My most important insights about applying mindfulness to work are grounded in an experience I had as head of the kitchen during a sesshin at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 1971.
Since it was a weeklong sesshin — all day sitting, every day – you might imagine there was a serene atmosphere about the place.
Well, there was serenity, except in the kitchen. The kitchen is a crucible of action in the monastery — it gets ‘hot’ both physically and psychologically.
You have the demanding requirements of cooking a meal for 40-60 people. You want to make sure the different dishes are all ready to be served at the same time, and that the meals are prepared with grateful attention to the value of the food, the gift of the food. Reverence with speed and accuracy is required!
The kitchen becomes psychologically hot when you have to deal with public opinion. Tassajara is located deep in the forest valley and in this fairly primitive and austere setting, thinking about food becomes the main entertainment and distraction. The main focus of desire, craving, and projection for the monastic population, is food. And the kitchen staff often is blamed for any discontent that arises.
In the midst of this austere simple life, people often transform into hungry ghosts. So the head of the kitchen needs diplomatic skill as well as culinary and management skill. It requires courage and a thick skin to deal with the heat from the stoves, and to deal with the added heat when you are surrounded by hotheads.
During this particular sesshin, I found myself completely relaxed in a joyful, clear state of mind. I knew that this good state was not simply a result of my own effort — I sensed I was benefiting from the energy being generated in the meditation hall by my sangha brothers and sisters who were practicing so intently.
Even so, mealtime in a monastery is not a leisurely affair. And even though I was very active in the midst of cooking and managing the staff, and despite the fact that the food had to be served quickly, promptly, and efficiently so that everyone would be able to eat within a fairly brief recess, I was having a great time!
When it came time to assemble the food in various containers and to hand these off to the servers, a mad but silent rush ensued as people simultaneously moved in and out of the kitchen through its narrow doorway — some to pick up food, others leaving with food. I was standing by the door very intently directing people. One mischievous server, David Chadwick (author of Crooked Cucumber) came up to me and whined, “Jack, would you pull my thumb . . . .” This was a ridiculous request designed to get my goat! But I didn’t have a goat in that moment, so I happily pulled his thumb with a genuine smile, “There you go!” He just laughed and we both moved on.
As I said, I believed that my mental lightness, quickness, and good humor, were a gift of the group meditative effort. But whether or not I had “earned” it, this experience left a vivid impression about the state of mind to aspire to when at work. Here are some tips:
1) Clarity of purpose: to serve with love and to dedicate the merit of your actions to all.
2) Attentive to detail, but relaxed and grounded: Reset your inner and outer posture often, remembering to breathe deeply and with ease.
3) Kind and respectful speech: Work demands are not an excuse to stress out and unload on others.
4) Diligent, unattached effort: Sincerely do your best, but do not concern yourself with the outcome.
5) A sense of humor: If something unexpected comes up, relax and relate to it with interest and friendliness. Unexpected events are mirrors in which you can catch your own sense of attachment and stress.
6) Centered, at ease, and upright: Practicing this makes it easier not to take the opinions of others personally.
Oh yeah – and if someone should ask you to pull their thumb, stop everything and pull with a smile!