The Business of Life

“The most solid comfort is the thought that the business of one’s life is to help in some small way to reduce the sum of…degradation and misery on the face of this beautiful earth.” — Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)

The business of one’s life is a very businesslike expression. To me it suggests the way I spend most of my time: dealing with practical necessities like doctors’ appointments, medical bureaucracy, car repairs, meal planning, ensuring a sufficient supply of toilet paper, etc., etc.

Business could also be interpreted as one’s principal employment or job — in my case, zen priest. Here I would seem to be on solid ground with Evans’ statement: one could say the vow and activity of a zen priest is to help reduce the sum of misery in this beautiful world. But that’s not what I spend the lion’s share of my time and energy doing; it’s a mere fraction of both, the remainder I allow myself after everything else has been done. There’s the vow, and there’s the To Do list — notice which is in capital letters.

One of the most radical decisions we make is how to spend our time — which things we prioritize with lists and deadlines and capital letters. Reducing the sum of misery doesn’t usually make the to-do list (which can at least typographically be cut down to size). Why not? Maybe it’s too hard to check off? Does it meet the SMART criteria of goal-setting: specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, time-based? Reducing the sum of misery as written isn’t specific or measurable, but it can be made so with little effort, and in myriad ways. And some have used significant and meaningful, rather than specific and measurable, as the first two SMART criteria. Furthermore, what about the possibility inherent in “dumb” goals? Goals that are outsized, immeasurable by current methods, perhaps impossible, unreasonable, and lengthy? Are these goals not worth aiming at? We wouldn’t have many of history’s innovations if someone hadn’t been stupid enough to try them, and keep trying past the point of all reason.

One of the things that bothers me most is when I lose track of what matters, when it gets buried by things that I’ve thoughtlessly imbued with a false sense of urgency. Yes, the car must be fixed and the laundry done. But maybe those tasks could be interspersed with some attempts at misery-reducing, instead of relegating the real work, the central vow of my life, to the time that’s left over after the inbox is clear.

Because that time doesn’t exist. The inbox will never be clear; we know that for the cherished delusion it is. As long as we’re alive, life generates things that must be done. Even after we die, our lives continue to create things that must be done, except that someone else has to do them. But every moment we’re alive, we’re deciding what’s most pressing on that list or in that box. Yet the biggest, most important things live outside such containers, because they’re things we don’t know how to write down, or don’t think we have to. 1) Pay attention to the people I love…Check!  2) Enjoy this fleeting life…Check!

When one of the people I love left for work this morning, I was attempting to muster the energy for a day of extricating the truth from insurance agents, checking legal documents, doing laundry, retrieving prescriptions, and visiting the doctor. As Chris walked out the door, he called down the hall, “Write something — that’s the most important thing.”

Knowing in a given moment what’s the most important thing is one of life’s greatest challenges, its constant koan. The moments add up quickly, and no one wants to get to the end of them and realize we were in the wrong business the whole time.

What’s the business of your life? Are you busy doing it?



6 thoughts on “The Business of Life

  1. Hi all,
    Just found this blog and clicked previous so I would like to comment on the June blog.
    I have one task per day, at about 4 hourly intervals, that must be done – to care for my daughter’s dog who is now blind and deaf and cannot be left alone. I am 9 months into this task. (She is an en plein air artist so can’t take him with her)
    How do I spend the rest of my time? Sadly with mostly distractions – TV, emails, online bridge and mah Jong, reading one ‘Buddhist’ book plus my Book Club’s choice of the month.
    I vow to meditate daily but I don’t; use to for about 17 years.
    Even when there is so called oodles of ‘time’ the effort to reduce the ‘degradation and misery on this beautiful earth’ is lacking.

    • You’re right, Ebby. Time (and energy) aren’t the only requirements for fulfilling the bodhisattva’s vow to help all beings; we need motivation as well. Where does this come from? How can we cultivate it when it’s lacking? At least you’re helping two beings: your daughter and her dog. That’s a start on it.

