I was on retreat last week at The School for The Work. The Work is one of my favorite practices for finding clarity and freedom in daily life.
The Work is a meditation. It doesn’t look like a meditation because it’s four questions, and questions look like cognitive tasks. But these four questions are more like Buddhist koans, which are riddles or paradoxes that reveal the inadequacy of thought and provoke enlightenment.
That’s little “e” enlightenment, by the way, at least for me. Rather than an end-state, enduring Enlightenment, it’s a moment of clarity. (I don’t rule out big “e” Enlightenment, of course. Stay tuned). The Work turns on the light, and then I can see what I could not see before, and it’s always kinder and freer than I believed.
Symbolic Understanding versus Direct Experience
One of my takeaways from The School for The Work is how much clarity and freedom I was leaving on the table by not doing The Work more. It’s easy to think that because I know about The Work – because I know the four questions and turnarounds – I know the truth, and that’s close enough.
But that’s like believing that because I’ve described water to you, you know what it is to be wet. One is cognition, symbolic understanding. The other is meditation, direct experience.
There’s Not Enough Time – Is It True?
One reason I do not do The Work every time I am aware of being attached to a painful or limiting belief – signaled for me by a feeling of contraction – is that I am believing the thought, “There’s not enough time.”
Let’s Do The Work on that thought together. (For complete instructions, visit
Think of a moment when you believed the thought, “There’s not enough time.” Maybe you were feeling rushed, breathless, tense, and seeing a train of images of future catastrophes resulting from inadequate time. For me, the moment was as I sat in this chair, my fingers hovering above the keyboard, about to start this essay.
“There’s not enough time.” Is it true? [Yes or no]. Yes. (I only have three hours. Usually I give myself five or more.)
Can you absolutely know or be certain it’s true? [Yes or no]. No. (I have written essays quickly before. It’s not impossible).
How do you react, what happens, when you believe the thought? [What physical sensations, emotions, and images do you notice? How do you treat yourself and others?] I hold my breath. I freeze, brace. My face hurts from the tension. I cannot think. I am angry at myself for being so slow and disorganized. I remember the college essays I turned in late and feel embarrassed and ashamed all over again. I feel hopeless about ever being on time. I am so hard on myself and imagine the whole world – yes, you, too – exasperated with me.
Who would you be without the thought? [Everything about the moment is the same, except that you do not have that judgment about it]. Ah. I would simply be woman sitting in chair, fingers hovering above a keyboard, warm, comfortable, amid comfortable furnishings in a comfortable home, seeing autumn leaves and blue sky out the window, marveling at this device under my fingers that captures my thoughts and shares them with you. Breathing. Relaxed. At ease. Able to think.
To complete The Work, turn the thought around to an opposite and find specific, believable evidence that each turnaround is just as true or truer than the original thought.
“There is enough time.” It’s hard to prove a negative. There is no evidence that there is not enough time! What’s easy to prove is that when I believe that there isn’t enough time, I suffer and cannot think. When I do not believe it, I am relaxed and able to write.
From Time Pressure to Time Ease
I am in love with how it feels to be simply “woman sitting.” When I am a woman doing – going from here to there, finishing this, about to do that – I notice the tension creep up my body, lock up my head and neck, and stop my breath.
Woman sitting. Woman sitting. Woman sitting. This is my new mantra for the moments when I notice my body is tense and I am thinking of the past or the future. At The School for The Work, Katie said, “All suffering is either remembered or anticipated. The present takes care of itself.” It’s worth a try.