A young relative of mine graduated from college last May with an MA and a part-time internship. She has been out of school for six months now, and since graduation she has continued her internship one afternoon per week. If we round up, that means that since graduation she has worked a total of 50-75 hours. That’s about the same number of hours that I worked each week during my most productive years at a full-time job. Calculated per week, she is working fewer hours than I worked when I was 14.
My initial reaction (like yours perhaps) was that she needs to get out there and get a full time job and learn how to work hard. All of my individual and social conditioning says that she needs to experience a full-time demanding job. In my growing up household, the worst insult from our parents was to be called lazy (or worse yet lazy slob.)
But then again, I have spent the last 20 years learning how to stop running, stop over scheduling, and to enjoy every moment. I teach workshops on how to relax the body and quiet the mind, which is something my young relative does easily all the time. She doesn’t fill every waking moment with something “productive,” when she is sitting down to eat, she sits down to eat. When she is hanging out with her friends, she doesn’t have a agenda and isn’t worrying about work. Master Linji, one of the founders of Zen Buddhism says:
“It would be better to listen to my words, take a rest and practice having nothing to do. According to my insight, there is nothing you need to do. You just need to live as ordinary people. Wear your robe, eat your food. As day follows day, be a person who has nothing to do.” — Master Linji
When I ask my relative how she spends her days, she says that she gets up early, cleans up, maybe goes to an appointment, does a crossword puzzle, if it’s Monday, she prepares for her internship, and then gets ready for the evening activity. Evenings could include hanging out with friends, preparing a surprise party, or watching a movie. She recognizes that she has more than enough time for her life, and that she could add a few more hours of working, but she doesn’t feel bored or restless. She has the time she needs to prepare for the next event, unlike many of us who race around from activity to activity without time to digest what we take in. She is physically healthier than she has been in years.
So why does it seem like she should get a full-time job? For one thing, she does need to learn how to financially support herself. Her parents are picking up the tab for her rent, food, and living expenses. Her relationship to money is much like a Buddhist monk or nun who has all of his or her expenses paid by the community, and never handles money. Which would be fine, but she isn’t actually in a monastic community, and by the way doesn’t live with only three robes, one bowl and one spoon like most monastics. At some point she will need to learn how to live her life with little or no capital contributions from her parents. And surprisingly, that may be possible even with less than a full-time job. I have several friends who have found ways to enjoy a simple slow-paced lifestyle with very little work and income, simply by adjusting their costs and style of living.
I also know how much satisfaction she gets from her internship and helping people, and doing more of that would probably be even more satisfying. But how do we know when we are working enough and how do we know when our working becomes too much? Aren’t most of us operating on overdrive even at this moment? Wouldn’t we all rather be doing less work and enjoying life more?
Maybe one of the real reasons that her situation makes many of us uncomfortable is because we want her to become someone who does something. Like “Annie who runs a yoga studio” or “Bob who teaches high school.” To have a definition, a direction, some ambition. The Buddha taught that the only way to live without suffering is to stop resisting what is. To stop craving what we don’t have and pushing away what we do have. The Buddha’s prescription to help reduce our suffering is very different from what we are conditioned to think and do.
We may wonder, “If a person has no direction, isn’t yearning to realize an ideal, doesn’t have an aim in life, then who will help living beings be liberated, who will rescue those who are drowning in the ocean of suffering?” A Buddha is a person who has no more business to do and isn’t looking for anything. In doing nothing, in simply stopping, we can live freely and true to ourselves and our liberation will contribute to the liberation of all beings.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, “Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go”
In my own life, I have experienced how letting go of ambition has created much more space in my life and led me to be more content and happy. And that is what we want for our young people as well. Having no ambition doesn’t have to be the same thing as having no work or no goals. Living with no ambition may mean setting goals and intentions but not living only to reach their fulfillment. Working fewer hours, or at least putting away our work on evenings and weekends may be helpful. Or simply pausing in the middle of our work day to breath and come back to ourselves and remember why we are there.
We may never have the luxury of working only 3 hours a week, but if we practice slowing down and releasing some of our driving ambition, we may find that we are no longer creating as much suffering for ourselves and those around us. And that just might be the goal that drove us to our vocation in the first place.