      I recently read from Suzuki Roshi that life without meditation is like winding a clock without setting it — it runs fine, but it doesn’t tell time. Maybe a vow to meditate (or save all beings) isn’t the thing for right now. Maybe just sitting down once in a while, without “distractions”.

      Anyway, thanks for distracting yourself with my blog 🙂 I’ve got to get the laundry now!

  2. Hi Molly,

    I use Fridays to do more of the things I want to do, rather than what I have to do. That way, all the important-but-not-critical stuff eventually gets some attention. I treat the time as if it had a fence around it. All the mundane dreary tasks are not invited, unless there is a crisis.

    There are at least a couple of websites touting DUMB goals. (
    Both have D for something Dream-related, and U for Uplifting, but I like the one that has B for Barely attainable. 🙂

    • Hi Janette,

      I like the idea of treating a certain time as if it had a fence around it. Thank you for the links — I enjoyed them. Especially the “M” that stands for you-know-what 🙂

  3. hi molly,

    my first thought after reading GE’s phrase “the business of one’s life” was how unfortunate that she should have used the concept of ‘business’ to describe the path one takes in life. Surely, the only way to make the rest of that sentence valid would have been to replace ‘business’ with ‘essence’.

    now we have to go through the whole dreary task of ‘undoing’ the damage!

    to begin with, the time we spend in our lives ensuring our survival and the survival of others, is basically, just what the existence of living beings is about. in the words of thich nhat hanh, “this is it!” our reality exists moment by moment and in each moment we just “are’. no need to break down this reality into categories like ‘job’, ‘time’, ‘priorities’ and then have to suffer the angst of their devisiveness.

    as bodhisattvas, there is no difference between vow and what we do. everything on our ‘to do list’ simply provides the opportunities to unthinkingly fulfill that vow….getting the car fixed ends our suffering and others who might be harmed by a defective machine; going to the doctors office, shopping, paying bills, filling out forms, the same……..we and others benefit by completing these tasks and just being out in the world allows you to, at least, warm strangers with a smile and kind words.

    if we drop the concept of ‘most important’ and see everything as ‘necessary in its own context’, according to what your health, happiness and the happiness of others is, then we can make positive choices in the moment.

    in addition, confining ourselves to a ‘profession’ that has culturally mandated roles is a deadly choice. seeing ones self as a zen priest, with an identity separate from others, i have found to be discriminatory. if we live by the vows that we have taken, our life will flow freely rather than be tied up into separate chores that have to be accomplished.

    in closing, as a fellow writer, i learned what impermanence is really all about by putting my drafts in a drawer for 24 hours and than rereading them. if they still make sense as a bodhisattva, then go for it!



    • Hi Joshu,

      I read “business” literally, as busyness. I think almost anything can be done as a practice, but to me some things feel more closely connected to my purpose in life, my vow, than others, just as some things feel like a violation of my vows. To me, we’re simply talking about the difference between absolute truth (emptiness, everything is equal) and relative truth (form, everything is unique/distinguishable). My understanding is that these are two facets of one reality. I think you’re writing about the first, and I was writing about the second, which I’ve felt overly consumed by lately, as I think many people do.

      It’s interesting to me that you find professions, and specifically being a priest, discriminatory. Again, I understand the word profession literally, as in what we profess through our words and actions. I definitely don’t feel separation from others because of being a zen priest. I think being a priest could be used in this way, but for me that would be a mis-use of the vows.

      For better or worse, nothing about being a zen priest feels culturally mandated to me; I resonate with Kodo Sawaki’s statement that a priest is someone who creates her or his own life. I’ve been reflecting on what it means to me to be a zen priest and will probably write about it soon, although I won’t be putting the post in an online drawer for 24 hours, because for me an important aspect of this blog is spontaneous expression, in the spirit of zen calligraphy 🙂 Anyway, thank you for your comments; it’s interesting to read an alternate view.

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