right livelihood

Bid for freedom

man playing poker

Is it possible to combine spiritual practice with professional poker, to remain detached and equanimous in the midst of a game full of bluffing, where the aim is to take away other people’s money? In 2005 Vishvapani talked this over with Andrew Black, one of the world’s finest poker players — and a devout Buddhist.

The World Series of Poker at Binions Casino in Las Vegas is down to its last five players. After eleven days at the table, little sleep, and ferocious competition, they are the last survivors of the five thousand people who each paid $10,000 to enter this no-limit hold ’em tournament. The winner will walk away with $7.5 million.

Behind designer shades and $21 million in chips sits Irishman Andy Black, nicknamed The Monk following his five years out of the game living a Buddhist life in the U.K. with the Triratna Buddhist Community. With a million in chips already bet on this hand, Steve Dannenmann, another of the five players, pushes forward his entire stock: “All in,” he says. Black lifts his sunglasses and studies the board. “I call.” He matches the huge bet on the table and the players reveal their cards.

Black has a pair of nines, which gives him the edge over Dannenmann’s pair of sixes and ace high, but there are two more cards to be played. The next card helps nobody. Now only an ace or a six on the last card can beat him. The dealer turns the card… and it’s another ace; Black loses the hand and his position is destroyed. A few hours later he finally exits the tournament to a standing ovation from the crowd, who have been captivated by his skill and demeanor. Black has won $1.75 million, but he has lost a tournament that was almost in his grasp, and, visibly upset, he refuses all media interviews.

 Andrew’s karma has given him an incredible talent for poker, but he also has a genuine calling for spiritual practice.   

A few weeks after his Vegas exit, I traveled to Dublin to discover why he has returned to the game he had left behind, and how he squares it with his dharma practice. What about the manipulative mind games, the lives ruined by gambling, and the focus on winning money and defeating your opponents? What about the sheer, unabashed vulgarity at the end of the tournament, when millions of dollars were emptied onto the table and gleefully clutched by the whooping victor?

Such high-minded criticisms are a sore point for Black. The day before we met, he received a letter from the man who was to have ordained him into the Western Buddhist Order. It said that he couldn’t get behind Black’s ordination request while he was playing poker. Sitting down to talk in a Dublin restaurant, Black is upset. The thirty-eight-year-old is far from the image of reserved, poker-faced cool: his open, expressive face and expansive manner are set off by sharp eyes and a diabolic goatee. He opens a book to a quote from the ancient Buddhist scripture describing the lay bodhisattva Vimalakirti: “He lived at home but remained aloof from the realm of desire. He made his appearance at the fields of sports and the casinos, but his aim was always to mature those people who were addicted to games and gambling.”

Black looks at me with a flash of defiance. “I used to think, ‘I can’t do that because I am not an enlightened master.’ But look at the mahasiddhas. We like to tell stories about these wild, aggressive tantric masters who do crazy things. Well, they’re dead! If someone tries to do that today, you get this reaction!”

I haven’t come here to judge Black or to determine the ethics of poker: I know that competition poker is a sport, though it connects with a wider world of gambling. I can see its appeal as a contest that demands no athletic prowess and sets people against one another in a battle of minds plus chance. But I am fascinated to know, in the face of Black’s protests, how a dharma practitioner can survive in that world. I can’t help but wonder if he is simply succumbing to attachments and encouraging them in others.

One day I looked around a poker table and thought, We’re all hungry ghosts.

Black has had a long journey to get here. Growing up as a Catholic in a Protestant area of Belfast at the height of the Troubles, he had few friends, worked hard, and went to Trinity College, Dublin, to study law. Then he discovered poker. “I was submerged in poker: I would bring conversations around to it and hone my skills by trying to outwit people in daily interactions.” His early career culminated at the 1997 World Championship, where he got down to the last fourteen and was sitting at the table with Stu “The Kid” Ungar, reputedly the greatest-ever card player. Ungar lavished Black with attention — and then took his chips. Black had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. He was devastated. Four months later, he made his way to the Dublin Meditation Center. Initially he hoped that meditation would improve his game, but the teachings he encountered began to resonate on a deeper level for him.

