Total Work Newsletter #37: My Life After Sesshin
Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1500 and possibly as the thirteenth century.
Announcement: Below, I write, in the form of an epistolary exchange, about my life after the sesshin Alexandra and I went on in early January. I include it here because it helps to illuminate why I care about Total Work. The short answer is that Total Work is a pernicious illusion, pernicious in that it is a massive impediment blocking the way to deep inquiry into the nature of consciousness.
Instrumentalizing Meditation And Instrumentalizing Buddhism
NYT Sum: “Sure, it’s become a wellness fad. But it’s the best way I’ve found to keep digital monsters at bay.”
My Take: I remain of two minds about the benefits-of-mindfulness-meditation fad. On the one hand, I believe that getting into meditation because it’s “good for you” can be a gateway drug of sorts. Your instrumental reasons–wanting to become calmer and more empathetic–aren’t the worst ones. On the other hand, meditation has been coopted and put in the service of secular ideas–most notably, the idea that an individual’s mind is ‘all there is.’ You see Zen Buddhism is fundamentally about something much, much, much more and that is enlightenment. The Zen monk Boshan (1575-1630) calls this desire for a calm mind the “disease [dis-ease, i.e., dukkha or suffering] of quiet meditation.” He admonishes such a practitioner, telling him: “you stubbornly sit self-satisfied in your quiet hole.”
Wired Sum: “Jerry Colonna helps CEOs make money by making peace with their demons.”
My Brief Take: Interesting profile. Jerry Colonna is, based on this feature, clearly good at coaching. It’s worth noting, however, that Buddhism comes, in his hands, to be a tool in the service of Total Work.
My Life After Sesshin
The following is an excerpt from an ongoing epistolary exchange with a Dharma friend on our respective practices. We met at the sesshin (or Zen meditation intensive) that we both attended. I hope you find my replies edifying. I believe they provide you, the reader, with further context when it comes to my fairly recent concern with Total Work.
I’m happy to begin by writing about my practice; it may take me 2-4 days to consider and respond. Thank you for telling some important things about yours.
I’m less familiar with Dzogchen and Mahamudra and more familiar with Zen, Daiosm (Laozi and Chuangzi), Christian mysticism (through Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating), and Advaita Vedanta (well, only Marharshi and Nisargadatta’s I Am That). I came to Zen rather circuitiously via The Daodejing, which is still near and dear to me. But I’ll come to that below.
You asked about my practice. I don’t know that I can separate the question of practice from the life I’ve led so far, so I’ll begin with the deep searching that began only in 2009.
It was January 2009 when, just after having deposited my dissertation on the nature of the good life in the modern world, I realized, if only dimly, or felt, however vaguely, that something was amiss; that I was basically clueless about how to live; that there was, at least this could be said in retrospect, a kind of ambient, quiet despair. I knew for sure that I wasn’t going onto an academic career, yet up until that time I had been living according to a pretty standard “life script.” I was now not just out of my depth but also out of my element and this very much for the first time in my life.
A few months later, I was googling something or other and came upon the writings of the now-late French philosopher Pierre Hadot (1922-2010). I was stunned. In broad strokes, Hadot argues that philosophy, as it was practiced in Classical Greece, was a way of life, a life whose final aim was living wisely, a life defined by ascesis (or various rigorous kinds of spiritual exercise), and a life lived in common with other practitioners–be these Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, Epicureans, or Skeptics. (A short overview of Hadot’s writings and life can be found here. If curious, read on to Part 2.) I felt as if he were speaking to me. At its core, therefore, philosophy was not an academic pursuit dominated by the intellect but was rather a path upon which some–one thinks of Socrates but also of many others–had tread and could tread still. Here was a vibrant tradition; here too was a way forward.
I left the academic life behind and thereafter devoted myself to the loving pursuit of wisdom (philo-sophia). Practically speaking, this involved philosophizing with individuals around the world and seeing this way of philosophizing as a spiritual exercise (“learning to dialogue,” as Hadot calls it in one of his books). Soon–this was around 2011 in NYC–something rather strange and wondrous began to occur. I would be philosophizing with someone–in person or via Skype–and I would find, during the conversation or afterward, that I felt some heightened sense of reality, an experience of levity, tranquility, joy, gratitude, and abundance. How could inquiring in a certain way about fundamental matters in life, sometimes very heavy subjects, somehow create an open for such a heightened way of being? How could mere words somehow spill over into silence? I didn’t know, but I also didn’t try to explain it. Something, in any case, had been opened up in me.
Which brings me to the first time I meditated, let’s say, in a seated position. It was the fall of 2012, and Alexandra had proposed that we sit down in a cross-legged position, close our eyes, hold hands, and meditate. I had no idea what I was doing (she must have had a fairly vague notion at best, given the hand-holding suggestion), but I was game. We couldn’t have been sitting for more than 10-20 minutes in this way before we opened our eyes. Immediately afterward, I felt nothing.
Then we walked downstairs (for I was living on the Upper East Side of NYC at the time) and went to Central Park, which was only a few blocks away. Then, undeniably, something did happen as we crossed the threshold into the park. Though it’s impossible to put into words, it is possible to point at the experience, one that ended up lasting over 2 hours in my recollection. It was something akin to immense non-judgmental lightness. Everything seemed at once beautiful and almost too much: the pigeons and mourning doves were beautiful, the music of daily sounds, as if orchestrally arranged, was beautiful, and the meandering people were beautiful. Everything, here and now, was as it should be. Or more simply: everything was.
I see that this letter is already getting fairly long, so it might be good idea to write about what brought me to meditation practices (2013-present) in the next letter. The untimely death of my eldest sister in 2014 was a key turning point. For now, I’d like to conclude by asking you a question: what formative (or transformative) experiences in your life brought you to meditation and, from there (if there was a “from there”), to non-duality? About such experiences, please be as specific or as vague as feels right to you.
