Work (and Life) as a Sacred Activity
“Don’t be a board-carrying fellow.” This expression, sometimes used in Zen, refers to a carpenter carrying a long, wide wooden board on his shoulder, blocking his view in one direction. It is an admonition about seeing the world and ourselves as ordinary and mundane without also considering the sacred, mysterious, and unfathomable aspect of our hearts, minds, and surroundings.
This expression can also help us understand that our work is not separate from our lives. One side, an important and vital side of work, involves goals, achievements, money, ambition, and developing your career. Understanding and implementing the technical and strategic aspects of your work are critical for your organization or business to fulfill its mission.
What about the other side? We are all human beings. We all bring a vast set of rich and complex experiences, skills, patterns, needs, aspirations, and emotions to our work. The other side, often more difficult to see, is the sacred aspect of your work, the way in which your work can expose and transform habits and patterns in your life while uncovering your authentic, compassionate, inner wisdom.
When you remove the board from your shoulder, a new world opens, a new way of understanding yourself, of seeing others and the true meaning of your work. Removing the board doesn’t mean turning your work into a self-help workshop. As a business owner with an M.B.A., I understand the importance of results, hiring and motivating talented people, sales and marketing, strategic planning, and cash flow management, as well as the many skills required to start, manage, and grow a business. As a human being and a Zen teacher, I also understand we all bring our full selves to work: our wishes, dreams, desires, anger, and frustration, as well as a deep yearning to find real inner peace, freedom, and happiness
One of the most famous pieces in Zen literature, read or chanted every day in Zen practice centers, is called the Heart Sutra, which in a few paragraphs describes the essential path of Zen practice. A phrase from the Heart Sutra says, “without any hindrances, no fears exist.” These hindrances are the ways in which we protect ourselves, shield our hearts, and keep ourselves closed and separate. Zen practice provides a method and discipline for identifying and loosening the ways we get in our own way. It helps us move from living and acting from fear, to living and acting with fearlessness. By searching for safety and control, and from responding out of fear, without realizing it, we sacrifice the freedom, flexibility, and connections that are our birthright.