Being Buddha at Work
108 Ancient Truths on Change, Stress, Money, and Success
By Franz Metcalf BJ Gallagher
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2012 Franz Metcalf and BJ Gallagher
All right reserved.
Chapter One Choosing Mindful Work
Creating Right Livelihood
What Are the Advantages of Mindful Work?
Since there is nothing to attain, the bodhisattva lives by the perfection of wisdom with no hindrance in the mind; no hindrance and therefore no fear. —The Heart Sutra
What are the advantages of mindful work? The Buddha would simply say they're the advantages of awakening, because mindful work brings awakening to the workplace. This is true because, fundamentally, awakening is the state of being fully aware—fully mindful, having your mind full—of reality. The first person to see the Buddha after he was awakened asked, "What are you?" The Buddha answered, "I am awake." Enlightenment is being awake to the reality of reality.
So the question becomes, "Reality—what's that, and why would I want to awaken to it?" And the answer is, "Reality is the interconnectedness of all things, and you want to awaken to this because it frees you from your limitations."
Awakening/enlightenment, full mindfulness of reality, is the core of Buddhism, and there is no reason why it cannot be the core of work as well. Mindful work wakes up the workplace and the world. The "perfection of wisdom" that the Heart Sutra describes is a Buddhist spiritual practice, but what does that mean? Work practice can be spiritual practice. And Buddhist spiritual practice comes down to mindfulness. So these spheres of life are not separate. And this non-separateness is not about attaining anything; it's about being there, at work or at home, without hindrance and without fear.
"Which comes first," you might ask, "mindfulness or mindful work?" Well, where are you, right now? Do the work of the moment. Take a first step. Sure, a first step is not a whole journey; nor is a first answer a whole book. Keep on.
How Do You Choose the Right Career or Job? A bird catcher said to the Teacher, "My family's always been bird catchers. If we stop, we'll starve. But doing this [evil] work, can I still reach Buddhahood?"
The Teacher answered, "The mind goes to hell, not the body. So when you kill a bird, take your mind and kill it too. Doing this, you can reach Buddhahood." —Suzuki Shosan, Roankyo
Almost everyone at one time or another has asked, "How do I find the right career, the right job, where I will be fulfilled and happy?" If you are seeking to learn from the Buddha's teachings, this question is especially important, because part of the very core of Buddhism, the eightfold noble path, is right livelihood. Simply put, that means doing work that helps, rather than harms, all living things. As the Buddha brought work into the spiritual life, he brought spirituality into work life. Right livelihood is being the Buddha at work.
For many people, this is a serious problem. What if you work for a company that makes instruments of destruction? What if you work for an organization whose fundamental mission is not aligned with your own values? Can you still do mindful work? Can you still pursue right livelihood?
The Zen teacher Suzuki's answer here is very interesting. He taught that we should try hard never to harm other living things, and yet he reconciles enlightenment with bird catching. How can this be? The key issue, it seems, is not so much what your body is doing but what your mind is doing. Of course, the mind and the body are intimately connected, and one often follows the other in day-to-day life. But this need not always be so. It is possible to have the body engaged in one activity and the mind focused on something else. Here, he advises the bird catcher to kill the bird if he absolutely must (he recognizes that people have to make a living), while keeping the mind not on killing the bird (which would be wrong livelihood) but on killing the mind—that is, killing desire and attachment. A creative solution, and one that acknowledges the power of our environment over us. There are times when we cause harm without meaning to.
Of course, the Buddha would never accept this as a long-term solution. He would encourage the bird catcher to change jobs if he could. Bird catching simply is not right livelihood. But perhaps for the time being, there is no choice. You must feed yourself and your family, and this means you must make a living in a compromised fashion. You'll simply have to work that much harder to keep your mind pure until you can find work that is right livelihood.
You can pursue enlightenment no matter what job you have, and you can often transform your boring or unfulfilling work into mindful work by changing how you think about your work, by changing your spirit. You can be a garbage collector, in the spirit of love and service, and be well on your way to Buddhahood. There's no question that garbage collecting is right livelihood, while a creative and high-paying position in a corrupt and greedy field is not. Whatever your job is, start there; adopt the right mind and take that first step on the path. Yes, the path may lead you to change careers, but the Buddha does not demand that you harm yourself in doing so. In the end, only a career that helps will make you truly fulfilled.
