Blogs >> Wisdom and awareness in the workplace, by Tim Malnick

Wisdom and awareness in the workplace, by Tim Malnick

What if the very work we do, whatever it is, could become a path to greater awareness, deeper wisdom and wider benefit to the world?

In a time of global challenges, economic uncertainties and social change many of us are asking deep questions about the work we do and the way we do it.

The power of work for spiritual practice:

One of my early meditation teachers, an Englishwoman, was once a Buddhist nun following Tibetan teachers in India. Devoted to the path, well studied and practised she met the man who she realised in an instant was to be her Guru.

‘Please take me as your student’ she requested.

The Teacher, a robed Tibetan Yogin said, ‘I will accept you as my student on one condition’,

‘What is that’, she asked, ‘I will do whatever you request’.

‘You have to stop being a nun, and go back to England and get a job!’ he replied.

Whatever we do, whatever our work is, work demands so much of us. We experience boredom, frustration, inspiration, interest and challenge. We have to relate with others – in teams, groups, as customers, bosses and colleagues. In managing our careers, our jobs, and plotting our next move, we come face to face with our personal hopes, fears and fantasies.

Work requires our time, and our energy. A great deal of our sense of self is invested in work. This is true whether we love our work or hate it, during times of success and failure.

All this means that work offers tremendous material for developing an awareness practice, if we can be encouraged and supported to relate to it in the right way.

Taking our work as our path:

Tantric Buddhism looks to the 84 Mahasiddhas (‘Great accomplished ones’) as one of its origins. Who were they? These were 84 remarkable, enlightened, people who practiced their path as merchants, shoemakers, fishermen, scholars and kings. Each of them was given meditation instruction by a teacher and told to apply it within the context of whatever it was they did all day every day. ‘See the nature and significance of whatever you are doing and that will wake you up’, seems to be the message.

The suggestion is that work in itself is neither a problem, nor an obstacle to greater wisdom, awareness or compassion.

So what do we need to do to take our work as a meaningful path to developing awareness, compassion and skilful action in the world? How could we relate to our work, just as it is right now, from this more awakened perspective?

Generally I find it helpful to explore work and awareness in three stages. The stages follow one after the other. At the same time we never leave behind those that have gone before, rather our view of work as awareness practice gradually widens and deepens:

Stage 1: Work as Letting Go:

Initially we start to notice that so much of our experience of work depends on fixed ideas, notions and projections which we rarely take the time or space to investigate. Beginning a simple awareness or meditation practice we see how hard it is just to be open to whatever is happening. Rather we notice a complex web of judgements, hopes, fears, strategies that limit our own thinking and restrict our action tremendously strongly.

The first step involves learning to relax our minds, open to our direct experience, and to gradually let go of the host of notions that dictate our ideas about self, others and work. This includes all the so-called negative judgements such as our fears and anxieties. But it also requires letting go of the secret fantasies and ambitions that also consume our energy and time and ultimately restrict us.

Gradually, gently, over time, we learn to relate to situations as they actually are, rather than as we would have them be.

Stage 2: Working from the Heart:

Usually our behaviours at work reflect these fixed, rigid ways of seeing things. Whether our story is about just getting through the day, becoming successful, saving the planet, or making a buck or two, our working life is dictated by these personal thoughts, concepts and projections. As we learn to let these go, to allow them to just be, but no longer to drive our activity compulsively we may at first feel uncertain. Why am I working? How do I act in this situation? Such vulnerabilities and questions come to the fore as we gradually let go of fixed habits and assumptions about self, others and work.

At this point people notice a softer quality in the heart. Just beyond the habitual speed and aggression that drives so much of the contemporary working world, there is a more tender, natural response to the complex web of relationships and activities our work inevitably involves.

Stripped of our harder self-centred approach, we become more open to seeing how work is a natural point of contact with colleagues, clients, customers and the world in general. Work may become more about exploring this connection and natural exchange with others and the world.

This may well feel unclear – it need not mean taking on more strategies or big world changing projects. It may simply be about noticing the possibilities for genuine, creative human interaction with the others we encounter in each and every working day.

Stage 3: Work as Nowness:

It is natural to think ‘well that’s all very well, but to really free myself of my personal agendas, and to really find a way to relate helpfully to my irritating customers and my oppressive boss, that is a big deal, that will take forever. Maybe one day I can be like that, but for now, I have to watch my own back, progress my career and look after my own interests’.

The final stage of taking work as path is to see that while such hesitations are reasonable, it is also undeniably true that all we ever can respond to is our experience in any particular moment. It is always this meeting, this conversation, this interaction with this client – right now where our entire career takes place.

All our thoughts, doubts and planning are actually only ever happening within a mysterious present moment. So much personal and organisational activity is based around negotiating or planning for a future, it is quite surprising to reflect and notice that all organisational activity only ever happens right now.

Once we see this we are given a powerful choice and a curious invitation as a basis for our work, whatever it is. Rather than worry overly about where things may lead in the future, about what might happen, we see that in each and every moment, each and every interaction or situation, we could just let go as best we can of our fixed ideas, and try to act naturally from a more open hearted and open minded place. This can feel vulnerable and uncomfortable but gradually we might start to see that all real learning, change and creativity only happens in moments like that.

Little moments of great possibility:

Someone once asked mother Teresa how a little person like her could accomplish such great activities. She replied ‘I don’t do great things. I just do small things with love.’ This is someone who has understood the power of open hearted activity in each and every situation.

In my own work I know that people are starting to make a connection with this different way of working when they say, as one senior leader did to me after a recent retreat, ‘I thought that meditation was all about becoming more passive. But now I realise that being aware and present is really about becoming much more courageous as a leader.’

Far from being an escape, a palliative or a sticking plaster, developing aware of and openness to the realities of our work experience whatever it is, eventually leads to courageous leadership in action.

Tim Malnick is an experienced facilitator, educator, consultant & coach and co-director of the MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility at Ashridge Business School. He teaches on the forthcoming course: What About Monday Morning? Awareness, Wisdom and Compassion in the Workplace

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