This Labor Day Chop Wood And Carry Water

(The image above is Mila Kunis in the some-day cult classic Jupiter Ascending)

If you’ve noticed that I’ve been scarcer than usual here, it’s because I got a day job. A couple of them, actually. One is a work from home part-time thing, but the other is a minimum wage service industry job. It’s very physical and quite menial; I leave work every day bone-tired. Between these two jobs and my Patreon I still don’t make a living wage – the combined income is not enough to even rent a studio apartment in most areas of Los Angeles.

When I got the job I was worried that someone might recognize me as I was cleaning toilets; this isn’t just my enormous ego talking, the job is in a sector that attracts movie fans. On my first day I saw an acquaintance who works on a big TV show; I’m not sure if he saw me, but we didn’t have an interaction. I was grateful for that.

So as you can imagine the kerfuffle about Geoffrey Owens, formerly Elvin on The Cosby Show, has hit home. The actor was spotted – and photographed! – bagging groceries at a Trader Joe’s. What followed was a perfect internet storm, first of people mocking the actor and then people getting mad at the people mocking the actor (and thus spreading the photo farther and wider. The internet is the ultimate home of “This tastes like shit, try it.”). A lot of people spoke up about how hard it is to make a living in the arts, and that having a job – any job – is laudable and honorable.

It’s fitting that this blow up should happen over Labor Day weekend. We have a weird relationship with labor in this country; we pretend that we’re a classless society day-to-day but we are so class-stricken we make ancient India look socially mobile. I am grateful for my jobs, and grateful to the friends who helped me get them, but I am constantly reminded of my place in the class hierarchy via systems and norms that are baked into the workplace environment and rules. I don’t take it personally, and after 20 years working desk jobs and creative jobs I am grateful for the opportunity to experience life as it is lived by millions upon millions of my countrymen.

But I don’t approach my day job through a socio-economic lens. I know some of you will light up the comments with Marxist talk, and that’s fine and I look forward to reading your thoughts, but for me I approach my day job through the lens of spirituality, specifically this quote:

Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.

This is a great quote on every level. The first level of its greatness is that I can’t quite figure out where it’s from. It’s often said to be Zen, which a Japanese school of Buddhism, but is also frequently attributed to Wu Li, a Chinese Jesuit priest. I like the ambiguity of the origin of the quote; too often we pay attention to the tea cup’s shape, and not to the tea within the cup.

Beyond its fittingly obscure origins, the quote itself is subtly brilliant. First, it tells us that enlightenment has nothing to do with our material conditions – we must still do the chores when we have achieved nirvana. Being enlightened doesn’t mean living life in any different way. It just means our relationship to that life is changed. This is the true enlightenment, being able to have a positive relationship with our conditions NO MATTER WHAT THEY ARE.

That means I can be just as happy cleaning a bathroom as I can be attending a film festival (potentially happier, considering some of the crowds at film festivals). That’s because it isn’t the situation that makes me happy or unhappy, it is how I relate to that situation.

This, in turn, is a guide to enlightenment. Don’t do anything special, the quote says. The conditions for enlightenment are already present in your life. You don’t have to go somewhere, do something extraordinary in order to be enlightened, you’re already where you need to be. It’s not about what’s outside of you, it’s about what’s inside of you.

This means that everything you do is a potential rung on the ladder towards enlightenment. I learned this attending a silent meditation retreat; while on the retreat (which I paid money to attend!) I was assigned a ‘yogi job.’ This was a menial task – in my case, washing the pots and pans after meals – that we would do in a meditative way. In noble silence, and with full mindfulness of my every move, I washed dozens upon dozens of burnt and filthy pots and pans and baking sheets. This is a job so menial I could not get one in the real world (I think I look too put together when I walk in to a place asking about the dishwashing job – they don’t think I’ll take it seriously), and here I was paying a few hundred bucks for the honor to do it in the desert at a retreat center.

But an honor it was! This yogi job realigned my understanding of labor and meditation. Meditation isn’t just sitting on a cushion with my eyes closed, meditation is everything I do all day long. If I bring my full awareness to it, if I have a detached but friendly attitude towards it, if I endeavor to not drift into flights of fancy while doing it, I am meditating. (A friend asked “What do you think about all day?” and the honest answer was “I try to think about only what I am doing at that exact moment.”)

This means my day job is now a yogi job. I practice while doing it. I am aware of my motions and I am aware of the emotions that arise within me. I am mindful and I am present. I don’t look at the clock as my enemy, never ticking fast enough towards freedom. I have the same feeling I have in a long meditation – yeah, I want the bell to ring so I can get off the cushion, but I also interrogate and explore that feeling. Literally everything I do at that job becomes a moment for practice, from the picking up garbage to dealing with co-workers to dealing with managers to dealing with guests.

