My most important insights about applying mindfulness to work came from an experience I had as head of the kitchen during a sesshin at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 1971.

As it was a week-long sesshin –– all day sitting meditation, every day –– you might imagine there was a serene atmosphere about the place. And there was serenity, except in the kitchen. The kitchen is a crucible of action in the monastery. It gets pretty hot in there –– not only physically, but psychologically.

First, you’re cooking a meal for 40-60 people. You want to make sure the different dishes are all ready to be served at the same time, and that meals are prepared with grateful attention to the value and gift of the food. Reverence paired with speed and accuracy!

The kitchen gets psychologically hot when you have to deal with public opinion. Tassajara is located deep in the forest valley and, in this fairly primitive and austere setting, thinking about food becomes an entertainment and distraction. The main focus of desire, craving, and projection, is food. And the kitchen staff is often blamed for any discontent that arises.

In the midst of this austere, simple life, people often transform into hungry ghosts. So in addition to culinary and management skill, the head of the kitchen needs the skill of diplomacy. It requires courage and a thick skin to deal with the heat from the stoves as well as the high emotional temperature of hotheads.

During this particular sesshin, I found myself surprisingly relaxed in a joyful, clear state of mind. I knew that this good state was not simply a result of my own effort. I sensed I was benefiting from the energy being generated in the meditation hall by my sangha brothers and sisters practicing so intently.

Even so, mealtime in a monastery is not a leisurely affair. And even though I was in the midst of actively cooking and managing the staff, and despite the fact that the food had to be served promptly and efficiently so that everyone could eat within a fairly brief recess, I was having a great time!

As we assembled the food in containers to hand off to the servers, a mad if silent rush ensued as people moved in and out of the kitchen through its narrow doorway — some to pick up food, others to take food out. I stood by the door, intently directing traffic. One mischievous server, David Chadwick (author of Crooked Cucumber) came up to me and whined, “Jack, would you pull my thumb?” A ridiculous request designed to get my goat! But I didn’t have a goat in that moment, so I happily pulled his thumb with a smile: “There you go!” David laughed and we both moved on.

I still believe my mental lightness, quickness, and good humor were a gift of the group meditative effort. But whether or not I had “earned” it, this experience left a vivid impression about the state of mind to aspire to when at work.

Some tips:

  1. Clarity of purpose: to serve with love and to dedicate the merit of your actions to all.
  2. Attentive to detail, but relaxed and grounded: Reset your inner and outer posture often, remembering to breathe deeply and with ease.
  3. Kind and respectful speech: Work demands are not an excuse to stress out and unload on others.
  4. Diligent, unattached effort: Sincerely do your best, but do not concern yourself with the outcome.
  5. A sense of humor: If something unexpected comes up, relax and relate to it with interest and friendliness. Unexpected events are mirrors in which you can catch your own sense of attachment and stress.
  6. Centered, at ease, and upright: Practicing this makes it easier not to take the opinions of others personally.

Oh yes –– and if someone should ask you to pull their thumb, just stop everything and pull with a smile!

Jack Elias
Jack Elias

Jack Elias has studied and practiced Buddhism since 1967, first with Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi, then with Buddhist teachers Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. A hypnotherapist and NLP trainer since 1988, Jack is co-author of The Outrageous Guide to Being Fully Alive: Defeat Your Inner Trolls and Reclaim Your Sense of Humor and author of Finding True Magic: Transpersonal Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy/NLP. More at jackelias.com.

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