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!