Gurdjieff International Review
Working for a Living
What has the relative quiet or, at least, the more disciplined movement of the workshop to do with me in my untidy office? I am at my desk early today, with a moment to sit quietly and listen to the question. Is there a craftsmanlike way of working that is available not only to the worker in his workshop, but to the worker wherever he works, whatever his work is—in a factory or bank, in an executive office or houseful of children; even here in a noisy advertising agency?
For a long time these have been academic questions for me, at times interesting me seriously; at other times merely piquing my curiosity, often degenerating into mere doodlings in my mind. Today something is different.
Today I want to know for myself if there is still a way of working that would not only support me physically, but would also support this inner hunger that I feel now: a hunger actually to be here at my job, more awake, instead of dreaming at it, swept along from one minor crisis to the next, from paycheck to paycheck. . .
I begin to dream about a fulfilling work: in a hospital perhaps; in some use of myself that would satisfy this hunger. Still, what I am doing is the work at hand. It is my livelihood; it needs doing. I would wish to find a way to attend to it more creatively, or at least more carefully, so that it felt more like an exchange: a giving as well as a taking.
I remember the story of two Zen monks, both prodigious smokers. Concerned about the question of smoking during their prayer time, they agreed to consult their superiors. While one received a stern reprimand from his abbot, the other was given a pat of encouragement. The unlucky one, greatly puzzled, asked his friend exactly how he had framed his question “I asked,” the second monk replied, “whether it was permissible to pray while smoking.”
Maybe this is the kind of care my work needs. To pray while typing, while answering the phone—would it require a very different way of praying; a way that Zen monks must come to through their training—something like that wordless beseeching one discovers in trying to guide a car along an icy road or in performing any exacting piece of work under all but impossible conditions?
I once looked up the origin of the word “prayer” and found its root is in the Latin precarius—“obtained by entreaty,” hence implying uncertainty, risk. The plain truth is that in my usual way of working I feel nothing precarious or risky. Nothing is really at stake. Today, for reasons I don’t understand, I feel that something vast and mysterious is at stake, something known only to me, important only to me. I can only call it my being. It’s as if my usual way of working serves to sever me from my me-ness, from this new and fragile sense of myself at this typewriter right now.
Before I can go any further with a study of my own work, perhaps I need to ponder the meaning of work in general—in other times as well as in our own—and as I ponder, I sense a kinship between the words “work” and “worship.” I begin to suspect that man is physically organized in exactly the way he is, just so that he will need to work in order to live; and it seems possible that the substance required for his own transformation and for the maintenance of the universe is created as a direct result of his work.
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” God told Adam, and if man did not actually need to work to feed, shelter, and clothe himself, actually in order to survive, perhaps this essential substance, whatever it is, would never be created. Perhaps, since man was created precisely as he is—exactly this kind of breathing, digesting, thinking, feeling organism—there is a precisely ordered way for him to work and to live in order to serve a universal purpose.
For me this is a fresh thought, this idea that it is man-at-work that serves the universe in a special way; and it sheds new light on the possible meaning of the way of the craftsman. However distracted the cathedral builders must have been, upon occasion, from the spiritual aspect of their work (for surely illness, family problems, all the continuing vagaries of the human condition beset these men as they do us), their inner hunger must have been fed by their way of working, a way indicated by their priests and guild masters who constantly reminded them that they were in the service of something higher, that their work was their means of serving and not an end in itself. . .
Guild members, we are told, would begin their day with the master in prayer to the guild’s patron saint before turning to the work, and prayers of one kind or another punctuated the whole day. Throughout the day there was the closeness of man to man, the sense of one another’s existence, and the exchange between the experienced workers and the novices: the meeting of eyes, the showing and the watching, the speaking and the listening. How different from the usual factories and workplaces of today, where little is “handed” from man to man, where eyes rarely meet, and the human voice cannot always rise above the noise of machinery; where men in their isolation from one another begin to feel a kinship only with their particular machine—a truck driver with his truck, a printer with his press, even a copywriter with her typewriter. . .
The phone is ringing now. The first of my co-workers has arrived and is answering it. The question I began with remains:
Is there a way of working that would support this need I feel actually to be here at my work?
The answer, I am sure, is not to be found in my head or in any book, but quite simply in an ever-deepening of the question itself.
I confront the outline I left on my desk last Friday, and I get to work.
~ • ~
These excerpts are from an essay previously published in A Way of Working: The Spiritual Dimension of Craft, edited by D. M. Dooling, New York: Parabola Books, 1979, pp. 59–65, and is used here with the kind permission on Ellen Dooling Reynard.
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Featured: Spring 2007 Issue, Vol. X (1)
Revision: April 1, 2007