Secular Meditation: "This is my job"

“This is my job.”

I have a few quasi-mantras that I sometimes use when I meditate. They’re not mantras, exactly: they’re not words or ideas that I’m making the focus of my meditation. They’re more like reminders, ways to pull my focus back to whatever it is that I am working to focus on. “I am my body.” “One thing at a time.” “Notice that, acknowledge it, gently return.” “Forgive yourself.” “Put it on the list” (a phrase I use when I’m fixating on some undone task: if I externalize it by putting it on my to-do list, it’s easier to let go of and return to the meditation). “I am who I am” (more on that in a future post). “Be here now.” “Let go.”

But there’s one quasi-mantra in particular that I’ve been using a lot, probably more than any other. It’s one that I’m finding both interestingly useful and interestingly problematic, and I want to think out loud for a bit about both.

That quasi-mantra: “This is my job.”

computer with hands
Here’s the thing. When I meditate, the thoughts and feelings and anxieties that rise in my head, and which I notice and acknowledge and gently let go of so I can return my focus, are overwhelmingly about work. I’ve let my work plate get full to the point where it’s overflowing and spilling onto the floor. I have two five twelve hours of work to do for every hour that I have to do it in. And even if that weren’t true, the nature of being a writer is that I essentially have an infinite amount of work I could be doing at any given time. There is always, always, something that I could be writing about. Always. So there’s a part of me that sees myself lying quietly and paying attention to my body and my breath, and thinks, “What the hell are you doing? Look at all the work you have to do. This is a waste of time.”

But at the same time, I am vividly aware that one of the many benefits I’m getting from meditation — and certainly the most tangible one — is that it’s cranking up my work productivity to eleven. My increased ability to focus, my improved ability to prioritize, my new-found technique of ditching the inefficient multi-tasking crap and doing just one thing at a time, the returning joy and pleasure that I’m taking in my work… all of this is coming largely from my meditation and mindfulness practice.

So when I meditate, and I find my thoughts continually returning to work-related anxieties and to-do lists, and I find myself getting guilty and anxious and impatient about the time I’m spending meditating when I could be writing or answering emails or picking up promo cards from the printer or something… I tell myself, “This is my job.”

“This is my job.” My quasi-mantra shorthand for, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing right now. The time I’m spending on lying quietly and paying attention to my body and my breath is more than paying off in work productivity. This is not technically speaking work, but it is making it easier for me to do my work, and is making my work better. This is not wasted time. This counts as work.”

“This is my job.”

On the plus side: This quasi-mantra works. It quiets my brain. It lets me get on with my practice. It helps me stop thinking of meditation as a waste of time… which makes it possible to pursue it. People I know who have meditated for years (including my meditation teacher) talk a lot about doing whatever practice works for you, in whatever way works for you… and this works for me.

On the minus side: Do I ever get to value myself, not just for my work, but for myself?

Do I ever get to take care of myself, just for my own sake?

When I wrote “In Praise of Frivolity,” when I wrote about finding meaning not just in big things like work and family and social change, but in little things like donuts and fashion magazines and Cards Against Humanity, I said this: “If we exist to make other people happy, and they exist to make other people happy, and so on and so on… at what point does that end? At some point, doesn’t experience get to just matter, simply because it matters?”

Do I ever get to apply that to myself?

For now, I’m going to let this quasi-mantra be. It’s working, and I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Meditation is turning out to be hugely beneficial, not just for my work productivity but for my mental health and my physical health and my self-awareness and my ability to connect with people and my ability to fully experience and take joy in my life… and if this work-around lets me get on with that, I’m not going to worry about it too much. And the reality is that my work is a huge part of who I am, a huge part of what gives my life not just meaning but deep pleasure and joy. So if it’s easier for me to focus on my meditation practice by framing it as work, for now I’m going to let that be.

But I’m looking at this. I suspect that this gift horse may have some sharp teeth. At some point, I may have to let this go. At some point, I may have to find some other way to quiet the “work! work! work!” hamster wheel in my head. At some point, I may have to find a way to value this practice, not just because of what it lets me do, but because of what it lets me be.

Other piece in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time
Secular Meditation: “Energy,” and Attention/ Awareness
Secular Meditation: How Down Time is Changing

Secular Meditation: "This is my job"
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6 thoughts on “Secular Meditation: "This is my job"

  1. 1

    This reminds me in some ways of Steven Covey’s 7th of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” the one he called “Sharpen the Saw.” The parable is that people come upon a woodman in a forest who is furiously sawing away at some logs. He’s not making very much progress because his tool is pretty dull by now. The passers-by ask about why he doesn’t sharpen his saw, and he replies, breathlessly, that he just doesn’t have time, can’t you see he has all this wood to saw?! The point being that if he took the break necessary to sharpen his saw, he wouldn’t have to work as long or as hard to achieve the same results in number of logs sawn. So, yes, it’s part of one’s job to take care of oneself, including renewing, refocusing, sharpening, resting when necessary, doing healthful things that enable a person to perform other tasks better.

  2. raj

    I second the “Sharpen the Saw” point. If “this is my work” stops working for you, and if you keep hearing, “work work work”, then maybe you should respond with “me me me”. Everyone needs “me” time and you even pointed it out yourself in your article. 🙂

  3. 3

    I look forward to “I am who I am” (more on that in a future post).

    One of the most important quasi-mantras for me is “I am myself”. It’s meaning is personal so the phrase alone doesn’t convey the meaning to anyone but me. For me, it’s a reminder of my identity. I don’t need the reminder when merely stressed but when I feel like who I am is being torn at and being frayed (like when under repeated personal attack or being kicked when down). “myself” is also smart, mean, capable, resilient and violent and so reminds me that it’s them who should be concerned and not me.

  4. 4

    “Sharpen the Saw.”

    maddog1129 @ #1: Yes. That’s a very good metaphor. And one that resonates eerily well for me. I sometimes think of the constant chatter in my head as a hamster wheel — and I’ve started seeing meditation as a practice that turns the hamster wheel into a buzz saw. I was worried when I started meditating that I’d lose my angry motivating edge., So far, that doesn’t seem to have happened. 🙂

  5. 6

    A lot of people (myself included) have had a lot of success with the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. More than anything else, it’s based on the notion that you collect all your to-do’s in one place, and you decide which one you’re going to do, based on your own constraints and criteria. You know, almost by definition, that you’ll never actually finish your to-do list; GTD is a way to get all those to-do’s off your mind, out of your mental RAM.

    I’ve worked with Time Power and really liked it, but GTD is really pretty simple, not as systematic or dogmatic as some people make it. The book is an easy read, and they have a cool forum.

    All the best! Richard

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