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Excerpted from Work As a Spiritual Practice by Lewis Richmond. Copyright 1999 by Lewis Richmond. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.  HTML and web pages copyright by SpiritSite.com.

"Something is always happening. The world is full of spiritual opportunity. The trick is to be alert enough to notice it."

Lewis Richmond, Work As a Spiritual Practice, Part 4

As you begin exploring this book--and you need not read it from front to back; it is designed to be browsed--I ask you to make only one commitment, and that is to trust yourself. Trust your own instincts, your intuition, your judgment. The knowledge you need to change your work life for the better is already within you. Set aside, for now, the notion that on the job you work for somebody else. In your spiritual life, you are self-employed. You work for yourself. No one need know about this inner job. It can be your secret. Whatever efforts you make will be outside the realm of success or failure. I don't know what will happen if you try the practices in this book, but I am sure of one thing: Something will happen.

The reason I am so sure is that something is always happening. The world is full of spiritual opportunity. The trick is to be alert enough to notice it. That is the real work, and the joy of work, and if we catch on to that trick, it doesn't matter in the short run what our day job is. In the end, if we are kind to ourselves, our efforts will be fruitful.

The Koan of Everyday Life

But what kind of fruit will it be? A raise, a better job, a happier work and home life? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Spiritual practice is more about questions than answers, more about searching than finding, more about effort than accomplishment. In one school of Buddhism, those who practice ponder spiritual questions called koans. There are hundreds of memorable stories, usually taken from the lives of ancient Buddhist teachers, that are used as koans. Some of them have even become part of popular culture. For instance, the question "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" was featured in an episode of The Simpsons television show.

In addition to these prefabricated questions, there is another kind of koan, called the koan of everyday life. Human life itself, the mystery of being thrust into the world by birth and swept out of it by death, is an imponderable puzzle, one that we can try to ignore but cannot escape. So much of what passes for "ordinary" life is, when seen through different eyes, not ordinary at all, but full of potential for spiritual learning. To practice the koan of everyday life means to confront every situation as though it were a profound spiritual question. In that sense, every koan story is a specific instance of the koan of everyday life.

One such koan story goes like this:

A monk asked his teacher, "What is the Buddha?" and the teacher answered, "The cypress tree in the garden."

What does it mean? What does a cypress tree have to do with Buddha, that is, our awakened self? Let's imagine this cypress tree, spreading over the path in the monastery garden. What could be more ordinary, or familiar, than the aged tree that each monk passed every day for the whole of his life? In that sense, the cypress tree means the most familiar thing. What familiar thing do you pass? Is it your kitchen table? Your car? Your good friend? Your spouse or children? Your coworkers? The copy machine in the office corner?

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