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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Tuesday, February 05, 2013
The Myth of Work-Life Balance by Marc Lesser, author of KNOW YOURSELF, FORGET YOURSELF

There is a famous Zen dialogue from ancient China about a monk and a teacher. The monk arrives at the monastery and says to the teacher, “I’ve arrived. Please give me your teaching.”
    The teacher says, “Have you eaten your breakfast?”
    The monk responds, “Yes, I have.”
    The teacher says, “Wash your bowl.”
    The monk understands. What could be more obvious?

If you were to ask, “How can I find work-life balance?” I might be inclined to ask if you have eaten your breakfast . . . and, assuming you have, suggest you wash your bowl.

This dialogue and this terse instruction are meant to shift your attention from looking for answers outside yourself to looking more directly within yourself, beginning with your experience — directly and simply. Noticing, appreciating, and learning from the mundane activities of your everyday life.

Even the act of “bowl washing” — washing dishes — can be turned into an incredible, even sensuous event, an act of discovery, a blossoming of the senses. What is the sensation of the water touching your hands; is the water hot or cold? On the other hand, washing dishes can be simply a chore to get done as quickly as possible to get to the next event, where the real action is — like sending emails or watching television. The same activity can be completely different, depending on where you put your attention.
Context matters. The story we tell ourselves is vitally important, not only to our state of mind, but also to our physical relationships and responses to the events of our daily lives.

Attempting to achieve work-life balance, as though something is missing or something is wrong (either with you or with your situation), is a set-up for failure, for stress, and for anything but balance. Instead, experiment by bringing your attention to the activities that make up your work. Notice the activities and notice your inner dialogue and the stories you weave, as well as your feelings. Just this act of paying attention can produce positive change — a bit of slowing down, a little more space — opening up the possibility of more calm, even of more appreciation.

So often, all the attention goes to the “what” — the content or story line: too much to do and not enough time. Try shifting the focus to the “how” — the quality of your activity, as well as the quality of your state of mind.

All these suggested activities are simple and complicated, easy and sometimes impossibly difficult. Paradoxical? Yes! I have found that embracing life’s paradoxes is a powerful skill; it is a path to increasing effectiveness, awakening joy, and discovering our true purpose, in this and each new moment. So in order to get more done, try slowing down. To become more confident, try more questioning. To achieve more, explore beginning by accepting what is. To know yourself, try forgetting yourself. How? Pay attention and appreciate what is right in front of you. Please, wash your bowl.

Based on the book Know Yourself, Forget Yourself. Copyright © 2013 by Marc Lesser.
Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

Marc Lesser, the CEO and cofounder of the nonprofit Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, lived at the San Francisco Zen Center for ten years and is the former director of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He lives in Mill Valley, California.


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