11/10/2009 09:37 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What is Work? Buddhist Discernment on the Job - Part of the Green Books Campaign

Note to readers: A few weeks ago, I got an email inviting me to part of a Green Books Campaign sponsored by Eco-Libris, a for-profit enterprise that promotes books printed on non-virgin paper and funds the planting of trees in Africa and Central America.

This review of Discernment: Educating Mind and Spirit (Lantern Books) is part of the Green Books campaign - and a fitting next step in this ongoing series about Work.

More about Eco-Libris in my overview of the Green Books Campaign for Publishing Perspectives.

Some people read sports books to unwind. Other folks read cook-books, or travel books. I read books on Buddhism. Reading about folks who meditate, or cross-culturally explore or practice right livelihood is my version of armchair traveling.

"Enlightenment" is not one of my recurring Work To-Do List items (although I have voiced the occasional, Enlightened sounding character on TV). But I find comfort - and practical work advice - in the gap between The Buddhist Authors' Balanced Approach to Life and my Whirling Dervish approach to same.

Discernment: Educating the Mind and Spirit by Yifa, a Fo Guang Shan nun, arrived on my desk at the perfect time.

As a solo-preneur, my professional life can hyper-pixelate, like a Chuck Close painting gone-bad.

When Discernment showed up, I had spend the week as a fiddle-playing, digital media teacher/humorist with a minor in global warming audio production for non-scientists and synergistic health-care rhetoric.

Enter: the mental act of discernment, which Yifa describes as, " the quality of mind that analyzes and perceives accurately the nature of something and then forms a thoughtful and accurate judgment about it."

The act of taking a moment - or ten - to determine What Is can turn potential freak-outs into opportunities for positive decision making. Seeing, thinking and then choosing is the grown-up version of a kid's "Stop. Look. Go." street-crossing instructions.

Discernment can transform empathy into compassion. It's a key tool in the search for "right-livelihood" - Doing the Right Thing for ourselves and the world-at-large.

When Stress knocks on a discerning professional's door, discernment can help her kick Stress in the ass.

Colleague X from Work Hell isn't the source of our misery, the discerning mind realizes.
The source of suffering is our anger, jealousy - or ouch! - sense of entitlement about what we perceive as Colleague X's unfair ability to get her projects approved/beat bad hair days with two drops of water and a fine-tooth comb or....(insert your favorite, possibly-baseless reason for suffering here). All of which is totally fixable, firsthand.

Discernment can be a tough idea to embrace when you feel frazzled. Righteous anger seems so much easier. Even fun.

This is where meditation comes in. Yifa is not prescribing a post-yoga 10 minute nap/space-out, however. We're talking Meditation as Life's Work. This is where our sense of humor comes in - is vital, in fact.

The Fo Guang Shan school of Buddhism "seeks to make Buddhist practice relevant to contemporary life."

One of the early stories in Discernment involves a reality-impaired teacher and his disciple - a useful metaphor for our critical upper-mind and our inner Seeker.

"Don't look at the sexy woman - she is a dangerous tiger!" the discernment-challenged teacher warns the disciple. At the end of the day - surprise! - the disciple remembers and craves the tiger.

Yifa also includes stories about Su Dongpo, a Type-A meditator, and Foyin, a meditator who's Simply There, to illustrate the "gotta do it now!" vs. "gotta be" mindset.

Form and emptiness are key Buddhist concepts - which leads us back to the idea of green books in general.

Discernment 's 100% recycled paper stock looked even whiter, brighter and somehow, happier - than the average book to me - this was a pleasant surprise to my 1970s "green = brown" mindset. The book is a small, 130 page paperback. Its $12 cover price may "cost a little more," per its publisher. But the difference in price struck me as less than the premium placed on organic vs. non-organic foods.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, Discernment appeared in my life at the end of a wildly frazzled week. I read it one sitting. And when I finished it, I felt, like many a Buddhist student, like a total jerk-head.

For the next two days, I raked leaves, roasted a chicken, and silently reviewed my work-life balance. On Day Three, I quit one of my bands, said No to an absurdly low-paying/time-sucking project, gave thanks for work of true value and gracious, great folks as friends - and started drinking more coffee.

That last activity may not be totally discerning. But hey. It's a start.