October 30, 2017
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
That’s one of my favourite lines from my favourite spiritual text, the Tae te Jing. The Tao is a powerful and very readable little book of ancient wisdom about detachment – one of my many challenges over the years.
The Tao is one of those books you can open to any page and find something insightful. It isn’t heavy-handed or dogmatic. It’s just real insight about how to lose your ego and live a more peaceful life. The passage above is one of many that struck me at first read and stayed with me, especially when I examined it a bit further.
Do your work.
On the surface it’s not very exciting. Go do your job that you hate and then come home and forget about it. How disappointing! But it’s all about how you read it. Try this:
Do YOUR work.
One accented syllable, one utterly changed meaning. Do YOUR work. The work that belongs to you. The work that matters to you. The work that fires you. The work you long to do. Then what? Then step back. Let go. Don’t get hung up on the results or the outcomes. The only path to serenity.
I think a lot of people are unhappy because they aren’t doing their work. Or they don’t know what their work is. Or they know but they’re afraid to do it. I’ve been there and it’s not fun, and I still fight with it too. But the Tao implies that everyone has their work and I tend to agree, even though finding it can be a challenge.
Even more challenging, I think, is stepping back, especially for artists. It’s hard to put your heart and soul into something and then release it without expectation. It’s just as hard to do something for someone else and not expect something in return, or to do your job well and give up the reward. The ego wants stroking. It wants attention. It takes a certain amount of faith to just do your work and trust that the results will be what they need to be. Ego can cause a lot of problems.
But if the path to serenity is in doing your work, the work must be the reward. That doesn’t mean you have to make your living from it, though you might. It just means you need to do it for its own sake. Not easy. As a writer, I’ve had a lot of blocks come from wondering what the point is of writing something that I don’t think I can sell or isn’t going anywhere. That’s ego, and it’s something I’m still working through. It can be hard for musicians, too, especially when all of that hard work and driving lands you in an empty club playing to tables and chairs for nothing.
Still, you do your work, because it does something for you, whether anyone notices or not. You do it because you’re miserable if you don’t. And hey, you never know where it might lead.
So what’s your work? Music? Painting? Research? Supporting a cause? Politics? Yoga? Software engineering? Parenting? Fishing? Make a bit of time for it. Do the work for its own sake as its own reward. Let the results be whatever they are. You don’t control them anyway, so ditch your ego and just do your work.
Not sure what your work is? Welcome to the club. You might consider looking at what floats for a starting point ….