Still haunted by his defeat, Black realized that poker was making him unhappy. “One day I looked around a poker table and thought, ‘We’re all hungry ghosts'” — the craving-filled beings from Buddhist mythology whose grasping is perpetually frustrated. In 1999, Black moved to the U.K. to live with other Buddhists from Triratna and work in Windhorse Trading, a large Triratna-run “Right Livelihood” business that offers supportive, shared working conditions for dharma practitioners. Then he spent two years going door to door asking for regular donations to the Karuna Trust, a charity supporting projects in India that help people considered “untouchables,” many of whom are now Buddhist converts. Rather than manipulating prospective donors, he found he attracted contributions by being straightforward and making a connection with them.

Black sees this as a training period in which he learned about the dharma, meditation, and teamwork. But the pull of poker remained: “I learned a lot about myself, and I was happy to be away from it. But something in me was unmet. Returning to poker, I feel that this is really my life. I’ll be honest: I’m obsessed by it, but that obsession brings a lot of focus, which you need in order to excel at anything. If I bring in my spiritual training, I believe this can be a powerful arena for practice.”

Black’s Buddhist sensibility clearly comes into play in his response to abusive players.

Some poker players use math, some use psychology, but Black operates on gut feeling. “I intensively prepare tactics and analysis before a game, but when I’m playing I just try to be in the present moment. All poker is about making good decisions. I find I make wrong decisions when I act out of tune with my gut sense of how things are: what this person is like, their situation at this moment, and the element of chance. My experience of Buddhist practice means that I also include how I am, how I am treating the other players, and how I respond to both winning and losing. You can disregard that feeling, just like in life, but in poker you get immediate payback. It’s always the same lesson: when your actions are not in accordance with how things are, you suffer.”

Losing is one of poker’s hard lessons. As well as being highly intelligent, Black is a clearly a very emotional man. “Because of the element of chance, you can do everything right and still lose. You get hit by unbelievable body blows, which are dictated by statistical probabilities. I work with this by saying, ‘This will happen.'”

I ask what it was like to lose that hand at the World Championship. Black’s face creases: “It was so painful, you have no idea. Afterward, while I was playing, I was trying to hold the pain without being overwhelmed; to remind myself that what had happened is now the past and I am in the present. Even now, I’ll be sitting in meditation turning over the same six or seven hands. That’s my practice.”

Black saw his return to the tables in summer 2005 as a one-year experiment in combining dharma practice and poker. But his unexpected success at the World Championships has made this a high-profile adventure.

Some poker players use math, some use psychology, but Black operates on gut feeling.

In the years since Black left, the game’s popularity has exploded on the Internet and TV, turning it into a multibillion-dollar industry. His exploits were followed around the world, and in Dublin he’s a local celebrity.

Black attracted some attention during the World Championships with an unexpected display of principles. A break in play was called, and when the players returned, one was missing. The announcement of the break had been unclear, and everyone realized that the missing player had simply misunderstood when to return. But the organizers insisted that play recommence and the missing player be eliminated. Incensed, Black protested and tried to enlist the other players’ support. They shifted uncomfortably but kept quiet. Black was in tears — visible to the TV audience — as he stalled for time until the player returned.

The incident prompted admiration and discussion about sportsmanship in poker. The game includes bluffing and deception, but does that mean that, within the rules, anything goes? Black believes that ethics still apply, but not simplistically. “There’s a line, and you know when you step over it. You have to look at each case individually, examine your own motivation, and you still need dialogue and communication to help you understand. I assume that even so I am still making mistakes and engaging in all sorts of rationalizations, but I think that’s a realistic model for trying to act well. It’s different from the view that you should withdraw from the world and purify your motivations before engaging.”

Black’s Buddhist sensibility clearly comes into play in his response to abusive players. “Sometimes people try to upset you by being aggressive and insulting. I will say, ‘There’s no need for that.’ The next stage is to say, ‘Is this doing you any good?’ If there is the slightest element of judgment in me, it doesn’t work. I have to connect with the person, and not come from a higher position. I have to genuinely feel ‘I’m concerned that this is doing you no good.’ When I do connect with people in that way, I see their relief that they don’t have to be like this.”

Central to Black’s plan for maintaining the practice dimension during poker tournaments is sharing the experience with his friend Donal Quirke, whom he knows through the Triratna Buddhist Community’s Dublin center. “I want to succeed at poker, but most important is the spiritual journey. I can’t do that on my own. I respond to the image of the Buddha’s disciples heading off two at a time, connecting intensively with each other and going through things together.” In Vegas, Black and Quirke meditated together in the mornings and sometimes read dharma texts during breaks in the tournament.

I want to succeed at poker, but most important is the spiritual journey.

