Zen-inspired Work in the World

You may find your work stressful, challenging and disheartening. Our culture does not give you much wisdom or guidance on how to approach work as a spiritual practice. So I'd like to suggest five ways that a Zen-inspired life rooted in mindfulness can help you re-inhabit the workplace as a place for spiritual growth and discovery. A job is part of the ongoing conversation you have with the world about who you think you are and are not. It is a dialogue between what you need of the world and what the world needs of you. Your work is an expression of how you choose to commit yourself to making your way in the world, and it has profound implications for who you are, who you become and how you commit yourself to the service of something larger than yourself.

A Zen-inspired life is practical. Rather than transcending our ordinary experience, Zen places us squarely in the middle of our life and discovers there what is sacred and uplifting. As Wallace Stevens said in his "Reply to Papini":

The way through the world Is more difficult to find than the way beyond it."

So here are five ways to bring the spiritual journey back into the workplace through living a Zen-inspired life rooted in the foundational practice of mindfulness meditation.

Vocation Work can feel like a prison. You can feel trapped in your job. You may have a high paying job, but if it is not aligned with your own sense of vocation, you will be miserable and unhappy. No amount of benefits or vacations in exotic places will heal the car wreck that is your life. It is a well known fact that the most likely time for men to have a heart attack is on Monday morning. You wake up one morning and find a corpse on your front door step.

So it's imperative to find the light buried in the darkness of your struggle to make a living. The threshold between youth and adulthood is finding your inner gift, the star which will point you towards that lager work you long for. It seems like a dream. You can imagine it, yet the goal seems strangely out of reach and impossible to attain.

So you begin. You set of off on the path. You may head off in the wrong direction. But that's ok. It's important to act. It's how you begin the conversation. You clarify the way through your work in the world. As your sense of vocation becomes increasingly clear, in some mysterious manner you don't really understand, the way finds you. Here's what Wordsworth has to say about this:

"Shades of the prison house begin to close Upon the growing Boy, But He beholds the light and whence it flows."

Living a Zen-inspired life can anchor you in an inner knowing of what is right for you. If you trust yourself in this way, though your path may meander and wander, you will find your way home. Your job may not be ideal, but it will never again simply be a job. You'll find a larger purpose, at work in your job that guides you through the confusion and uncertainties. This is not easy. This is your life's work after all, so some discipline and sacrifice is asked of you. You take risks. You find your voice and your footing through work. And in some mysterious way, through many failures and misguided adventures, the right job may find you.

Add Value Your job may be stressful and difficult. The conversation may grow bleak and predictable. You find yourself complaining and blaming others. Your boss or supervisor can make your like at work a living hell.

A Zen-inspired life can help you learn to be more pro-active at work. No matter how bad your job seems to be, you can always add value. After all, if the situation is dire, there is only room for improvement. If people don't seem to appreciate you enough, try expressing your appreciation for them. If people are fearful, try giving fearlessness. If people are unkind, try being kind. Being pro-active in this way is empowering and transformative. It can improve your disposition, your mental outlook and your self worth.

Keep Your Word Greed and lack of integrity are easy to find in the business world. If you compromise your core values to attain some short-term goals, you are living a lie that will ultimately undermine all your best efforts. You will increasingly feel lost, anxious and at sea in the world.

A Zen-inspired life helps you see and value having a high degree of personal integrity. One way to practice this is to always keep your word. If you are conscious about how you make and keep commitments, you will build trust with friends and colleagues, and you'll strengthen your own sense of self-worth and purpose.

When you don't keep your word, people notice. People are not stupid. When you behave in a way that doesn't inspire trust, people will not rely on you for anything that is important. When you are principle-centered and act in accordance with your core values, your conduct communicates respect for yourself and others. Keeping your word is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to demonstrate your personal integrity in the workplace. Freya Stark put it well when he said, "There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do."

Invite Space into your Workplace You can easily get caught up in the speed and busyness of an ever-increasing drive to be more and more efficient. You can fill up your day from dawn to dusk with non stop things-to-do. When you approach work in this way, it is unfulfilling and stressful. Mindfulness awareness invites space into our daily life by valuing silence and stillness.

Thomas Merton who knew something about space and silence put it this way:

"To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times."

You might begin by turning down some invitations and commitments. You might give yourself more time to eat lunch. Taking a walk in the middle of work is a great way to clear your head and return to work refreshed and energized. Take short moments to stop and breath. Step away from your desk periodically and take a break. Start or end your day with a regular practice of meditation.

One benefit many report from doing mindfulness meditation is that they become less reactive and more spacious. This spaciousness begins to ripple into every aspect of your daily life, including your place of work. In this way, mindfulness invites you to slow down and more fully appreciate each moment of your life as it unfolds.

Mindful Listening Another benefit of mindfulness awareness and living a Zen-inspired life is the way in which you begin to open and communicate in a more genuine way with others. Active listening is rare, and yet it is one of the most powerful, transformative and healing actions you can do in the workplace.

When you listen to others mindfully, you let go of your agenda. To show up for another in this way, you need to let go of your attachment to the out come. You need to let go of needing to be right or winning the argument. Mindful awareness can teach you how to enter into the dynamic process of communicating with another.

And when you speak in ways that pro-actively convey what is important to you rather than reacting to what the other person has done, you communicate in a way that is less likely to make others so defensive. This kind of listening and pro-active speech can be inspiring and uplifting. It can facilitate and enhance the way you collaborate and work together with others in the workplace.

If you reframe work in these five ways as an opportunity for spiritual growth and discovery, you may be surprised by how meaningful and fulfilling you work in the world can become. Work awaits. No long-term satisfaction is found in work without approaching it as something much larger than merely a job.

Robert Althouse