By Johnathon Pendall
Hyakujo said, “A day without work is a day without food.”
Such is the dedication, discipline and earnestness that we imbue when approaching samu. Samu is the Zen practice of mindful working.
Hyakujo approached samu with such zeal that when his students said, “Teacher! You have to slow down! You’re too elderly and frail to keep working like this. Let us do the chores while you relax,” he replied, “No work, no eating!” So his students let him carry on so that he didn’t starve himself.
Now that might be a little extreme by Western standards, but it does show how important mindful work is in Ch’an/Zen practice.
I used to be a janitor at a super store that shall remain nameless. I worked there for five years and it really started to wear me down. Cleaning toilets, emptying dozens of trash cans, sweeping for hours, emptying the bailer—all that time harmful thoughts ran through my tired brain.
“I’m a psychology student! This work is beneath me!”
“I wish I was at home making music or playing video games.”
“People are so inconsiderate! How am I ever going to clean this restroom when they keep interrupting me? Are they really too lazy to head to the ones in back?”
“Just one more night. Tomorrow is my day off, just one more night…”
Looking at those thoughts, is it any wonder that I was miserable?
Comparison is at the heart of dissatisfaction.
Whether we are comparing what is to what isn’t, whether I am comparing my current self to a past self or an ideal self, comparing the present to the past or the future, dissatisfaction always stems from duality. It stems from, “I am,” and, “I’m not.” It stems from “want,” and, “don’t want.”
It blinds us to the majesty of life with, “have,” and, “have not.”
Mindfulness involves returning to our senses, immersing ourselves in the present moment rather than our ideas and feelings about the present moment. It involves hitting ourselves in the head with a stick and saying, “Hey! Hey dude! Wake up you’re dreaming!” (The stick is a metaphor, you don’t really need to hit yourself in the head.)
When we usually think about mindfulness, we think of nice nature walks, swimming or riding a roller coaster (0kay, that last one might just be me). Yet reserving mindfulness to idyllic situations misses the mark.
Mindfulness is a constant practice. We cannot discriminate.
We can’t say, “Oh, this is a great time to be mindful!” No. As a Zen student, if you aren’t sitting zazen, then you’re practicing mindfulness. The two are really not two.
Dogen said that there is no Dharma apart from ordinary life. Ordinary life involves work. We have to clean the house, mow the lawn, pull the weeds, make lunch for the kids and labor for eight hours at an office, store or factory. Samu! Samu! Samu!
Without samu, two unenjoyable moods arise—stress and boredom. The problem is that chronic stress can become anxiety, and chronic boredom can become depression.
We don’t necessarily need to quit our jobs or medicate ourselves to remedy these states of mind. The problem isn’t what we’re doing. The problem is wanting to be somewhere else, doing something else.
By working with mindfulness, we can suck it up and do what needs to be done, and yet all the while, a smile is waiting to float to the surface; a laugh is waiting to bellow out from the belly. If I’d practiced samu when I was a janitor, the job would’ve been both easier and more rewarding.
I was performing a necessary service for people. I was making things clean so that they could go from point A to point B without slipping on puke or running out of toilet paper. I was making the world a cleaner place for people. How can that be unfulfilling? How dare I approach such an essential service without being constantly on the verge of a laugh and a smile?
It’s because I was living mindlessly that my time there was unenjoyable and unfulfilling.
It’s because I was mindless that I couldn’t see the humor in wading through water with garbage bags tied around my legs to unclog an incessantly flushing toilet. It’s because I was mindless that I couldn’t appreciate the smooth figure eight motions of waxing a wooden floor and marveling at how it glimmered in the fluorescent lights. It’s because I was mindless that I found no joy in helping customers find what they needed to nourish themselves. Samu! Samu! Samu!
As I toiled mindlessly, eight hours transformed into an eternity. Eight hours used to go by in a blink when I was at home doing what I wanted to do. There it is again, want—a thief always ready to steal away the experience of this moment.
It was want that turned the minutes to hours. Want always appears with its sibling—don’t want. If I want to be at home, that means I don’t want to be at work. If I want to relax in front of the TV, that means I don’t want to do the dishes.
Mindfulness helps us toss aside want and don’t want. Or it allows us to at least integrate want and don’t want into the present moment as barely audible background noise. Attachment and aversion are like tinnitus; rambling away in the distance without obscuring other sounds.
My attachments and aversions are irrelevant. My comparisons and categories are irrelevant. My remembered past and imagined future are irrelevant.
What is relevant is right here and right now; casting aside my arbitrary barriers and categories and immersing myself into the present moment. Because the present moment is all we ever have. I have no past, I only have memories. I have no future, I only have dreams. The present moment is all there ever is, so right now is the only time I can ever uncover the peace and happiness that are always available to me.
If my happiness is affected by where I’m at or what I’m doing, then it isn’t real happiness.
In Zen, anything that’s dependent and constantly changing is unreal and insubstantial. It’s by becoming intimate with the present moment, by engaging things as they are, that I uncover real happiness and real satisfaction. So if I can’t be mindful and grateful for what I’m doing and where I’m at right now, how can I ever be truly happy anywhere else?
Happiness derived from escapism is fleeting. Because there’s always more work to do, always more sweat to sweat. Yet when work becomes samu, each bead of sweat is savored. Time becomes just another idea to see through and every moment is an opportunity to laugh.
We are never more our selves, than when we’re laughing. Samu! Samu! Samu!
Jonathan Pendall lives in rural Illinois between two cornfields. He is a psychology undergraduate and a Wayfarer in the Order of the Boundless Way (part of the Boundless Mind Zen school). He writes poems, short stories and makes progressive rock music. He loves philosophy, astronomy and a 50/50 mixture of unsweetened green/black tea. He hopes to make a living in the mental health field with a focus on preventing mental illnesses from developing.
Editor: Dana Gornall