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What’s Your Intention? The Practice of Skillful Effort

Our work lives, and all parts of our lives are transformed when we practice skillful effort.

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Many years ago, after living at the San Francisco Zen Center for ten years and then completing New York University’s MBA program, it was time to find work. I was living with my wife and young son in New York City. One of the challenging and unexpected patterns that developed was that I revised my résumé each time I failed to find a job. I’ve sometimes thought that I could put a book together showing how my résumé evolved to make my previous work experiences appear more understandable. I learned the importance of telling my story so that it addressed the specific needs of prospective employers. I also learned that a résumé is both a record of previous accomplishments and a statement of potential. Still, the fact that I had been a Zen student for many years (and had very little other work experience) did not appear to open doors in New York City. My previous position as Director of Tassajara, Zen Mountain Center, changed on my résumé to become Human Resources Director of Tassajara, a California resort.

I interviewed for several months, determined to get a job as a trainer in the New York corporate world. I went on numerous interviews and made several presentations. I had some talented mentors who taught me how to dress, how to tell my story, and how to conduct myself in a job interview. After several months and many meetings I was getting discouraged. Then, I was interviewing with a woman at a small consulting company who read my résumé and said, “Who are you kidding? I’m familiar with Tassajara. It’s a Zen monastery!” I had no idea what to think of her discovery. She smiled, and said she felt connected to me because of my Zen background, and I was hired for my first business management job in New York City. My effort had paid off, albeit in an unusual way.

Skillful effort means making careful and steady effort. In the context of work, and our lives, the key issue is the aim of our effort. From the usual perspective, at work our goal is to maximize profits for our own benefit, to increase our material value, and to have as much control, power, and predictability as possible. From the perspective of mindfulness, our effort is toward freedom, flexibility, happiness, compassion, and social justice. Profits, power, and control can be used toward these goals, but they are not ends in themselves.

Our work lives, and all parts of our lives are transformed when we practice skillful effort — steady effort toward using each situation to free ourselves and others from habits and patterns that cause pain, toward building character and developing a flexible, open mind. In forging our paths we have no choice but to start where we are. We have no choice but to move ahead, not knowing what will happen.

Skillful effort means not getting thrown off our path, or when we are, to notice and adjust. We notice, over and over, when we have not lived up to our expectations, and we try again. After I left the Zen Center community to pursue my MBA I lived in Great Neck, New York. Somehow I met one of the few, and perhaps only, other Zen practitioners in Great Neck. Brenda and I started a small meditation group in her living room, and we sat meditation together several mornings a week. We did this for several months and then noticed that several months would go by without our sitting together. We would contact each other and begin again, sitting regularly for many months. This pattern repeated itself three or four times. One day we were discussing what to name our little meditation group, and we decided on “Let’s try it again,” hanging a sign in her living room (our meditation hall) with those very words.

The effort and path of integrating mindfulness practice and work requires tremendous effort. Just trying to practice mindfulness often seems daunting. Just trying to make a living at times seems daunting. Who would be foolish (or brave, courageous) enough to try to combine the two? And, what could be more satisfying?

Skillful Effort Practices:

Explore writing about skillful effort by completing these prompts:
When my effort is driven by fear I …..
When my effort is driven by generosity I….
What supports my practice of skillful effort is…

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