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  • H James

Work and Non-Work

"It should be obvious that the solution to our ecological crisis and our social and economic problems are the same thing. We harmonise ourselves with nature, we harmonise ourselves with each other. 'Work' in the sense of mechanical, repetitive, compulsive collective behaviour, is abolished." - Alan Watts (1961)

I have been in the wicked world of work on-and-off for going on a quarter century now and I have to admit I'm still not entirely sold on its benefits. As a teenager earning money brought me a great sense of independence - I treasured every crispy note. In summer and winter breaks I landscaped - good physical work. On a building site I slaved myself to exhaustion and hard-drank every penny away (a little comedy exclamation mark appearing above my head every time I checked by bank balance). In offices I sagged in front of computer screens and dreamed of the weekend. I taught for a few years, an experience which left me with an enduring respect for all teachers. Then I went into medicine where the ethos of work is taken to new levels entirely. I intend here simply to show the variety of work I have done, not to give the idea that I have worked hard. Others work much harder than me, for longer, and for less pay. I am lucky in that my current work allows me to take time off when I need (unpaid - I'm not that lucky) and rest assured I am filled with guilt and unease every hour I spent at leisure while those around me work away.

Indian vedic philosophy (e.g. the Bhagavad Gita) explains that there are three types of person, corresponding to the three qualities of matter. Tamas type people and matter are inert, bodies at rest, moving only when an external force acts upon them. Rajas are energetic - all things have energy in some form - and rajas-type people express this more or less in all directions. Then there is Sattwa; the natural order and law of things. All things follow natural laws, and a sattwa person is aware of these and moves in harmony with them, doing neither too much or too little of anything. Most of us dwell in the second state, Rajas. Moving, acting and doing, but often without a definite idea of why. This is certainly true for me. The Bhagavad describes a further three states. In them, one repeats the tamas, rajas, sattwa progression, but this time with a meaningful intention and with a view to activity which benefits everyone - a sort of selfless activity, eventually culminating in enlightenment. In between these is a forth period - one of conflict and confusion, represented in the story by Shri Krishna, caught on the battlefield, unwilling to go forward and cause violence but unable to go back. Maybe we have been there too: not on a battlefield, but stuck in the doldrums, certain that there is something more we could be doing but hopelessly unable to define what that is.

In Zen Buddhism there is no real division between work and non-work. In a sense everything is work, and everything is non-work. Sitting quietly doing nothing can be work/practice - focussing one's attention on a single thing such as the breathing. This is in contrast to my usual mental activity - unfocussed, following trains of thought at random, temporarily distracted by whatever task I have to do yet essentially always agitated. Then when I go to bed images still race through my mind, often followed by claustrophobic, anxious dreams. By the time morning comes I am exhausted, blearily fixing myself a coffee to prepare for the next round. For this reason Thich Nhat Hanh in his book the Miracle of Mindfulness recommends 10 - 20 minutes meditation in the morning simply to give our minds a rest, as sleep is so rarely the refreshing balm we would like it to be! Yet this 'rest' is in many respects the real work; the work of being.

Back to Zen and the idea of 'inactive activity'; the ability to sit and 'do' nothing. In Zen meditation (zazen) one sits and pays attention to breathing. Persistently but without forcing it. Much as a dry leaf floats on waves, resting lightly on the surface, the attention rests lightly on the breathing. This is the only activity one needs to do, and it can be very refreshing, but it is by no means easy. 'Active-inactivity' on the other hand is the ability, usually after much practice, to be able to perform our activities with an empty mind - mushin. This is the state of mind often sought by martial artists - being able to move effortlessly in the midst of stressful action. To be able to act without thinking. Often in a stressful or dangerous situation the mind 'clears' all of itself, which I suspect is why extreme sports can be so addictive or why people claim to 'thrive on stress' - it is a way of achieving mushin. However the limitation here is that one becomes reliant on external conditions in order to clear one's mind. This is why Zen places emphasis on formal zazen, and of practicing no-mind in everyday, normal activity such as washing dishes or talking to friends, for it is only by practising in this way that we really soak in the spirit of Zen.

Another approach to work is that of completely being in each activity. The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki talks about burning oneself out completely in each activity. Not 'burn out' as in that all too familiar sense, a kind of functioning exhaustion. Rather, in Zen one should put oneself completely into each activity, no matter how routine, and leave 'no trace' of oneself after each. Once each thing is done, it is done; like 'a log that has burned itself out completely leaving nothing but ashes'.

When I remember to do it this works well for me, especially at busy times, enabling me to draw a line under each task. Often work is not like this though, and by this I mean paid work, career work, the work we do to make a living. It is busy and repetitive, with threads left hanging and things left undone. Each job creates more. No good deed goes unpunished. You stay on at work an hour late and nobody cares, but turn up five minutes late and eyes roll. Bosses seem to operate at two speeds: frantic and demanding or painfully relaxed. Weekends are over before they started, and Mondays roll around, crushing and inevitable.

I am not just saying this because I am, I admit, a little work-shy. Work really can be bad for well-being. By engaging in busy, repetitive work we don't believe in but believe we have to do, we are exploiting ourselves for a better tomorrow. By constantly projecting ourselves into that future we lose the ability to live in the present. We lose our spontaneity. We worry about getting enough rest and our bodies become tired and rigid. Eventually work becomes the way we value ourselves and measure our worth (as revealed in the question we cannot help asking people we have just met: 'What do you do?'). And of course is work is effort. The more effort, the better it seems. Tell somebody how hard you've had to work, and they will always be able to tell you how much harder they've had it.

It is interesting to compare work to that other great activity: Play. Play is unforced activity, work is usually forced. In the world of play, if something isn't 'working' it is dropped. In work, something extra is usually added on to deal with it. In play, the rules are usually straightforward, indeed in a sense the rules are the game. In work how things are meant to be done - the 'rules' - are usually obscure and hard to follow unless you are 'in the know'. In play, there is no real end-product, no result. It is about how well you flow and get into it. For most of us work is something we do to get something else, usually an income, or status, or self-worth.

There are no prizes for guessing which one the ways of liberation are more in tune with. The organic, spontaneous nature of play, with nothing unnecessary added and no fixating on 'getting something out of it' resonates much more with Taoism and Zen. Work on the other hand is, perhaps like some aspects of religion, that thing that is done without really understanding why. We are asked to have to have faith that it will pay off, that it is right. We accept its rigid hierarchies, try to make sense of its odd rules, try not to break the taboos, all the while knowing deep down a lot of it doesn't make sense. The way of liberation on the other hand is about embracing that deep-down knowing, that questioning consciousness, and finding ways to weave it into our lives.

A friend said to me the other day 'do something you enjoy, and you'll never work another day.' Of course neither of us currently inhabit this reality, we are both trapped in the demands of the modern working world, but I still like the idea. It is something we can all work towards, a plan for liberation. Meanwhile we always have that liberation classic, the Tao Te Ching, to turn to when needed:

Act without doing

work without effort...

Confront the difficult

while it is still easy;

accomplish the great task

by a series of small acts



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