Doing the Work

September 27, 2010

…he wanted me to stop my routines, and finally, he wanted me to dethrone my sense of self-importance.

“How am I going to accomplish all this, don Juan?” I asked him.

“I have no idea,” he responded.  “None of us has any idea of how to do that pragmatically and effectively.  Yet, if we start the work, we will accomplish it without ever knowing what came to aid us.”

Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan

When I first started on my own journey of personal development—of integrating committed therapeutic work into my life and interpersonal relationships—I kept hearing from well-meaning people, “Just do The Work and you will get what you want.”  When I ran into challenges, set-backs or when I simply felt like nothing I was doing made a difference in my life, I again would hear, “Just do The Work!”

Where was this Work?  Just show it to me and I’ll do it already! At first, I expected somebody to hand me a textbook outlining everything I needed to do.

I’m a work-oriented person and I would have welcomed such a book!  I would have set about in an orderly fashion to complete any exercises as long as a high mark would improve my life.  I quickly realized there is no such book, and even though you can go out and buy innumerable self-help/therapeutic workbooks—which may actually help in some ways—I believe that the real work that we must do to improve our lives is unpredictable, organic, open-ended, and ultimately, comes in many different forms.

Ironically, when I tell my clients about the work we will do together in therapy, many of them will ask me, “What do you mean by ‘work’?”  I can definitely empathize with the question, but I always find myself at a bit of a loss in accurately describing what this work actually looks like; but another part of me is reluctant to describe it because the kind of therapeutic work that will help someone will, of course, change from person to person.  I can’t prescribe a person’s path.  However, there are some basic starting points.

Freud called therapy the “talking cure,” so most certainly just talking about your life and challenges is doing the work—going deeper, gaining more awareness of one’s life (past, present and future) is definitely hard work that will lead to therapeutic growth.  The founder of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls, famously said, “It is the awareness, the full experience of how you are stuck that makes you recover.”

The work of going into the past means meeting the pain that we find there with awareness, but also meeting it with the power of loving kindness that will help us heal.  We should not go into the pain of our past in order to beat ourselves up; going back can allow us to forgive others, and most importantly, ourselves.  With forgiveness comes healing.

Being in the present is also hard work—what am I feeling?  Where do I feel emotions in my body?  What is behind and beyond the thoughts and opinions onto which I grasp so tightly?  How can I learn to slow down and be in the moment?

And what of the future—what do I do with what I can’t control in my life?  What does acceptance of the future mean to me?  What will my life look like 10 years from now?  20 years?

The work can also include taking risks and doing things you might never have done before.  For me, I took a risk in going on a Buddhist retreat; I took a risk by committing myself to doing intense training in men’s groups.

One of the most fearful risks I took in my life was when I admitted that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable.  The work that came out of that realization was dedicating myself to living a sober life, to connecting with others with compassion and honesty.

Also, sometimes risk for me means just sitting with my own solitude and being okay with it, letting it show me instances of beauty in the world that I otherwise might have passed by in a chaotic, noisy rush.

I also commit much of my time to both self-education and formal education.  Sometimes it feels like I’ve been in school for my whole life; I just signed up for yet another night course—and I love doing all of it, because it pushes me to expand, connect with community and meet the world with curiosity as opposed to judgment, criticism and assumption, three negative powers I used to bring into my life with destructive and relentless abandon.

However, the one important factor I’ve learned about doing The Work is that sometimes huge shifts in life come in unexpected, organic ways—positive shifts that are, in effect, gifts.  Perhaps these shift-gifts are the eventual product of putting in so much effort, or perhaps they are the result of just making ourselves more vulnerable, more flexible and more open to existence.

Whatever the cause, the shifts that “just happen” are indeed gifts.  And believe me, they do exist! They come in all forms, shapes and sizes, too.  I’m referring to those shifts you might read in an obscure Zen tale of a monk hearing the empty whack of a pebble hitting a bamboo shoot, and then—bam!—the monk lets go of his ego.  Well, I haven’t totally let go of my ego, but I have experienced some sudden, powerful shifts in my life.

For example, when I first started doing work with men’s groups, I learned a tremendous amount about myself, but the huge shift in my life started when one of the men on a retreat said to me, “Hey, Sean, you seem like a nice guy, but you should really drop the teenage, angst bullshit.”  Wow!  Hardly a lyrical Zen tale, but that man’s brutal honesty (and love) changed me for the better.  After an initial spike of anger and outrage, I slowed down, opened my heart—and guess what?—I dropped the bullshit!  In that moment, for some reason, it became as easy as that for me—I just dropped it.  I’ve experienced calmer, more sentimental shifts, but I always like recounting that story because it was so unexpected, and it challenged me to overcome my anger—and the payoff was enormous.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that magical shifts happen all the time, or that doing therapeutic work will somehow guarantee a magical result.  In my own life, I continue to keep up The Work because it is my own personal application of my strength, skills and belief in myself that I know will keep me going and growing.  I know that I can only continue to give to others when I give to myself.  Essentially, The Work never stops, and I would be lying if I said that it inevitably gets easier.  While there might be pauses and rest stops, The Work is Life Work.

For me, the real upside to doing The Work is that I know there will be a payoff—and the unexpected bonuses makes this adventure all the more exciting.

Thanks for reading this!