Monday, September 1, 2014

A Spirituality of Labor

"New Every Morning"

Today, Americans celebrate the Labor Day holiday -an occasion for most people to mark the unofficial end of summer with backyard barbecues and special sales in the malls. 

Interestingly enough, the original intent of making the first Monday in September into a national holiday had nothing to do with a "last hurrah" for the summer season.  Labor Day was originally set aside as an occasion for honoring "working people" - celebrating the labor of every individual  as contributing to the overall welfare of the common good.

Maybe we don't celebrate "Labor Day" as a day to honor workers any more because so many people today really don't like their work. In fact many people in this country say that they "hate" their jobs.

Some research into "job satisfaction" recently reported in the New York Times claimed that as many as 70% of American workers are unhappy with their work -  many feel depleted by their work, overworked, in a rut, on the way to burnout.  

Many people nowadays "live" for holiday weekends.  They "Thank God It's Friday," and they dread going back to work on Monday. They feel that their jobs are tedious and boring and that their labor is menial. Most people believe that their work serves no higher purpose other than getting the work done and then coming back the next day and doing the same thing over again.

On this Labor Day holiday, I've been thinking about a "spirituality of labor" - the sacred nature of everyday work in everyday, ordinary life. 

I wonder if one of the reasons people are so dispirited by their work is because so many people are really never "present" in or at the work they do. Work time is spent thinking about the past or more likely plotting a bigger, better and newer future - looking forward to the weekend, planning the next meeting, figuring out how to get a better job.  When the mind is cluttered and distracted, we always miss the revelations of the present moment. And it is in the present moment that we find that deeper peace. 

I think about something Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said-- suggesting that when you wash a dish after a meal think of it as if you are washing the baby Buddha or washing the baby Jesus. Treat every task as a sacred task paying attention in every moment. There is no task that is menial and no job is ever insignificant. 

I also think that the work that anyone performs, however trivial it may seem, always contributes to a higher purpose. The migrant worker picking the crops, the guy washing pots and pans at the local restaurant, the people who drive the trucks and buses, the workers who make the clothes we wear are just as important to the welfare of the common good as the priest at the altar or the doctor in the hospital - and if anyone doesn't believe this, they should live in a city where the sanitation workers have gone on strike for a few months and see how important those guys who drive the "trash trucks' really are. 

On this Labor Day, I call to mind a wisdom teaching of the Buddha -a helpful guide for everyday workers doing everyday ordinary work.  

Meditate. Live simply. Quiet the mind. Do your work with mastery.




  1. I've had jobs I hated, and jobs I've liked.

    While reading your article I was reminded of a little book by Brother Lawrence titled "The Practice of the Presence of God".

    God is indeed present in the most common of human activities. The bible includes sex as something in which God is present.

    Perhaps this approach is a means to sacramentalizing the human condition.

    My favorite job which I did for the last 22.5 years of my employed life was stocking shelves in an all night grocery store. My least favorite was repairing refrigerators.

    1. Yes, Brother Lawrence is a perfect example of finding the sacred in the ordinariness of the human condition..his kitchen was his church.