Total Work Newsletter #51: Contemplation In The Time Of The Coronavirus

Plus: Existential Openings and humankind's identity crisis


To Subscribers: I’m rounding the bend on finishing the next chapter. Look for it to arrive fairly soon.

To Everyone: The highlight of this issue, for me, is the podcast interview with Daniel Thorson. It’s very sweet and lovely and timely.

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Cockaigne, n.

[‘(The name of) an imaginary land in medieval mythology and folklore where there is plenty of good food and drink as well as an abundance of other pleasurable things, but none of the hardships of life; (later also more generally) any imaginary land of abundance and carefree luxury. Sometimes also: pleasurable things in abundance, carefree luxury.’]

—Oxford English Dictionary

Total Work And Bullshit

HT Peter Limberg

Existential Openings, Psychotechnologies, & Collapse

#1: SWEETNESS | Existential Openings & Psychotechnologies of Self-Transformation | 1 hr. 35 min. | Emerge Podcast with Daniel Thorson | Podcast

Sum: I hope you’ll listen to a the veeeery beautiful conversation I had with Daniel Thorson of the Monastic Academy.

#2: PHILOSOPHY AND COLLAPSE | Philosophy Often Resurfaces When One World Order Collapses And Another Has Yet To Arise | 36 min. | Nexxworks Innovation Talks | Podcast

Sum: Above, you’ll find my podcast interview with Laurence Van Elegem of Nexxworks. During the conversation, we discuss, among other things, the importance of asking fundamental questions, the prevalence of burnout, the problem of bullshit, the nature of work, and humankind's identity crisis. The nice thing is that the interview has been trimmed down to a svelte 36 min.

Total Work During a Global Pandemic

HT Kyle Kowalski

#3: A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY | My Work is Not my Identity | 5 min. | Wondered | Blog HT Paul Millerd

Sum: Standard story—here one that cites James Clear’s Atomic Habits—about dropping one identity and, in turn, picking up another. This is a cautionary tale for sure. It’s very tempting to drop being a startup founder in order to then embrace being “an artist, activist, and adventurer.” Or to drop being a financial expert and then becoming a yoga instructor or a lifestyle coach. Or whatever. Yet is this not, essentially, the same structure but with different content? What if instead we let go of all identities, all stories, all limited self-conceptions? This Buddhist point, then, is the more demanding one, yet it’s also the one that promises true liberation.

#4: 24/7 | How Silicon Valley Ruined Work Culture | 7 min. | Wired | Opinion

Sum: The argument is that the work culture in Silicon Valley has bled over into corporate culture. As usual, the author simply calls at the end for moderation. OK, it’s a start. But also: oh, boy. I take a harder look at this in my piece on company towns. At this point, we really do need to get past calls for moderation, for the latter implies that “too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing.” But that assumption is baseless. What’s needed is a clear understanding of the foundation upon which the work culture—here, so vilified—rests.

Moil, v.

To work hard; to drudge

— HT Alexandra Taggart

Etymology: Late Middle English (in the sense ‘moisten or bedaub’): from Old French moillier ‘paddle in mud, moisten’, based on Latin mollis ‘soft’. The sense ‘work’ dates from the mid-16th century, often in the phrase toil and moil.


#5: CURE | Amazon Is Secretly Working On A Cure For The Common Cold | 2 min. | CNBC | News HT Daniel Doyon

Sum: Notice that the justification for the cure is entirely economic: lost workdays translates into lost productive days, which “costs the economy at least $40 billion every year.” Daniel Doyon nicely suggests that this economic justification has “no regard for actual improved human wellbeing.”

The Coronavirus In The Time of Solitude

Soon, if not already, you’ll be at home. How strange this idiom—“working from home.” Perhaps, alas, you’ll feel, as the woman above does, that you’re not being productive or very productive or as productive as you could be or would like to be. (For a brief, critical history of productivity hacking, see here.)

How about we set aside, just for now, work and productivity? Just for a moment—shall we? How about we also set aside the ways in which you’ve been running from yourself and your tensed feelings? Can we do that also—just for a moment?

Great. Then we’re all set. Maybe it would be wise for us to close our eyes and breathe for a few moments first. Indeed, if you have a meditation practice, now would be the time to meditate. And then come back and read on…


Now open yourself up to contemplation. See already that something is becoming apparent to you: to wit, that you do not really know who you are, and you do not know how to live.

This is a beautiful and truthful beginning. Indeed, it it is your opening, possibly an existential one. Let’s contemplate this existential truth together. If you do not really know who you are and if you do not really know how to live, then the sense of loss or of confusion may strike you with force. Seeing that is painful. No question.

But now ask yourself where this seeing is coming from. Who is the one contemplating “I do not know who I am” and “I do not know how to live”? Naturally, you will say: “I am.” But who is this “I” in “I am”?

Don’t get annoyed with me; I’m not being clever. I’m asking you, in effect, to open yourself up to the possibility that you’ve presumed far too much—about yourself and about your life. Now we’re simply exposing those presumptions, letting them be bathed in the light of understanding. What’s more, we’re starting to make the inward turn; that inward turn means going back to yourself, going back to see who or what you really are. Rather than getting caught up in utterances, you’re asking yourself who is observing the utterances; rather than being spirited away by feelings, you’re asking yourself who is observing these feelings; and so forth.

And the truth, right now, is that you know that you are observing them but you also know that you don’t know who you are. Let me say that again: you know that you are (you cannot deny that you exist), you also know that you are observing something (in this sense, you know that such utterances are arising), but you don’t know who you really are (ergo, you do not know yourself).

Don’t make this overly intellectual; it’s true in your direct experience. Just sink back into being the one who, not knowing oneself, nonetheless knows what is arising right now. Taste this sinking back. Are you not surprised by how energetic, alert, and peaceful it is? Might whatever you are be peaceful—nay, be peace itself?

Let the body be supple and relaxed; let the mind be supple and transparent. Open yourself up to the possibility that your being, which is not here involved in the senses or in the mind, is beginning to return to itself.

This is contemplation. Rest here. Rest in this foretaste of what you are. Just abide here.

For New Readers Looking For An Overview