With kindness and gasshou,
+ + +
Your letter wasn’t “too long or involved”; it was touching. My reply, after six days, doesn’t come out of lack of interest but rather as a result of needing to fulfill other commitments first.
It’s interesting how other modes of consciousness get occluded by the daily affairs that soon can settle in. […] I’m currently writing a book about Total Work, whose chief aim is to blow readers’ minds by helping to rid them of an illusion, the illusion that a human being essentially is a Worker. I see this book as both an act of service and as a premeditation–that is, as a way of clearing away an abiding conception in order to release some readers to genuine inquiry. “If I’m not essentially a Worker, then who or what am I?”
Let me return now to where I left off with my story. I believe it’s 2014 or so and, if true, then Alexandra and I are now living in Joshua Tree, CA. We bivouacked there after leaving New York City and after her plans to resume her handbag design career in LA fell through. We retrenched to Joshua Tree, not knowing what to do with ourselves or next.
From 2013-15, we lived there in relative solitude. We undertake ascetic practices, and, meanwhile, my philosophy practice steadily grew. The key moment occurred in late winter/early spring of 2014: my eldest sister, who in early January 2014, had been diagnosed with cancer ended up dying 12 weeks later. Never had she been sick in any real sense; never had she given other family members reason for concern. Not until then and then it was too late. Jen was 43 when she died. I am now 40.
This event was, for me, not just personal; it was, above all, existential. I had never really asked the question: “Is there more than this?” My unexamined belief in secularism had forestalled the possibility of even beginning to inquire in this fashion, for secularism, resting assured, assumes that there is no question to ask because it is a foregone conclusion. To be clear, it wasn’t as if overnight I leaped headfirst into Christian mysticism. Not at all. It was a slow build rather like being handed a personal koan, one that would come and go, only to return again. “Is this it?”
It was, I believe, in early 2015 after Alexandra and I had moved to Ojai, CA (the old stomping ground of Kristamurti many moons ago, you might recall) that I began to give myself over to the question: “Might God exist? And if, so what would this mean for how I live my life?” (I wrote about that poignant, cut-to-the-bone inquiry here, with special reference to a dream I had about my dead sister.) That inquiry, beginning in 2015, ended indeterminately in 2016 after Alexandra and I realized that Christian mysticism didn’t provide us with a vibrant path to Truth. It surely did once and for the select few (e.g., St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila) but not now or at least not for us.
Daoist predilections, since 2012, have animated my life, and in some way it was to Daoism that we returned–or rather Zen practice via a Daoist sensibility. I find something at once sweet and true about the idea that the unnamable, abiding Source, itself still, moves also with creative potency, generating rocks and stones and trees and sentient beings. We are the Source incarnate as is everything else. But how to really feel this, as [our Rinzai Zen teacher] Jeff would say, “in my bones”? It was to Zen practice that we turned in 2016 and have since been walking a Rinzai Zen path while being open to the teachings of other radiant non-dual teachers such as Maharshi, Nisargadatta, and Eckhart Tolle.
And what is my practice now? My root practice combines inquiry into my personal koan (“Is this [or This] all?”) with susokan (extended out breath). I supplement this root practice with Metta [lovingkindness practice] and a concentration breathing practice. Alexandra and I now sit for about 2 to 2 ½ hours each day.
I thought I would conclude with a poem, which is about my experience, over the course of two or so days, with a more porous relationship with the sensible world. Since then, that aesthetic apprehension has subsided, but I know it’s still available to me, if only I keep tuning in. Feel free to write to me with further reflections or questions when you feel called to do so.
Fewer thoughts now
during zazen &
throughout the day
As if a screen
between “me” and reality
had been removed
So, more direct, immediate,
For instance, the patterns,
now seen, running across the buildings
For instance, the crinkling
as the hand squeezes the package
For instance, the tender, rough features
of my wife’s climbing hand
Perceptible reality is alive,
is interesting enough
to solicit my attention
THIS is central, thoughts peripheral
Less frequent &
from the stillness
When reality is worded,
the heart is the source
And when words fall away,
the stillness, ever abiding,
fills up the perceptible entirely again.
- - - - -
What I’m Reading…
1.) Recently finished:
Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (1966). Wonderful, albeit dense and a bit cryptic book on how a culture involving “remissions” (let’s say: “oughts” and “ought nots”) was toppled by the therapeutic, which released all these energies but which has no “remissions” to offer people today. In a way, the therapeutic, and with it the invention of Psychological Man, helped give rise to feckless and dangerous nihilism.
Boshan (1575-1630), Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World (2016). Probably one of the clearest and tersest expositions of what Rinzai Zen is that I’ve read to date.
2.) Currently reading:
Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934/2010). I’m about halfway through this magnum opus. It’s marvelous!
Rupert Spira, The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter (2017). Just started reading. Spira’s is, I’m going to bet, about as a good of a guide to non-duality as one is going to find. Spira tends to be very clear and precise in how we describes what is essentially ineffable.
Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe (1999). A bit tedious but helpful inasmuch as it sheds light on, well, the daily life of peasants, aristocrats, and monastics during the High Middle Ages. In other words, life as it was experienced before the birth of Total Work.
Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (1984/1999).
3.) Up next:
Stephen Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community (2010).
Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (2012).
Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
If You’d Like to Become a Patron…
Thank you to my growing list of patrons! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>.
Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <https://www.getrevue.co/profile/andrewjtaggart/issues/total-work-newsletter-1-working-ourselves-into-a-frenzy-89819.> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <https://work.qz.com/author/andrew-taggart>. Lastly, visit my website, totalwork.us <https://totalwork.us>, which is devoted to investigating this topic.