What Does It Mean to Be a Great Employee?
A good employee serves her employer in five ways: by getting up and starting work before her; by stopping after her; by taking from her employer only what is given; by striving to do her work well; and by upholding her employer's name. —Digha Nikaya 31
If you're wondering what you can do to endear yourself to the boss, to be a great employee, the Buddha has some words of wisdom for you. Get back to basics. Forget about kissing up—no one is impressed by that. To be a great employee, start by doing great work. Here are the five suggestions that the Buddha gave:
1. Get up and start work before your boss. It never hurts to arrive at work a little bit early; you will be calm and collected as you start your day. 2. Stop work after your boss does: being willing to stay a little longer to tie up loose ends or to help a coworker is a great way to show that you are willing to go the extra mile. And, so often, this quieter time is the most productive in the day. 3. Take from your employer only what is given. Not taking what is not ours is one of the five basic Buddhist precepts. It may seem harmless to take home that pencil or that wrench or some other little thing, but it really is stealing, and it's the first step on a long downward spiral. Everyone may do it, but you don't want to be just like everyone, do you? You want to be authentically you. 4. Strive to do your work well. This may seem obvious, but many people do just enough work to get by ... and then wonder why they aren't doing better in their careers. Don't waste time on scheming or daydreaming; the Buddha always focused on effort. The bottom line: above all else, do great work! 5. Uphold your employer's name. To many people you meet, you are your organization. Whether you are on the job or off, speak well of your employer and represent them well in the community; it will come back to reward you in surprising ways.
What does it take to be a great employee? You can always add more things to this list, of course, but the Buddha lays it out plain: start with the basics.
Can You Have Self-Esteem and Still Be Buddha?
As a solid rock doesn't quaver in the wind, So the wise are moved by neither praise nor blame. —Dhammapada 81
You may have heard that the Buddha denied the existence of the self. Let's be clear: the Buddha never denied that we experience the world and our lives through a sense of self. This self matters and needs attention. What the Buddha denied was that this self is enduring. Our selves arise and pass away; they exist in their relationships and experiences, and these are constantly changing.
The Buddha respects the need for self-esteem. The self in this world needs to feel positive about itself. He warns you not to be swayed by other people's opinion of you or your work. You know when you have done your best work, and you are the best person to judge your own actions. Do not give away your self-confidence by letting others' opinions determine whether you feel good or bad about yourself. If you let others' praise or criticism affect your sense of self-worth, you will forever be a slave to public opinion. In a sense, what they think of you is none of your business. Does a rock care what the wind thinks of it? A rock just goes on doing its thing. So do Buddhas. So can you.
It is a truism that people who feel good about themselves produce good results. It is also true that people who produce good results feel good about themselves. Which comes first, the self-esteem or the good results?
The Buddha would tell us it doesn't matter which comes first. If you feel good about yourself, chances are, you are already producing good results. If you don't feel good about yourself, try producing good results and see how your self-esteem improves. Instead of the contemporary "power of positive thinking," Buddhism emphasizes the "power of positive doing." Get into action, and see how it improves your mood, sometimes immediately. Action alleviates anxiety. It also helps elevate self-esteem and can even lighten depression. So, if your self-esteem isn't all you'd like it to be, get your butt in gear. Perhaps the Buddha would phrase it differently, but no less bluntly. Act in the awareness of the rightness of action, even if you don't feel positive. In this scenario, thinking will follow acting.
Dealing with Distractions
Reaching for the silence he hears every single sound. — Steven Sanfield, "A Poem for Those of You Who Are Sometimes Troubled by Barking Dogs and Low Flying Jets," in American Zen
The poet steve sanfield is not a psychologist, but he is a Buddhist, and he is certainly onto the irony of the vexed relationship between concentration and distraction.
If we are so easily distracted, what can we do to focus in order to see projects through to completion? The Buddha advises us to train our minds, specifically through meditation and other forms of spiritual discipline. Having a trained mind is good because it lets us focus on the important things. A trained mind brings ease because it is uncluttered. We no longer feel the anxiety of the monkey mind, chattering endlessly, or hear the thousand sounds that assail us. We cannot stop up our ears, but we can stop—or at least calm—the mind.
