, our training, our employment: I’m a college professor of English….I’m a mother of three….I’m a mailman…a carpenter…an artist… a writer. At times there may come a momentary pause as we hear ourselves declare it, and we reflect, Is that who I am? Is that my life? As a person approaching retirement and a new beginning, I give a good deal of time to this fundamental question—What is my life’s work?
In these post-September 11th times it calls for a deeper reflection on the meaningful relationship of the concepts of life and work. Margaret Wheatley reminds us of this connection: “There is nothing that motivates us more than meaning. In such brutal times as these, when good work gets destroyed by events and decisions far beyond our influence, when we’re so overwhelmed with tasks that we have no time to reflect for even a moment, it is very important that we remember why we’re doing our work. What were we hoping to accomplish when we started them? Who are we serving doing this work?” (Shambhala Sun) This is a right time to ask and answer such a query.
In Ezra Bayda’s Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life, he advises that in order to answer this fundamental question we must first stop our spinning, obsessing mind—our driven self—and “enter into the physical experience of not knowing what to do. As the light of awareness penetrates through the layers of tension and dis-ease, we encounter a clarity of purpose that would forever elude us if we worked solely on trying to unravel our mental world.” In essence, we have to stop doing and thinking long enough to realize our life. Yet because we fear change and the impermanence it implies, we cling to the known, life’s status quo, the safe identity of our job. Bayda warns that “when contemplating what our lifework might be, our attachment to security and a sense of safety is what drives us. We gravitate toward thinking in the belief that we can avoid experiencing the sense of groundlessness inherent in change.” We think too much and experience too little; we avoid our fear which is our very path to meaning.
Bayda goes on to explain how, “entering into groundlessness itself is the key to resolving our problem. Our willingness to experience the physical sense of no ground is what will eventually bring us to clarity, because it will allow us to see through the roots of our fear.” The lesson: By holding fast to our life we block our path and cut off our chance for fuller growth and deeper realization. The writers here go into that fear and find both pain and joy, movement and meaning in our life-work. It is worth knowing. It can save your life. Poet and culture critic Robert Bly comments to Bill Moyer that his life as a writer has ultimately yielded health, that his poet friends are a good deal healthier because they don’t hide from experience and because they reflect on the nature and meaning of life.
An old Zen story tells of a centipede who one day approached an ant. The ant stood and watched in awe as the centipede approached. “Oh, wonder of wonders,” he cried out. “How is it you move so! Just look at the way you glide along—all those legs moving together; it’s like dancing. I am humbled.” At this the centipede stopped. “Oh really,” he exclaimed as he looked around at all of his hundred legs. “I never noticed before.” And there he stood and never took another step.
My reading of this little fable is that too much consciousness of the past keeps us from moving into the present. Those who exclaim your deeds to you, whether in praise or blame, do not help you to move along. We are more than our thoughts and our acts. As T’ang poet Chun-king suggests:
Let go of the past.
Why anticipate the future?
Only this moment counts, here and now.
The cape jasmine is sweet;
the spring plums are ripe.
Yes, life is sweet and ripe and forever bidding us to awaken to it. This is our life’s work, our path to meaning, to becoming awake to who we really are this very moment.
And so, as we consider my own life’s work with you, we come to know that a better question than “What do I do?” would be “What do I have to offer?” Someday we all will “retire” or move on to the next part of our life journey. It is a time to reflect, What is it I have to offer—to others and myself? It’s a question as old as humankind and one fundamental to any writer.
Causes Larry Smith Supports
peace and justice, meditation