The Practice of Work Meditation

By Gil Fronsdal

At the Insight Retreat Center short work periods are integral to our meditation retreats. They help create the important balance between inner and outer mindfulness, between personal practice and practicing in community, and between stillness and activity. Learning how to include work within the path of practice can be one of the inspiring aspects of retreats.

Typically, retreatants participate in two work periods each day: a simple 15-minute task just before breakfast, called sangha (community) service” and a 40-minute period later in the day called “work meditation.” Silence is maintained during these work periods with the exception of brief exchanges needed to accomplish some tasks.

“Sangha service” is a time when all the retreatants work together to do the basic cleaning that cares for the center and the retreat participants. This includes such tasks as sweeping the deck, mopping a hallway, cleaning bathroom sinks, and dusting, etc.

The work meditation jobs are most commonly tasks needed to operate a retreat. Many of these jobs are done in small teams.  Examples include preparing food for a meal, washing dishes or pots, doing kitchen laundry, etc.  Care is given to assign jobs appropriate for each person’s ability.

The terms sangha service and work meditation” are meant to convey the importance of these periods. Two meanings of the word ‘service’ are implied when we refer to sangha service. Primarily it means an act of generosity in which one is serving the other participants of the retreat. By doing a simple daily task each retreatant contributes to the well-being and comfort of the other retreatants. Secondarily, in the way people speak of a religious service, sangha service is a religiously significant act. Mindful cleaning can function as a kind of ‘ritual’ affirmation and reminder of how the highest Buddhist values can be found in our most mundane tasks.

The term “work meditation” indicates that this period of work is just as important a time for mindfulness practice as the sitting and walking meditation. The point is not to rush through the task so one can have more time for “meditation”, but rather to use it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness in action. It is a time to observe and let go of the many attitudes, beliefs, and feelings that interfere with having a meaningful awareness of the task at hand, no matter what that task might be.

IRC retreats are entirely run by those who are practicing and training at the center. There is no staff apart from the practitioners. Retreatants form a mutually supportive community where everyone contributes their labors to help create the retreat environment. This mutual support becomes palpable and can be very nourishing.  Working in this way emphasizes the important messages that we are all practicing together and that Buddhist practice includes caring both for others and for the place in which one practices.

An important aspect of work on retreat is learning to be mindful, calm, and focused in the activity. Just like sitting and walking meditation, work meditation is a practice of repeatedly bringing our attention back to the present moment. In this way, it provides a training much like the conventional meditation forms of sitting and walking.

Mindfulness of work includes becoming aware of how one engages in the work. For example, some people rush through their work because they believe it is important to finish as quickly as possible. Others take too long because they are overly absorbed in the work.  Both rushing and going slow occurs from not engaging in the task with an alert, mindful presence.

One’s mind is the same whether one is engaged in sitting meditation or in work meditation. Just as the mind will wander off in thought during sitting meditation so it can also wander while working. Just as the five hindrances can ‘hinder’ while one is seated in the meditation hall, so desire, aversion, dullness and weariness, restlessness and agitation, and doubt can hinder mindfulness and concentration toward the job being done. Just as one can overcome a wandering mind and the hindrances in seated meditation, so one can do so in work meditation. In fact, when one is focused on work tasks on retreat, it is possible for the mind to become concentrated, calm and energetically still. It is also possible to have deep insights.

On retreat one has the opportunity to notice one’s attitudes while working that can often go unnoticed in ordinary life.  A common discovery is the degree of self-consciousness one brings to a task. This can take the form of comparing oneself to others, being concerned with what others think, doing the job to prove oneself, or fearing being inadequate. Retreats are a safe place to experiment with letting go of such self-concern so that one can learn the pleasure of simple, direct focus on the task at hand.

Because work is a physical activity using one’s body, work meditation helps to foster greater mindfulness of one’s body.  It can be a time when it is easier to let go of mental preoccupations so we can pay attention to our body and how we engage the body in the work. Becoming more centered in the body through work is a great support for sitting meditation. It helps mindfulness be ‘bodyfulness.’

To benefit the most from retreats, one’s meditation practice needs to be part of a broader approach to spiritual growth that includes all aspects of one’s life.  Working mindfully helps create this breadth. By including work as part of a retreat we can learn that mindfulness, peace, and spiritual freedom are not just found in meditation, but they can be found in the activities of life as well.  In fact, if found only in meditation, one’s freedom and peace have not fully matured.  Work meditation is one of the trainings that can help with this maturation.