How can your Livelihood and your Spiritual Practice Feed each other?
Imagine your livelihood being a dynamic engine of growth, and your inner spiritual work infusing depth and vision to your career. How powerful and beautiful that would be! Awakening through career is possible.
Over the last 15 years I’ve been wrestling with how to create mutual support between my practice and my work. In this blog I’ll share some ideas and stories about how to do this that I hope will juice you for your own exploration, drawing on my journey as a karma yogi for Planet Dharma and Clear Sky “by night”, and an IBM executive “by day”.
A House Divided
Years ago I remember a lot of frustration between my desire to grow spiritually and make a positive difference, and spending 40 hrs/day at work to make money. Does that feel familiar? I carved out an arrangement where I contracted for 3-4 months, then travelled for 3 months to meet my teachers, study Dharma and do service. I felt like a house divided – the two halves of my life were utterly different! My boss and colleagues didn’t really understand my desire to take time off for retreat, and I felt like I couldn’t share powerful meditation experiences with anyone at work.
I had no idea how to bridge this gap but doing service began to give me some clues. One day at the temple in Kyoto, Japan where we were based at the time, I was blissfully fixing something on my teacher’s computer. He suddenly interrupted me and asked “what’s the difference between what you are doing now, and the work contracts that you complain about?”
I realized with surprise that the activity itself was the same, and that it was my view and motivation that made one blissful and the other a frustrating task I did to make money. This insight – that it was my view, not the activity itself – helped me start to bring more calm and joy into day-to-day tasks back at work.
Creating a Bridge Between Career and Spiritual Growth
That example was an early clue for me how service or “karma yoga” – the path of applied awareness engaged in activity – acts as a bridge, integrating our inner meditative life and how we show up in the world.
When we acquired Clear Sky retreat centre in 2004, the range and level of challenge in my karma yoga skyrocketed. Being on the Clear Sky Board was a fantastic combination of inner meditation work with active team work building a sustainable retreat centre. It was about learning to work well and mindfully with a diverse group of people, with guidance from our teachers Doug Duncan and Catherine Pawsarat who used every situation for spiritual learning.
This rich inner and outer learning gave me all the tools to step into a manager role at work. Senior people at my workplace quickly noticed this and offered me a promotion. I was beginning to appreciate what a powerful path karma yoga offered me, so I decided to embrace the opportunity and see where it led.
Turning Career into an Engine of Growth
Embracing new challenges in my career helped me see that traffic goes across the “karma yoga” bridge in both ways. Our careers can be a natural sources of challenge and growth. Whether we work for a company or our own business, to get our work done often means we have to deal with difficult situations or people, pick up new skills, and step out of our comfort zones.
In my case being a manager gave me access to extra training at work. I also learned that being a leader means you can’t please everyone and you have to take difficult decisions – something that was a big challenge for me as a quiet meditator and “nice guy”!
This helped me get stronger and more confident on the Clear Sky Board, and to feed back useful learnings to my fellow karma yogis. I also found myself feeling much more grounded and centered in my meditation practice.
The more I consciously embraced this fertile area between between career and spiritual growth, the more momentum I found it gained. Very quickly my continued karma yoga learning also fed back into work and I was promoted to a much bigger role based in Brazil running my department of IBM for Latin America – and this in turn propelled me into significant new learnings and challenges.
Having a Guide to Challenge and Inspire You
An important part of the path of karma yoga is having a guide – a Dharma trainer. Someone who can challenge us in the right places, and inspire us to go beyond ourselves. Someone who notices right in the moment where we are avoiding or limiting ourselves, and who helps us uncover new depths.
My teachers pushed me in my karma yoga to embrace accountability – I was comfortable being the “nice guy” but happy to let things slip if other people weren’t following through or being in integrity. They also encouraged me to be more innovative and embrace a bigger vision – to go beyond just managing to being a real leader and shaper.
It took a lot of gentle encouragement and prodding from them, but little by little I began to take this on. By this time it was no surprise to me that I was soon promoted again at work – this time to a challenging global business development role.
A Virtuous Spiral
I hope this story helps illustrate for you some ways the insights from our inner work can dance with challenges in our career work, to touch and heal places that either alone could not reach.
I’ve found that karma yoga is the bridge to integrate inner and outer – like how the corpus callosum integrates the two hemispheres of our brain. It provides a half-way house for us to try to apply new insights from our inner work into action. And it also provides a model for acting in the world that is grounded in clarity and compassion – a model that we can start to infuse more and more into our livelihoods.
I’ve watched in fascination how this recipe forms a virtuous spiral, bringing me to places both in my inner spiritual life and in my career that I never dreamed of.
Buddhas in Action
A delightful moment in my personal journey was starting to teach mindfulness workshops at IBM. This was a tumbling down of barriers between my career and my spiritual life. I feel more and more a continuity between meditation, karma yoga, daily work and all parts of my life – a growing Buddha in action! I’m very thankful for the wonderful opportunity of being on the Clear Sky Board, of working with Doug Duncan and Catherine Pawasarat doing karma yoga, and the rich learning of working with other explorers on the path.
What’s your experience?
How have you found your career and your spiritual life inter-connect? If you feel some disconnect, what would you like to do to change that? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
If this article inspired you, check out Planet Dharma’s upcoming summer retreat Buddhas In Action.
Duncan Cryle is a Dharma teacher who works as a Fortune 500 executive in Sao Paolo, Brazil and Toronto, Canada.
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