Hard Work without Getting Anywhere by Elisabeth Schilling

BeachWhen my students read about the Buddhist concepts of non-resistance, non-attachment, and living in the present, one of the first protests I end up addressing is how these ideas seem to negate progress, goal-setting, or success. What my students don’t yet see is how clinging to a particular end can hinder creativity and the pleasure of the journey to a degree that sometimes compromises success.

For instance, when writers create for academic purposes, they/we can feel desperate to finish a project.  We can feel overwhelmed by the need for perfectionism or by the fear of failure. Perhaps even the hard work it takes layered with the uncertainty of really getting anywhere is what stirs feelings of resistance. Writing seems to transmit the energy frequencies of the writer, and what I do not want is for any reader of mine to feel that kind of struggle. Instead, I hope for narratives with at least some level of warmth, compassion, and generosity.

Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, zen spiritual practitioner and author, says that we know we have done something well when we have been nourished by the experience of the doing. Wow. I love this. Yet how forgetful I can be when getting to that sticky spot in my own writing, when I could pause to take a deep breath or walk around the neighborhood or do whatever it might take to refresh and reset my mind.

I often assign O’Hara’s chapter on “Work” from her book Most Intimate a few weeks into the semester of my composition class. I have found this chapter so helpful in my own life. She suggests that “forcing” ourselves into producing can limit intimacy with our work. For academics on the professional level, I suppose intimacy with our work is mostly accessible and perhaps the goal and cornerstone of what we do. But even when we have a passion for our research, follow our own intellectual interests, and find spiritual nourishment in sharing through writing what we know, there can be times where we might feel exhausted, anxious, or restless. Especially at the dissertation or first book stage, there are moments, in the midst of our ecstasies, of “just wanting to get it done” (I speak from experience).

This might be where the idea of hard work without getting anywhere might become a writer’s supplication rather than complaint or source of resentment: to plan out, but then let go of where we are headed or what the end result might manifest (graduation, a job, a living wage). Surviving in a profit-based world based in Machiavellian capitalism while creating spaces conducive for art making can seem impossible, but we have to find places of sensuality and life in the muck of non-change (the state of the adjunct system, writers market, etc.). I hope that a mindset of hard work without getting anywhere in my more creative endeavors will potentially drain my veins of the slothful blue ink my depression has injected into the post-Ph.D.

I have realized that I have been trying to gain something, perhaps a place in the world, at the cost of my soul, or of my passion and my creativity. The similar sentiment found in the words of Jesus (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25) and Buddha (“Because they do not look for pleasure, they will have it” –Dhammapada v. 99), and probably many others, have become much clearer to me. Because of my focus on my “lack” and the resulting desperation to make up for it, I ignore the warm energy of my body when I should be in awe of that alive-ness. That is what is sacred and holy. Just being. But it escapes me when, like the bear in one poem of Rumi’s, my mind dances for banknotes. That is not my true dance. Nor is my true dance letting my passions die inside of myself simply because I do not like the world as marketplace. The absence of my voice has felt selfish, and not in a liberating way.

I feel gratitude for communities such as Feminism and Religion for giving me an outlet to stretch my voice again and to the women who encourage one another to keep speaking. Let us not be stingy with our creativity, scholars and saints, for “the stingy do not go to the world of the gods,” says the author of the Dhammapada (v. 177). My world of gods is sensuality, community, creativity, and, regardless of where it gets me, hard work. May it be so.


LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches an online composition class at Oklahoma State University from a contemplative pedagogical approach. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.

Author: Elisabeth S.

Elisabeth S. has a Ph.D. in Religion from Claremont Graduate University (2014) and teaches philosophy, literature, creative writing and composition in Colorado.

11 thoughts on “Hard Work without Getting Anywhere by Elisabeth Schilling”

  1. “The absence of my voice has felt selfish, and not in a liberating way.” This resonated with me. Thank you for this reminder to be generous with one’s voice.


  2. Very interesting post, thanks LaChelle. And this is so powerful, where you say: “Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, zen spiritual practitioner and author, says that we know we have done something well when we have been nourished by the experience of the doing.”


    1. I know. I just want to cry every time I read it. It just re-orients how I learned to produce completely. I think I will be continually wrapping my head around it. I’m glad you like it too. I think you would really like her book Most Intimate if you haven’t read it before. She has chapters on various important areas of our life such as “work” and “dying” and “self as relationship.”


  3. Yes, a resonant essay. I am struck by the letting go of goal-setting. Not only has the inability to do so hampered my own life, I’ve witnessed highly driven people (politicians) become so focused on their career trajectory that they mow over anyone in their way and lose sight of the altruistic reasons they ran for office in the first place.


    1. Yes! I can hardly watch any sort of presidential debate all the way through because it runs so deeply with ego (role-playing, manipulation of self and others, not seeing humanity but only the internal drive of the end) that as much as I try, I can’t detect much meaning in the entire hour and a half they speak. I suppose it must be difficult to stay present and remain non-attached when one is so close to where one is attached to being. I love that you brought up this angle. Absolutely.


  4. As someone once said, “a writer’s life ain’t easy.” I bet everyone who posts to this site knows that. Thanks for your post.


  5. LaChelle, I was struck by your opening paragraph. While teaching Upanishadic philosophy or Buddhism in the US, I have almost always encountered a reaction of “What a pessimistic religion!” I try hard to tell the students that the idea is exactly the opposite; that it is the search for satisfaction and eternal bliss, and what could be more positive than that? I’m not sure they get it, but the more I teach, the more I myself come to realize the value of non-attachment and of living in the present (I always lived either in the past or the future). Thank you for your beautiful post – it is a reminder of how even “mundane” living (or stressful I should say – what could be more stressful than writing a dissertation? Or even being on the job market?) – need not translate to negativity, that it is possible (difficult yes, but not impossible) to let go of the craziness around you and that you do not need to lose touch with your soul.


    1. Yes, non-attachment does not mean emptying the self of emotions. In fact, it helps us be open to warmth and compassion, allowing things and people to be free (ourselves included). I remember the reason I bought my first book by Nhat Thich Hahn: Anger. Well, the title gives it away. I was so angry, and I had no idea it was because of the stories I was rehearsing over and over in my head. Now at least I can be the watcher of those mind-thoughts that cause unnecessary suffering and not fuel the flames. Thank you for your lovely articulation and for being peace in this world.

      Liked by 1 person

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