Rev. Aiden Hall, Turning Wheel Buddhist Temple

Within our practice we often talk about how meditation gradually permeates all the different aspects of our lives; that meditation isn’t confined to the time we spend in formal sitting, but embraces all the things that we do throughout the day. One very powerful way in which meditation can be brought into other areas of our life is through the practice of what we call ‘working meditation’.

Working Meditation: meditation in activity

Anyone who has stayed at one of the temples of our Order will probably be familiar with the periods of working meditation that we have on our schedule, but working meditation isn’t limited to just these scheduled work periods. Working meditation is much more inclusive than that — it is the meditation of doing things, meditation in activity, and most of the time throughout the day when we’re not sitting on our cushion doing formal seated meditation can be thought of as working meditation. Although we call it ‘working’ meditation, that doesn’t mean that everything becomes hard work, just that all the activities we do can be included and become part of our practice.

At a monastery or temple, for example, this includes ceremonial, mealtimes and kitchen clean-up, or going for a walk or reading. Similarly, when you’re not at the monastery, much of the day is spent engaged in doing things. If you have a job, then of course you can bring working meditation to that, but you can also bring working meditation to all the other activities that you do throughout the day. Everything from making a cup of tea or brushing your teeth, to working on the computer, shopping or looking after your family.

What is working meditation?

So what do we actually mean by working meditation? Is there a difference between ‘working’ and what we think of as ‘working meditation’? Most people throughout the world are working — are they doing working meditation? If not, what is the distinction that we’re drawing here?

The key thing for me is one of the descriptions we have of formal seated meditation — we describe it as ‘just sitting’. In our particular meditation practice the ‘just sitting’ means that we don’t do other things whilst we’re sitting there. So we don’t, for example, follow the breath or recite mantras or visualize Buddhas or Bodhisattvas — we just sit. In the same way, working meditation can be described as ‘just working’; there’s nothing extra added.

As in sitting, if we’re working and we realize that we’re getting lost in thoughts, fantasies, whatever it might be, we just refrain from that, and ‘come back’ again to the awareness of the present moment. In formal meditation, that is awareness of the posture and of the sense perceptions. This is also true for working meditation, but with the addition that we’re also aware of the job that we’re doing. In the same way that we come back to ‘just sitting’, in working meditation we come back to ‘just working’.

The mind of meditation when we’re working

The sorts of thoughts and feelings that arise when we’re doing working meditation can be the same as arise when we’re sitting on our cushion, but because we’re engaged in an activity, this can often bring up particular thoughts related to what we’re doing. So we might notice, for example, that we are thinking to ourselves “Aren’t I doing this job well?”, or perhaps “Aren’t I doing this job badly?”, depending on who we are, what job we’ve been asked to do, and how we’re feeling that day.

Or we might think “Am I actually doing this job right at all?”. These are all just thoughts that our brain presents to us — that’s what it does. The key thing is to notice when we’re getting attached to and distracted by them, and just to come back to the job we’re doing. That doesn’t mean that we blank them out, though, because the thought, “Am I doing this job right?”, for example, is actually a useful thought to have. If we’re not open to the possibility that we’re not doing the job right, then that’s not very helpful.

If we are working with other people, we can often notice how we seem to be doing relative to others. There’s nothing wrong with noticing that, although we have to be careful that our noticing doesn’t become judgemental. People work at different rates and have different approaches to a job, and noticing this can be quite helpful in giving us some perspective on how we ourselves approach things.

So, for example, we may notice that we’re going faster than everyone else. Are we actually doing the job properly, or are we just skimping on it because we want to be seen to be the fastest? Or are we attached to doing the job so perfectly that we’re taking forever to do a tiny bit of it? The aspect of ‘working meditation’ here is that we notice what thoughts we’re getting caught up in, and we choose not to continue them. We just come back to doing the job.

Starting with simple tasks

It’s helpful to start with fairly simple tasks for working meditation. If you are sweeping the floor, for example, then the ‘just working’ is ‘just sweeping’. When doing jobs like this that don’t need too much thinking about, it’s easier to see when the thoughts that we are getting engaged with are distractions from the task we are doing.

