Monday, May 16, 2011

What is my job on the planet?

“All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality. Reality-insight says . . . master the twenty-four hours. Do it well, without self-pity. It is as hard to get the children herded into the carpool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha hall on a cold morning. One move is not better than the other, each can be quite boring, and they both have the virtuous quality of repetition. Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms. Changing the filter, wimping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick—don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits. Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our “practice” which will put us on a “path”—it is our path.”
--Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, quoted in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are.

Last night I dreamed that I was substitute teaching (something I have done several times this year) and some authors and agents visited the school. One asked me to describe my novel and pb manuscripts and was quite excited about them. “Do you have hard copies I could take?” he asked. I said I had some at home (but obviously I was stuck there teaching). Another teacher said, “Just run home quick and get them—I’ll watch over the class for you, and no one will know.” So I did. But on the way home, I had car problems. And then, upon reaching home, I couldn’t find some of the manuscripts. I found my novel, but realized it was an older, flawed version. I felt anxiety about getting back to class so I wouldn’t get caught having ditched my job, and I didn’t believe I had time to print out a new copy. I woke up in the midst of that dilemma.

I think the dream reflects my constant guilt and indecision about where I should be spending my time (writing vs. family vs. trying to earn some money, etc.) and, more particularly, whether to abandon some of my writing goals in order to focus more particularly on others. It seems sometimes that I spend whole days spinning my wheels. Kabat-Zinn recommends asking each day, “What is my job on the planet?” He tells about Buckminster Fuller, who came to a point in his life where he decided to live as if he had already died. Each day he asked himself, “What is it on this planet that needs doing that I know something about, that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it?” This question has been helpful to me in analyzing what I’m doing with and in my life. I haven’t reached any big-picture answers, but I’ve used it in some small situations, such as whether to correct a child. (“What, truly, is my job here? Is it my job to fix this problem? Obviously it is my job to raise a child who is the most capable of joy as possible. Would making this correction contribute to that, or is this situation simply not my business?”)

I look forward to finding more ways to use this question in my life. I suppose I ought to be open to the possibility that sometimes my job is just to live a day mindfully, without putting pressure on myself to produce anything.


Anonymous said...

That's a nice quote, and not unlike advice I'm constantly giving myself lately, to try to let mundane tasks count for something and find some way to enjoy the process instead of focusing on getting it done. (It's much easier said than done, which is why I have to repeat it to myself so much.)

MissMel said...

I love this question. What would happen if I could spend one day asking it. Wouldn't that day be different? Thanks.