Sunday, February 5, 2012

Working Alone

In my Forest Call last month I talked about how over the years I've developed a strong work ethic and the capacity to work hard. And I also said I find value in taking time out to be alone and introspect, as it lets you reflect on the work you've done to move forward mindfully. But I didn't get to talk about how I see those two ideas intersecting: working alone.

Working alone as a tool for self-development follows from previous reflections I've had on the value of manual work from a mind-body health perspective, and later more deeply as a practical way of practicing humility. Working alone is work where you are both the worker and the main beneficiary of the work. The quality of the work, and subsequently any benefit derived from it, is only known by you. Like cleaning your bathroom, washing the dishes, ironing your pants. In that work, no one else will ever know or care whether you gave 99% effort or 100% effort (or better yet, 110%). Only you know. In those situations, behind closed doors when no one is watching, you are at ground zero of where strong work ethic is developed.

There are a few life venues where I regularly work alone, and they have been invaluable in helping me develop an ability to work hard. One is in the home, doing household chores like the ones above. The second is the gym. Of all the hours and hours of sports I've played in my life, I've found weight training unique in its "you vs. yourself" quality. At the gym I get a regular opportunity to push myself physically in various ways, with the end result being inconsequential to everyone except myself. If I do an extra rep, or add extra weight to the last set, or run extra 2 minutes, who cares? Only me, if I want to.

But the ultimate work I do alone is meditation. Over the years I've really gravitated toward it as a tool for self development. Everyone has their own battles when they meditate. And no one can question whether you have been adequately challenging yourself on the cushion. There are no grounds for one to do that to another, you can never know my battles as I can never know yours. Only I know how I've faced up to my inner impurities. And it is a naked reality, it is nonsensical to delude myself about it since that's the whole point of meditation (see reality as it is). I have a choice every time I sit as to how I approach this inner work, and each time I can re-commit myself to fighting those inner battles. Over time I start developing a habit of responding to any life challenge with the same patience and persistence.

Recently Jay finished a 10-day self-course. He sat alone, in his apartment in Mt. View, observing the full timetable, for all 10 days. He cooked his own meals, he allowed himself 10 min a day walk outside. He listened to the discourses in the evening as his only instructions. Other than that he had no human contact of any sort for the entire time. It is an extremely intense way to participate in a meditation course. It takes a certain strength of mind to even attempt to do such a thing. But that work he did, completely alone, has formed a permanent reservoir of strength that he can tap into and continue to fill through the years. I was talking to Dad yesterday and was saying how inspiring it was for a family member to commit so deeply to being a better person for all of us. It is really humbling and an example for all of us to follow to be better for him.

A close cousin of working alone with many of the same benefits is working anonymously (for others). Smile cards epitomizes this perfectly. It's a practice, and sometimes we need reminders to do it. After all, it's good for us.