Will I be able to maintain this in the long run? It’s anybody’s guess, but I will make a wise effort to keep up this attitude.

By being aware that my chopping of wood and carrying water is a path to enlightenment (as well as the result of enlightenment), I also give myself the space to do my job well. Yeah, it’s a menial job, but these are the easiest to half-ass. I strive to not do that. I strive to come in and do my work to the best of my ability, even when I don’t feel like doing it. Even when I’m hurting or grumpy or feeling sorry for myself. I’m lucky in that my job gives me strict parameters of success – I know when I have cleaned something – but I can take that attitude to other jobs in the future.

I was always a half-assing kind of guy. It was my whole thing. I have that gifted student bullshit mentality, where earlier schooling was easy for me and so I never learned to really apply myself. Even now I publish almost only first drafts. I naturally seek and take shortcuts; maybe it’s the Sicilian mafia in my blood. But by focusing on my work and being dedicated to doing it right I am able to bring that attitude to other parts of my life. There’s a domino effect of responsibility that begins with the simple act of making sure the floor under a urinal is clean.

This brings to mind another famous quote, one whose provenance is more sure. It’s from the Hindu classic the Bhagavad Gita.

You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.

This is a more complicated quote because it predates modern capitalism. Smarter people than I have broken this down better, but here’s my small stab at it, and how I apply it to my day job.

Yes, I am entitled to the fruits of my actions at work in terms of getting a paycheck. That is not what Krishna, the big shot Hindu god, is talking about here. He’s talking about ALL of our labor, every duty that is given to us from family obligations to community service to our daily toil. He is telling us that the proper way to work is not to think “What will I get from this,” but rather “How can I do this well.”

When we become attached to the fruits of our actions we see our actions only as ways of getting those things. This brings misery; our actions become rote routines that we must go through in order to get the reward. By focusing on the duty itself we can find happiness in performing it well.

Alternately, when we focus on the fruits of our actions we may be tempted towards inaction when the fruits aren’t quite what we want. I work harder at my day job than I ever did as a film critic, and I make about one-fifth what I made. If I focused only on that I would be miserable all day. I would be tempted to try and not do my work, to fuck off and leave my co-workers high and dry. What’s the point in being miserable and making others miserable? I have to chop wood and carry water – there’s no way around it – so why not enjoy it and do the best I can while I’m at it?

There’s one last quote that I think of when I am going about my day job. This one comes from a book about recovery:

“We have not once sought to be one in a family, to be a friend among friends, to be a worker among workers, to be a useful member of society. Always we tried to struggle to the top of the heap, or to hide underneath it. This self-centered behavior blocked a partnership relation with any one of those about us. Of true brotherhood we had small comprehension.”

To be a worker among workers. To right-size myself so that I do not need to be a big shot in order to find meaning and grace in what I do. To recognize, in the words of Wavy Gravy, that we’re all just bozos on the bus.

Finally, I look at my labor as service. I do a job that needs to be done. I clean spaces that need to be cleaned. By cleaning these spaces I allow other people to use and enjoy them, and I think people finding enjoyment is important in the world. In my own small way I facilitate that. That it is hard, or that it can feel a little demeaning, is part of what makes it service; this weekend a wise man said to me, “If you’re not inconvenienced, it’s not service.”

It’s really important to note that none of this means “Allow yourself to be taken advantage of.” There’s some of that inherent in capitalism – rich people are getting much richer on my labor for which I am not paid a living wage – but you should still stand up for your rights, your safety and your pay. This isn’t some kind of anti-union spiritual message. I believe that solidarity and workers rights are vital.

But spirituality isn’t about changing your conditions, it’s about making yourself better able to deal with your conditions. Once you’re there you’re in a position to change those conditions, but the truth is that you can’t confront your conditions until you have a good relationship with them. It’s like a general being confronted with an adverse battlefield – he has to make peace with the situation AS IT IS before he can make his plans to get himself into a better situation. He can’t just rail and moan against the fact that he’s stuck fighting in the mountains when he would prefer the plains;  he must accept that he’s in the mountains and figure out how to fight within that reality. So it is with us at work – we don’t have to like our situation, but we have to accept it as it is so that we can try to change it.

And having a better relationship with your labor allows you the space to use that time to do something positive with yourself. All day I chop wood and carry water. All day I remind myself to not become entitled to the fruits of my actions. And all day I remind myself to be a worker among workers. All of these things make me a better person, minute by minute, hour by hour. I paid hundreds of dollars to learn these lessons on retreat. Now I’m getting paid $13.25 an hour to continue learning them.

And by the way, if you appreciate the labor I do here on this blog, please consider becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha, or giving through the Paypal link on the right side of the page.