Thursday, February 3, 2011

Is Productivity a Four Letter Word in Buddhism?

Vince over at Buddhist Geeks has an interesting post about productivity. It's something that doesn't come up in talks or writings much, and I think tends to maligned as an attachment to results oriented thinking when it is included. As a lay practitioner, I'm always interested in ways to re-examine actions and processes that are commonplace in "ordinary life," and Vince's comments do just that.

For some, productivity is the antithesis of meditative equipoise. But frankly I think that’s bullshit. The reason being that there are different ways of understanding the meaning of “productivity,” and each understanding carries with it different ramifications. One possible understanding is to see productivity in terms of contributing to the GDP, making sure you squeeze every last drop of work out for your boss, or for your project, etc. This is an understanding of productivity that is based on being productive for something or someone. In this view we are victims to larger forces that are compelling, or even demanding that we produce more. Certainly it can feel this way at times, but this understanding leaves us feeling like dis-empowered tools. If we aren’t actually tools then why feel that way?

Another possible understanding, and the one I feel is more helpful, is to look at productivity as how effective we are at bringing things to life. This productivity is predominantly self-generated—though we can never fully ignore systems or their influence on us—and encourages more of an empowering choice about what we do with our lives. We have energy and expertise as human beings, and we feel compelled (often) to use these things for certain purposes. We also have limited time and resources, so we are constantly having to make choices with regards to what we want to give priority to. When we look at productivity in terms of an opportunity to live with greater wisdom, and to create powerful habits that support this wisdom, it can be both empowering and enlivening.

Our teacher at the zen center has been talking about "bringing things to life" a lot recently, pointing to ways in which each of us can use the buddhanature energy, that energy that runs throughout the universe, to enliven every moment. And also, to let ourselves be vehicles that are used by the same energy to enliven every moment.

One point I'd differ on from Vince, given the above, is that I don't think the kind of productivity he's speaking about is "predominantly self generated." First off, when you start to examine something like your effort into a situation, the line between what "you" did and what "you" were riding on during that time isn't really findable. Secondly, although we have limited time and resources, I have also seen how tapping into that larger source energy, or simply being able to give some effort while being open to that energy, expands what can happen in a way that wouldn't happen if the focus is more leaned towards "self-generation."

Last night, I was exhausted. We've been at this ramped up practice, sitting, walking and studying together at the zen center 4 hours on average a day for a week and a half now. Waking up at 5 am every morning has me pushed against the wall. And I have had a cold off and on during the entire period.

About 6:15 yesterday evening, fifteen minutes before the first evening meditation period, two newcomers arrived at the center, having gotten the date of the evening meditation instruction class we offer monthly wrong. I had a short conversation with one of the two, looked at the schedule, and thought "now what?" I went in and asked our teacher. She came out, looked at the schedule, saw that it was the wrong date, and then said "Well, you could do meditation instruction with them and then they could stay for the rest of the evening if they want." Another member of our practice group was standing nearby and said "It would be a shame to send them away." And I thought, "yeah, it would."

So, we went into the other room, we talked a bit about meditation and the center, and then sat together. Afterward, they both expressed interest in joining the larger group, so then we did that.

I really feel like my part in all of this was an example of the flow between effort and "being used" by buddhanature energy. Just relying on the energy and effort I had at that time alone wouldn't have cut it. I was already ready for bed the moment I walked in the door, so it certainly wasn't "mostly me" making things happen.

But I think this view of productivity as a practice of enlivening is spot on. It's taking the ingredients that are given to us, inputting some effort and care, and then watching what happens. Sometimes, things come to life, sometimes seeds are planted that will spring forth at a later time, and sometimes you have no idea if either happened.


Jen F. said...

I tried to explain to my grandfather once about Buddhism, and he responded with a Western, "well, we can't just sit around wishing for things to happen." He didn't understand that meditation isn't only sitting and thinking (or not thinking), but can be accompaniment to everything you do throughout the day. I've got serious monkey-mind, which is far likelier to get in the way of important work than meditation would. Jen F.

kevin said...

that last paragraph is why i chose "starting with what you have" as the title for my blog.

all you can do is take what's in front of you, act according to how you understand the dharma, and then see what happens. if you do that, results don't matter because you did what you could. you may learn from the results, but results can't be changed so move on.

i had a teacher in high school that used to paraphrase (aristotle, i think) "produce or die (fail)" when it came to work. this is true. since we're not dead, it must mean we're still producing. just because some (or even ourselves) don't view it as "productive" doesn't mean we're not producing