How? Take up a spiritual practice. Whether this is a martial art like aikido, a meditation practice like zazen or Transcendental Meditation (TM), a physical discipline like hatha yoga, a devotional practice like reciting scripture or prayer, or even a complex game like chess is not important—just practice something. It can even be simple mindfulness while you eat or drive or brush your teeth. Practice trains the mind, and a trained mind is a good thing. Your best choice is to look around and pick something you like. If you train in a way you like, you'll simply do it more. As you do, your mind will focus better and longer.
Within the confines of this book, we can't train your mind for you, but here's one suggestion for beginners: when you feel distracted or angry or sleepy, acknowledge it; don't deny it. That begins the training: react to the negative with the positive. Now, strengthen the positive by bringing the mind back to breathing. Stop moving; relax. Take a deep breath. Don't think; just feel the breath. Don't try to breathe in any special way; just breathe naturally and let your mind rest in that breathing. You can count your breaths if it helps you. Count to ten. Let the myriad things rest. Now come back to the moment. You have trained yourself to find strength in the face of distraction. Take the strength of that focus on the breath and apply it to your task.
Chop Wood, Carry Water
Why Should I Have Beginner's Mind?
If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few. —Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
Most people think it is important to have a lot of knowledge, and they go to great lengths to try to impress others with how much they know. In this deservedly famous passage, Suzuki Roshi pointedly emphasized the limitations of such an attitude toward knowledge and experience in the spiritual life. It is the same in business life. In order to understand what my customers want and need, I must cultivate a beginner's mind. For them to teach me, I have to clear space to learn.
There's an old Zen story of a professor who visits a renowned Zen master and, instead of learning, goes on about what he himself knows. The master fills the professor's cup of tea—and keeps on pouring. When the professor asks what the master is doing, the master tells him, "Like this cup, you are full. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
If you want to open yourself to Suzuki's "many possibilities," abandon preconceptions; ask thoughtful questions; and above all, listen and learn. This is true whether approaching a new employee, a new task, a new career, or a new challenge in the marketplace. There are times when the smartest businesspeople put aside what they think they know and adopt beginner's mind.
How Can You Use Your Buddha Mind to Establish Priorities?
The wise person, who hurries when it's time to hurry, and who slows his pace down when slowness is the thing, is deeply happy because he's got priorities in line. —Theragatha 161
Peter Drucker, the grandfather of today's management consultants and business thinkers, says the challenge of the modern manager is that he knows there are ten things needing to be done, but he has time to do only six. He's got to pick the right six to do, and then go home at night and not worry about the four he had to let go.
The Buddha would tell us that Drucker's statement applies to everyone, not just managers. We work in fast motion, and there are many demands on our time. The task is not to somehow find more time but rather to make the most of the time we have. Our real challenge is not short time but effective prioritization.
We must each choose what is most important to our happiness and to our success, in life and in work. Time-management experts offer a variety of useful tools and techniques. Some examples: Use an A, B, C ranking to sort projects and tasks into categories; then do the A-priority things first, B-priority things next, and C-priority things only if you have time left over. Or, distinguish between urgent and important, and then do things that are both urgent and important first, followed by those that are important but not urgent; items that are not important and not urgent—don't do them.
If you're having trouble prioritizing your work, ask someone to help you—your boss or a trusted coworker. Often, we can see what others need to do more clearly than we can see what we need to do, so getting another's perspective can be a wise move. Wise workers know how to tap into the wisdom of others.
Once we have made our choices, our daily actions follow from them. Instead of racing around frantically, treating everything like an emergency, we hurry when it is appropriate, and we slow down when that is appropriate. This is harder than it sounds. We make different choices and have different insights in these different speed modes. We need to use both in mindful work.
How Does Mindfulness Help with Time Management?
Yunmen addressed his monks and said, "I do not ask about before the 15th of the month; tell me about after the 15th." Nobody said anything, so he answered himself: "Every day is a good day." —The Blue Cliff Record, case 6
ZEN TEACHER YUNMEN does not ask his people about the past; he knows the past is gone and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Yet he is not asking about the future, either, for he also knows that no one can predict the future. He is testing to see if they are worrying uselessly about time, past or future. He is asking about now, the moment of awakening. Concerned and perplexed, the monks do not answer.
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