A man cooking on a camp fire in front of a beach

Spaciousness: Working Hard, Accomplishing Nothing

This was the imprint on one of my favorite T-shirts that was popular for some time during summers at Tassajara, Zen Mountain Center. I don’t remember the image or design, just those bold letters on the back of the shirt. It was particularly poignant and ironic since I was living and working there, and working hard! My job was as the head cook in the kitchen. We produced three gourmet vegetarian meals each day for up to eighty overnight guests and three simpler meals each day for up to seventy students.

We were working with focus and intensity, and there was tremendous satisfaction and joy in the work and in working together. We regularly received accolades for the presentation, quality, and flavors of each meal served. Yet, one of the things that was so special about working in a Zen kitchen was our focus on making our best effort, paying attention to the details, and supporting each other. Of course meals were planned and there was a clear vision of outcomes. At the same time we were more focused on the details of what we were doing, the quality of our work, and supporting each other then we were on accomplishment.

Quite paradoxical in some way – while working hard, not overly focused or attached to outcomes, there were excellent results – both in the meals produced and in our increasing ability to work together, exploring effort and effortlessness, working with intensity and a sense of spaciousness. In addition to producing great meals our primary focus was on mindfulness practice – developing character and achieving results at the same time.

An easier way to practice spaciousness is to take time for ourselves to really accomplish nothing. It seems to be a lost art, allowing ourselves to completely relax – no “to do” lists, nothing to get done. Try reading a book, without needing to accomplish anything, or writing, going for a walk, cooking, cleaning, hanging out with friends; letting go of any sense of achievement. It can be more difficult than it seems since it’s easy to frame everything we do in terms of accomplishment.

For example, every morning I do a series of stretches and exercises before my meditation practice. This generally includes 35 push-ups. This morning as I was thinking about this theme of hard work and accomplishment, I realized how subtle this sense of aiming for outcomes can be. In my plan and focus on accomplishing this task, I noticed that I’m generally not paying much attention to what I am actually doing.

I decided to try something. I wondered how it would be to bring my attention to the movement and my experience of each push-up – focusing on my breathing and full experience; the sensations in my back, arms, and legs. I couldn’t help notice that tuning in and being curious about the experience brought this time alive and gave me a sense of greater presence and learning. Usually my focus was on counting and aiming to achieve a set number. While doing the same activity, I still got my 35 push-ups done but had a much more full and rich experience.

The same approach as I’ve described with my morning exercises could be applied to responding to emails, leading or attending meetings, or any other work or personal activities.

Spaciousness is something you can explore while working hard, or not working at all:

While working or in the midst of getting things done, experiment with being more present, more open to your breath, body, and full experience. Play with effort and effortlessness. Explore being curious and open to how you are showing up for yourself and those you are working with.

While not working, experiment with fully letting go of accomplishing anything. Notice how subtle (or not so subtle) the habit or pattern of measuring, tracking, comparing can seep into times of rest and play, and explore greater spaciousness.