On Doing "The Work"

Those in spiritual practice loooove to talk about “doing the work”. We’re suckers for self flagellation, even as we talk of self-love and acceptance.

“Been doing a lot of work on that,” we assert, as we read yet another inspirational quote on a friend’s Instagram feed reminding us to love ourselves, or look in the mirror, or focus on the positive in our lives. These are all universal truths, yet putting them into practice can be so damn impossible. I mean, difficult. No, wait! Positive words only! I mean, challenging!

“It’s about doing the work,” our teachers tell us in spiritual practice, and then we scour the Interwebz for “10 Tips to Increase Productivity” or “15 Ways to Be More Mindful” and we wonder why nothing’s happening, because we’re spending so much time searching for strategy that we haven’t done the main part.

That’s right, the work part.

“You’re doing great,” friends might say, and we smile and remind them it doesn’t come easy.

“It’s a process,” we remind them, and so begins that battle between perfected and perfecting, achieving the status of completion by loving and accepting ourselves while knowing that we still have a far way to go, that no matter how far we’ve come there’s still a road ahead, because we are Divine beings in Human bodies that will always have a ways to go to become complete fusions of Divine and Human.

The seminal work of Chabad Jewish mysticism, the Tanya, teaches about the process of work, known as “Avodah” – literally, work, in Hebrew. A person who has achieved spiritual perfection, the righteous one, has already achieved the status of “Worker” or “Servant”. She or he no longer is “doing the work” – they are like the retired Chief of Staff of the President; an honored servant who gets to sit pretty and polish the trophies. But the rest of us? We’re still serving. In the process. Working, our butts off, every day. Doing the work.

But what does that mean? Doesn’t everyone do the work? Don’t we all wake up every day, struggle to smile through our pre-coffee haze, go into our places of work and fight every urge to bite the heads off the humans who come our way, going beyond our personal desires to submit to our employers and get a paycheck?

That sounds kinda depressing, doesn’t it? And yet, it’s the typical routine of so many in the Western world, particularly these United States.

Work, according to the Tanya, isn’t just the typical things that we have to do to get our days done. It’s not the sixteen meetings you sat in today, because you had to. That’s your job. That’s not the work.

The work is the seventeenth meeting that you took later in the day purely because a coworker was floundering and needed your help, even though it’s totally her responsibility and she should’ve had the presentation slides done six days earlier. The work is the time you went over a process with a new colleague even though he should know how to do it by now. The work is the time you prepped for an appointment in advance even though you’ve done this kind of thing a thousand times. The work is going above and beyond.

The Tanya tells us about the drivers of the ancient Persian alternative to Uber, those donkey dudes who would charge for the eleventh mile, down to the decimal point, because it meant going the distance. Of the Talmudic students who would cover a passage not just 100 times – the standard review process in ancient Babylon – but 101, so they really truly knew the material.

The work isn’t about doing what needs to get done to get the job done. That’s the job. That’s the process. That’s standard.

The work is going above and beyond.

It’s not being an A student who doesn’t study at all because of a natural aptitude. That’s righteous person territory. It’s not about being the laissez faire student who cruises through and does the bare minimum and manages okay either. That’s not working. That’s doing.

It’s about being that one who goes the extra mile, who picks up the slack and runs with it, who finds a process and sticks with it, over and over and over and over and – oh yes, OVER again, so they truly achieve that level of perfection while constantly perfecting.

And once they’ve done it? Once they’re in it to win it?

The Divine light, the energy of the work they’re putting in, the Godly element that strives to see every human being achieve spiritual perfection, starts to pitch in.

Because when we put in the work, the Creator meets us halfway.

Call it creativity, call it Spirit, call it love, we’ve all felt that Divine moment of “click”, when after slaving over a process for days or months or years on end, we feel it come naturally.

That’s the work. That’s the Awakening from Above, when we’ve done our bit and we get an extra treat from above in the process.

And when you’ve worked for it, when your bones are aching and knees are buckling and skin is chapped and raw and your body is thirsting for some spiritual Gatorade and your head just wants to lay down and rest…

Then there is nothing more delicious.