Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of July 16, 2012

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Task Presence

(Presence in Daily Life: Part 3)

Our life is full of tasks: tasks we set ourselves, tasks we agree to, and tasks imposed on us by necessity. Some tasks we avoid or shirk, others we relish, and many bore us. Most are mundane, like tying our shoes, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, or taking out the garbage, and require little cognitive effort from us. Some are complex, like ones we might perform at our job. A few are long, like building a house, writing a novel, or acquiring a college education. But all tasks, simple or complex, boring or interesting, long or short, present an opportunity for inner work.

We might for example set ourselves to bring quality and excellence to the task, which requires careful attentiveness. Or we might set ourselves to persist in a difficult or repetitious task, which requires an ongoing act of will and managing our anti-task emotions. Or we might go for both excellence and persistence, as necessary and appropriate. But the inner work we wish to address here, namely presence, subsumes most other types of task-related inner work: if we are present we are more likely to do the job well and completely.

Tasks have stages, each an opportunity: being there at the start with a vision of the whole process and an intention to stay present for the duration, being present in the middle while monitoring the progress and quality of our work and giving it the appropriate level of effort, and being present in the completion phase, wherein we look to see that it is truly complete, we check that our work has met our original vision for what we would accomplish, and we feel the satisfaction of having done the job, be it large or small. But the key to all of these is being there, being present, being in the whole of ourselves doing the task: being in our mind as we envision, plan, monitor, consider the feedback and adjust, being in our heart as we bring the appropriate feeling tone, being in our body as we carry out the actions of the task, and being ourselves, our I, as in I am doing this now.

In some ways presence comes more easily in simple tasks, because we have ample unused energy and attention that we can turn to presence while we do the task. But the problem of presence in simple tasks is to stay with it, not to allow the lack of external challenge to lull us into daydreaming, not to allow boredom or any other emotional reaction to seduce us out of our presence, not to allow our outwardly habitual, automatic performance of the task to cause us to be inwardly automatic as well. We stay with the simple pleasure of being there, doing the task, no more and no less. Even though we could leave it entirely to our routine, automatic patterns of mind and body, we do not. We let the automatic patterns do what they need to do. And all the while, we stay with it, we allow the routine action to be done in us, while we remain on the scene, present as the one who knows, sees, senses, and does what we do.

More complex tasks call us to rise to their challenge, rise to presence and stay there. The more complex and variable the task, the more attention, sensitivity, and cognitive effort it requires. These naturally bring us toward presence, toward full multi-level awareness and being there. To perform a complex task we have to put ourselves into it, we cannot just phone it in. This is one way that our outer life feeds and develops our inner life, one way we fulfill the promise of our humanity. We are not the task; the task is not us. But it is what we do.

For this week, our meta-task is to be present, in body, heart, and mind, as ourselves, as our I, in the performance of the tasks that make up such a large part of our life. Be definite about this. Choose one or a few tasks that you do every or most days, and set yourself to be present in them, starting with body awareness, with sensing your body as you do the task.


     

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