Total Work’s Ideological Capture Via YOUR Enthusiasm

You might be inclined to think that the chief way that the Total Work system remains afloat is by “sticks and circuses” alone. The sticks come in the forms of public education disciplining, massive student loan debt, wage slavery, and the fact of being coerced into taking a bullshit job. And the circuses are evident in the huge entertain industry (plus alcohol consumption) whose point is to “mellow Workers out” after long, overwhelming days at work. A more sophisticated version of a circus is McMindfulness.

But sticks and circuses are not the primary methods by which Total Work props itself up while sauntering forth.

The chief method calls for sequestering your enthusiasm. You don’t realize that you’re being ideologically captured through your enthusiasm for work.

Here’s a highly illustrative example: you come up with a new adjective for a kind of coaching. (You know what I mean by a “new kind of adjective”–e.g., “life coaching,” “executive coaching,” “mindfulness coaching,” “financial coaching,” and so on.) Next, you get really enthusiastic about this idea, so excited about it that you ask friends for feedback. Each of them says that it’s a really great business idea, and there’s definitely a market for it.

Your enthusiasm thus fed, it occupies you day and night. You sketch pictures, make Post It diagrams on your walls, ideate galore! You really HAVE SOMETHING HERE!

Oh, boy. While you believe that you’re the agent here, what’s actually true is that your enthusiasm has been sequestered by Total Work, and it is through your enthusiasm that you’re able to be ideologically captured. It’s not that you have an idea; it’s that Total Work has you. Excitement, feverishness, enthusiasm: how much simpler and more straightforward this is than sticks and circuses alone! By this means, you are hooked.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with starting a business–but why (ask yourself) is it all consuming? Why does the very thought give rise to beads of sweat on your brow or below your upper lip?

If you only cared about right livelihood in the Buddhist sense, that is, if you only cared about (a) having a decent means by which you’d have enough for you and your family and (b) doing the least harm and possibly helping some other sentient beings, then there is NO POSSIBLE WAY that this business idea would ensnare and bedazzle you as it most certainly does. Remember what Bertrand Russell once said, “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”

One’s work, in actuality, is not terribly important. Find out what truly is and be free. A true sign that you are free is that you can pick up a piece of work, stitch some things together for a bit, put it down at the drop of a hat, and summarily forget it.

The Ripening Of Love And A Call To Art

The views we have about love’s presumptive necessary course, views often held by the art world, are very skewed.

As you get older, we’ve heard, you’ll grow apart from your significant other. Or you’ll take each other for granted. Or you’ll be less sexually interested in one another. Or you’ll come to be like “friends” or “good teammates” or (dare I say?) “colleagues.” Or you’ll get tired of monogamy. Or you’ll be simmering, endlessly, on a low boil called “inner conflict.”

Perhaps as the years go by, the strains will multiply as will the grievances and the resentments. Or the whole thing will just become tidy, comfortable enough–in a word, bourgeois. Fantasies or affairs or dusty junk drawers will mediate the relationship henceforth.

But this is not my experience with my wife. Each year I come to love her even more. To say this is not to say something saccharine or sentimental. Nor is it to say something cute or virtue-signaling-esque. It’s just to speak the plain truth, one that accords with my experience.

A confluence of streams–perhaps these?: the critique and auto-critique of Total Work, the maturing of spiritual practice, the fact that we’ve been living, often in close quarters, for 24 hours for almost 8 years now, our mutual commitment to the truth and to beauty, and others–led to a celebration of her birthday recently, a celebration that felt celebratory. And loving. And lovely.

Love does not always spoil; it can deepen and ripen, and does. Surely, ongoing introspection and I-Thou dialogues are crucial, albeit no guarantees. Ripening is an act of grace.

If love can ripen, then why, pray tell, are there not more (or any?) post-postmodern (i.e., metamodern) works of art that celebrate reverence, depth, spiritedness, peace, and love?  Art should not continue to presume that tragedy equals depth and that happiness is nothing but sentimental fantasy. Sacred art in and for our time would make ample room for the kind of beauty that radiates with grace.

There Is No Meaningful Work Except Insofar As EVERYTHING Is Meaningful

Step 1: Disentangle Meaning from Work

  1. Meaning is something you essentially are.
  2. Work is something you happen to do.
  3. What you essentially are is not what you happen to do.
  4. Therefore, meaning is not work.
  5. It follows immediately that work, of any kind, cannot be meaningful.
  6. It also follows immediately that “meaningful work” is an unintelligible neologism.

Step 2: Supply Definitions

  1. Meaning means being in contact with a greater reality.
  2. Work means applying deliberate, concerted efforts over a certain length of time in order to procure the means of survival (and perhaps then some) for me and mine (where mine could be “family,” “tribe,” etc.).

See that meaning is, at its heart, mystical or cosmological or metaphysical or theocentric.

See that work, at its heart, is mundane and diurnal.

For now, accept the dualism between meaning and work. Doing so enables you to, via Steps 1 and 2, disentangle yourself from the hegemony of Total Work.

Step 3: Explore Who You Really Are

Investigate who you truly are. Investigate the ultimate nature of reality. The path, insofar as there are “touches” of a greater reality along the way, is meaningful by definition and also in actual experience. (The definition is a linguistic bearer of actual experience.)

Step 4: Dial the Value of Work Way Down

Just see work, for the time being anyway (i.e., for quite some time), as that which supplies you with a livelihood. Hopefully, it sustains you and yours in a reasonable, decent way; hopefully, it is socially and ecologically beneficial; hopefully, it’s not onerous. But that’s it!

Live Steps 3 and 4 for a while. A long while. (The line below suggests that a lot of time has elapsed…)

Step 5: Nondual Realization

Let’s suppose that you wake up, in the Eastern sense, such that you know who are really are. Then what is directly, immediately clear to you?

