In Search of Right Work: Am I Living My Dharma if I Am Not Working in the Dirt?
By Helena Sweet
A friend of mine recently texted me about her work – important, hard work that she does immensely well – and in her text she posed a question. She questioned not necessarily the work but its inherent intangibility. She like me, sits at a computer and produces emails, PDFs and assorted files that we put into the cloud to wait for the comments. This is not the work of my grandparents, subsistence farmers, who carried sacks of potatoes up large hills. (They also had 11 children, and I am sure slept very well at night.) Were they
happier? Some days, yes and some days, no. Was their work more or less important because it was a tangible product? Should my friend spend all her days, as she puts it, working in the dirt?
I often think about my “right work” – my dharma – this Buddhist idea of living the work that serves the self and something larger than the self. At times in my life I have found my right work in my job, in raising my children or in volunteer work, but have always “know it when I see it” or in this case feel it. It’s the flow. Csíkszentmihályi, an educational theorist, was one of the first to write about this place in which time stands still and the work/learning just comes – the flow. Now we know that it is actual different brain waves, our Alpha brain wave – the creative, relaxed, intuitive state – at work and not our reasoning, alert Beta waves. In short, the work we do in flow, well…it just flows.
So is it actual producing something tangible that is my right work or is it finding this wholly creative place that is dharma? Perhaps both. There are many ways to create this flow state, but the way NOT to do it is to attach too much time/importance to the task. Once the work becomes “work” we lose the ability to get into our creative state. We learn creativity and flow as children through play – research shows that children who play more are more creative adults and better divergent thinkers and find their Alpha-brain-wave states more easily. When we can feel playful and creative we are more likely, even as adult to find more flow. Joyful work, meaningful work creates our dharma.
So after I sent my friend a poem about getting in the woods and finding her joy, I stopped to think about her dharma. In watching all the right work that she does with raising her daughter, in her volunteer work and both the tangible and intangible things that she produces, I see her in her flow, with or without the dirt.
Terns by Mary Oliver (from Devotions)
Don’t think just now of the trudging forward of thought,
But of the wing-drive of unquestioning affirmation.
It’s summer, you never saw such a blue sky,
And here they are, those white birds with quick wings,
Sweeping over the waves, chattering and plunging,
Their thin beaks snapping, their hard eyes
Happy as little nails
The years to come-this is a promise-
Will grant you ample time
To try the difficult steps in the empire of thought
Where you seek for the shining proofs you think you must have.
But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
Than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.
The flock thickens
Over the rolling, salt brightness. Listen,
Maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world
In the clasp of attention, isn’t the perfect prayer,
But it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
Is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,
But of pure submission. Tell me, what else
Could beauty be for? And now the tide
Is at its very crown,
The white birds =sprinkle down,
Gathering up the loose silver rising
As if weightless. It isn’t instruction, or parable.
It isn’t for any vanity or ambition
Except for the one allowed, to stay alive.
It’s only a nimble frolic
Over the waves. And you find, for hours,
You cannot even remember the questions
That weigh so in your mind.
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