Many traditional arts prescribe a ritual for commencing work. Often these rituals start from a place of practicality—making sure your attention is fully present is a good idea if you’re going to be working with potentially-lethal tools—but they grow from that into something more. Our society has gotten away from a lot of traditions, but most arts still teach a practice of preparation in some form. Sometimes it’s called “preparing yourself for the work”, sometimes “approaching the work”, sometimes just “preparing for work”.
I was listening to an interview with Jian Ghomeshi and Russell Simmons (of Def Jam) talking about meditation the other day, and I was struck by something Simmons said. He sees most of the things people do for self-care as being basically “ways to turn down the noise inside your head”, and that resonated for me. He chooses meditation instead of drugs or religion because, as he put it, if you’re focused on turning down the noise, why not go with a method that’s explicitly directed at “turning down the noise”. (It’s a good interview, and I’d encourage you to listen to it.)
I think of preparing for work as the way that we turn down the noise.
The preparation needs to fit the task, obviously. You prepare for making a meal differently from how you prepare for teaching a class, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or writing a love letter. But in each case, I believe that the quality of your preparation affects the quality of the work you do in a pretty deep way. I notice a connection between how well I prepare myself to approach the work and how well the work comes out.
On some level, this is all pretty obvious stuff. Not all the important things are invisible. I encourage you to read through what follows, see if any of it resonates for you, and let it spur you to be mindful as you approach whatever work you do. Discard the things that don’t feel right.
Here are some of the questions I ask as I’m approaching the different kinds of work in my life. I hope some of them help you! If you have any of your own ways that work well for you, please leave them in the comments.
- Is my body clean enough for this? This might mean clean hands, or a shower, or whatever.
- Is my body relaxed enough for the demands of the task?
- Am I strong enough? Do I have enough energy?
- Do I know where all the tools I’ll need are? Are they where I can reach them?
- Have I prepared my tools adequately? Are the knives sharpened, the instruments tuned, the batteries charged, and the tank full?
- Materials and Supplies
- Do I have all the supplies I’ll use up in this work? If not, how am I getting them?
- Are the materials adequate to the task?
- Surroundings and space
- Is this space appropriate for the work I plan to do?
- If I need people to help me, are they aware of the need and ready to help? Are they prepared to approach the work?
- Can I keep myself and others safe if I do this work in this space?
- Will I be able to hold my concentration in this space?
- Is there room for my tools to be assembled where I can reach them?
- How much space is there for moving around?
- Am I sufficiently aware of my body to do this task well and safely?
- Am I conscious of how to use these tools safely and effectively? Am I ready, in this moment, to use them with respect and skill?
- Am I aware of the strengths and weaknesses of my materials, my tools, my materials, my body, and my mind? Am I ready to adjust how I work to reflect changes in these things?
- Can I react quickly enough for the needs of this task in this moment?
- Can I bring high-quality attention to this work in this moment? How much of my attention does this work require?
- Am I thinking of anything else? Is that a problem?
- Do I have the knowledge I think I’ll need to complete the task? If not, how am I going to fix that?
- Am I decisive enough for this task right now?
- Am I ready to deal with it when this work doesn’t follow my plan? How’s my resilience right now? If failure is likely, am I prepared to accept that? If success is likely, am I prepared to accept that?
- What are my priorities in approaching this work? Am I practicing? Playing? Performing? Teaching? Are my priorities in harmony with my approach to the work?
- Am I willing to commit to using the supplies and materials I’ve collected for this work?
- Am I willing to stick with it for the length of time this work requires?
- To what standard am I hoping to complete this work? How good a job do I need to do?
- Am I aware of the risks that accompany this work? Do I have the knowledge and experience to evaluate them appropriately? If not, how am I going to fix that?
- Am I willing to accept those risks, in this moment, for the sake of this work?
- Is my heart present as I commence this work?
- Am I spiritually present as I start this work?
- Do I have respect for the work, the workpieces, the tools, the helpers, and myself as I begin this work? Can I sustain that through the process?
- Have I taken enough time to calm my mind, allow other thoughts to dissipate, let the mental dust settle, and bring the full force of my awareness into this work? If not, should I?
- Taking responsibility
- Am I willing to be responsible for bringing this work into the world? Does the world need it?
- Am I doing this work for the right reasons?
- Do I want to do this work? If not, am I willing to take responsibility for that and do it anyway?
- What’s my emotional response to the work? Is it well suited to doing this work right now? If not, will there ever be a better time?
- Is there a way I can bring a more joyful, loving, focused, attentive, respectful, or caring presence to the work? If so, does the work need it? How long would it take to do a better job?
- Support and intuition
- Have I asked for support and guidance if I feel I need it?
- If I need support, is it from a person? From a deity? From the universe? From luck? From my kitty?
- Do I have a good feeling about this work?
- Do I have a feeling that something is going to go wrong? (I tend to trust those feelings).
- At the end of all the questions, am I ready to start? If not, what is needed?
These are some of the questions I ask myself when I’m trying to approach my work in a mindful way. What I actually do differs quite a lot depending on the task at hand, and I’ll give a couple of examples.
The point is that having a system of preparing yourself to do great work is valuable because it becomes a habit—and also, that on some spiritual level we can all tell the difference between work conducted in full preparation and presence and work done without being ready. The qualities of the worker become part of the work, and that includes our preparation.
My friend Shane wrote an excellent article about modifying handgun grips a while back, and he gives a lovely description of preparation in it. You might also enjoy Atul Gawande’s thoughts on checklists in the surgical world. His book (The Checklist Manifesto) is good, too, even though it rambles and has relatively little hard content.
If I’m approaching the work of gouging cane for a bagpipe reed, my preparation might include checking my gouges and knives for keenness, assessing the condition of the cane I have to work with, making sure there’s enough light, making sure nobody else is in the part of the workshop where I’ll be using sharp tools and concentrating hard, putting on an apron and closed-toe shoes, and making sure that the gouging board is firmly fixed in the vise.
Then I’ll check in to make sure that I’m paying enough attention to be trusted with sharp tools, remind myself to pay attention to the feel of the cane under the gouge, the sound of the knife moving, and the weight on each of my feet. Finally I’ll make sure that I’m approaching the task with hope rather than pessimism. (Making reeds is hard enough with a good attitude; it becomes damn near impossible if you’re in a bad mood.)
If I’m preparing to teach suicide intervention, my preparation includes making sure the space is safe and comfortable and free from distractions, putting out boxes of tissues and carafes of coffee, checking the A/V equipment, confirming plans with my co-trainer(s), and organizing my materials. Then I’m going to make sure that I have all the pieces of the training in my head and that I’m ready to deal with the fact that suicide intervention classes never follow the script perfectly.
I know that I’m going to hear some hard stories, because every suicide intervention class I’ve ever taught has had survivors in it—people who’ve lived through their own attempts and people who’ve lived through the deaths of people they loved. I bring myself to a place of inner quiet and ask for the strength and presence to hold those stories, care for those people, and still teach them how to do a good job.
I used to fly airplanes, and pretty much everyone’s heard of a pre-flight checklist. It’s a fabulous way of forcing you to attend to critical details and also notice whether you’re ready to take on the responsibility of piloting an airplane, especially with other lives on board.
Think of preparation as a pre-flight checklist for life, but also think of the ritual as a tool for becoming ready. That’s the piece that underpins all of it: often, by bringing your attention and presence to the tasks of preparing, you can fix the bits that are broken, tune the strings that have drifted flat, and become ready.