A Meaningful Life: The Impossible Request

Several years ago I attended a ceremony at the San Francisco Zen Center in which a new abbot, or spiritual leader, was being installed. I was one of six people chosen to ask the incoming abbot a question that he was to answer in public as part of the ceremony. The purpose of this exchange was to challenge and test the new abbot’s wisdom and understanding and simultaneously to support and encourage him. The question that came to me was, “What is the impossible request your life makes of you?” The new abbot answered that his life was asking him “to keep my heart open, to the pains and sorrows, to the joy and well-being of everyone in my life, to not turn away from what was difficult but to turn toward it.” I think that question and answer can be applied to our own lives and jobs.

What is the impossible request that your life makes of you? Stop for a moment and ask yourself that question, very slowly. Now slower. “What is the impossible request that my life makes of me?” Have you ever asked yourself this question? Don’t have a clue what this means? That’s okay. The question is more important than the answer. Just trust the question.

Your work and your life are impossible, imperfect, messy, unanswerable. Your work and your life are precious, amazing, challenging, and incomprehensible. Is there any difference between these two, what is messy and what is precious? What if you accepted and appreciated your work and your life, just as they are, right now, without judgments and labels? Your work, and your life, if you are paying attention, present themselves as impossible requests, asking impossible things from you that are impossible to respond to.

Trust the questions. Trust what is difficult, unpredictable, and does not quite fit anywhere. There is no other place than right here, no other time than right now. There is no other question than this one “What is the impossible request that my life makes of me?”

In Zen there is a classic conversation, a koan, a dialogue between Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen and Emperor Wu, the political head of China in the sixth century. Emperor Wu asks Bodhidharma, “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” Bodhidharma replies, “Empty, without holiness.” (Perhaps this is a way of saying that everything is holy.) The Emperor asks, “Who is facing me?” Bodhidharma responds, “I don’t know.”

Without holiness, our work lives are empty. We write, we talk, we meet with people, we take out the trash. Work is one moment after another. But our work lives are precious and amazing. When asked who we are at work or how we came to be doing the work we do, the real answer, for most of us is, “I don’t know.” Our lives and our work are much like a koan, an impossible question whose purpose is to penetrate and deepen our understanding of our truth and the mysterious and mundane nature of our days.

Most of us have no idea how we came to do the work we are doing. Some people clearly choose their work. Others seem to be chosen by their work, and for many, work appears to be a result of a series of accidents. All three of these statements seem to describe how I came to be the founder of a greeting card publishing company. I can trace a series of choices that led me to this place. From another perspective it does feel as though there were a series of choices made, and that I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, on the receiving end of a constellation of decisions. Clearly my being in this role is the result of an amazing series of accidents and unexplainable events. My question continues, again and again “What is the impossible request that my life makes of me?”

Adapted from Z.B.A. Zen Of Business Administration


Emma S.
Emma S6 years ago

I asked my self this question and the answer seemed to be, 'To go forth.' Now I'm trying to see what this means!

Jewels S.
Jewels S7 years ago

I know my answer: staying true to my own heart and innocence while keeping my center in this chaotic and sometimes cruel world. Thank you for the addition motivation to get back into my yoga practice. I have been having a hard time finding my center lately.

Tara Depaolo
Tara Depaolo7 years ago

Have to work on that a bit... guess thats the whole idea. I really want to kno tho.

Cha B.
Past Member 7 years ago

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Manojkumar Bhoyar

Pranayam really works...

ChanTlalok Rain C.

?????Food for thought, thanx!!!!

Lloyd Sevigny
Lloyd Sevigny7 years ago

@Jake Davis, Not mentioning things as "certainties" is not the same as not knowing. Certainties exist within nature, such as the seasons. Not knowing is not being evasive or naive.. it is simply not knowing. Sometimes the need not to express things as certainties is a need to not commit. You must judge for yourself if this may be what you're doing.

Jake Davis
Jacob Davis7 years ago

I try never to express anything as a "certainty".

Is this the same as "not knowing"?

Rachel Robbins
Rachel R7 years ago

I like the idea that our "I don't know" about our lives could be a koan to make us think about them.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L7 years ago