Where Black is an exuberant, commanding personality, Quirke is steady and quiet. He was with Black in Vegas, acting as coach and confidant, discussing the day’s play and how Black’s game could improve. He plans to accompany Black on the World Poker Tour, that will culminate in the 2006 World Championship. As a man clearly steeped in dharma practice, what does Quirke make of the world he is entering? “Vegas is a challenging realm, suffused with ego and greed, and I found those aspects of me were heightened. In the breaks, reading dharma aloud with Andrew, just hearing the words, ‘Thus have I heard,’ was like diving into a pool for both of us. I know it had an orienting effect on Andrew as well. But poker’s fascinating: coming back from Las Vegas, I was watching it on latenight TV. Though of course, you could ask, is anything gained by a group of people sitting around trying to take money off each other?”

I wonder if Quirke thinks Black will be able to sustain his attempt to make poker a practice? His answer is surprising. “There’s my friend Andrew Black, who I’ve known over the years. But in the poker world there’s another person called Andy Black. I think dharma practice is about not trying to control and manipulate, but that isn’t how you win poker tournaments. You need to want to win, and Andy Black is a master of control. But it’s complex. Andrew’s karma has given him an incredible talent for poker — on his day he’s one of the best in the world — but he also has a genuine calling for spiritual practice. I don’t think he can just forget Andy Black. He needs to meet this guy, honor him, play the best poker he can, achieve what he can, and then let it go.”

You can’t help liking Black, and I found myself envying him — not so much the money or success, but the intensity of his engagement. As he told me: “One approach to the spiritual life is that you renounce things. Another is to place yourself in the middle of attachments and purify yourself there. We’re all imperfect beings struggling along the path, learning as we go. At some point I’ll find I’ve gone as far as I can in the poker world, but at the moment it’s incredibly exciting. Lets see how I’m doing in a year.”

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“The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity: At Home, At Work, in the World” by Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula

“The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity: At Home, At Work, in the World” by Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula

It’s a widely held view that the Buddha taught his followers to disdain wealth and worldly success, or at best tolerate them as necessary evils. Sunada reviews a book that shatters these misconceptions and repositions the lay life as one of dignity and happiness, and full of opportunities for personal growth.

Here’s a pop quiz for you: What famous spiritual teacher taught that the way to happiness is through accumulation of immense wealth, striving for worldly success, and seeking pleasure through the senses? Would you believe it’s the Buddha? I bet you’re surprised! It’s a widely held view that the Buddha taught his followers to turn away from the secular world and seek happiness in a life of renunciation. While this isn’t wrong, it turns out to be a very incomplete picture.

In this recently published book, Bhikkhu Basagoda Rahula attempts to set the record straight. Based on meticulous research into the Pali scriptures, this book systematically presents how the Buddha advised his lay followers to lead happy and productive lives. Far from disdaining the worldly life, the Buddha suggested that his followers engage with it fully and wholeheartedly, and taught that it is a genuine source of happiness.

So what about all those teachings on renunciation? According to Bhikkhu Rahula, they were specifically intended for the monastic community. There is no doubt that the Buddha spoke of a higher bliss that could be found in a renounced life. “Happiness in detachment” is a more stable form of happiness because it comes from within — not dependent on unreliable things like wealth, relationships, or social status.

Far from disdaining the worldly life, the Buddha suggested that his followers engage with it fully and wholeheartedly, and taught that it is a genuine source of happiness.

But the Buddha understood that the renounced lifestyle is not for everyone. And he never intended those teachings to apply to everyone. What this book draws out is a very different perspective on the Buddha – a secular humanist who fully endorsed the dignity of the lay life, and the potential for happiness and human growth that it offers. There is no mention of meditation or spiritual matters. Just common-sense, practical advice on how to be successful and fully realized as an individual in one’s community.

The Buddha’s view on prosperity can be summarized as follows. First, one is entitled to as much wealth as one wants, as long as it is earned ethically, without harming others. We are told to “gradually increase wealth without squeezing others, just as bees collect honey without harming the flowers.” Secondly, we need to use our wealth to benefit both ourselves and others. In other words, wealth is not to be pursued for its own sake, but for the good it can do for the world. He advised his followers to use their money to satisfy family members, employees, friends, and associates.

