Sacredness of Work

By: David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei

I would like to speak to you today about one of the lessons in the Buddha’s teachings on the Eightfold Path. And that one is on right livelihood. In fact I would like to modify the description by changing the word “right” with encompassing and corrective. By doing so I am being both pragmatic and also modernizing the language. “Right” becomes two words, encompassing reminds us that our actions will have wide ranging effects, positive, negative or neutral, and corrective reminds us that these are the actions necessary to make positive changes necessary in order to move away from unsatisfactoriness and discontentment.

When we consider livelihood, or the major activity we engage in to sustain our own and our family’s welfare, as individuals on a spiritual path, we must also think of it as the sacredness of work. Just as time orders and measures our life’s activities, work orders our life’s purpose and the resources we require. Our work contains an innate dignity when it is truly connected to self — when our creativity finds concrete expression in what we do, how we shape our environment, in the fruits of our efforts. Work is sacred and uplifting when it springs from who we are, when it bears a relationship to our unfolding journey. For work to be sacred, it must be connected to our spiritual awareness. Our work has to represent our passion, our desire to contribute to our culture, especially to the development of others. By passion I mean the talents we have to share with others, the talents that shape our destiny and allow us to be of real service to others in our community.

It is this balance that enhances the sacredness of work, because it allows our talents, our innate creative passions to express themselves positively for the benefits of others. The root of this balance is purity of INTENTION: the state of the heart itself, that point within the depths of our subjectivity from where motivation springs. It is a noble aspiration to contribute to the improvement of the world in some meaningful way. It’s simply not enough to be successful economically; our lives have to possess meaning and value in relation to our community. I will repeat what you have heard me say before, we our social-selves first and foremost. This goes to the lesson on interdependence and connection with others that is how we can see ourselves as expressions of the Universe.

For someone walking a spiritual path and practice, work plays a central role, as our work should be, or nearly always will be, meaningful. All our activities require regular, creative effort — the real key to meaningful work. As long as what we do is good for the world, the important thing is that we do it well, with a creative and discipline mind always returning to the larger good. Labor is a disciplined activity, and while engaged in it, we strive to be conscious of our purpose, and the outcomes of our actions.

Now as you know I am not a temple monk anymore, but one that lives in the world. My root teacher use to say, “My life is my monastery.” In fact, it is not unusual for either a Christian or Buddhist monk to live away from their monastery. I strive to be equally self sufficient in both my contemplative living and how I work and interact in my community; for my community. I am very fortunate to have variety in how my practice becomes “my work.” No matter what I do I strive to make my work sacred. It has not always been that way. And I have been just as caught up in struggling to achieve success as most everyone else. Especially my “work” as a writer/author, teacher, spiritual leader and Interfaith Chaplain. But I have accepted a different frame of mind mostly as a result of my dedicated meditation practice. You do not have to be a monk, or spiritual leader, or a priest to find the sacredness of work. It is found in any work you are engaged in, as long as it does not promote unsatisfactoriness.

For this to manifest within our commitment to earning a living, our task is always the same: to bring light to an activity and dimension of our ordinary experience that is often darkened by the uncaring coldness of the economic realities in our culture. Consistency in each moment and experience is the goal, not the fragmented existence that oppresses our culture these days. Consistency through the discipline of a spiritual life and the application to our work and the people we meet is the ultimate goal in career and work. When we meditate on a consistent basis we develop the capacity for developing a state of calm, even serenity. When that is brought into the work place it both effects how you approach your tasks, as well as all those you come in contact with. It is motivating and enhances the encompassing and corrective actions we strive to maintain. It is a single mindedness that guides us into a steadiness of action, a habit of spiritual life that colors our work, our family, our friendships, and all our interests.

Perspective, the gift of vision, gives us a powerful determination to live out of the center of our awareness. Determination is the key. And how do we increase our determination? We need to become more single minded in our practice, to develop and maintain the requisite perspective in every situation. I continue to strive toward that goal. It is not easy, but with practice, achieving some positive results will come. Ultimately all our activities are opportunities for growth, including the important function of work.

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