Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work’s Chaos, by Michael Carroll. (Shambhala Publications, 2004. Paperback, $14.00).
At one point or another, those of us who feel inspired to pursue a spiritual path end up having to come to terms with an annoying fact of life: we have to earn a living. Our demanding and bothersome jobs feel like such an intrusion and leave so little time for meditation or study — seemingly more worthy pursuits than managing project deadlines or dealing with coworkers with attitudes.
In his book Awake at Work, Michael Carroll turns that kind of thinking on its head. The central idea he puts forth is that our jobs can be the very core of our spiritual lives — that treading the spiritual path means engaging fully with everything our lives present to us, especially our jobs.
This book is a collection of 35 pithy slogans that invite us to seek our own natural wisdom and poise as we engage with the demands of our work. The slogans are inspired by a classic Tibetan Buddhist work called The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind. Because Carroll’s writing style is so lively and engaging, one might be tempted to just sit and read the book from cover to cover. But to do so would be to miss its true value. Each slogan/chapter is intended to be used as a point of contemplation, and to help us to reflect on our attitudes and behaviors, moment to moment, as we encounter them throughout our day. Being awake at work is not a one-shot deal, the author reminds us, but rather is a continual process of learning how to engage skillfully with our work. This book is intended to provide the tools to help us with this learning process.
Part One introduces the four primary slogans or fundamental attitudes needed to engage with this practice. The first of these is “Balance the two efforts.” By its very nature, work requires us to focus on the future, to strive toward goals, to plan ahead. But to be awake at work requires that we also stop, “let go” and notice what is happening here and now. This letting go, Carroll says, allows space for something else to emerge:
“In letting go we are not adding anything to our “to do” lists. We are simply balancing the effort to get somewhere with that of being where we are completely, opening ourselves up to a much larger work perspective. Eventually this shift becomes quite routine, allowing us to reconnect with our natural intelligence — an immediate and extraordinary spontaneity and confidence — at will. By letting go over and over again, we reenliven our sense of well-being and become aware of an openness at work that does not need to be managed or arranged. We gradually discover a composure that has been with us our whole lives but has somehow gone unnoticed.”
Subsequent parts address other attitudes and habitual behaviors that often come into play at work. For example, “Step beyond the silence of fear” exhorts us to take note of fear, denial and other such negative attitudes that can lurk behind our actions and unspoken words. “Welcome the tyrant” deals with an issue that everyone will immediately identify with — dealing with that ornery, offensive, or otherwise highly unpleasant person with whom you have to work. (Perhaps that person is your boss!)
Collectively these chapters help us to realize that life holds no guarantees and that our tenuous ways of grasping for security, control, and approval are pointless. By working with these slogans, we are encouraged to remain open to the moment as each circumstance unfolds — free of preconceived notions and judgments — and to trust in our innate resourcefulness and authenticity in handling the infinite variety of challenges our work presents to us.
Each and every chapter struck me as highly insightful and indicative of the depth of the author’s personal thinking and reflections on the subject. Carroll spent over 20 years simultaneously working in executive positions in corporate America while also being a devoted Buddhist practitioner — and he is now an authorized teacher in the lineage of the Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa. This unique perspective gives him a kind of wisdom and clarity that comes only from years of direct personal experience spanning both worlds.
If you are new to meditation or Buddhism, don’t feel deterred from this book. There are appendices with complete instructions on getting started with mindfulness meditation as well as a thorough set of instructions on how to engage with contemplating the slogans. If you are a long-term practitioner, then you will be able to jump right in. There is plenty of depth and breadth to the material to suit readers of all experience levels.
Taking a broader perspective, what I most appreciated about this book is its larger message. Many of us who feel a strong yearning to devote more time and energy to our spiritual lives fall into the trap of dividing our lives in two: our spiritual side (meditating, studying, going on retreats) and our non-spiritual (work, household chores, endless to-do lists). Some of us may even dream of leaving behind our jobs and constant busyness to go off and live in a monastery or retreat center, as Carroll relates he himself did. But when the inevitable pressures of our “non-spiritual” side take over, we throw up our hands and decide that “being spiritual” will have to come at another time and place, not now.
With this book, Carroll shows us the fallacy this thinking. Our spiritual side is not something we can separate out from the rest of our lives. As he puts it, he learned that, “the daily grind, the successes and failures, hard work and stress, all gradually unfolded as a profound teaching … Scrubbing the floor, writing an e-mail, leading the country, feeding the hungry child, are all noble steps we take on our path to becoming completely who we are where we are.” This book shows us in very practical terms how to start taking those steps right now.
Sunada worked in management positions in the high tech industry for 18 years before coming to her present meditation teaching work at Wildmind. She now not only teaches the online meditation courses, and also runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, that helps people navigate the choppy waters of their own spiritual journeys.
You can also read an extract from this book, “Work is a Mess.”