Well, if meaning means being in touch with a greater reality, then it’s immediately clear to you that you are always in touch with this greater reality. You can’t not touch it! In which case, everything is meaningful. How wonderful!

The cosmic joke, then, is this implication: namely, that work is also meaningful! Wonderful!

But see this plainly. Work is as meaningful as going to the bathroom, as meaningful as breathing, as meaningful as anything whatsoever. Therefore, there is nothing “special” or “unique” about work!


Since “everything is meaningful” is ultimately true, this delightfully reveals the pointlessness of looking for meaningful or fulfilling work in the narrow, illusory sense. Sure, some forms of work are more interesting or beneficial than others. In which case, do them if you can. But no form of work sparkles with its own meaning–except insofar as everything sparkles with shared meaning!

Think clearly, investigate fully, and enjoy!

Deconstructing Total Work And Finding The Joy Of Being

Step 1: Leave No Stone Unturned

Simply examine every conception, every belief, and every feeling you have about the allegedly special value accorded to work and see that it—whatever it is—has no basis, no legs to stand on. Go straight to the heart of the cultural idolatry you’ve inherited. Leave no stone unturned. Don’t let the “fever” you’ve felt in connection with work or working get a free pass. Don’t let any of it get a free pass. If need be, allow yourself a cheat: proceed, provisionally, that is, on the grounds that any work whatsoever is a form of blasphemy (or, to make it simpler still, a swear word). This is nothing more than a ‘tool’ or ‘exercise’ whose point is to see more clearly and to correct a stunning error.

  • You might think that if, say, Mother Teresa had gotten paid to help the poor that that would constitute a counterargument inasmuch as that would be an example of “meaningful work.” But in these sorts of cases, a mistake has been made: really, Mother Teresa is serving God and did so through acts of charity. The latter, in the proper sense, should be seen as service. Now, had she gotten paid to live (again, this is a hypothetical), then payment would fall into a separate category. In other words, what she did was a gift (the first category). Had she gotten paid, payment would have fallen into an entirely separate category.
  • The same kind of argument applies to sacred artists. Their meditations, or prayers, unfold in the process of making art. Their creations are gifts. And if their gifts must then become a commodity, then that’s another ontology altogether. The gift, which has its own ontological status, must be transmogrified in order to arrive in the marketplace in the form of a commodity.
  • In neither case do we find meaningful work. Instead, we find meaning and then, in an entirely different arena, some compensation. For more on my understanding of what meaning is, see this post.

Step 2: Trace It Back To Its Source

We’ve established, in Step 1, that all forms of work must be investigated. We’ve also discovered (provided we’ve actually gone through the inquiry) that no form of work can be a justification for living. All are baseless.

Next, trace this idolatry of work back to your unwittingly taking your stand as the Worker. Here, see @45 min. and following in the Guy Sengstock conversation. See this with the utmost clarity: see that you’ve taken your stand as the Worker and almost everything appears in your eyes, in your thoughts, and in your actions as what is framed in terms of work and non-work. (My First Things piece on “secular monasticism” makes plain the idolatry of “working on oneself.”) If you do not trace your proclivity for restless efforting back to the Worker, then you haven’t gone nearly far enough. Linger here for as long as it takes to see the source of our illusion.

Step 3: Drop Your Identification With The Worker

Right now, drop the Worker entirely. Right now! Right this instant! That is to say, drop taking yourself to be the Worker.

If you need help, simply ask yourself, “If I am not the Worker, then who or what am I?” And let that question linger in the air. It will show you the way. You don’t have to do anything at all. Let the questioning be your guide.

Step 4: Limit Your Understanding Of Work to Livelihood

For the next, say, 3 years and provided that you have carried on through Step 3, see working simply in terms of having a livelihood. From this vantage point,

  • Work would enable you to support yourself as well as those who depend upon you.
  • Work, ideally, would be antifragile: it wouldn’t be subject, say, to binary logic (job/jobless; etc.). Instead, while what you live on may fluctuate within certain limits, it would always be enough for you and yours. (Cf. hunters and gatherers here.)
  • You would undertake what you call work in bursts at different points of the day, but assuming you’re fortunate, the quantity would not exceed 4 hours or so.
  • The work you did would be socially beneficial: this rules out the kind of ideas, goods, and services that are actually harmful as well as those which are strictly bullshit (see, e.g., Graeber, Bullshit Jobs).
  • Above all, you would be like a Daoist sage in that you’d be able to easily pick up work, do what needed to be done, and then put it done—and forget it completely. We read in The Daodejing, “The Daoist sage creates without possessing” and then “forgets it.” Indeed, you’d be able to put it down at the drop of a hat and without resentment of any kind. This will open you up to the experience of beauty.

Step 5: A Nondual Understanding

After some years and through experience and contemplation, it may become perfectly obvious to you that, at least in a sane, humane, caring world, there would be no ontological difference between leisure (which is what enables us to apprehend Reality) and non-leisure. They would be one. A Zen master would see no difference between sweeping the zendo and painting, nor would she see as much as a hint of a difference between zazen (seated meditation) and cooking. Why? Because these activities would all be actualizations of the primal emptiness (no-thing-ness: sunyata) or, what is the same thing, the primal fullness of Being. This is why everything is so very delightfully funny to such a one who sees, and lives, this. Or—to put it in Benedictine terms—everything would be worship of the divine.

  • It’s very important not to jump to Step 5. If you do so, then you’ll just be making the same old Total Work mistake, which is that work, understood in terms of Total Work, is playful. That’s false! Don’t believe the consultants or the facilitators you hear!