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March 2007
Mindfulness and Work

This month we explore the theme of work -- something that presents big challenges for so many of us. It can feel diametrically opposed to the whole idea behind meditation and the spiritual life: stressful, chaotic, and full of difficult people and problems.

We have three articles that propose that the difficult nature of work is actually a perfect opportunity to engage with spiritual practice. We begin with a feature article, a selection from the book Awake at Work by Michael Carroll -- a man who for over 20 years worked in corporate positions while being a devoted student of Buddhism. Next, Bodhipaksa comments on a quote by Albert Einstein on the three rules of dealing effectively with work. And finally, Sunada reviews Awake at Work and draws out some of its major lessons.

Please note too, that our next round of online courses in Meditation and Buddhism kick off on Monday, March 5. See the sidebar for more details.


In This Issue:

Book Extract: Work is a mess

drowning hand

Many of us come to work with the hope that we can control our jobs. We want to be the capable authors of our work, not helpless victims of unplanned circumstance. We want to feel on top of our game and in command of the details, and we want work to stay in place so that we don't need to worry.

Yet work will not stay in place, despite all our efforts. Financial reports and spreadsheets bring the appearance of order. Routines and schedules seem reliable. Our computer systems and management abilities offer a certain kind of predictability. But what we set out wanting to do at work is never what we end up with. Work, by its nature, is unpredictable and messy, chaotic and surprising.

Such chaos can affect us very directly and very personally. We go to work expecting one thing, and we get quite another. We may accept a new job with all its promise and challenge. Then when we get there, we find out that the manager who hired us is leaving for an opportunity elsewhere. We are left with a new boss and a different challenge altogether. Or maybe we have launched a new and promising product line -- say a game to teach children how to name countries around the world -- only to discover that the packaging instructions on the one hundred thousand units are in French and we thought we had ordered English. Perhaps we have convinced our boss to invest in a new project; we build a team and create momentum. Then we find out midstream that the budget is cut and we must fire our newly hired staff. Such untidiness can seem to put our routines, financial security, sense of accomplishment, and much more in question.

This kind of predictable unpredictability happens every day to thousands of us. And yet we somehow end up relating to these very common circumstances as threats and disasters, losing our sense of confidence and creative challenge. Typically, we treat work's surprises as merely mistakes, missteps, or blunders that should have been otherwise, events that we should have prevented. We so much want our world to run smoothly -- no uncertainties, no surprises, no uncomfortable conflicts. We want to be on top of our game, not striking out or dropping the ball. If work's messy surprises are not just mistakes or liabilities or weaknesses, what are they? And how can we better respond to them?

The reality is that there is no solution to work's inherent chaos and messiness. Work by its very nature will always be uncertain. The good news is that work's messiness and uncertainty need not be distressing. They may, in fact, be just what we were looking for.

In the ancient Chinese text The Art of War, the renowned strategist-general Sun Tzu gives the following instruction:

When in battle,
Use the orthodox to engage,
Use the extraordinary to attain victory.

While our workplace may not be a battlefield, Sun Tzu is explaining to his warrior leaders that they should come to battle with the "orthodox" strategies in place. This means that they will have studied a wide range of tactics and disciplines. They will have devised plans ahead of time -- anticipating the enemy's maneuvers and predisposition. Soldiers will have been trained in combat and weaponry, officers drilled in battlefield tactics, weapons positioned, and defenses fortified. It is from this, the orthodox, that they will engage battle. But victory, Sun Tzu points out, does not come from such preparations. Victory is obtained from the "extraordinary." Here Sun Tzu is revealing to warrior leaders a powerful reality of war: it is unpredictable and chaotic -- and it is in this untidiness that the warrior general finds victory. A change in weather, and error on the battle-plan map, a weapon that discharges prematurely -- all unanticipated yet inevitable -- are what the warrior general remains constantly alert for and ready to exploit to his or her advantage. According to Sun Tzu, it is the infinite unshapable variations of war that offer the strategist the levers for victory.

How the warrior leader remains ever alert for the extraordinary is of the utmost importance to Sun Tzu. We cannot sit at the edge of our seats waiting to pounce on surprises like a cat on a mouse. Being greedy for success or victory is not the point. Rather, Sun Tzu stresses throughout The Art of War that the warrior leader must possess victory in the very fiber of his or her being from the very start, before the battle even begins. Sun Tzu teaches that the warrior leader must be relaxed and open to the present moment at all times. The more at ease the warrior is with the situation at hand, the more open and powerful and fearless he or she becomes as a leader. Sun Tzu's instruction on engaging the extraordinary is to first "know oneself" and, through that knowing, to work directly with conflict, appreciate the immediate moment, and let natural intelligence arise. In short, be awake!

Sun Tzu's use of the orthodox and the extraordinary can be applied to our experience at work. We use routines such as our business plans, financial forecasts, staff meetings, and monthly reports to engage our work. We train ourselves with MBAs and CPAs -- the orthodox. But according to Sun Tzu, we will never succeed at work if we rely exclusively on such things. Only by remaining alert and open to the extraordinary events -- the untidy and unpredictable -- and engaging them directly and openly can we truly succeed.

A talented employee recruited by a competitor becomes an opportunity to promote new talent from within -- and have a friend within the "competitor's camp." The economy slumps, our profitability is down -- but so is our competitor's, who now is ripe for acquisition. Accusations of unfair work practices provide an opportunity to refresh policies top to bottom. A lack of new product ideas becomes just the chance to reach down into the lower ranks and listen to the unheard potential innovators. The conflicts and difficulties at work hold the possibility of success if we are open enough to engage with them without resentment or fear.

