Most of us spend a large percentage of our lives at our workplace. For people aspiring to grow, to wake up and to be of service, we quickly come to some burning questions. How can my work life really support and contribute to my spiritual growth? And how does the clarity or compassion I develop on my spiritual journey translate back into my work? How can I be more spiritually aware at work?
A career is a huge part of life, yet often there is a disconnect between this and our spiritual lives. Advice we might read about “mindfulness at work” or “10 tips for being a better leader”, often don’t really speak to the heart of the messiness and struggle of those of us who are both spiritual practitioners and workers.
Five Steps to a Successful & Integrated Life
Recently Doug Duncan & Catherine Pawasarat Sensei published an enchanting article called “Five Steps to a Successful & Integrated Life”. In this article they describe how the five steps are:
- Start with emptiness
- recognize this spaciousness is naturally kind and compassionate,
- from this good state we are generous,
- from generosity, we naturally orient our actions to service, and
- from the skills and insights we learn from our service, we lay the basis for flourishing in our workplace.
When I read this, I exclaimed “Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been learning and exploring in my work life!” In this article here, I’d like to share a personal and practical story about applying these five steps that I hope will be completely relevant also to your own career story.
A Challenging New Job as an Opportunity to be Spiritually Aware at Work
A few months ago I moved into a new complex leadership role. I had some lofty reasons for taking this on. I thought it would help me embrace being a leader and creator, and to let go of the “worker” mentality. I also felt the role would give more opportunity to continue teaching and promoting mindfulness in my company.
Fast forward a month and I was seriously having second thoughts. I was already an experienced manager, but this was a whole level up! The complexity of the issues, the magnitude of the decisions, and the sheer volume of demands coming into my inbox were overwhelming. “How can I even survive here”, I wondered, “let alone have the space for mindfulness and learning?”
Fortunately at this time I was signed up for a weekend Planet Dharma “flash retreat” with Doug & Catherine Sensei on the Mahayana teachings. I felt too busy to attend the retreat, but it was already scheduled. In the end it was a precious two days where I could take a breath, and come to an entirely different perspective.
Turning Things Upside Down
“The real issue”, I pondered, “is not actually the complexity, or deluge of urgent requests, or the demand for big decisions without much data. And there is no way I alone am going to be able to magically solve these things. But there are so many smart and experienced people around, together surely we have the answers. So really isn’t it a question of good communication, of working well together and creatively?”
I meditated a while on why this communication wasn’t happening. What I noticed is that everything was urgent, many people were rushing around and under pressure, and there were strong fixed views and complaints. Here I was, rushing around, stressed, tired and simply adding to the confusion.
“Hmmm …”, I reflected, “spaciousness, calm and clarity is what is lacking. What is missing is open, flexible and curious dialogue free from fixed views …. So really isn’t it a question of Dharma?”
Suddenly it hit me: “All my Dharma exploration is about deepening this connection with spaciousness, clarity and compassion. My first work duty, my number one job description, is actually to bring spaciousness, clarity and compassion in!” Although I’ve heard our teachers Doug & Catherine Sensei say this a million times, and said it myself hundreds of times when teaching mindfulness in a corporate setting, this felt like a radical insight.
I sat dumb-founded for some time letting the implications fall into place. “So … when I frantically work late, rather than getting some exercise, and doing some meditation, I am actually breaking my commitment to my real job description? When I do back-to-back meetings with no pause and miss lunch, I’m actually harming my job and my team? That’s upside down compared to almost everything I read in business books or see modeled in the modern office!”
Routines for Finding Space & Balance
Coming out of retreat, I resolved to experiment with this. In a practical sense, for me “starting with emptiness” means allowing myself some time to re-balance and come back into a sense of spaciousness (and thus more spiritually aware at work) via routines like these:
- Maintaining a strong daily meditation practice, even when traveling.
- Thinking ahead for the week noting when there will be more intense meetings or hot spots, and blocking out some space in my calendar before and after those times.
- Leaving the office on time, embracing the space of leaving and taking rest, even though there are things left undone.
- Leaving some space between meetings rather than scheduling them back-to-back.
- Sometimes just going out for a walk and enjoying the sunshine.
- Recognizing that everything is changing and impermanent – this heavy business decision is just a momentary reflection on a pond, inherently empty; and in a few years (or even a few hours!) no-one will even remember.
Dropping Fixed Views
The more I was in “empty mind” though the more it was obvious how many conversations were actually heavy go-nowhere conversations focused on defending or promoting fixed views. Or they were stressed frantic distracted conversations that had no chance to find a creative solution. Fixed views and stress are a bad combination – I started noticing situations where there was a widespread wilful blindness.
From here, I started to listen. To explore. To invite discussion. To use open yet focused questions to make conversations deeper and more generative. To start to open a space for different team members to contribute their insights and ideas. Having given myself more space, I noticed that I could also hold this space for others and that this helped a significant shift in the conversations.
Karma Yoga teaches us how to be Spiritually Aware at Work
A big support to me in this was the learning and training I’ve received during many years of service – karma yoga – for my teachers Doug & Catherine and with Planet Dharma and Clear Sky Center. This gave me skills for being more spiritually aware at work – for example, working well with a group, dancing with different styles and approaches, facilitating meetings, asking powerful questions, and keeping things honest and accountable. I find these tools incredibly useful now in the corporate setting. Slowly I found myself more and more in conversations that were genuinely explorative and questioning. Wow – cool!
Click … click … click … to my delight, like a chiropractic treatment, I noticed everything lining up. It became very clear that the foundation of any effectiveness, success and flourishing I have in the office is based on starting from a view of spaciousness and using the learnings I’ve had from karma yoga. Three major promotions in 5 years is evidence that this is working.
A Job Description for being Spiritually Aware at Work
Seeing this work in practice I figured I should write myself a new job description. I’d fallen into the job with a very heavy kind of job description in my mind: “super-hero driven executive focused on results, with specialist subject matter knowledge, technical expertise, and ability to solve all issues”.
It’s much more of a relief reading my new job description: “First and foremost, rest in emptiness; from here explore, be kind, ask questions; cut and drop delusions and fixed views; open the space for everyone’s creativity and ideas to come out; keep clarity; and remember to smile!”
Did this story spark any reflections on your own career and Dharma path? Please share!
Explore Awakening Through Action further:
Duncan Cryle is a Dharma teacher who works as a Fortune 500 executive in Sao Paolo, Brazil and Toronto, Canada.
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