Work as Practice

I’ve become increasingly troubled by proponents of mindfulness. From companies touting meditation as a means to help workers deal with unpleasant work situations instead of addressing the root causes of the workers’ dissatisfaction, to therapists who position meditation as a means of exposing the thoughts that supposedly cause malaise instead of working with their clients to combat true sources of discomfort, much of the talk of mindfulness is about one’s relationship with themselves and their internal experience as opposed to one’s place in a community. Mental illness can lead to dangerous self-absorption. Many secular meditation practices encourage such self-absorption.

So how can a person reap the benefits of focused attention found in meditation without tumbling dangerously, selfishly into a lonely isolation? Work.

Meditation has been, for me, a 30 minute a day exercise in noticing what is going on in my mind and body and in the space around me. It gives me the opportunity to predict, prevent or manage the worst mood swings. But during more than a year of limited social interaction brought on by the shutdown that is just now letting up I really didn’t want, or need, monkish time spent just breathing. I had to get out and do something. I had to bring the deep focus that helped me heal onto a task that would help me feel independent and productive. I needed to work.

I looked for manual labor and found a job in a shop that makes monuments and memorials for cemeteries. I make grave markers and tombstones. I move around pieces of granite. I keep up the grounds and the shop. It’s more physical than anything I’ve done since I was a teenager and in a way it’s more fulfilling as well.

Every day I make something. I get time to work in silence and bring great focus to a task, and I get time to work with other men on tangible projects in a group. Work has become practice and my moods have been remarkably stable. Obviously, there’s a strong spiritual connection in the work performed out of great respect and reverence for the people whose names I carve. All of my work in helping people with mental illness has been to advocate for meditation, movement and meaningful work. This job has all three.

It’s terrible that so many people with mental illness sit idle in a system that fosters helplessness and dependency instead of productivity and potential. Meaning can be found in work and love. Even when love is elusive we can still work. And when we bring our full attention and purpose to our work such work can become holy. In the monasteries I’ve gone to on retreat work was a key spiritual practice equal to meditation and prayer.

Work becomes especially therapeutic when it’s physical work. If your job doesn’t offer this you can find it in hobbies. Manual labor enables us to bring our mind and body together on a task and truly experience our full self. But the fact that we’re being productive, addressing our efforts toward a product or service for others, keeps this type of meditative practice from leading to self-absorption. Through work we can find connection with others at the same time we discover feelings of independence. Community is built when people work together toward a common purpose. Mental health can be found within such a community. Without work we invite a meaningless existence.

Too many people think it’s ok to not be productive and to not contribute to others. In some ways the mental healthcare system even encourages this. Yet even those with illness that prevents them from holding competitive employment can find some time and some energy to make something, look at it, and say, “I did this.” And then really heal by giving it to someone else.

We’re all artisans. We all need work to connect with ourselves and with each other. Meaningful work enables us to improve ourselves and our world.