Monday, July 31, 2006

The Daoist answer to workplace stress

This article is a revised version of the original published in my "Tao Qi" newsletter of September, 2004. Just click on the heading or follow the link in the sidebar to subscribe.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Diana and I were discussing the topic of stress in the workplace. We came to the conclusion that it is not the workload that has people so stressed-out, it’s the ambivalence that most people feel toward their jobs.

Either you like the pay but hate the work, or you know you don’t really want to stay in your current job but don’t know what else to do and so you do nothing while becoming more and more frustrated and discouraged. Both these scenarios are at the root of a great deal of stress in the workplace.

The truth is that you can have the biggest, heaviest, meanest, dirtiest workload known to man but if you love what you’re doing, you’ll dance through your day and never miss a beat.

If you hate what you’re doing….well….I think you already know the answer to that one. Read on….


"Work" from p. 110 of Everyday Tao by Deng Ming-Dao, Harper San Francisco, NY, 1996, ISBN 0-06-251395-8.

"To live is to work.

"It is important to do the type of work that leads not simply to production, but to skill. In other words, the most important type of work is the kind that results from one's life, not from societal or economic pressures. When we work as part of life it leaves a profound residue in our personality. It produces an attitude of accomplishment, and accumulation of working wisdom impossible to obtain any other way.

"The ancients recognized this phenomenon so clearly that work came to signify skill. The kind of work one does - farm work, art work, spiritual work, or any other work - is not so important. What is important is that one performs one's work at its most profound level. In olden times, people would say that a craftsperson who had achieved great skill had realized the Tao of that art form.

"And once one has realized Tao in part, the whole is not far away."


What kind of work do you do when you go to work?
What kind of work do you do when you aren't working?

If you have two different answers to those two questions, you are probably not performing your work, your job, at its most profound level. You go to work because it's a job and it pays the bills, and hanging on to a job that pays the bills, especially these days, seems like a prudent thing to do. And it is prudent, but.....are you often bored, annoyed, or frustrated at work? Do you wish you were somewhere else doing something else…almost anything else but what you are doing? Do you keep glancing at the clock, coasting along until it’s time to go home? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, it’s time for you to seek a new direction toward that profound level.

Just what does it mean to perform your work at its most profound level? There are several parts to that, I think.

One part is that you "do without doing" which means working effortlessly. Learning the job or the skills necessary to do the work was easy for you, enjoyable even, and you don't understand how other people could ever struggle with it. The work itself is so natural to you that it takes hardly any effort at all.

A second part is that it doesn't seem like work. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell called this “finding your bliss.” You can honestly say you have found your purpose in life if you work for what seems like thirty minutes only to discover that several hours have gone by; you perform the task wondering how other people can feel indifferent to it or find it boring because it absolutely energizes and motivates you. In fact, it’s not really work, it’s fun, and you can’t wait to go to work in the morning, and you can’t believe someone is paying you to enjoy yourself so much.

A third part, which incorporates the other two, is the Tao of the work. Here is a great story to illustrate what is meant by that:

Carving Up An Ox

A cook was butchering an ox for Duke Wen Hui.
The places his hand touched,
His shoulder leaned against,
His foot stepped on,
His knee pressed upon,
Came apart with a sound.

He moved the blade, making a noise
That never fell out of rhythm.
It harmonized with the Mulberry Woods Dance,
Like music from ancient times.

Duke Wen Hui exclaimed: "Ah! Excellent!
Your skill has advanced to this level?"

The cook puts down the knife and answered:
"What I follow is Tao,
Which is beyond all skills.
When I started butchering,
What I saw was nothing but the whole ox.
After three years,
I no longer saw the whole ox.

"Nowadays, I meet it with my mind
Rather than see it with my eyes.
My sensory organs are inactive
While I direct the mind's movement.

"It goes according to natural laws,
Striking apart large gaps,
Moving toward large openings,
Following its natural structure.

"Even places where tendons attach to bones
Give no resistance,
Never mind the larger bones!

"An average cook goes through a knife in a month,
Because he hacks.
A good cook goes through a knife in a year,
Because he cuts.

"I have used this knife for nineteen years.
It has butchered thousands of oxen,
But the blade is still like it's newly sharpened.

"The joints have openings,
And the knife's blade has no thickness.
Apply this lack of thickness into the openings,
And the moving blade swishes through,
With room to spare!

"That's why after nineteen years,
The blade is still like it's newly sharpened.

"Nevertheless, every time I come across joints,
I see its tricky parts,
I pay attention and use caution,
My vision concentrates,
My movement slows down.

"I move the knife very slightly,
Whump! It has already separated.
The ox doesn't even know it's dead,
and falls to the ground like mud.

"I stand holding the knife,
And look all around it.
The work gives me much satisfaction.
I clean the knife and put it away."

Duke Wen Hui said: "Excellent!
I listen to your words,
And learn a principle of life."

- Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu), Chap. 3, translated by I-kuan Tao

When you discover what is in your nature and what is natural for you to do, you don’t merely perform the work, you are the work, the harmony and the rhythm. When you have found that, you have found your bliss, and workplace stress will be a distant memory….if you even think of it at all….which I doubt you will.

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