If we were to adapt Sun Tzu for the workplace, we might translate his three-lined instruction a bit differently:

When at work,
Use established routines to pursue objectives,
Use messiness and surprises to innovate and succeed.

"Work is a mess" encourages us to first recognize that we can never have a completely neat relationship with our livelihood. Treating work's messiness as if it were a mistake or liability only creates further unnecessary distress and resentment. By developing the attitude that work is a mess, we can learn to relax and be curious about the surprises and interruptions. By engaging the messiness of work directly -- appreciating both the advantages and disadvantages -- we become fully equipped to engage such events in all their variations. We have the ingenuity, good humor, and curiosity to adapt and innovate -- to be victorious, no matter what the circumstances.

Reprinted with permission from Michael Carroll from his book, Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work's Chaos. Read Sunada's review of this book.

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Quote of the Month


"Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity."
- Albert Einstein

Out of Clutter Find Simplicity

Work life is messy - not just the untidiness of papers stacked in an in-tray or equipment that hasn't been put back in its place - the whole thing is incredibly messy because life itself is complex. There's so much choice, so many decisions to make. There are so many things you could be doing, so much information you could be paying attention to, so many people who you could be networking with.

In our working lives we have to make a conscious effort to stay on track. This job is fun but neither urgent nor important. That job is a chore but it's crucial. And this other thing isn't even work!

And this sifting through the myriad possibilities and choosing which to engage with is - potentially - a spiritual practice. When we have a sense of who we want to become, what we want to achieve, what legacy we want to leave behind, and when we consider what we need to be doing right now to make our goals a reality, making decisions becomes much easier. This kind of mental clarity, this constant bearing in mind of our goals, is a vital aspect of spiritual practice. Mindfulness practice can give us the mental space to create order out of the clutter or our lives.

From Discord Find Harmony

More than anything else the emotional tone of our relations with others is what determines whether we are thrilled to be at work or whether we drag ourselves to the workplace each day with a sinking heart.

It takes a lot to get on with other people. It's not easy. More than anything we have to actually want harmony, and that in itself is tough. It's so easy to blame others when relationships go sour. So developing harmony involves first of all recognizing that we have to take responsibility for the quality of our relationships. Sure, there are at least two parties involved but you can never demand that someone else change. You're the only person that you have control over.

It takes integrity - deciding not to engage in backbiting, deciding to refrain from exaggerating, deciding to focus on what's most admirable in others.

It takes wisdom - learning to recognize which battles you can win and what you should let slide.

It takes empathy and compassion - realizing that the behavior we find difficult in others is their own response to suffering, their own reaching out for happiness.

Lovingkindness and compassion meditation can help us to find the empathy and generosity of spirit to create harmony in our relationships.

In the Middle of Difficulty Lies Opportunity

It's pretty much a cliché to say that difficulties are opportunities in disguise. But one reason that sayings become clichés is simply because they're so true that people keep repeating them. Another reason sayings become clichés is that we often don't quite want to believe them. It's easier to roll our eyes: "Yeah, yeah, that old cliché."

So let's just set aside our protective cynicism for a moment. Think of the one thing that you know would make the most difference in your life or work - the thing that you never quite get around to doing. Maybe it's finding more time to reflect, maybe it's delegating a responsibility, maybe it's fixing your filing system and getting your desk cleared; you know it would help but you never quite get around to doing it.

Let's avoid the avoidance game of analyzing in exhausting detail exactly why we never get around to doing this discomfort-generating task. Let's just say that we're going to accept that discomfort is okay - that we're going to be prepared to learn the art of being comfortable with discomfort. Think about that task, and feel the discomfort, acknowledging that it's there and that it's okay for it to be there. And then start doing that task.

This is what we call mindfulness - the ability to non-judgmentally notice what's going on in our experience: the ability to stand back from our experience so that we have freedom of choice, feeling the discomfort but not being controlled by it.

OK, it's time for me to go clear that desk!

Bodhipaksa is the founder and director of Wildmind and the author of "Wildmind: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation."

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Book Review

book cover

Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work's Chaos by Michael Carroll. (Shambala 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 slogans 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 that you have to work with. (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 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.

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Meditation in the News:
Top Five Stories of Last Month

meditation in the news

For a complete, categorized, and searchable listing of news stories concerning meditation, visit our news database.


'Bottleneck' slows brain activity (BBC News) 29 Jan. US researchers have discovered a likely reason why people find it hard to do two things at once. A "bottleneck" occurs in the brain when people attempt to carry out two simultaneous tasks, the research shows. Read more


In pain? Use your brain (Charlotte.com) 5 Feb. A generation ago, the American public largely viewed mental methods of pain control with the same seriousness as a Vulcan mind meld. Since then, acceptance of alternative medicine has soared, with pain sufferers leading the way. Read more


Finding My Religion (SFGate.com) 22 Feb. Dharmachari Kumarjeev and millions of other Indian untouchables convert to Buddhism to escape India's caste system. Read more


More lawyers finding their Zen (ColumbiaTribune.com) 11 Feb. A growing number of law schools are teaching the next generation of legal combatants that the system's adversarial nature can be balanced by a commitment to personal insight gained through the practice of meditation. Read more


Overachieving Students Hear a New Message: Lighten Up (WashingtonPost.com) 6 Feb. It's not the kind of after-school activity one would expect at this Washington area high school known for academic rigor. But these days, some educators and parents are trying to teach students at Whitman and other top schools a new skill: how to dial it down, pull back and relax. Read more

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