Of course many of the jobs we do in our daily lives are far more complex than this and do require a lot of thought, and it’s harder then to discern when we’re thinking productively and when, for example, we are just worrying or getting distracted. The benefit of starting with simpler tasks is that we get a sense of what working meditation is like, so that when we do tackle more complex tasks, we are more able to discern what ‘just working’ means in these situations.

Because working meditation is ‘just working’ there’s nothing magic or esoteric about it. We don’t somehow have to think about how we bring the mind of meditation to working. We don’t have to ask: “How do we add meditation on top of working?” Or, from the point of view of sitting in the meditation hall, “How do we add working on top of our meditation practice?” It’s not a case of trying to join two things together, or trying to do two different things at once — its much more straightforward than that. It’s that when we are working we are ‘just working’, with nothing else added. It’s the ‘just doing’ of whatever we happen to be doing.

Is working meditation the same as mindfulness practice?

Whether we consider these to be the same or not depends very much on what is meant by mindfulness practice. In some Buddhist traditions this can be understood as mentally taking a step back and self-consciously observing the way that we’re doing things; seeing whether we are doing things carefully, and being attentive to what we’re doing. This may be helpful as a specific practice, but if we are doing this, then it is not simply ‘just working’. We’re adding a layer of complexity; watching ourselves work as well as doing the work. We split ourselves in two, and there’s more to do, because we haven’t just got the job itself to do; we’ve got to keep an eye on ourselves doing the job as well. If that is what is meant by mindfulness practice, then in the way I have described working meditation here, it isn’t the same as mindfulness practice.

Rather than monitoring ourselves, the approach of our practice is to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the job that we are doing, and trust that we will notice when we get distracted. As soon as we notice that we are distracted, we are back in awareness again.

However, the fact that we are not monitoring ourselves doesn’t mean that we’re not being attentive, and careful about what we’re doing. In fact, when doing working meditation, we often find that we become much more attentive, careful and considerate. However, it is perhaps better to use the word ‘awareness’ here rather than ‘mindfulness’. In using the word ‘awareness’, the main distinction that I am drawing is that awareness is naturally there if we don’t get sidetracked by distracting thoughts — the awareness of meditation; whereas mindfulness has more of a connotation of something that we do, something that is added. And just as in formal meditation, awareness is also a natural part of the practice of working meditation. It’s not something that we need to set up or defend. It is just that through noticing that we are caught up in a distraction and not carrying on the distracted thought, we are again aware. What we come back to is this awareness.

And when we are aware of what we are doing, we are much more likely to take care over how we do the job. We’re more likely to be aware of our surroundings and of other things that may be calling for our attention. Perhaps priorities have changed, and we need to stop what we are doing and switch to something else. We are also more likely to be aware of the safety of ourselves and those around us, but we don’t have to split ourselves in two and monitor ourselves in order to do this.

Becoming more efficient by not being distracted

As we put working meditation into practice, we begin to notice that when we are working at a job, quite a lot of the time can actually be spent ‘not working’. Even when we seem to be working continuously at a job, if we are engaging in an unhelpful way with the various thoughts that arise, then we become distracted from the task we are doing. And that slows us down, often without us even realising. As we come to notice this and do it less, we inevitably become more efficient. It’s not that we become suddenly better at doing the job, just that less time is spent engaged in distractions, and it can be surprising the amount of difference that makes.

As we become less distracted we also become better at identifying what we actually need to do to get the job done, because we’re not getting so caught up in our fears or our desires, or our anxieties about getting the job done. We become more relaxed with the job, and we just get on and do it. And this comes about not because we are focussing on efficiency, or trying to ‘do working meditation’, but simply because our working meditation is ‘just working’.

This article is an edited extract of a talk on working meditation given at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in July 2006. It first appeared in the Journal of the OBC in Spring 2007, and is used with the kind permission of the OBC.