Rolling Up Our Sleeves and Going to Work

Rolling Up Our Sleeves and Going to Work June 18, 2008

A. asks: I’ve been practicing Zen for four years and it has become an important part of how I live. Like you, I am a single parent (of three boys) as their mother discovered she was gay three years ago. I am also a teacher in the public school system. I often become uncomfortable with being part of a system which promotes and requires a great deal of social conformity. I try and work as I think best, but this brings me into conflict with the goals of the system and others around me. I think this tension can be informative for me, but it isn’t always in the best interest of others around me (students, colleagues, etc.). How do you deal with it, on a practical, day to day level, and on a fundamental, philosophical level?

Dosho responds: A.’s question takes me up where I left off with the previous post, “Zazen, Experience and Life.” Now apply what you said in a specific situation, A. seems to be saying, like working in the public schools.

This is the snake in the bamboo tube.

That is, there’s a lot of social conformity in the schools and in Zen training too. In Zen, the more serious a student becomes, the more conformity becomes a part of their lifestyle (I’m thinking particularly of monastic or sesshin practice): what to wear, how to wear to it; what to eat, how to eat it; when and how long to sleep, on which side to do it; how to sit, what to do while sitting, etc. The forms of Zen, like the forms of a public school, can be entered into fully; can embrace us like the snake’s tube.

The problem for most of us some of the time, is that we become dead snakes, resigned to the tube, and therefore seem to have no problem within it. We have no issues with our spiritual tradition, no rub with the many mind/heart-numbing practices of institutional work life. Resignation, however, is a cold hell – not how to be a live snake in a bamboo tube. The issue for the dead or resigned snake becomes how to revive. But that’s not A.’s issue.

It sounds like A. is alive within the tube and wanting to wiggle, wanting to push against the walls of the tube, wanting to make them fit the snake. What to do from here?

One apparent solution would simply be to get out of the tube, change the outer circumstances in order to feel more comfortable. Fortunately or unfortunately, sometimes this just won’t do – like when we’ve made a heart commitment to a spiritual path … or when we have kids … or when we have a job because we have kids. We might want to get out of the tube, but there is no where to go. When we don’t wiggle, we’re dead. When we do wiggle, we sometimes hurt ourselves and/or others.

Another apparent solution would be to shrink the snake by reducing the intensity of our practice, adjusting parenting styles or changing jobs. In so doing, we might find a tube that fits just right … for awhile.

The underlying problem, though, really remains the same. In my practice, I put it like this: “How can I serve within the structure of this life circumstance?”

Taking up a question like this and returning to it as often as I can throughout the day is one way that I practice working Zen. It’s a path of discovery and, like the airliner, I might be off course 90-some% of the time. It’s a matter of finding fairness or equilibrium through picking up the detail of my life and hanging in the balance with boundless openness. Finding equilibrium in zazen in the midst of myriad circumstances, points to how to practice off the cushion. It requires, first of all, that I actually roll up my sleeves and go to work.

Thank you, A. Other thoughts or questions about this theme are especially welcome.

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