He also said that we need to be good citizens – we should pay taxes to our government and also support the monks and other spiritual leaders who have dedicated their lives to the benefit of all. And thirdly, we need to be moderate in our way of satisfying our senses. It’s fine to enjoy good food or fine clothing, for example, as long as we don’t get greedy or overindulge. The pleasures of life are to be appreciated simply for their ability to sustain our physical and mental well-being.

Each chapter in this book covers a different sphere of secular life. The chapter on how to go about gaining wealth almost sounds like a contemporary self-help book. According to the Buddha, inner preparation was the most important prerequisite to personal success. Before we do anything, we first need to eliminate self-defeating views about our potential and empower ourselves with firm determination. Only then are we in a good position to develop our personal and professional skills, and move ahead in the world. There are also chapters covering how to retain your wealth (e.g. by saving and spending according to a financial plan), navigating social relationships effectively, sustaining a happy marriage, effective parenting, dealing with conflict, succeeding socially, decision making, and so on. The sheer breath of the topics covered, as well as the remarkably modern perspectives offered, is really quite striking.

What ultimately matters is how we view the things we have. Do we use our wealth to build up our egos and feed into our sense of entitlement? Or do we share its benefits and the positive advances it can bring?

The author, Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula, seems to be ideally positioned to write on this subject – as both a Buddhist scholar and someone who is fully engaged with life in the Western world. He is Sri Lankan by birth, became a novice monk as a child, and later received High Ordination as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Buddhist Philosophy. He emigrated to the US in 1990 and has lived here since, having earned his Masters and Ph.D. in literature and English, respectively. He currently teaches at the University of Houston-Downtown as well as serving the congregation at the Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Willis Texas.

Let me be clear that if you’re looking for a Buddhist self-help book, you’ll probably be disappointed. I don’t think there’s anything in here that’s hasn’t been covered elsewhere by some other contemporary author. And that’s obviously not the intention behind this work. Instead, what I gained from reading this book is a clear picture, backed by scriptural authority, of what the Buddha REALLY said about the true way for lay practitioners to find happiness.

For those of us living in the modern West, the idea of actually turning our lives away from the world is extremely difficult, if not impossible. The underlying message of this work is that we can practice in ANY circumstance and find legitimate ways to grow spiritually. There is no shame in having money or possessions, nor is it bad to enjoy what abundance we have in our lives. In fact, these things can be tools for creating much good in the world — for creating joy in our own and others’ lives. What ultimately matters is how we view the things we have. Do we use our wealth to build up our egos and feed into our sense of entitlement? Or do we share its benefits and the positive advances it can bring? Do we see wealth as an end in itself, or as a means to greater happiness for ourselves and the world around us?

While I personally found this book a breath of fresh air, I also wouldn’t want us as Western practitioners to completely abandon the ideas of renunciation. In fact, I don’t see these two ideas as being in opposition to each other, as an either/or situation. The practice of the dharma is about working creatively with whatever circumstances we are in, but at the same time it’s also about continually challenging ourselves to see more clearly into the true nature of our human existence. The more we can loosen our dependence on impermanent things, the more we will find happiness that we can rely on. The longer I practice, the more I see that this is truly the way things are. And so I will continue to challenge myself to rely less and less on worldly things to shore up my false sense of ego. It may not make sense for me to sell my home and possessions to take up the life of a renunciant, but I can certainly work toward turning inward more to find a truer sense of happiness from within.


Read an excerpt from this book: Chapter 2, The Buddha’s View on Prosperity.

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Work is a Mess (book extract)

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.”

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 is 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 for 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 offenses 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.


Michael Carroll is the founding director of Awake at Work Associates (www.awakeatwork.net), a consulting group that works with organizations and individuals to help them rediscover balance and well-being while pursuing professional success. For over two decades Carroll worked in major corporations such as Shearson Lehman Brothers, Paine Webber, Simon & Schuster, and the Walt Disney Company. He is also a longtime student of Buddhism and an authorized teacher in the lineage of the Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa.

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Albert Einstein: “The leader is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity .. out of discord, harmony … and out of difficulty, opportunity”

Einstein

Let me acknowledge, 14 years after writing this article, that this quote is almost certainly not by Einstein, but is more likely to be John Archibald Wheeler’s assessment of how Einstein worked. Back in those days I hadn’t realized that many of the quotes we encounter on the web, including on quotation sites, are misattributed or fabricated. Having offered that mea culpa, here’s the original article.

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.

See also:

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 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 one reason we call saying “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 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!

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“Awake at Work” by Michael Carroll

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.

You can also read an extract from this book, “Work is a Mess.”

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