For many of us, work is our life.
We spend much of our days at work, our time at home, recovering from work and the years of our youth and often beyond pondering what type of work we really want to do.
But when we are at work, all too often, we would rather be somewhere else. At times, our jobs just don’t satisfy our thirst for meaning and purpose. But while we can’t live on bread alone, we do need to put bread on the table. So the question is, how do we find meaning in our work?
A good place to start is in The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran:
“Always you have been told that work is a curse and labor a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when the dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labor you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labor is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.”
This philosophy of work is epitomized in the approach to work of the indigenous Californian people.
In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow describe the way that the Native Americans of California revere work and see it as a path to spirituality, “What mattered was cultivation of the inner self through discipline, earnest training, and hard work.” This means that things like gathering wood for the sweat lodge are elevated to sacred duties.
For me, there is so much richness here. I have a natural inclination toward working less. I love the idea of the four-hour working day. But here the emphasis is on working more and developing more endurance. But doesn’t this just cement the workaholic mentality that many of us have? Not necessarily.
The workaholic often works for money. They sacrifice family and rest time for a future payoff. A strong work ethic, on the other hand, would not neglect the important responsibilities that a person has. Time with family is also part of our sacred work. Playing catch in the park, attending a ballet concert, going for a family hike…these are all important “tasks.” So having a strong work ethic is about learning to endure and even thrive while performing all of our obligations in our various roles in life.
This is hard. When I have worked all day, rushed home, cooked dinner and eaten it, I’m ready to sit and do nothing. But then I see that my wife is still doing her work at home, so she won’t be doing the dishes. So I need to step up. (And by the way, like many people in Australia, we don’t have a dishwasher.) So I often need to do the dishes while I’m tired, and I find it exhausting and frustrating. But I have noticed that when I try to see work from an indigenous-Californian mindset, it doesn’t seem as bad.
Within the Californian Native American work ethic, we can see why we work, what we get out of work, and how we can work. These three dimensions can also be seen in other philosophical and spiritual traditions.
Why we work
In Hinduism, there are seen to be various paths to God: the path of knowledge, devotion, meditation, and also work. This last path, known as Karma Yoga, conceives of work as a spiritual path. It purifies the heart when it is down in devotion to the Divine.
The Baha’i Faith, similar to Karma Yoga, also emphasizes the devotional quality of our work. In the words of Abdul Bahia, “Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship.”
Our work becomes worship when it is down in service to others rather than in serving ourselves. Of course, we still need to earn a living to support ourselves and our family, but in addition to these basic motivations, we can focus on how our work benefits others. The money the baker earns becomes food for her and her family, but the bread she bakes is food for others.
Whatever our worldview on this path of devotion, work is a sacred task devoted to something higher than ourselves—be it to God, humanity, or the common good.
What we can get out of work
Money is not the only thing that we gain from work. We also gain skills and knowledge that we would otherwise be deprived of. These are not only utilized in a current role but can also be used at other jobs and outside of work.
Furthermore, we also gain wisdom and character through meeting the challenges of daily work. This mentality is present in the Stoic approach to life in general. This Hellenistic philosophy of life, despite its reputation, does not wish to deny the pleasures of life, but rather to learn from its hardships and grow stronger and more mature.
This approach to work can help us deal with the many difficulties we face on the job. By seeing that these challenges can strengthen us, we can summon more patience and resolve to tackle the tasks before us.
How we can work
There is also much to be gained from the approach we take to our work—the way we do it. One spiritual approach that applies here is Zen, which places a lot of emphasis on work as a spiritual practice. The act of cleaning the monastery is just as imbibed with transformative power as sitting inside a monastery meditating. By focusing on the leaves one sweeps away, one is connecting to the present moment and shedding desires.
But we don’t need to shave our heads and join a monastery to do this. We can try to be present while doing the various tasks we need to do at work. The challenge comes when these tasks involve a lot of thought because that necessitates becoming absorbed in the mind. The main thing then would be to make sure we take time during the day to recenter, take a walk, look out the window, and drink a cup of tea—mindfully.
These three approaches to work have been manifested by the indigenous people of California. But we, too, can put these points into practice in whatever work environment we find ourselves in. All of these approaches can help us find meaning in our work despite how hard or meaningless it may seem. Sometimes, we can focus on the service we are providing—the end result. Other times, we can simply focus on the task at hand and forget everything else.
So, perhaps we should see all our work as a way of gathering wood for the sacred fire that is Life. All our efforts, all our labors, all our blood sweat and tears are expended in our life’s work. Sometimes, we see the fruits of our labors, but sometimes, we don’t. Our work is burnt away, and all we have left are the ashes of time. But that doesn’t mean it was all for nothing. Our work forges us. The challenges it poses help us to become the people we are.